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Amnesty Intl's lies about “mass executions” in Iran during 1988

First published: Dec 14th 2018 (updated December 14th 2021)

Executive Summary

 Amnesty International has published a report accusing Iran of “crimes against

humanity” for executing thousands of “political prisoners”, mostly belonging to
the armed opposition (terror) group, the PMOI/MEK, during the summer of 1988.

 Amnesty admits that the backdrop to this was an “armed incursion” by the
PMOI from Iraq. It fails to mention that the PMOI invasion of Iran, consisting of
5 ,000 men and women, was supported by Saddam Hussein making the
group’s members guilty of the highest form of treason against their own country.

 Astonishingly, the report does not acknowledge that 2,000-3,000 PMOI

members of the invasion force were killed by Iranian government forces in
battle. Neither does it relate that up to 1,000 were captured on the battlefield,
court-martialed and summarily executed as traitors and as unlawful combatants.

 The report does not mention the setting up of pardon committees for prisoners
in early 1988 that were ended only after the first of three PMOI invasions of Iran.

 Whilst admitting the PMOI assassinated several government officials in 1981,

Amnesty falsely claims that most PMOI members were jailed for peaceful
activities like “distributing leaflets”. It does not admit that the PMOI is itself
a murderous terrorist cult that slaughtered thousands between 1981 and 1988.

 Amnesty has dismissed the judicial process of re-trying PMOI members for
treason and terrorism, many already on death row, because of the PMOI's
military alliance with Saddam Hussein. It has also relied on the PMOI itself as
the primary source for the number of prisoners executed, and on the
testimony of its members who are all subject to coercion, including torture.


In a highly publicized report on human rights, Amnesty International has gone 30 years
into the past to investigate the alleged mass executions in Iran of political prisoners in the
summer of 1988, especially those of the militant Iranian opposition group, the People's
Mujahedeen organisation of Iran (PMOI), also known as the MEK (Mujahedeen-e-Khalq).
The research for the 201 page report, entitled “Blood-soaked Secrets”, was conducted by
the MENA division of Amnesty, led by its director, Philip Luther, and written by Iran
analysts Raha Bahreini and Mansoureh Mills, with the help of Shadi Sadr from
“Justice4Iran”. Miss Bahreini is a contributor to the pro-monarchist TV channel, Manoto,
which is a sympathetic voice for the National Council of Resistance (a front for the PMOI).
She has given an interview to the Clarion Project, a far-right group promoting Islamophobia.

The report essentially accuses the Iranian authorities of carrying out the pre-planned and
extra-judicial execution of thousands of peaceful political prisoners, that it po r t r a y s is a
crime against humanity. It regards this as an attempt to “exterminate” the political
opposition at the time even though, as it admits, many prisoners were spared and released
several years later. It demands that the U.N investigate the matter and bring those
responsible to justice. As well as being very reliant on the PMOI itself as a source of
information, the report is dependent on a 30 year old audio tape, surprisingly released for
the first time in 2016, by the son of the late cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, in which
the dissident cleric protests the executions of prisoners. The authenticity of this tape has
not been verified. It also draws upon 3 letters of Montazeri that were “leaked” to the BBC's
Persian service. From 1986, Montazeri - Khomeini's designated successor – had become
increasingly estranged from the ruling elite and his political views incoherent and resentful.

The PMOI/MEK is widely regarded, not just by the Iranian authorities, as a cult-like terrorist
group with a long track record of political violence. It was placed on the list of terrorist
groups by both the U.S and E.U before an extensive cash-rich lobbying effort saw it
removed. The Habilian association, an NGO, has meticulously documented that MEK
agents killed up to 12,000 Iranians, most between 1981 and 1988. The U.S State
Department in 1994 also reported that, "since 1981 the MEK themselves have claimed

responsibility for murdering thousands of Iranians they describe as agents of the regime ."
Former PMOI members a l s o allege the leadership carried out torture and assaults on
group followers. These gross human rights abuses haven't been investigated by Amnesty.

The report effectively whitewashes the PMOI by depicting them as political dissidents in
largely peaceful opposition to the authorities. Those who were jailed are called “prisoners
of conscience” who merely expressed their “political opinion”. It does acknowledge that in
1981 the PMOI carried out a series of bombings and shootings, targeting government
officials and leaders of the Islamic Republic. The current supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, had his right hand disabled in a letter bomb attack. But it also portrays this
violence as essentially a form of self-defence against alleged government repression and
persecution of the group. It doesn't mention at all that the PMOI continued terrorism as its
strategy after 1981. According to Ann Singleton, who herself has inside knowledge of the
organisation, PMOI leader, Masoud Rajavi, urged followers that “if they could only achieve
the death of seven Revolutionary guards every week, the regime would then be toppled.”

