August 1, 2018
The Islamic Republic of Iran began a huge wave of arrests, summary trials, and execution of political opponents in June 1981. Those executed were mostly supporters or members of the People’s Mojahedin or other leftist political organisations.
The municipality of Tehran designated a piece of land for the burial of “infidels” in June 1981. The land, known as Khavaran, is located on Khorasan road, 15km away from Tehran and beside the cemetery of religious minorities. It is a barren area, lacking the essential facilities of a regular cemetery. The authorities referred to the place as Lanatabad (Land of the Damned) or Kofrabad (Land of the Infidels).
In the early 1980s, the authorities buried in Khavaran leftist political prisoners executed in Tehran prisons, at least 50 executed Baha’is, as well as several members of the Mojahedin Organisation. They did not return the bodies to their families and refused to reveal the location of their graves.
Khavaran is composed of two rectangular lands, currently measuring 8600 m2.
Most of the prisoners executed in the early 1980s were buried by prison officials without informing their families. Sometimes the approximate location of their graves was disclosed to families. One of the relatives of Robert Papazian, for example, was told he had been buried at Khavaran in a mass grave containing 150 bodies of prisoners executed in July 1982.
Discovery of Mass Graves in Khavaran
In 1988, whispers were circulating about the imminent termination of the war and the likelihood of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The anticipated uncertainty of this situation gave rise to increasing concern over the number of political prisoners whose sentences were coming to an end and the perceived danger they posed in organising political opposition to the weakened regime.
The first wave of executions of political prisoners began in the spring of 1988. Political organisations at the time released warnings against death sentences handed down to political prisoners and their transfer into solitary confinement. According to official announcements, five prisoners including Anoushiravan Lotfi (Fedaian Khalq Organisation (Majority)), Hajat Mohammadpour (Union of Iranian Communists), Hojatollah Ma’budi (People’s Mojahedin Organisation), Lohrasb Salavati (Worker’s Way), and another prisoner whose name is absent from the available documents, were executed in Evin prison and buried in Khavaran on 27 May 1988. It is not clear whether or not they had been sentenced to death in the courts convened subsequent to their arrests in the early 1980s. Barely two months later, in July 1988, 12 other political prisoners including Kiumars Zarshenas (Tudeh Party), Saeed Azarang (Tudeh Party), Mahmoud Honari (Communist Party of Iran), Rahim Hatefi (Communist Party of Iran) and Faramarz Sufi (Khalq Organisation (Majority)) were executed in secret and their families were told they had been buried in Khavaran. As also reported by Galindo Pohl, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, 55 political prisoners were transferred into solitary confinement at that time. The executions were carried out in late July by which time political prisoners had been incommunicado for months.
Participating in memorial ceremonies held at Khavaran throughout July and August for Anoushiravan Lotfi, Saeed Azarang, Faramarz Sufi and other prisoners executed in July, families noticed mass graves near their burial places.
The mass grave was beside the grave of Lotfi. Forough Tajbakhsh, his mother, was one of the first witnesses of the grave and the bodies buried there. She made many efforts to document and publicise what she had seen. Describing her first encounter with the mass grave, Tajbakhsh says:
“It was the 40th day commemoration of Anoush. We went to the cemetery and put flowers on his grave. Suddenly my sister said, ‘My God, there is a hand there.’ We turned back and looked about. She was right. There was a hand sticking out of the ground. Young executed prisoners were covered under thin layers of dirt. All the women burst out yelling. One started taking pictures. I could see the bodies of several young individuals; one of them was shot in the forehead. Immediately the police car arrived. The one who was taking photos hid their camera. As I heard, they returned some day later in the morning and took more photos. However, the first distributed pictures of the mass grave were taken when I was there.”
