For decades, the grieving relatives of thousands of political prisoners and regime opponents who were killed in the late 1980s have been denied access to their unmarked graves at Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery.
Now that the current authorities are trying to keep the lid on the war crimes that took place during the massacre, they are put up barriers in an apparent effort to ensure no respect is given to the victims.
Videos and pictures posted on social media last week show that a high concrete wall and imposing security cameras have been installed around the perimeter of the cemetery, known to many Iranians as the “place of the damned”.
The cemetery to the east of the capital was traditionally a final resting place for members of religious minorities, who were buried there to separate them from the graves of Muslims. But following the mass executions of political prisoners and other accused opponents of the Islamic Republic’s clerical rule from 1988, Khavaran became best known as a secret burial site for some of the thousands killed.
Khavaran’s graves are unmarked and Tehran has for decades banned families of the dead from mourning there and punishes those who defy authorities by leaving flowers and mementos. The strict official stance has contributed to accusations that Tehran has tried to cover up the killings of dissidents and religious minorities by death squads, and has even desecrated the burial sites of victims.
Families and activists see the new facilities as a brazen attempt by authorities to further restrict access to the Khavaran cemetery in their effort to erase the memory of the dead.
A group representing families of those killed in the purge has expressed outrage over construction at the Khavaran site, which it says houses the remains of relatives of families killed in 1988.
“We do not tolerate the regime’s decision to erect a wall and install cameras to prevent the presence of families,” the group said in a statement this week, according to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “We urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to stop harassing the families of [those interred at Khavaran cemetery] as soon as possible and to answer our questions instead of threatening and intimidating us.”
The group and other activists have linked the new construction to Iran’s efforts to distract from the decades-old massacre, which is at the center of a high-profile case in a foreign court.
Hamid Nouri, a former deputy prosecutor who is accused of helping to carry out more than 100 executions and human rights violations that took place in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison in 1988, is on trial in court Swedish and a verdict is expected on July 14.
Nouri was chosen as a henchman for judges who determined which prisoners would be executed in accordance with a fatwa issued by former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. Khomeini’s order, issued at the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, initially targeted members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) accused of carrying out attacks on Iranian soil, but has been expanded to include others convicted of “mohareb” or making war on God.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International estimates that around 4,500 people – including MKO members, students, leftists and other suspected opponents of the mullahs’ regime – were killed in the purge, although the MKO puts the number at around 30,000.
Nouri’s arrest in 2019 when he arrived in Sweden for a vacation and his subsequent trial in Stockholm for international war crimes and human rights abuses were strongly criticized by Iran.
The trial implicated senior members of Iran’s clerical establishment in the massacres, including current President Ebrahim Raisi. This led the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights to call for an independent investigation into the massacre and Raisi’s possible role.
In response to the lawsuit, Tehran officially demanded Nouri’s release and accused the Swedish court of bias. Since the close of proceedings in February, Tehran has been accused of trying to influence the outcome of the trial by threatening to execute a Swedish-Iranian researcher imprisoned in Iran for terrorism and arresting other Swedish citizens.
Prosecutors in the Nouri trial reportedly asked to visit the Khavaran cemetery, which has been razed several times over the past three decades. The request was denied.
In its statement this week, the group representing the families of the victims said that the documents presented during Nouri’s trial provided evidence that “our relatives are secretly buried in graves” such as those in the Khavaran cemetery.
“Nearly 34 years have passed since the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, during which Khavaran’s families were repeatedly harassed and even detained, and in several cases the regime attempted to destroy the cemetery “, said the group. “They were buried en masse and we don’t know how, why, or even where they are buried.”
The group has pledged to launch an international campaign to protest against the new construction of the Khavaran cemetery and to call on the Iranian authorities to allow political diversity and respect human rights.