The report also fails to mention that from 1983 the group allied itself with the Iraqi dictator,
Saddam Hussein, who had earlier invaded Iran in 1980. This coincided with the first use of
chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian troops. In 1987, PMOI leaders founded the
National Liberation Army (NLA) and began attacks from Iraqi territory inside Iran. The PMOI
is believed in recent times to have carried out the assassination of Iranian nuclear
scientists, and was responsible for fomenting violence in the post-election protests of 2009
with an attack on a paramilitary base. Group members are now based at a camp in Albania.

The PMOI/NLA invasions of 1988

So what really happened in 1988? The report by Amnesty refers to an “incursion” by the
PMOI into Iran as the reason, or rather the pretext, for the mass executions of PMOI
members held in Iranian prisons. However, this was not a minor border incursion - it was a
full-scale invasion. On July 25 th 1988, just five days after the UN security council called for
a ceasefire to the Iran-Iraq war, which had been initiated by Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, a
f o r c e of 5,000 men and women from the PMOI crossed from Iraq and into the Iranian

provinces of Bakhtaran (Kermanshah) and Ilam. They were heavily armed with tanks,
armoured personnel carriers and mobile artillery, supplied to them by Saddam Hussein,
who also provided extensive air support. The goal of the invasion, which the PMOI called
“Eternal Light”, was to smash through an Iranian military, exhausted from 8 years of
fighting, and push all the way to Tehran where they would then overthrow the government.

The PMOI had already attacked Iran twice that same year from bases within Iraq.
“Operation Sunshine” had been launched in March near Shoush in south western Iran.
According to the PMOI, the organization claimed to have killed 3,500 Iranian soldiers whilst
losing just 123 of its own fighters. As with most of their claims, gross exaggeration and
minimisation of their own losses are to be expected. Later, on June 18th, the PMOI
launched “Operation Forty Stars”. The goal was to occupy the Iranian border city of Mehran
and its oil fields. The Iraqi army assisted up to 3,000 PMOI members deployed during the
invasion. Disguising themselves as Iranian army soldiers, they broke through Iran’s
defensive line and managed to attack Mehran and occupy it the next day before retreating.
The PMOI claimed, again, to have killed thousands of Iranian soldiers whilst losing just 71.

Initially, the third invasion, “Operation Eternal Light” was a great success. The
PMOI army seized a number of undefended border cities, including Mehran again, where
they killed anyone opposing them, including the local gendarmes. Notably, having seized
the small city of Eslamabad in Kermanshah, PMOI militants set fire to the local hospital. At
the time they proclaimed, “Today Mehran, Tomorrow Tehran!” Three years later, the
PMOI was dispatched by Saddam Hussein to Iraqi Kurdistan to brutally put down a
northern rebellion there subsequent to his defeat in the Gulf War. In 1988, however, the
invading force was met by the Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guard who lured them into
a crushing ambush. The counter-offensive was masterminded by General Sayyad
Shirazi who was later murdered by the PMOI in 1999. Several thousand were killed, with
estimates ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 dead. The massacre was called Operation “Mersad”
(meaning ambush). It was the last major action of the Iran-Iraq war which ended soon after.

Those who were captured were court-martialed and summarily executed. It is possible
that up to 1,000 were either shot or hanged by the Iranian military. A number of combatants

committed suicide to avoid being seized. Amnesty International opposes the use of
capital punishment in principle, but the execution of violent traitors and unlawful
combatants, fighting on behalf of a foreign enemy, is a normal practice in civilized nations.
The report makes no admission at all of the deaths of PMOI members in battle or
after having being captured. This, in itself, shows that the report has deliberately left out
one of the most important pieces of information. The bodies o f t h e b a t t l e s l a i n and
PMOI combatants executed - most of whom were disfigured and unrecognizable - were
placed into unmarked mass graves without a n y ceremony. In this respect,
Amnesty’s report is correct when it believes that such mass graves do exist. It is wrong,
however, when it states that the authorities deny the existence of all of them. Mass burial of
the dead is a practice that is itself allowed under the Geneva convention (Rule 120) during
war or a plague. Iran, like other countries, has been practising collective burial of the dead
throughout the Covid pandemic. This is done for public safety, and it does not violate rights.

Extra-judicial killings of prisoners?

