Monday, 28 February 2011

Iran Tribunal to investigate Ayatollah's hidden legacy

As the Arab uprising is breathing a new life into the Iranian opposition, a remarkable new venture is slowly gathering pace outside the country: a sort of Russell Tribunal to investigate possible crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Iranian regime in the 1980s – especially in the summer of 1988.

In the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran executed in secret a large number of political prisoners across the country – men, women and children. The killing was ordered by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. The victims were intellectuals, students, leftists, members of opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many were jailed for no more than distributing leaflets, having a banned book or being accused by “a trusted friend of the regime.”

The estimated number of victims ranks between 4,000 and 7,000.  The massacre was the climax of a massive elimination process executed by the regime from 1981 to 1988, under which around 20,000 dissidents disappeared, either dying under torture or being executed by firing squads. (Read my article on the massacre in the Toronto Star.)

The regime has never acknowledged the massacre, revealed how many were executed nor why. The execution of such a large number of people within such a short time and without any due process, violates many international human rights treaties to which Iran is signatory; yet the world has remained largely silent (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch tried to raise the alarm, but the world was not interested). Most of the perpetrators are still in power today.

Many believe that the absence of accountability for those crimes has led to the culture of impunity so rampant in today’s Iran, where intellectuals are murdered, women stoned, students tortured.

“Nobody has been brought to justice,” Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher, told me when I interviewed him for a piece about the massacre in the New Internationalist (read it here). “Impunity for such appalling crimes only leads to further human rights abuse.”

This picture is part of Prison Memoir in Painting by Iranian artist Soudabeh Ardavan. She spent eight years in Iranian prisons and survived the 1988 massacre. She painted this and many other prison's paintings by using her hair as a brush and toothpaste or tea as paint. She now lives in exile in Sweden.

Over the past 22 years, survivors of the massacre and families of the victims have pleaded for justice before the international community – to no avail. Every September since 1988, they have commemorated the massacre in Iran and all over the world, holding vigils, organizing rallies and seminars, and disseminating information on the internet — willing the world to listen, acknowledge and condemn the terrible events the Islamic Republic wants the world to forget. But no one is listening.

So now, the survivors and families of the victims have decided to act on their own.   They have set up the Iran Tribunal – a sort of Russell Tribunal to investigate these crimes and judge them according to international law.

Like the second and more recently established Russell Tribunal - the Russell Tribunal on Palestine -  the Iran Tribunal won’t have any legal status, but will act as a Tribunal of conscience to deal with violations of international law that have not been recognized nor dealt with by existing international jurisdictions.

After two and a half years of groundwork and preparation, the Iran Tribunal recently formed a Steering Committee, in charge of organizing the tribunal, selecting judges, prosecutors and defense teams and the jury.   The committee is comprised of prominent jurists and human rights activists from Iran and around the world, and chaired by John Cooper QC, a British criminal law and human rights barrister.
The Tribunal is expected to be operational by early 2012. For more information, click here.

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