Mashhad: Criminal Evidence under Piles of Dirt

March 7, 2018

At the far end of Behesht-e Reza Cemetery in Mashhad, there is a barren plot of land in which the bodies of political prisoners executed in the 1980s are buried. The land, numbered 22, was referred to as La’nat Abad (the damned land) by the authorities. According to the observations of a mortuary worker at this cemetery and the statements of judiciary authorities relayed later to some families, the prisoners executed in the 1988 Massacre in Mashhad were buried in three vacant  areas of Behesht-e Reza Cemetery. Two of these areas are located next to section 22, where the prisoners executed in the early 1980s are buried.

It is believed that nearly 170 political prisoners were buried in mass graves in Behesht-e Reza Cemetery.

The approximate location of mass graves on Google Maps is available through the following links:

Mass grave number 1, Section 10

Mass grave number 2, Section 22

Mass grave number 3, Section 27

Over the past years, the authorities have deployed various techniques in order to prevent families from holding commemorative gatherings at the grave sites. They occasionally direct water over the site, destroy markers and memorial signs over the graves, and surveil the area.

The bereaved families visiting the cemetery in Nowrooz 2017 realized that one of the mass grave sites, previously flat, was covered with mounds of soil. Later observations, photos, videos and satellite images suggest that authorities have started construction operations on two grave sites. They are making new burial plots in one section, and new buildings in the other.

If construction projects continues, all traces of these two mass grave sites will disappear.

The satellite imagery obtained from Google Earth provides evidence that mass grave sites in Behesht-e Reza Cemetery are undergoing change and destruction.

Satellite imagery showing destruction of mass grave number 1 located in section 10 at Behesht-e Reza Cemetery

Comparing two following images of the reported mass grave site in Behesht-e Reza Cemetery suggests that construction works in the area started between 12 July and 7 August 2016, because the site had been intact until July 12.

12 July 2016


7 August 2016


The last available satellite image of the area is from 10 February 2018. It shows that construction projects have progressed significantly, and a major area of the mass grave site is covered by new structures.

Satellite imagery showing destruction of mass grave number 2 located in section 22 at Behesht-e Reza Cemetery

Bereaved families visiting this part of Behesht-e Reza cemetery in 2016 and 2017 noticed that the previously flat area was covered with mounds of soil.

The satellite imagery of the area obtained from Google Earth shows that dumping dirt on the mass grave site started between 24 April and 12 July 2016.

24 April 2016


12 July 2016

In the video clips taken from the area by locals at different dates, the destruction of the area and the preparatory works for building new burial plots are visible.

Video clip caption During his six years in Mashhad’s Vakil Abad prison, Amir Mirzaian befriended the other young men in his ward. “They were just like any other teenager,” he says. After his release, many of the friends he had made during his imprisonment were swiftly executed and buried in secret, unmarked mass graves.


In Iran, the prison massacre of 1988 is remembered by survivors and victims’ families, through the telling of stories like Mr. Mirzaian’s. He recalls, with great fondness, a memory of the young men with whom he shared a cell. He also morosely describes their tragic deaths, and the torture and harassment their families were forced to endure by authorities. After his friends’ executions, the location of their bodies—in unmarked mass graves—was ordered by Iranian officials to be kept secret. This secrecy deprived families of important burial rites.


Mr. Mirzaian still has nightmares about those times. His recollections of the incarceration, torture and mass-executions of prisoners, and about the aftermath of mass-graves and government’s harassment of victims’ families, fit into a pattern of crimes against humanity committed against some 4,000-5,000 individuals and their families 30 years ago. There has been no redress or accountability for these crimes. Amir Mirzaian hopes that history will not repeat itself.

The above photo, which is the last available satellite image from 10 February 2016, shows that the area is demarcated and prepared for the construction of new graves.