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Ex-UN officials, rights experts urge probe of Iran's 1988 mass killings

More than 450 people signed an open letter calling for the UN human rights office to investigate the Iranian president's involvement in the1988 massacre, which Ebrahim Raisi denies.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured), Moscow, Russia, Jan. 19, 2022.

A group of former United Nations officials and experts have penned an open letter urging the United Nations human rights office to investigate Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's involvement in the mass killing of political prisoners.

“We believe it’s long overdue for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to investigate the 1988 massacre,” read the letter signed by dozens of human rights groups and more than 450 people. 

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini appointed Raisi to a four-man “death commission” that helped facilitate the purge of perceived dissidents from Iran's jails. Amnesty International estimates more than 5,000 prisoners, a majority of them affiliated with the People’s Mujahideen of Iran dissident group, were killed across 32 cities. 

The letter describes “thousands of political prisoners who refused to abandon their beliefs were executed. The victims were buried in mass graves scattered throughout the country.”

The letter was organized by the London-based Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran. The advocacy group’s director, Tahar Boumedra, said at a press conference in London on Thursday that the letter represented history’s largest international appeal for the UN to hold Iran accountable over the massacre.

Raisi, a former judiciary chief under US sanctions, won Iran’s presidential election in a landslide in June. Amnesty International has previously called for Raisi to be investigated for “his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law.”

Javaid Rehman, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, said in June that his office is willing to share testimonies and evidence collected on the Iranian executions with the UN Human Rights Council or any other investigative body.

Raisi has long dismissed his involvement in the mass killings. Reuters quotes him as telling a news conference in June 2021: “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised. … I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far.”

In addition to Raisi, the letter also names head of judiciary Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei as one of the perpetrators who “continue[s] to enjoy impunity.”

The signatories of Thursday’s letter said they were “concerned that lack of accountability for the perpetrators by the international community could embolden the Iranian authorities.” The letter references Iran’s deadly crackdown on peaceful nationwide protests in 2019, which reportedly left hundreds dead.