Sharifi’s mother whose son, Farzin Sharifi, was executed in 1981 and buried in Khavaran is another witness to the discovery of mass graves. She saw a mass grave next to the graves of Anoushiravan Lotfi, Saeed Azarang and Faramarz Sufi:
“We saw something like a dog’s leg. We pushed some dirt away with our bare hands. A body in a checkered shirt appeared. ‘He is my brother,’ a woman, recognising the shirt she had made her brother, shouted suddenly. Mrs. Lotfi knew him as well. Bodies were thrown there in a disorderly manner. We decided to return early in the morning to dig the ground with tools and see what was there. I couldn’t go with them. They went with gloves and shovels early in the morning but encountered numbers of guards who forbade them from digging the ground. However, we all knew a mass grave existed there and whenever we went to the cemetery we put flowers there.”
Farideh Amirshekari is another witness of the mass grave. Farideh’s brother-in-law, Ali Riahi, was buried in Khavaran in 1982, and her husband, Mohammad Jafar Riahi, as well as her other brother-in-law, Mohammad Sadegh Riahi, were executed in 1988. Amirshekari recalls that she had seen the mass grave before the main trenches were dug in Khavaran:
“In the upper part of Khavaran, a trench was dug near the grave of Anoushiravan Lotfi. One day, early in the morning, we realised shreds of clothes were sticking out of the ground. I saw someone’s fingertips jutting out. The trench was not deep, and bodies seemed to be buried hastily. We pushed off the dirt and discovered the bodies. They were piled in a disorderly manner. We fetched dirt and covered the bodies thoroughly. It was before other trenches were dug. Bodies belonged to prisoners executed earlier.”
The fresh dirt and still bloody bodies indicated that the mass grave had only recently been created, and executions carried out just a few days before. The first photos of the Khavaran mass graves were of this particular grave site. They were released abroad in November 1988, before the discovery of the mass grave of prisoners executed in August and September 1988. At that time, some families had not yet been informed of the execution of their loved ones.
The massive wave of executions of political prisoners started across Iran, hardly a month after the discovery of the first mass grave in Khavaran. The Islamic Republic of Iran accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 on 18 July 1988. The Resolution called for a cease-fire after eight years of war with Iraq. One week later, on 25 July, the military forces of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation started their campaign, Forough Javidan operation (Eternal Light), in Iran and advanced towards Kermanshah. The attack was defeated by the Iranian military in Operation Mersad on 29 July 1988.
In July, prisoners were held incommunicado, televisions were removed from prisons, newspapers were no longer allowed on the wings, and more than fifteen prisoners were executed. There were rumours that political prisoners might be executed. Every day families went to the prosecutor’s office in Evin Prison, or other authorities, and inquired about the prisoners and the reason for their being kept incommunicado.
Mass executions of thousands of political prisoners commenced around 28 July, pursuant to the religious order (fatwa) issued by Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the order, political prisoners who remained steadfast in their political beliefs were condemned to execution. In Tehran, death sentences were approved by a commission comprised of three members, Hossein Ali Nayyeri, the religious judge, Morteza Eshraqhi, the Tehran prosecutor, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the representative of the Intelligence Ministry. In prisons of other cities, the sentences were issued by a trio consisting of the religious judge, the revolutionary prosecutor, and the Intelligence Ministry representative.
Many of the executed prisoners had previously been sentenced to imprisonment by the revolutionary courts. Many were serving the last years or months of their sentences. There were also prisoners who were kept in jail after their sentences ended because they refused to repudiate their political beliefs.
After the massacre of thousands of members or sympathisers of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation, the mass killing of the leftist prisoners commenced in Tehran in August.
In the autumn of 1988, prisoners were held incommunicado for several months and the authorities refused to disclose any information about their situation. At the time, changes to Khavaran cemetery made families more concerned about the lives of their loved ones. They had observed trenches dug deeply and then filled and covered up in a few days.