The killings, however, did not end there which is what Amnesty complains so much about
Based on a number of reports, a directive from Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, Iran’s
supreme Leader, was issued in the aftermath of the last PMOI invasion ordering the
authorities that there must be a quick re-trial of those members of the group still detained
in prison. For the Tehran government, the PMOI had literally crossed the line with the
Iraqi-backed invasions. They were not simply terrorists, who targeted government
officials, soldiers and civilians but, in militarily allying with Saddam Hussein, they were
enemies of the nation who did not deserve to be treated with customary Islamic clemency.

According to these reports, Khomeini instructed the authorities to give PMOI members the
opportunity to repent and completely disassociate themselves from past activities to
prevent them being condemned for treason. The order was directed also at prisoners
b e l o n g i n g t o other armed o p p o s i t i o n groups - such as the ethnic separatists of
Komalah and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), who had a history of tactical
cooperation with the PMOI and also operated out of enclaves in Iraq. Other groups included
Marxist organisations, like the Fedayeen, that combined political activities with violent acts.

The Amnesty report quotes Khomeini as clearly stating that, “those who remain steadfast in
their position of hypocrisy in prisons throughout the country are considered to be mohareb
[waging war] and are condemned to execution.” The Iranian authorities suspected that, even
though detained behind bars, PMOI activists were aiding their comrades committing
violence on the outside. The report quotes Abdulkarim Ardebili as stating that those
inside prison were supporting and colluding with members taking part in Operation Eternal
Light and rioting on their behalf in expectation of victory and their liberation. Amnesty
questions how such communication could have been possible but also admits that prisoners
did have contact with their family right up until the Invasion of Operation Eternal Light. It is,
thus, perfectly conceivable that messages were exchanged by them to friends on the outside.

This process would be overseen by a committee of judges who would be charged with
authorising all of the recommendations made by the prison interrogators regarding the
culpability of the prisoners. Although such prison-based trials likely did not meet
international standards, and the accused were not afforded the defense of a legal
representative, all of the prisoners were given the chance to absolve themselves. The
exact procedures used have not been established. Amnesty cites the testimony of
“survivors” that the questions asked were mostly to determine if they were religious or not. It
objects that this means that those executed were killed because of their political or
religious views and not, as is the case, because they were members of a major terrorist group.

It also does not provide documentary evidence in support of the claims and these
testimonies, made at the PMOI's base in Albania, could have been made under duress.
The PMOI has a history of indoctrinating its members and providing scripted information for
them to “remember” past events - especially those that occurred several decades ago.
Former MEK commanders have themselves admitted that this level of control continues today.

Many renounced their ties to the PMOI and were spared and later released – the report
cites these “survivors”; others did not and were executed for treason. It is, thus, a lie to call
the executions “extra-judicial” killings since the definition of such a killing is one without
sanction of any judicial proceeding, and every execution was approved by a Sharia judge.
Amnesty also questions the legality of the process, but it was sanctioned from the top and
was fully compliant with the law and Islamic penal code and, in particular, with Article 36 of
the constitution that stipulates that all criminal sentences should be passed by a legal “court”.

Pre-planned executions?

Amnesty alleges that the executions of the summer of 1988 were all pre-meditated. Even
though it claims the process of effectively retrying the prisoners began on July 28 th 1988,
three days after the Iraqi-backed invasion, it also believes that it had been set in motion
long before then. The evidence presented regards the testimony of some former prisoners a
year prior, namely during late 1987. In addition, the Amnesty report asserts that, “some
survivors believe indicates the pre-planned nature of the mass prisoner killings is a massive
wave of arrest of hundreds of prisoners, who had been released several years earlier, during
the weeks leading up to July 1988 and shortly after the PMOI’s armed incursion on 25 July.”

Bahreini never mentions it directly, but the PMOI had - just a month prior to Operation Eternal
Light - launched an attack against Iran, named “Operation Forty Stars”, in which many Iranian
soldiers and civilians were killed. It is only natural that members of the group in jail faced
increasing scrutiny and surveillance throughout the month of July. As to the claim that from
1987, some prisoners were repeatedly questioned and moved about, this is easily
explained by the fact that the NLA - the army of the PMOI - had been established in that
year. However, from early 1988, the authorities set up pardon committees as part of a
process of negotiating a possible ceasefire involving the release of many PMOI prisoners.
These were ended only subsequent to the first of three PMOI invasions of Iran from Iraq.

