Wednesday 31 October 2012

Toward Justice: From Khavaran to London and The Hague

Shahrzad News: The Iran Tribunal was a public initiative launched some years ago by the families of political prisoners tortured or executed by the Iranian regime during the 1980s, the ‘bloody decade’. Though it had no legal status or jurisdiction over the culprits, it adhered to established international practise during the proceedings. A team of several prominent lawyers and human rights experts, both from inside Iran and from outside, volunteered their services and contributed to the process of collecting evidence from the witnesses.

The Iran Tribunal was not affiliated to any political organisation, nor did it receive funding from any government. All its costs were met by donations from members of the public. Some of the victims’ relatives went so far as to borrow from their banks to help. More money was collected during events organised in Europe and North America. Iranians attending one such event in Toronto in September gave over ten thousand dollars to the tribunal.

One hundred witnesses

Over the last four years hundreds of relatives of those executed by the Iranian regime, who have no hope of obtaining justice at home, agreed to break their silence at the Iran Tribunal, the ‘court of the people’. The hearing was split between a Five-day session in London in JUne and a three-day one at the end of October in the library Peace Palace, in the Dutch city of The Hague.

In all some one hundred first-hand witnesses attended. However according to Payam Akhavan, the international lawyer who acted as chief prosecutor, more would have come forward had it not been for the tribunal’s limited resources.

There was a wide range of witnesses. One was Shura, a young girl living in Paris, whose mother and aunt were executed when she was eight. Shura reconstructed the story of her mother’s arrest, torture and eventual execution by drawing on the diary kept at the time by her grandfather

Rohiyeh is a Bahai, and had been imprisoned for her religious beliefs. She gave evidence on the Iranian regime’s systematic repression of Bahais.

Malikeh is a Kurdish woman, five of whose brothers had been executed in Kurdish Iran. When her mother collected the body of one of her sons, she found one arm dangling from his shoulder, all but severed. She took him to the cemetery, all the while trying to keep it from falling off altogether so that he could be buried on one piece.

The first round of the hearings in London encouraged the relatives of many of those who had been executed and who have no recourse to justice in Iran to break their silence. They were keen to send details of the cases to the tribunal’s office.

An 84-year-old woman whose son had been executed by the regime in 1988 heard about the tribunal while visiting another son who lives in the Netherlands. Immediately she decided to go in her wheelchair to the court in order to give evidence. It was recorded on video, on the last day of the hearing.

Expert witnesses

The tribunal invited various experts to give evidence, including Maurice Capithorn, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran between 1995 and 2002. He said that his reports of human rights abuses in the country was overlooked by UN. He added that attending the tribunal’s hearings had given him a new perspective on repression and human rights violations in Iran. Morris Capitorn was a member of the tribunal’s fact-finding Truth Commission.
The Prosecutors

The lawyer Mojdeh Shahriyari was a member of the tribunal’s prosecution team. “Anyone concerned about human rights will be interested in this tribunal. When I was approached I said I would be proud to be on the team.”

Gisoo Kia is director of Iran’s Centre for the Protection of Human Rights. She and her colleagues make documentaries about human right abuses all over the world.

“I used to work for the International Court of Justice, and have already been involved in cases of human rights abuse and war crimes in former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Africa. Crimes against humanity have much in common. What happened in Iran is consistent with what happened in those other countries. After the post-election events in Iran in 2009, I decided to work day and night on the issue of human rights violations in the country.”

Kaveh Shahrooz, a 32-year-old lawyer based in Canada, was one of the first experts to research the 1980s mass executions of political dissidents in Iran.

“One of my close relatives was executed in Evin prison in Iran when I was only ten. Later I went to Harvard University to study human rights issues, particularly in Iran. In the process I interviewed a number of Iranian families who had lost loved ones in the political purges of the 1980s. My report was published by the university’s human rights department.”

Daniel Trup, a senior lecturer in international law at Montreal University, was a member of the tribunal’s Truth Commission. He told Shahrzad News how he had made friends with many Iranians and become interested in Iranian affairs when Khomeini was still living in Paris. The Iran Tribunal, he said, was an excellent idea. The testimonies given by the relatives of the victims made the Truth Commission a very viable way of ascertaining the facts.

“I am amazed by the willpower of the victims’ families, their determination to obtain justice for their loved ones.”

Women actively involved

Women played a prominent, pivotal role in the tribunal. Payam Akhavan said the mothers of those buried in Khavaran cemetery had inspired all those involved in it. Khavaran cemetery is where the victims of the 1988s’ mass executions lie in mass graves. There are no gravestones, nor are the victims’ families allowed to hold memorial services or gather at the graveside. Nevertheless during the annual holiday that marks the Persian New Year, they all converge there to remember their loved ones.

Women from every generation took an active part in the Iranian tribunal; Sharareh and Sahar whose parents were executed when they were only toddlers, Shokofeh and Shohreh who were tortured in the country’s political prisons, and Malikeh who lost five brothers to the firing squads. Though now in her forties, she looks much older. Women were also represented on the team of lawyers, prosecutors and judges.
Syrian delegates

The international aspect of the tribunal was emphasised by the presence of delegates from Syria who attended both sessions. Their intention was to monitor the proceedings, in the hope that a similar tribunal might eventually be held when their country was liberated, and thus bring to justice the present leadership.
Role of social networks

Film of the witnesses giving evidence was available on YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere on the internet, attracting a large audience, both in Iran itself and around the world. A 23-year-old university student in Tehran sent a message to the tribunal, saying how the proceedings had helped to give him a better understanding of Iran’s recent history.

A success

This fact-finding tribunal about political crimes committed by the Iranian regime was a people’s initiative. It inspired many political activists, victims’ relatives, international human rights lawyers and experts to reflect on the suffering of victims of gross human rights violations, and to unite in their efforts to seek justice for them. The rulings of the judges and the jury will help the general public towards a better understanding of what happened in the political prisons of Iran during the 1980s. As Payam Akhavan put it in his summing-up, “70% of Iranians are under thirty. They do not know what happened in their country just three decades ago.”

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