Under the Qajar Shahs who ruled until 1925, due process of law was unknown and punishment was swift, involving physical torment and at times violent death. Hardly anyone was sentenced to prison. Torture was a part of the process by which the guilt of the accused was established.
Under Reza Shah, who ruled from 1926 to 1941, the army and police forces were also abusive of the rights of citizens in the absence of any legal safeguards, such as constitutional limits of authority, representative assemblies, individual liberties, and due process of law.
Under his son’s rule, Mohammad Reza Shah, opposition activists were also prosecuted without due process of law and were subjected to torture. The Shah’s political police, known by the acronym SAVAK, deliberately flaunted its brutality. Tehran’s Evin Prison symbolized SAVAK’s merciless image. Torture was used to extract confessions and recantations. Many died under torture and by the time the country was going through the seismic political changes that led to the Islamic Republic in 1979, hundreds of people had been executed or were imprisoned and tortured.
Under the Ayatollah, however, there were also many human rights violations. The politically shrewd mullahs moved aggressively to eliminate any real or imagined challenges to the legitimacy of the newly established state.
The tactics used by the Ayatollah’s mullahs to extract information and to break the resolve of political prisoners were summary executions and torture-induced confessions. By 1985, approximately thirteen thousand individuals who politically opposed the Ayatollah had been executed.
In a creative interpretation of medieval Islamic laws, the clerics found a way to justify torture as Islamic Ta Ezir (“discretionary punishment” in Shiite jurisprudence). A prisoner who “lied” to interrogators could receive Ta Ezir of as many as seventy-four lashes until the “truth” was extracted.
Thousands of rank and file activists whose “interviews” had no additional propaganda value, were subjected to a crude combination of physical torture, psychological pressure, Islamic “teachings,” and public confession, all aimed at remolding their thoughts and conscience. The result was a severe violation of the right of political prisoners to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the freedom to hold opinions without interference. New categories of human rights violations were also introduced, such as flogging, amputation, and stoning to death of adulterers and common criminals.
In 1988, the Ayatollah decided to dissolve the category of “political prisoners” by dispatching them to death or setting them free. Each prisoner was asked, “Are you Muslim, and do you perform your daily prayers.” Many held fast to their beliefs, and were hung the same day.
In the prisons, the prosecutors asked those who had confirmed their faith in Islam to prove it by performing the required daily prayers. If they refused, they would receive twenty lashes for each of the daily five sets of prayers—a total of one hundred lashes every twenty-four hours. Both male and female prisoners were subject to this daily regimen of whippings. One judge told the prisoners that the punishment for a female infidel was death under prolonged whipping. Female members of the Mojahedin—an anti-clerical Islamic organization—were executed for continuing to support their exiled leaders.
In contrast to the early years of the Ayatollah’s regime, the executioners stopped publishing the body counts for their daily activities in 1988. An official veil of secrecy shrouded the ongoing massacre, and the rulers denied that mass killings continued to take place inside the prisons. Many scholars accept the estimate of 4,500 to 5,000 dead for the entire country that year, although some have alleged that the figure was much higher—as many as 10,000 to 12,000. Opposition publications abroad, however, claimed a national death toll of 30,000, including scores of intellectuals and journalists.
Religious minorities are persecuted in Iran. Iran’s Islamic tradition recognizes followers of three monotheistic religions—Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity (Armenians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans)—as the only religious minorities who are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies but only within the limits of Islamic shari Eah. Nonetheless, discrimination against non-Muslim people is blatant. The largest religious community in Iran, the Bahā’ī, are considered to be apostates. More than 200 of their leaders were murdered and many fled the country, during the harshest years of the 1980s.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
DO THESE CONSTITUTE WAR CRIMES OR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY?
SHOULD ANYONE BE PROSECUTED FOR THEM?
IF SO, WHO?