Iran: UN calls for accountability on 1988 prison massacres marks turning point in three-decade struggle

A group of UN human rights experts have written to the Iranian government warning that past and ongoing violations related to prison massacres in 1988 may amount to crimes against humanity and that they will call for an international investigation if these violations persist, a push for accountability welcomed by Amnesty international on the eve of International Human Rights Day.

“The UN experts’ communication is a momentous breakthrough. It marks a turning point in the long-standing struggles of victims’ families and survivors, supported by Iranian human rights organizations and Amnesty International, to end these crimes and obtain truth, justice and reparation,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Top UN human rights experts have now sent an unequivocal, and long overdue, message: the ongoing crimes of mass enforced disappearances resulting from the secret extrajudicial executions of 1988 can no longer go unaddressed and unpunished”, said Diana Eltahawy.

Decades of crimes against humanityBetween late July and early September 1988, thousands of imprisoned political dissidents across Iran were forcibly disappeared and then extrajudicially executed in secret.

For more than 30 years, the Iranian authorities have systematically concealed the circumstances surrounding their deaths and the whereabouts of their remains, thereby subjecting the victims, including those killed and their surviving families, to the crime of enforced disappearance.

In their 18-page communication, which was first sent privately to the Iranian government on 3 September 2020, the UN experts state that they “are seriously concerned by the alleged continued refusal to disclose the fate and whereabouts” of these individuals.

The UN experts’ communication is a momentous breakthrough. It marks a turning point in the long-standing struggles of victims’ families and survivors, supported by Iranian human rights organizations and Amnesty International, to end these crimes and obtain truth, justice and reparation.

Diana Eltahawy

They write that they “are further alarmed by the authorities’ refusal to provide families with accurate and complete death certificates, the destruction of mass graves, the ongoing threats and harassment of the families, the lack of investigation and prosecution for the killings, and the statements from the Government denying or trivializing the cases and equating criticizing the killings as support for terrorism.” 

The communication underlines that these enforced disappearances continue in effect “until the fate and whereabouts of the individuals concerned are established”.

Demanding accountability

Consistent with their calls for thorough, impartial and independent investigations into all cases, the exhumation and return of remains to families, the identification and prosecution of perpetrators, and the provision of effective remedy for the victims, the UN human rights experts have asked Iran to provide detailed information on, among other things,

  • Whether the names of the individuals executed were included in public burial registers;
  • Measures taken to identify, recognize, protect and commemorate desecrated mass graves;
  • Known information on the identities of those interred in each gravesite, as well as data on unidentified persons;
  • Any provisions to allow families to commemorate and pay their respects at burial sites; and
  • Legal provisions to protect families and human rights defenders who seek information on the fate and whereabouts of victims of enforced disappearances and who demand justice.

The UN experts also stated that if the Iranian government “continues to refuse to uphold its obligations under international human rights law,” they “will call on the international community to take action to investigate the cases including through the establishment of an international investigation.”

Since the publication of Amnesty International’s 2018 report Blood-soaked secrets: Why Iran’s 1988 prison massacres are ongoing crimes against humanity, the organization has been calling for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent, impartial and effective international mechanism to address impunity for the crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law identified in the report.

“The breadth and strength of the UN expert analysis serves as a crucial stepping stone in our ongoing push to have the UN Human Rights Council  to take action to end impunity for these past and ongoing crimes against humanity,” said Diana Eltahawy. 


The UN experts issuing the September 2020 communication are members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

Amnesty International has compiled evidence of the involvement of several individuals who continue to hold high positions of power in the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions including: the current head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi; the current minister of justice, Alireza Avaei; the former minister of justice and current advisor to the head of the judiciary, Mostafa Pour Mohammadi; the head of the Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges, Hossein Ali Nayyeri; and Mohamamd Hossein Ahmadi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that has the power to appoint or dismiss Iran’s Supreme Leader.