Honouring a trench with flowers in a ceremony commemorating the 1988 massacre. (Date unspecified)
Farideh Amirshekari, who visited Khavaran weekly at that time, says:
“Before the executions commenced, we had a premonition that something was going to happen. Our loved ones were kept incommunicado, and nobody explained the reason. We held a two-day sit-in outside Parliament asking why we were denied visits to our relatives. Special guards in black leather uniforms told us that all prisoners were about to undergo retrials. Prisoners originally sentenced to less than ten years and those sentenced to more than ten years would be given ten years’ and life imprisonment respectively, and prisoners condemned to life imprisonment would be executed. They said the prisoners were being held incommunicado because they were involved in retrials and interrogations. That was all they said. However, as we went to Khavaran every week at the time, we had seen the deep trenches dug there. Five trenches [were dug] in the lower part of Khavaran where prisoners executed between 1981 and 1987 had been buried. One week later, the trenches were filled and covered up. We knew something had happened but could not believe prisoners who were serving their sentences might be executed.”
Mothers who had gone to Khavaran in November spotted body parts and clothes where earth had been washed away. They pushed away the dirt and found bodies in a mass grave. Remembering their first encounter with the mass graves, Khatereh Moeini the sister of Heibatollah Moeini, executed in 1988, says:
“We went to Khavaran one week later [after the announcement of executions]. There were 12 or 13 of us; mostly mothers or elder sisters of executed prisoners. Khavaran had changed drastically. We entered through the upper part and saw black plastic bags protruding from the ground. There were so many crows around. Shreds of clothes were sticking out. We were quite confused. We asked ourselves, ‘Are they really our children? Are they really our loved ones thrown carelessly into these trenches? How is it possible at all?’ Families, particularly mothers could not control themselves. They started digging the ground with their bare hands. I was very young and didn’t know what I should do. I was afraid to see something horrible, to see Hebbat [my brother]. My mother took out a piece of a cream-colored pants and said, ‘Khatereh, come help me, I’ve found Hebbat.’ I helped her unearth him, but his body broke apart in pieces. I asked her to stop. They had piled bodies on bodies… body parts were visible here and there. One of the mothers behaved more reasonably and said, “Stop digging: our children were whole whilst alive, let them remain so forever. Just let’s cover them up lest the crows …”
After a while the authorities covered the trenches with lime to prevent families from digging the ground. However, fragments of clothing left in the dried lime provided evidence that bodies were buried there.
The discovery of the mass grave assured families that some prisoners executed in Tehran’s prisons had been buried there.
It was at that time when authorities from the Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office or Evin prison informed many families of the execution of their children. They contacted each family individually and threatened them not to hold any memorial ceremonies. They also refused to give any information about the whereabouts of the graves. It was totally owing to the families’ persistent follow-ups that Khavaran was discovered as the burial place of some political prisoners executed in Tehran’s prisons.
Deaths, and the causes thereof, should be confirmed by official authorities through death certificates. According to the testimony of families, death certificates issued for political prisoners executed in the 1980s misrepresented the cause of death. Certificates did not conform with information published in newspapers or announced verbally to families. The death certificate of Ali Asghar Zeighami, for example, cites “death” (fo’t) as the cause of death, while Evin prison officials told his family he had been executed in the summer of 1988.
Efforts of “Mothers and Families of Khavaran” to Bring Justice
The families of prisoners executed in 1988 worked from the very outset to keep the memory of the massacre alive. They kept going to Khavaran and organising memorial ceremonies, even though they had been threatened to keep silent about executions and not to hold commemorations. In seeking justice for the victims, they also gathered before the Courthouse of Tehran and the United Nations headquarters and wrote letters to national and international authorities.
Their efforts were all thwarted by violence; many families were detained, assaulted and insulted during protests in Khavaran or at memorial ceremonies. The security forces were always on guard around Khavaran in 1988 and 1989 and threatened to arrest people gathering there. The first commemoration in Khavaran was performed after the state had told families that their loved ones were killed and returned their personal property in November 1988. The memorial was held in December 1988 on the 40th day after their deaths. The first anniversary of the executions on 31 August 1989 was brutally dispersed by security forces, and many families were arrested.
Nevertheless, families continued visiting Khavaran, particularly on occasions such as the last Friday of the year, the first day of the new year, and the last Friday before 1 September (i.e. the anniversary of the 1988 massacre). Through regular visits to Khavaran, families could keep the memory of their loved ones alive, remain in contact with one other and plan collective activities.
