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Iran's Enduring Legacy of Violence and Denial

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Elementary psychology teaches us that without confronting repressed memories of past trauma, a person's future health and happiness is seriously compromised. It is common knowledge, for example, that an adult with a history of child abuse must overcome denial in order to heal the deep wounds that bring depression, anxiety and anger.

Similarly, a nation traumatized by massive violence must address the past in order to move forward. Whether it is the "dirty war" of the Argentinian military dictatorship, the racist "apartheid" system in South Africa or "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia, all of these scarred societies have devised various processes of "transitional justice" to learn lessons from and achieve a clean break with the past. A measure of accountability, whether through truth commissions or trials of torturers, is about justice and not vengeance.

Building a culture of human rights, creating a space for dialogue, reconciliation, and forgiveness, requires public recognition of past suffering, a catharsis for the victims, and acts of contrition by former perpetrators. The goal of justice is to reclaim a lost humanity, of both the torture victim, and the torturer. Ending denial of the historical truth is the first step to ending the denial of human rights.

To better understand why the Iranian people suffer today from oppression and injustice, it is necessary to address the repressed memories of the first decade of the Islamic revolution of 1979. In those years, in the name of justice and progress, a utopian regime imprisoned, tortured, and executed tens of thousands of Iranian citizens on grounds of their political and religious beliefs.

Typical of power-hungry authoritarian regimes throughout history, these massacres were justified in the name of a noble cause. While the victims were portrayed as sub-human and deserving of punishment, the horrors visited upon them was erased from the public memory, in order to preserve the legitimacy of the ruling elite.

Such extensive violence cannot be reduced to statistical debates as to exactly how many thousands were victimized. Behind every statistic there is a grieving mother and father, a brother and sister, a school-friend and work colleague. In this way, the violence visited on a single victim affects a much wider circle of society. It creates a culture of fear and terror, and it becomes the instrument by which the regime perpetuates its power.

This deep national trauma continues to haunt Iranian society today. The culture of impunity, the failure to address past atrocities, continues to encourage human rights abuses today. Left unaddressed, the violent past will continue to govern the future; it will continue to perpetuate a political culture in which power and violence prevails over justice and the rule of law.

Despite the widespread executions of the first decade of the revolution, one event stands out as a shocking symbol of the excesses of those years. In 1988, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa instructing the authorities to deal with political prisoners "with revolutionary rage and rancour". In an exemplary fashion, Ayatollah Montazeri, putting principle before his self-interest as the heir to Khomeini, denounced the planned executions, but to no avail. During that summer, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 political prisoners were executed following an inquisition-style hearing before "death commissions" in which people were sent to their death based on whether they believed in the Islamic Republic's political theology or not.

Their bodies were dumped among other places in Tehran's notorious "khavaran" cemetery. A policy of denial was adopted to erase any trace of this massive crime. Such was the determination of the regime to maintain silence that even the grieving mothers that went to mourn their children at symbolic graves were beaten and imprisoned. If we move from the Mothers of Khavaran in 1988 to the Mothers of Laleh Park in 2009, we begin to see the thread of violence and denial that connects the past with the present.

In 2012, in an unprecedented initiative, the Mothers of Khavaran, together with the survivors and families of victims of these heinous abuses, established the Iran Tribunal. Its purpose was to expose the historical truth through a credible and rigorous process; to break the silence and denial that was imposed for the past twenty-five years by Iran's rulers. Because Iran does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the decision was made to create a truth commission with no formal legal standing but with objectivity and legitimacy so that its findings would be accepted in the court of public opinion.

Eminent judges were invited from across the world, including the President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Judge Johann Kriegler, appointed by Nelson Mandela. There was even a message of support from Bishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In two hearings, held in London in June and The Hague in October 2012 respectively, they heard the testimony of almost 100 witnesses from a broad cross-section of political, ethnic, and religious groups.

I had the privilege of serving as a prosecutor together with eminent lawyers, including my former United Nations colleague Sir Geoffrey Nice, who prosecuted the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague. The Islamic Republic was invited through its Ambassador at The Hague to present its defence but failed to respond.

The harrowing testimony in these hearing included the account of Mother Esmat Vatanparast, who lost numerous members of her family, who described how her 11-year-old nephew was hanged. Another witness testified that just before being hanged with a group of prisoners, her husband was comforting a fourteen-year that was calling for his mother. In yet another painful scene, a mother came to the witness stand with a photograph of her four children who had all been executed. As she told her heart-breaking story, tears streamed down her face.

I looked and saw that everyone among the hundreds in the room was weeping along with her. The room was a broad cross-section of Iranian society, leftists and monarchists and nationalists and Islamic reformists, Kurds and Azeris and Arabs and Persians, Muslims and Christians and Baha'is and Jews. Nobody asked about the religious or political ideology of that grieving mother's children. There was only a moment of shared humanity, a glimpse of a future Iran in which a transcendent consciousness of human dignity unites people of different identities.

The Tribunal ultimately concluded that the mass-executions of the 1980s constituted "crimes against humanity" under international law for which the Islamic Republic of Iran must be held accountable. But the most important part of this process was probably the testimonies rather than the legal conclusion. Those that participated in this process, including the eminent non-Iranian judges and prosecutors, all said emphatically that they would never forget the power of those that had the courage to testify about such unspeakable suffering. The relief that these survivors and families of victims visibly felt, the satisfaction of their long-standing desire for a catharsis, was an unforgettable expression of the need for healing and accountability for an entire nation as it traverses an important historical transition.

The coverage of the hearings by the media was extensive, reaching millions within Iran and globally. Such was the power of truth, told through the undeniable voice of survivors and grieving families of the victims rather than the political slogans of activists, that the Islamic Republic could no longer deny this atrocity. An extraordinary article published in Baztab after the conclusion of the Iran Tribunal hearings recognized for the first time that thousands had been executed pursuant to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa and even suggested that Ayatollah Khomenei attempted to save some political prisoners!

Once the Mothers of Khavaran and others celebrated this recognition, the article was promptly removed from the Baztab website. The power of the truth however, was unmistakable: a mother who has lost her child will never forget, and rulers must consider the consequences of their actions, even if many years have passed.

As the Iranian people ponder their future, they should recognize that a better future comes not simply by replacing one group of tyrants with another group of tyrants, but rather, by creating a culture of human rights, by uniting through a shared humanity. They must recognize, in the words of the eminent Harvard philosopher George Santayana, that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

The political leadership must also consider the consequences of its actions in light of the fact that the cries of justice for these and other crimes will not be silenced without some form of accountability. The appointment of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as the Minister of Justice notwithstanding his prominent and undisputed role as a member of the 1988 "Death Commission" seriously undermines President Rouhani's promises of a new beginning and a better tomorrow. How can the Iranian people have confidence in a government that places a symbol of injustice in charge of justice?

A new generation of Iranian leaders must re-define the meaning of power. A man who beats his wife and children and then silences them when they complain is not a powerful man. He is a coward that cannot even admit his cowardice to himself. In the same manner, a leadership that imprisons, tortures, and executes its citizens, is not a powerful Government. To the contrary, its actions betray desperation and want of power. The truly powerful leader of the future Iran will be the one that with courage and democratic legitimacy walks with a handful of flowers to Khavaran cemetery and apologizes to the grieving mothers for their long years of suffering. Only then can our nation begin to find a way out of the darkness that has eclipsed its immense potential.

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