There is no evidence that, were it not for the invasion of July 1988, as well as the two that
preceded it, Khomeini would have ever issued his directive ordering a mass re-trial. It
quotes from another report quoting Geoffrey Robertson QC, as stating, ”No direct
evidence has emerged after twenty years, from prison officers or from the factions within
the government to suggest that these developments were part of any long-brewing
conspiracy to massacre prisoners.” Even so, Amnesty does not accept this because of the
unverified 2016 audio tape, which allegedly records Ayatollah Montazeri as claiming that
some in the Iranian government wanted to extra-judicially execute all of the PMOI prisoners.

Prisoners of conscience?

Amnesty International insists that, “PMOI members had been imprisoned because of their
political opinions and peaceful activities, such as distributing opposition newspapers and

leaflets, taking part in demonstrations, collecting donations for prisoners’ families or
associating with those who were politically active.” It quotes a report in support of this by
the Abdorrahman Boroumand foundation. However, this report makes reference principally to
the activities of prisoners not afflilated with the PMOI, namely members of non-militant
groups. Moreover, all former prisoners who were interviewed by Amnesty, were released
after serving their judicial sentences. It also quotes from the scholar, Ervand Abrahamian.
However, his analysis is an educated guess. He provides no evidence other than his
o w n belief that those PMOI found guilty of violent acts would already have been executed.

As the report itself mentions, many of the prisoners were likely themselves on death row
and were effectively kept alive as bargaining chips for the purposes of doing deals such as
prisoner exchanges with the Iraqis. Others may have had appeals waiting to be heard by
the judiciary. The report notes that Iranian authorities have claimed that many “executed
prisoners had long been on death row for serious crimes involving killing and other
violence and that the summary proceedings before their execution in 1988 focused on
whether they were adequately repentant and therefore qualified for pardon or
commutation of their sentence. Amnesty denies that this could possibly be true because it
has insisted all along that all of were prisoners of conscience and, thus, they could not have
been sentenced for such crimes. T h i s perfectly reasonable explanation is also consistent
with the setting up of “pardon committees” by the authorities in early 1988. As Geoffrey
Robertson states, “The pardon committee, announced in January, does not appear to have
been a ruse: there is evidence that some prisoners were, in fact, pardoned and released
several months later, although its activities necessarily helped the classification process.”

As previously stated, the PMOI remained active in the murder of Iranian government officials
and the miltary after their extensive bombing campaign during 1981. It used its networks of
activists to provide intelligence and logistical support for these operations by assassination
squads on motorcycles. Many were also involved in raising funds to finance these terrorist
operations. Activists were instructed to provide lists of targets and other forms of
intelligence. There is no evidence that, from 1981, upon the initiation of armed struggle,
PMOI members ever engaged in the distribution of leaflets or any peaceful pursuit of
political ends. Their goal was to violently overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic.
Those imprisoned since 1981 were all convicted of sedition, and not democratic activism. It is
worth noting that members of peaceful opposition parties, such as the National Front and
Freedom Movement, were not affected despite having official bans on their political activities.

The scale of the executions

It is not certain if the figure of 5,000 dead cited by Amnesty and others includes those
killed on the battlefield, or subsequently executed having been captured, as well as those
executed from among the Iranian prison population. Amnesty had initially claimed that just
2,000 prisoners had been executed in 1988. The PMOI claims that 30,000 of its members
were executed in the summer of 1988, but this is a ridiculous exaggeration. Curiously,
Amnesty does not mention this oft-repeated claim. The PMOI didn't even have 30,000
active members within Iran at the time. It has also claimed that, during Operation Eternal
Light, its forces killed up to 55,000 Iranian government troops – a totally absurd fabrication.

One clue is that within a year of the alleged executions in 1988, a list of 1432 names of
prisoners executed by the authorities was published by an affiliated outlet of the PMOI.
This important information was not presented in the Amnesty report. The report does,
however, quote the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani as stating that the numbers of
prisoners executed to have been less than 100. But if this list is added to the estimates for
the numbers killed during Operation Mersad. and also in the previous two invasions of the
same year, namely Sunshine and Forty Stars, then this would indeed give a figure of
around 5,000. It is entirely possible, as former Iranian government officials have long stated,
that the actual figure of those executed whilst in prison has been deliberately added to those
who were either killed or executed in the fields of western Iran. Amnesty never even checked.

