The Iran Tribunal — a sort of people’s truth commission that doesn’t have any legal standing — has released an interim judgment following its investigation into the massacre of political prisoners by the new Islamic Republic of Iran during the 1980s.
Conceived by victims of the Iranian regime and their relatives, the tribunal was established in 2007 and heard from its final witnesses this month in The Hague. Iran was invited to take part but did not respond.
The interim report concludes:
There are six forms of gross human rights abuses to which the evidence presented to the Truth Commission and this Tribunal point incontrovertibly: murder; torture, unjust imprisonment; sexual violence; persecution and enforced disappearance.
Quoting the prosecutor’s closing submissions, the interim report continues:
Firstly, the Islamic Republic of Iran committed murder. Nima Sarvestani’s documentary showed graves of executed prisoners stretching out as far as the eye can see; the gravedigger of Shiraz reported the delivery of sixty bodies on a single occasion, of victims at most twenty years old. Men were arrested at ten in the morning and dead by eleven; entire families were eliminated and whole wards purged; rows of prisoners were shot by firing squad, still breathing until they were finished off by coups de grâce; and we heard from this morning’s witness of how child prisoners were required to administer these coups de grâce; truckloads of bodies were tipped into mass graves. The Tribunal heard extensive evidence of the murder of minors. In no case was an execution ordered in accordance with due process. In 1988, pursuant to a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, over 5,000 political prisoners were killed (most were hanging) over the space of a few months.
Secondly, there has been not one witness who was not tortured in prison, both physically and mentally. Prisoners were hanged from the ceiling by their arms, flogged on the soles of their feet, beaten, deprived of sleep, kept in solitary confinement, subjected to mock executions and forced to watch other prisoners being tortured – or were tortured in the presence of their children. Shokufeh Sakhi told the Tribunal how she was subjected to sensory deprivation in a dark box (the “coffin”) for hours on end, month after month. The general effect was to turn prisoners into zombies” by destroying their senses of self and dignity. Another witness told the Tribunal of the “psychological rape” that turned him into a “puppet”, who would shoot his fellow prisoners as member of a firing squad of tavabeen (repenters).
There is something that at first glance seems Quixotic about this whole process. Eventually the tribunal will issue a full judgment, which will likely come to a similar conclusion as does this one. And then … nothing. There will be no punishment — nor, for that matter, will there be any reconciliation, as no one as asked for forgiveness.
And yet investigations like these, and those undertaken by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, serve a practical purpose, beyond committing cruel truths to the historical record, so that they will be more difficult to later deny. They remind Iran’s current leaders — its torturers and its executioners — that they too are being watched. One day their regime of lies will collapse, and they will be held to account. Knowing this may just stay a bully’s hand, or perhaps rob him of sleep.