Exclusive Interview with Payam Akhavan on the Iran Tribunal
Arseh Sevom — An international legal fact finding team led by Professor Payam Akhavan heard testimony regarding the mass executions that took place during the 1980s in Iran.
According to the Iran Tribunal website, it took four years of persistent efforts to make the investigation of the massacre of Iranian political prisoners during the 80s. None of the prisoners, those executed or those who survived, had access to attorneys, legal services and advice, or even to their families. They had no right to defend themselves. The court’s proceedings usually took just minutes, consisting of a few questions leading to an immediate verdict.
According to statistics, the Islamic Republic executed some 15,000 political prisoners between 1981 and 1984. The regime massacred another 4000 political prisoners between June 1988 until March 1989. An average 15 people per day and one person every two hours were executed and buried in secret in mass graves.
In May, Arseh Sevom spoke with Professor Payam Akhavan regarding the opening of a tribunal to investigate crimes committed during what has become known as “The Bloody Decade.” That interview can be read in Persian here. This is a translation.
Payam Akhavan, advisor to the lead prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia says:
”The most important message from this tribunal for the leader of the Islamic Republic could be that the Iranian people will never forget the cruelty done to them and the crimes committed by the government. One of the objectives of this tribunal is to familiarize the world with the culture of impunity that has existed in Iran for more than a few decades. In Iran, people who are guilty of murder, torture and rape are promoted instead of facing punishment.”
Payam Akhavan: This tribunal is in fact a people’s tribunal with a symbolic trial process. The actual objective is to raise awareness among Iranians and the international community about the reality of the 1980s executions. Even today, the Islamic Republic has not agreed to acknowledge the massacre of thousands of Iranians during that time. Many Iranians are still in the dark about the realities and details of the executions. The tribunal is not organized to punish a certain individual or group of people: it is to give a stage to the survivors of those crimes or those who lost a family member and allow them to tell their stories from an international platform. The first step is to collect authentic evidence pertaining to this historic crime, and the court is going to do that part. This is all to show what happened, who was behind it, why they did so and who was responsible. Then we can hope that one day a group of those responsible will be brought to court and tried for their crimes. Nonetheless, at the present time what we do is only at the level of fact finding and preparing a report. It is true that the authorities of the Islamic Republic are in power today, but it won’t be like that forever, and someday they, too, will face punishment just like other dictators.
Arseh Sevom: How did you conduct your research about the victims of 1988 mass executions? To what extent are your sources and your research authentic?
Payam Akhavan: We collected our information and evidence through various sources. Many of the people who were on death row in the 1980s in Iran currently reside in Europe, the US, or Canada. We interviewed them and they were willing to testify before the court. We also used human rights centers such as Boroumand Foundation. In addition there were Ayatollah Montazeri’s Memoirs and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa that exist as significant historic evidence. Thousands of witnesses are still alive and all tell similar stories. This tribunal is not about the torture and execution of just a few people, which would be difficult to prove. It is about the massacre of a few thousand people with the same number of witnesses. Thus, presiding over such a tribunal is clear.
Arseh Sevom: Have you lost any family member or relative in 1988 executions?
Payam Akhavan: No, I have no personal gain in this tribunal. The person in charge of gathering information and interviewing people, Babak Emad, has not lost any of his close family members either. He was, however, a political prisoner during the 1980s.
Arseh Sevom: What is your main focus in this tribunal?
Payam Akhavan: We have to note that the crimes of 1988 have had impacts on the relationships between Iranian politicians even to this day. The perpetrators of those actions have been promoted in Iran instead of facing charges. For example, Mr. Shooshtari who was a member of the “death commission” was later promoted to Justice Minister. Mr. Mostafa Pourmohamadi who was also a member of the death commission is now the interior minister. The most important message from this tribunal for the leader of the Islamic Republic could be that the Iranian people will never forget the cruelty done to them and the crimes committed by the government. One of the objectives of this tribunal is to familiarize the world with the culture of impunity that has existed in Iran for more than a few decades. In Iran, people who are guilty of murder, torture and rape are promoted instead of facing punishment. We must reach the awareness that no one can violate the laws of the country. Otherwise who will be responsible for such violations? Until then we will not have a trusted government, a government that must follow up every illegal action.
Arseh Sevom: In what way will holding this tribunal and these people’s testimonies influence the human rights crisis in Iran and other countries relationships with Iran?
Payam Akhavan: There are two views here, one is the popular view and the other politicians’ view. People from other countries will have more sympathy with the Iranian people once this tribunal is held and testimonies are made. They will notice what difficult times Iranians have experienced and are still experiencing today; particularly during the first decade since the victory of the Islamic Revolution. This sympathy may turn out to be influential in the battle for democracy inside Iran as well. But the views of politicians are a totally different subject, they only care about nuclear energy and Iranian oil. In fact, Iranian human rights issues are at the bottom of their list. For many years they have been discussing the Iranian nuclear program. If they reach an agreement over this matter with Iran, then they will not care about upholding human rights in Iran any more and all discussions will be over too. This is the thing people do not want. The Iranian people value their civil rights. Because of that, I believe this process of revealing facts through the tribunal and documenting the stories of those who were affected by the crimes of 1988 will assist human rights activists to focus on the issue of establishing human rights in Iran at a higher speed.
Arseh Sevom: Will the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran participate in these tribunal sessions, too?
Payam Akhavan: No, as he has an official position and does not have an obligation to participate in the tribunal. In fact, they can use the information gathered through this process but it is not their obligation to participate.
Arseh Sevom: How will the tribunal proceed?
Payam Akhavan: The first session will be held this July with a fact-finding committee meeting. The committee will hear the testimony of witnesses and victims of the 1988 crimes, then people will be given time to speak out at this platform. At another session in October, eminent international attorneys and judges will start their symbolic assessment to issue a verdict based on available evidence and documents. They will announce who was responsible for the crime and who should be punished. However, all proceedings will be symbolic as this court will not have the authority to issue executable verdicts.
Arseh Sevom: Thank you for your explanation.
UPDATE: Following the testimony on twitter: #IranTribunal.
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