The report cites Iranian ambassador, Mohammad Mahallati, truthfully stating that “many
killings had in fact occurred on the battlefield, in the context of the war, following the
invasion of the Islamic Republic of Iran by the PMOI.” Of course, Amnesty makes no
admission of these deaths in battle. In addition to prisoners executed, it claims many PMOI
members were “forcibly disappeared” during the weeks concurrent with Operation Mersad.
However, it doesn't acknowledge that many members fled the country in the aftermath of
the failed invasion either for Europe or the new PMOI base in Iraq. The situation within Iran
had become impossible for the PMOI as the authorities were relentlessly hunting them
down. As devoted followers of Masoud Rajavi, they were encouraged to cut off family ties. It
is no surprise, therefore, that their family members may not have ever heard from them again.
As such, those who were apparently “forcibly disappeared” - as Bahreini alleges - but left on
their own volition to Iraq and elsewhere but without informing their own relatives of their move.

No proper burials?

A major point in the report is that the Iranian authorities did not return the bodies of those
executed to their families for private burial, but threw them into concealed graves now
used as landfills. As stated above, for those killed on the battlefield in Operation Mersad, or
immediately following it, the bodies were, indeed, p l a c e d into mass graves: Amnesty
claims one such mass grave is in Ilam, a province involved in the fierce fighting. Despite
Amnesty's allegation that those executed in prisons were buried secretly, the annex of the
report also mentions there are 378 graves in Tehran's largest cemetery, Behesht-e-Zahra,
attributed to executed PMOI prisoners who died in the summer of 1988. Clearly, in this
case, the authorities not just notified the families of the deaths – as they have to do by law -
but also allowed them to be privately buried in a cemetery, which they are not required to
do. B a h r e i n i inanely asks why, “it is unclear why the Iranian authorities decided to
identify marked individual graves for a limited number of victims while hiding the burial
location of thousands of other victims.” The simple answer to this question is obvious,
namely that thousands of other PMOI were killed during Operation Mersad and not in jail.
Bahreini even speculates in the report that these individual graves may be fake - placed for
show and not containing any remains. However, she presents no evidence in support of this.


It seems quite likely that, given the pro-PMOI position assumed in the report, and the
complete omission about what actually happened during Operation Mersad, “Bloodsoaked
secrets” has been commissioned and abetted by the PMOI with Amnesty International
happy to oblige in such a mercenary fashion. The PMOI/MEK have themselves given great
prominence to the report. Amnesty's Iran team researchers are all die-hard opposition
supporters who use the issue of human rights as part of their own political campaign
against the Iranian government. This report would make it the first ever human rights study to
be written on behalf of a terrorist group known for its own gross human rights abuses. This
is a very disturbing development, but is not totally out of character for Amnesty International.

Within Iran, there is no love lost for the PMOI who are reviled as terrorists and traitors.
Even if some of them were executed for minor offenses, and were simply caught up in the
process, being guilty by association, few want to dig up the past for the sake of the families of

those who betrayed their nation. There are too many families of war heroes who have not
been compensated. The quick re-trials of the prisoners, and/or speedy execution of those
on death row, may not have involved sufficient due process, but were nonetheless judicial.

The figure of around 5,000 dead almost certainly includes those killed in battle and court-
martialled and executed shortly afterwards. The only plausibly reliable figure of those
executed among the prison population is 1,432. This means that only about a third of
Amnesty's tally of 5,000 dead were executed from among those jailed by the authorities.
It isn’t a “crime” for a nation to defend itself and punish traitors as the likes of Bahreini claim.

Amnesty International itself refuses to investigate or report on the murderous activities of

the PMOI within Iran and also during its occupation of Iraq. This includes the human rights
abuses against its own members. Amnesty also has done nothing to seek justice and
reparation for the tens of thousands of Iranians affected by the use of chemical weapons by
Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The precursors to these weapons were supplied by Eu r o p e a n
companies with the full support of western governments. It seems that human rights as an
issue only matters to Amnesty as long as they are convenient and useful to their own publicity.

In summary, the report is as unobjective as it is grossly misleading. Key information has been
deliberately omitted to pursue a deeply flawed narrative. Indeed, it appears to have been
prepared with the full cooperation and support of a terrorist organisation and human rights
abuser seeking to settle past scores and portray itself as the victim. It is yet another reason
why donors to Amnesty International should reconsider their contributions to an organisation
that is not interested in seeking justice for those affected by extremism, terrorism and torture.

The authors of this article are two Iranian scientists resident in the United Kingdom and
are not employees of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They occasionally
write on matters relating to Iranian politics and history. This rejoinder to Amnesty was not
sponsored by any organisation and it solely reflects the analysis of both of the authors.

To contact them: Yousef Bozorgmehr (

Reza Esfandiari (


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