The number of families visiting Khavaran has fluctuated over different periods. Depending on the pressure exerted by security forces, sometimes very few families could go there while at other times the number amounted to 200 to 300 during anniversary ceremonies or on Fridays. On some occasions almost a thousand people have been present at the cemetery.
There are also families who may not go to Khavaran or participate in collective activities there, but they keep the memory of their loved ones alive in other ways.
Destruction of Khavaran
Khavaran is an area of land surrounded by iron fencing. In the corners of the area, individual graves of some prisoners executed in the early 1980s are located. From the 1980s onwards, families who assumed Khavaran as the burial place of their loved ones have been forbidden from putting up any sign or memorial plaque over their graves. Families are not allowed to install tombstones on graves, plant trees, or mark the possible location of graves with pieces of bricks or coloured sand.
After the 1988 massacre, the authorities’ policies on burying executed prisoners and giving the location of their burial sites to families changed. Families say they were given “no information” about the location of graves, and all that all their knowledge about the grave was received in a piecemeal fashion from unofficial sources and informal channels.
The discovery of mass graves containing bodies piled up against one another, wearing clothes instead of funeral shrouds, answered the families’ questions aboutthe burial sites. However, they suffered greatly to learn about the inhumane mass burial of their loved ones and to see parts of their bodies sticking out of the ground. Now, 27 years after the massacre, families regard the discovery of mass graves as their most painful memory. Describing her first encounter with mass graves and seeing the bodies and clothes of executed ones dispersed around trenches, Khatereh Moeini states:
“It was awful… I can remember most of the scenes. They had us lined up next to the wall; newly arrived families were placed [next to us], and we told them what we had seen. When we reached the gate, my mother who was wearing a scarf, blouse and skirt, took off her chador and told me to spread it there [over the bodies with parts sticking out of the ground].
The tragic scene over there was the crows. It might seem unimaginable, but I still detest the call of crows. I cannot bear it. I felt helpless to see the bodies abandoned there; they had not even allowed us to bury them. Those who had taken the first series of photos [of the bodies in trenches] were affected deeply by the horrors of the scene; one of them became mentally ill and was under treatment for a long time. Life seemed unbearable to me all the while I imagined my mother was right and it was [my brother] Hebbat [the body with parts sticking out of the ground]. Many years have passed and I still go to therapy to deal with the nightmares haunting me. Planting something in the garden reminds me of the scene. I cannot dig the ground with bare hands. I always do it with digging tools.”
Over the past three decades, families have persistently pleaded with the Iranian authorities to give them the location of burial sites and to identify the bodies buried there. They have also asked international authorities to pursue the matter. However, relevant authorities and agencies not only failed to address the demands, they set out to destroy or transform Khavaran. In the early 1980s, most of the graves were in the form of piles of dirt with no tombstone or information. Even the piles were destroyed from time to time. In the early 1980s, the authorities repeatedly destroyed flowers and tombstones placed by families at the graves in Khavaran.
Describing the destruction of Khavaran, Sahar Mohammadi says:
“In the early 1980s, during a visit to Khavaran, we realised the piles over graves had been bulldozed into the ground. They had destroyed the signs marking the approximate location of buried bodies. The families, however, made new piles where they estimated the graves to be and placed flowers there. After a while they stopped making piles, because authorities levelled them to the ground overnight. They just put flowers at the graves.”
After the 1988 massacre, the number of families visiting Khavaran increased. Consequently, the state became more determined to destroy Khavaran and any signs or markings indicating places of burial. One of the first extensive destructions of the cemetery by bulldozer was carried out in 1990 while Galindo Pohl was visiting Iran.
The authorities intended to destroy Khavaran completely or change its use in the 2000s. When the Baha’i cemetery became full in 2001, they were told to bury their deceased relatives in a part of Khavaran believed to be the burial site of executed political prisoners. Consequently, the Baha’is removed the boundary between the two cemeteries and began making new graves. In response to objections from the families of Khavaran, they said that the authorities had claimed nobody was buried there.
