In search of the missing victims of the Iranian revolution

Not all graves in the huge Behesht Zara cemetery on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, Tehran, contain the remains of people who died of natural causes. Altogether, there are also thousands who were executed after Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 coup, because they were seen as a threat to the Islamic Republic.

The authorities prefer to give as little publicity as possible to the successive waves of executions, which occurred mainly in the 80s. And sometimes they silently try to clear some of the graves, under the banner that space is needed for new graves, and that they are allowed after thirty years, according to religious regulations. In Behesht Zara, this actually happened in two parts, where an unknown number of people were buried, including those who were executed.

melanistic blackness (17), located in Behesht Zara cemetery.
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Some relatives are still unknown about the fate of their murdered relatives and their last burial place. So a group of Iranian researchers is trying, partly in Iran itself and partly abroad, to determine exactly who was executed during the first major wave of executions from June 21, 1981 to March 21, 1982 and what happened to their bodies.

Our records show that thousands of people were killed during that period. “We have been able to trace the names and places where about 3,500 dead people were buried,” says Shaheen Nasiri (35), who came to the Netherlands from Iran twenty years ago. Nasseri is a political philosopher at the Universities of Amsterdam and Wageningen and participates in this project as a volunteer.

cracked tombstones

The so-called Rastyad research group will publish its findings online on June 21 in the hope that more people will be able to provide the missing data. They also reached out to the United Nations, hoping to gain official recognition of the mass executions as a crime deserving further legal investigation.

“Almost everyone in Iran has lost a loved one,” Naseri says. “Many members of our group as well, and this includes me. Thanks to this project we hope that the truth of Iran’s massacres and violations of human rights will not remain a mystery. Perhaps our material can also be used as a basis for establishing accusations against the perpetrators in subsequent court cases.”

Headstone Thank God Bagnjada prominent socialist, in Behesht Zara
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The Shah’s regime was overthrown in 1978 and 1979 by a broad coalition of religious and secular parties. Soon after his return from exile to Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini began eliminating many of his secular supporters. They were called “the warriors” (the enemies of God). Executions accelerated after the controversial ouster of the relatively liberal Prime Minister Bani Sadr in June 1981.

Among the first victims were a number of communists (infidels). On June 21, fifteen left-wing opponents were killed, including the famous poet and playwright Saeed Sultanpur. This marks the beginning of mass murder. His burial place is still unknown. We suspect that it was initially located in section 41 of Behesht-e-Zahra, that is, in a section that was later destroyed and cleared by the authorities.”

Some tombstones of the left-wing torturers are riddled with large cracks, which appear to have been intentionally damaged. Supporters of the system believed that non-believers should not be buried next to believers, and therefore wanted to evacuate such graves.

Palace execution

After the communists and supporters of other left-wing parties, the role was mainly for the followers of the MEK. About 70 percent of the victims of executions belonged to this group, which had previously strongly opposed the Shah’s regime. Members of the persecuted religious minority of Baha’is have also been executed, for example.”

Investigators were able to find out that more than a hundred minors were executed from Tehran alone

Investigators were able to find out that more than 100 minors were executed from Tehran alone, including the 17-year-old girl Soudabh Baghaei. As stated in a newspaper report on November 30, 1981, she was executed along with 35 other “enemies of God” on suspicion of sympathizing with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. She was accused of “al-Mufid” of spreading corruption on the ground. Altogether, dozens of girls have been murdered based on such public accusations.”

Such reports from official government newspapers announcing the executions were an important source. In addition, researchers searched archives and used geolocation to locate the graves of those who were executed and the compartments where their remains are located.

Worked in a thousand cases. They took pictures of the graves, each numbered, and carefully compared them with the other details they obtained. Meanwhile, some parties have also compiled lists of party members and sympathizers who they assume have been executed, although researchers have also found some inaccuracies. In some cases, family members were able to provide useful information themselves.

In all, the search group was able to identify the remains of forty people from the 41st cleared section. But researchers have not yet been able to prove that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of disappeared opponents of the regime were actually killed. “We are now mainly hoping to get additional information from family members and others,” Naseri says.

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