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

- An exposition of a deceptive propaganda exercise: Dec 14th 2018 -

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/terrorist group, the PMOI/MEK, in the summer of 1988.

• The report 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 7,000 men and women, was supported by Saddam Hussein making the
group guilty of the worst form of treason against their countrymen and nation.

• Astonishingly, the report does not admit that 2,000-3,000 PMOI members of
the invasion force were killed by Iranian government forces in battle. Neither
does it mention that 500-1,000 were captured on the battlefield, court-
martialed and summarily executed as traitors and unlawful combatants.

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

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

• Amnesty has dismissed the painstaking judicial process of retrying 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 as the source for the number of prisoners executed, ignoring a smaller
tally of ~1400 compiled by an outlet within a few years of the alleged event.

In its latest Iranophobic 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, titled “Blood-soaked Secrets”, was conducted by the
MENA division of Amnesty, led by its director, Philip Luther, with the help of Iran analysts,
Raha Bahreini and Mansoureh Mills, and another group, “Justice4Iran”. Miss Bahreini is a
regular contributor to the pro-monarchist Manoto TV station, which is sympathetic to the
National Council of Resistance (a front for the PMOI). She has also given an interview on
Iran to the Clarion Project, a far-right group promoting Islamophobia in the United States.

The report essentially accuses the Iranian authorities of carrying out the pre-planned and
extrajudicial execution of thousands of peaceful political prisoners, which it regards as 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, suspiciously 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 allege the leadership carried out torture and sexual 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 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. Instead, it claims it was involved
in democratic activities. The PMOI is widely 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, notably with an attack on a paramilitary compound.

The PMOI invasion 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, that had involved the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, an
army of 7,000 men and women from the PMOI crossed over from Iraq 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.

Initially, the PMOI army seized a number of undefended border cities, like Mehran, where
they ruthlessly killed anyone opposing them, including the local gendarmes. 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 and resulted in the defeat of the PMOI army.

Those who were captured were court-martialed and summarily executed. It is estimated
that between 500 to 1,000 were either shot or hanged. A number also commited suicide to
avoid being seized. Amnesty International opposes the use of capital punishment in
principle (although strangely not in the case of the unborn foetus), 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
of the dead PMOI combatants were dumped into unmarked mass graves without any
ceremony. In this respect, the 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 them.

Extrajudicial killings of prisoners?

The killing, 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 was issued
in the aftermath of the PMOI invasion ordering the authorities that there must be a quick
retrial of those members of the group still detained in prison. For the Tehran government,
the PMOI had literally crossed the line with their Iraqi-backed invasion. They were not
simply terrorists, who targeted government officials, soldiers and supporters but, in
militarily allying with Saddam Hussein, were enemies of the nation who did not deserve to
be treated with customary Islamic clemency, as according to the law and the constitution.

According to these reports, Khomeini instructed the authorities to give PMOI members, as
well as those of other armed terrorist groups like Komalah and the Kurdish Democratic
Party (KDP), the opportunity to repent and completely disassociate themselves from past
activities and their affiliated groups. The Amnesty report quotes Khomeini as clearly stating
that only, “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
PMOI invasion. It is, thus, perfecly conceivable that messages were exchanged by them.

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 defence 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 terrorist group.

It also does not provide documentary evidence in support of these claims and these
testimonies, made at the PMOI's base in Albania, could have been made under duress.
Many renounced their ties to the PMOI and were spared – the report describes many of
these “survivors”; Others did not and were executed for treason. It is, thus, a lie to call the
executions “extrajudicial” killings since the definition of an extrajudicial 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 constitiution that stipulates that all criminal sentences should be passed by a “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 former prisoners a year
prior, during 1987. There is little doubt that after the PMOI formally allied itself with
Saddam Hussein in 1986, members of the group in jail faced increasing scrutiny. But this
is not evidence that, were it not for the invasion of July 1988, Khomeini would have ever
issued his directive. 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 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, members of non-militant groups.
Moreover, all of these former prisoners, who were interviewed, were released after serving
their judicial sentences. It also quotes from the scholar, Ervand Abrahamian. However, his
analysis is essentially an educated guess. He provides no evidence other than his own
belief that those PMOI found guilty of any 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.” Despite this perfectly reasonable explanation, which is
consistent with the setting up of “pardon committees” in early 1988, Amnesty denies that
this could possibly be true because it has insisted all along that all of the prisoners were
prisoners of conscience and, thus, they could not have been sentenced for such crimes.

As previously stated, the PMOI remained active in the murder of Iranian government
officials and the military after their extensive bombing campaign of 1981. It used its
networks of activists to provide information and logistical support for these operations by
assassination squads on motorcycles. Activists were instructed to provide lists of targets
and other forms of intelligence. There is no evidence that, from 1981, 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 by all means possible.

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 prison population. Amnesty had intially claimed in 1990 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 55,000 Iranian government troops – a completely 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 immediately after it, 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.

The report cites Iranian ambassador, Mohammad Mahallati, accurately 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 heard from them again.

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 battlefied in Operation Mersad, or
immediately following it, the bodies were, indeed, dumped 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 claims that there are 378 graves in Tehran's largest cemetery, Behesht 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. Amnesty 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.


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 funded 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 researchers are all fanatical 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 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 offences, 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 retrials of the prisoners, and/or speedy execution of
those on death row, may not have involved sufficient due process, but were still judicial.
The figure of around 5,000 dead almost certainly includes those killed in battle or court-
martialled and executed shortly afterwards. The only 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 is never a
“crime” for a nation to defend itself and punish terrorists and traitors as Amnesty supposes.

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 western
companies with the full support of western governments. It seems that human rights as an
issue only matters to Amnesty so long as it is convenient and useful to their own agenda.

In conclusion, this selective and unobjective “report” is a highly politicised and deeply
flawed propaganda exercise that appears to have been prepared with the full cooperation
and support of a terrorist organisation seeking to settle scores for past setbacks. 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 the real victims of terrorism.

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