The Washington Post:
By Omid Memarian and Gissou Nia
Omid Memarian is a journalist, Iran analyst and the 2005 recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Human Rights Defender Award. Gissou Nia is a human rights lawyer, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and board chair of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
In November, Swedish authorities arrested an Iranian suspect for his alleged role in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. The arrest gave new hope to survivors and families of victims, who have spent decades pushing for the perpetrators to be held responsible.
But enthusiasm over the prospect of justice was short-lived. Ironically, on the heels of this glimpse of accountability, Iranians now face the specter of further abuses and draconian sentences for prisoners. And the international community is failing to take the necessary steps to stop it.
A week after the arrest in Sweden, Iran erupted into days of protests sparked by a sudden hike in gasoline prices. The government responded with force: The body count from the government’s brutal reaction includes at least 208 dead, with as-yet-untold numbers of people injured. An Iranian official claimed more than 7,000 protesters were arrested. Reports of torture against detainees and other ill treatment are already rolling in, and Iranian state media has announced that detainees will face national security charges that carry the death penalty.
Given that, in 2018, Iran had the second-highest number of executions in the world, there are legitimate concerns that mass executions without the minimum due-process protections may be on the horizon.
Indeed, there is historical precedent that should be cause for alarm. The 1988 prison massacre happened when the war between Iran and Iraq had just ended with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. An exhausted and shaken Islamic Republic, forced to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was anxious to consolidate its grip on power, stamp out dissent and rid itself of what it saw as a dangerous opposition. Accordingly, it sent thousands of people who had been serving terms in prison — predominantly opposition Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) followers but also others — to death in mass secret hangings or by firing squad.
In 1988, the government was willing to disregard law and effectively commit mass murder in the name of regime consolidation. It showed a similar disregard for the law in 2009, when demonstrators protested against disputed election results, and again in December 2017, when protests over economic conditions and corruption broke out across the country. The same dangers are clear and present in the current unrest, during which protesters shouted, "Down with the dictator.”
So what can be done?
First, the United Nations must do more. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a strong statement on Dec. 6. But to ensure the Iranian authorities actually comply with this directive, U.N. bodies should continue to exert more pressure. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in particular should insist that the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran be granted access to the country. The same goes for U.N. experts on torture and extrajudicial executions and those who have outstanding country visit requests.
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