In 1988, from July to September, the Islamic Republic of Iran systemically executed about 5,000 political prisoners, mostly by hanging. The exact number of this state-perpetrated massacre’s victims is not known to this day, as the Iranian authorities refuse to allow the killings to be independently investigated.
The families of the victims have not been allowed to bury their loved ones, and did not even receive official death certificates for them. They instead faced violence, persecution and arrest every time they tried to publicly mourn, or dared to demand accountability for, the killings.
Despite tireless efforts by the families and international rights organisations to bring those responsible for the mass killings to justice, none of the officials who oversaw the executions has faced any censure for their actions in the past 32 years.
And last month, one of these officials, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected as Iran’s eighth president.
In 1988, 28-year-old Raisi, then the deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, was a member of the four-person special judicial tribunal created by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to oversee the execution of political prisoners.
Raisi’s role in the tribunal, dubbed “the death commission” by the political prisoners, became public knowledge for the first time in 1989, when three letters written by Ayatollah Montazeri – then Khomeini’s heir apparent – criticising the mass killings were leaked to the media.
Years later, in 2016, Montazeri’s son Ahmad released an audio recording in which his father could be heard addressing the members of the commission and pleading with them to stop the bloodshed. The recording also confirmed the identities of all four members of the commission: Raisi, Hossein Ali Nayyeri (a judge), Morteza Eshraghi (then Tehran’s prosecutor general), and Mostafa Pourmohammadi (the representative of the Ministry of Intelligence).
Finally, in 2020, Voices of A Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988 – the first monograph in English on this dark chapter of modern Iranian history – was published. Through witness accounts of survivors, research by scholars and memories of children and spouses of the deceased, the book edited by Nasser Mohajer meticulously reconstructed the events of that bloody summer.
The book revealed that the “death commission” was tasked with interrogating and then condemning to death the imprisoned members of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, a prominent opposition group, as well as other left-wing organisations and political parties.
Raisi and Nayyeri were the most active members within the commission, travelling from prison to prison across the country to conduct inquisitorial interviews.
They interrogated blindfolded prisoners, many of whom had already been tried and sentenced, one by one, asking them questions about their political and religious beliefs.
Members of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran were asked to denounce the opposition group and its leaders, and those who refused to do so were sent to the gallows.
Leftists were asked if they believed in God, the afterlife, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran, and whether they said their prayers. Some male prisoners were even asked: “Are you willing to walk over landmines?” A negative answer to any of those questions resulted in the prisoner’s execution.
The executed prisoners were buried in mass graves across the country. The authorities did not disclose the burial locations to the victims’ families. Some searched hundreds of kilometres of barren land to find the bodies of their loved ones. Thanks to their efforts, several mass graves were discovered across Iran. The families placed gravestones and memorial signs over these mass graves, but the state repeatedly removed them and bulldozed the sites to hide any proof of the crimes.
Raisi never denied the role he played in the kangaroo courts of 1988. As explained above, his participation in the “death commission” has long been known in Iran and across the world. He has even been sanctioned by the United States in 2019. However, he was allowed to rise through the ranks of power and commit other crimes with impunity, and was eventually elected as president with the full support of the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Raisi was born to a humble clerical family in the northeastern city of Mashhad, but he quickly became a valued member of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment.
He joined Iran’s judiciary soon after the 1979 revolution and started climbing the ladder of power. After overseeing the mass executions of 1988 and proving his loyalty to Khamenei, he established himself as a rising star of the country’s judiciary.
In 2004, he was appointed as the first deputy chief of justice in Iran and remained in that position until 2014. During his tenure, he oversaw the imprisonment and execution of many dissidents and made himself a name as a ruthless and efficient political operator.
Raisi was promoted to attorney general of Iran in 2014 and remained in that position until 2016, when he climbed the ladder yet again – albeit outside the judicial system this time – and was appointed by the supreme leader as the custodian of the Astan-e Quds Razavi, a huge bonyad, or charitable trust, that manages the shrine of Imam Reza and many other establishments, including factories, auto plants, agro-businesses, banks, hotels and shops.
A year later, as a reward for his decades-long loyalty and service to the regime, he was allowed to run in the presidential election.
After the release of the Montazeri audio recording, which put the role he played in the 1988 mass executions under the national spotlight, he lost the election to the “moderate” candidate, Hassan Rouhani.
However, this electoral defeat did not hinder Raisi’s unstoppable rise. He was appointed as the head of Iran’s judiciary in 2019 by the supreme leader. In that position, he approved the execution of several dissidents who were detained in the aftermath of the nationwide anti-government protests between 2017 and 2019.
Finally, on June 18, 2021, he was declared the president of Iran in the aftermath of an election in which only those who repeatedly proved their loyalty to the supreme leader and the country were allowed to run.
He is now not only the president but also the heir apparent of the supreme leader – the most powerful figure inside Iran’s theocracy.
Raisi paved his way to political power with blood and carnage. His election as president is a slap in the face to thousands of Iranians demanding justice for their loved ones unlawfully killed by the state. He should not be welcomed as the new leader of the Iranian people, but instead condemned and censured for the immeasurable suffering and pain he inflicted on them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.