Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mothers of Khavaran; a Strong Voice for Truth and Justice in Iran

Kaveh Shahroz’s article in Ottawa Citizen on May 28, 2013, “How Canada Can Lead On Iran” explains very well the pain that has been inflected by the Islamic Republic of Iran (the IRI) on the victims and victims’ families in last thirty five years, prevalence of “The culture of impunity” and a long overdue proper reaction/action by international community on systematic and widespread human rights violations by the IRI.
However, I would like to look at the 80s atrocities and their consequences from a different aspect, which has not been elaborated in Kaveh’s article.
Kaveh wrote about his young uncle, Mehrdad, 20 at the time of arrest in 1980. Mehrdad was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in the early 80s. After seven years of hardship and torture inside prison, Mehrdad was hanged along with four thousands political prisoners, in the 1988 prison massacre, under the direct order of ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader.
It is heart breaking when Kaveh wrote: “We still don’t know exactly when he was executed or where his body is buried. My family has never truly recovered from that loss. My grandmother and mother have both passed away since then, both with the unfulfilled wish of seeing justice in Mehrdad’s case. “ This is a pain shared by many similar families in Iran.
In transitional justice literature, it is claimed that although, dictatorial regimes suppress political and social activists, ironically, the suppressions lead to other types of resistance. Victims’ families and many others become active in order to save the life of their loved ones and ask for truth and justice. Is Iran an exception?
It has been 33 years since the mass executions of political activists in the early 80s, and 25 years since the 1988 prison massacre, yet victims’ families still do not know the truth and have not seen justice. It is important to ask, with about 20,000 thousands victims, and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and exiles; why has a strong movement for truth and justice not been established in Iran? Is it only because Canada and other countries did not act properly? Then, why is it that such a strong movement for truth and justice in Latin America and other parts of the world is evident, despite the fact that in many cases, United State, Russia (Former Soviet Union) and China and their allies supported the dictators?
In the 80s, the IRI put enormous pressure on the victims’ families to stay silent in the face of the atrocities that were happening inside prisons all around Iran. Although a majority of victims’ families were forced to comply with this brutal policy, few hundreds of victims’ families, known as Mothers of Khavaran, became a voice for justice and truth inside Iran.
Before 1988 prison massacre, these families, tried to save their loved ones or improve the prison condition. They knew that the prisoners did not have any right to defend themselves. So it was up to family to do that. I remember in the 80s, my mother along with other mothers, sisters and wives of political prisoners, gathered in front of governmental buildings to submit their requests for fair trial and improvement of prison conditions.
In the 80s, each Friday, and despite all the harassment, they went to Khavaran cemetery, a piece of land where non-believer victims were buried in single or mass graves. The authorities named it “doomed land”, to show their disrespect.
In the 80s, family arrest was very common. In 1984, when I released from prison, after they kept me inside for 15 months, without any accusation, two of my siblings were killed and were buried in unknown grave in Khavaran and three others were in notorious Evin prison. Families like mine acted as a connecting point between families of political prisoners and executed.
In summer of 1988, when the authorities canceled all prison visits and isolated prisoners, again this group of families went to the officials to find out what was happening inside of the prisons. They felt that something terrible was happening. It was autumn of 1988, after about four months of being in the dark, we received the horrible news. My brothers, Mohammad-Ali and Mahmoud, and my brother in law, Mehrdad Panahi, were among four thousands victims of the massacre.
In 1989, the first anniversary of the 1988 prison massacre, Mothers of Khavaran decided to hold a public commemoration in Khavaran cemetery. Each year on September first or the closest Friday to it, the only semi formal commemoration inside Iran has been held In Khavaran cemetery by Mothers of Khavaran, despite of all the harassment by the IRI. In the last thirty three years, many of them have been arrested or summoned by the authorities.
Mothers of Khavaran also hold commemorations in their residence. Many times the authorities have attacked the ceremonies and summoned the participants. They have collectively gone to officials, sent collective and personal letters, filed complaints, given interviews to media outside of Iran and written numerous articles about the atrocities and harassment that the families have faced.
My mother and my sister are among them. In the 80s and 90s, my mother was summoned several times to the ministry of intelligence to prevent her pursuit of justice and truth. My sister has also been arrested and summoned many times. I was part of this group of courageous families before I immigrated to Canada in 2002.
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, in her book, “Golden Cage”, explains her experience when she went to Khavaran cemetery:
I recognized the woman they called Mother, the spokes-woman of their grief… She was about seventy years old. Mother slowly raised her arm and began to speak. The buzzing stopped, “Today we’re here to remember. We know that blood can’t wash away blood. We are women, not guerrilla fighters. Wives and mothers and daughters and sisters who have already seen more than enough violence. Killing the murderers will not bring back the victims…” “silence, infidel! They weren’t victims—they were traitors, and they deserved to die!” We’d been surrounded by women and men of the goruh-e feshar. The forces that attacked and broke up public demonstrations were once again ready to act."
With the persistence of Mothers of Khavaran, Khavaran cemetery became a prominent symbol of systematic and widespread human rights violation in Iran and Mothers of Khavaran became a strong voice for truth and justice in Iran.
I agree with Kaveh Shahrooz that it is very important that the international community recognize the massacre of 1988 as a “crime against humanity”, it is long overdue.
But it is more important to emphasise that without active and effective dialogue with the younger generations, without an attempt to involve civil society in this discourse; it will not possible to pursue truth and justice. 
Facing past atrocities and asking for truth and justice is a social process. Mothers of Khavaran are a nucleus for such social movement. But both opposition political parties that want to overthrow the IRI by any means and reformist faction of the IRI, who have direct and indirect responsibility for the 80s massacres are ignoring them.
After 33 years of systematic suppression in Iran, and after 33 years resistance by some victims’ families, there is no recognition for Mothers of Khavaran and other groups of families, such as families of the victims of political killing in 1998. May be because, Mothers of Khavaran, distanced themselves from political parties. May be because the families did not discriminate against each other because of political affiliation of the victims? Or maybe because their goal was to neither forget, nor overthrow the government.
They simply ask for their basic rights; why, where, when, by whom and under whose orders were the victims executed? Where are their bodies? Why aren’t the families allowed to hold commemorations in public and private spaces? Why do the authorities harass the families when they ask for their basic rights? .
This year is the 25th anniversary of the 1988 prison massacre. I urge and ask the human rights community in Canada to recognize and acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Mothers of Khavaran for truth and justice and to ask the IRI to stop their harassment.

Jafar Behkish
June 2nd, 2013

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