In April 2002, in a letter addressing the City Council of Tehran, with one copy sent to the President, some families whose loved ones were buried in Khavaran called on the Council “to act in accordance with its legal obligations to develop, maintain and equip Khavaran Cemetery.” “If the City Council is not able to meet the request,” the letter stipulated, “it is requested to delegate the tasks to families themselves and protect them against prosecutions brought by either individuals or irrelevant authorities.” The efforts were effective; families succeeded in preventing the construction of new graves at Khavaran and the Baha’is secured other land for burying their dead.
The next series of destructions was carried out in 2005. Reports spread among the families in September that the municipality and Behesht Zahra Organisation were intending to develop Khavaran into a regular cemetery. Letters written in the style of the authorities were also distributed at Khavaran:
We, whose relatives are buried in Khavaran Cemetery, announce that dissenters and subversives are preventing the municipality and Behesht Zahra Organisation from developing Khavaran. We have already given our written consent to collaborate with the reconstruction and organisation of the cemetery and the identification of the graves of our loved ones. Date: 24 August 2005.”
Two days later, families released an announcement opposing the reconstruction of Khavaran:
They are intending to transform Khavaran into a regular cemetery on the pretext of reconstructing it. However, we announce that our children’s deaths and burials were not regular. They were executed and then dumped into mass graves with their clothes on, so it is senseless to attribute them individual graves now. Reconstruction of the cemetery, we believe, should come after the identification of all executed individuals and clarification of circumstances surrounding their deaths and burials. Afterwards, families themselves will proceed to reconstruct the cemetery.
Families who went to Khavaran on 17 September 2005 found tombstones broken up or removed and the marks around some graves destroyed. They went to Behesht Zahra cemetery to raise their objection with Sadeghifar, the chief executive of Behesht Zahra Organisation, but could not see him. Their letter written in objection to the destruction was never answered either.
Khavaran underwent further destruction in January 2009 on the pretext of the “development and organisation of the cemeteries of religious minorities.” Mansoureh Behkish says, “We were in Khavaran on Friday 9 January and everything was normal. One week later, however, on 16 January some families notified us of some destruction that had been carried out in the cemetery. We immediately got there, took pictures and publicised what had happened.”
Khavaran after the destruction of January 2009, Bidaran website
According to the families present in Khavaran on Friday 23 January 2009, the land had been bulldosed to the ground, the traces of wheels were visible, and stones and concrete blocks had been broken. Across the area, seedlings had been planted three metres apart from one other. Markings made by families out of stone or sand had all been destroyed. The seedlings which were mostly rootless dried out after a while and families collected and removed them from the cemetery.
Families have reported that clothes and blankets buried with executed prisoners were visible and their bones were protruding from the ground after the destruction. They have taken pictures of the scenes.
Mansoureh Behkish says, “we could see pieces of bone or hair around; it was very disturbing. Some said they might be dogs’ remains placed deliberately over there for tormenting us. Anyhow I was eyewitness to all the scenes.”
Some families believe security forces transferred the remains of executed prisoners to somewhere outside Khavaran in January 2009. None of the authorities and official institutions have ever replied to enquiries in this regard.
Closing Khavaran’s Gates
The gates of Khavaran, the largest mass grave site in Iran, have been closed since 2008. Families have to walk with difficulty through Golestan Javid (Baha’i Cemetery) in order to visit the resting place of their loved ones.
The main gate of Khavaran cemetery, closed since 2008
The authorities have persistently removed the flowers, pine trees or markings planted by families at the individual or mass graves of executed prisoners.
Khavaran, Friday 27 October 2017; photo from Mersedeh Ghaedi’s Facebook page
Many mothers who played an important role in preserving the Khavaran grave site and holding memorial gatherings there have passed away. However, family members continue visiting Khavaran weekly or periodically. They aim to publicise the status of Khavaran and to call for truth and justice in different ways.
* The article is a summary of the book, The Unfinished Tale, a publication of Justice for Iran. For references, please refer to the book.