By Shadi Sadr
Translation by Iran Press Watch
We are the audience to this bitter history…
The two hour footage of the 27 December 1981 trial of the Baha’i community leaders (the seven male members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran), which has recently been pulled from the depths of history and displayed in front of the public, is deserving of analysis from many different angles. In this footage, we observe a show with its actors on the opposite side of the table: the judge, the court clerk, the prosecutor, and the audience have hidden their faces in the dark – we can only hear their voices – while the camera is focused on the seven accused, who are seated shoulder to shoulder, pressed together, so that they could all fit into the camera frame.
In my view, the search for truth is a process, and not a specific point such as the summit of a mountain we need to reach. In this process, the advent of the two-hour footage of the trial of the Baha’i community leaders was an important step on the road to unearthing the truth – an important step in countering the imposed lies with this truth. The footage – specifically, the full two-hour version, not just selected bits and pieces of it – exhibits an immediate and impartial truth. To date, we have only been exposed to a reflection of the truth as recounted by other former prisoners of conscience and their families. Facts – that have always been discredited, renounced, and misrepresented as lies by agents of the dominant discourse. However, this footage – which was made by the ruling regime, and based on evidence present in the footage – was made for a television broadcast – it is the truth, naked and without any commentary from one side or the other side of the conflict. This is exactly why the truth represented in the footage is the undeniable truth. This is exactly why it can withstand any harsh judgment, be it by the skeptical masses towards the horrible events of the 1980s, or the judgement of the reformist political groups whose political expediency requires those events to be the other way around – a fight between the government and armed terrorist groups. The footage – singlehandedly, and all by itself – confronts many of the myths forged regarding all the repression and cruelty after the 1979 revolution.
In the film, three different, but related set of truths can be observed:
1. Truths regarding the accusations against the Baha’is: In this footage, almost all charges that have been repeatedly levied against the Baha’i Community by government propaganda in the past thirty-five years are listed by the prosecutor and the judge, and the accused respond to all those charges. These responses are ignored by the judge, but even until this day, these responses are valid and enlightening to any unbiased audience. As one example: one of the enduring and major accusations against Baha’is has been spying for Israel, and in this case also the death penalty for this charge is well documented. The defense against these allegations, as offered by the accused defendants in this footage, regarding the correspondence of the leaders of the Baha’i community with the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa Israel is valid even now. They repeatedly say that the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa Israel was in fact established many years prior to the formation of the Israeli government, as a result of the decision of the Shah of Iran at the time to exile Baha’u’llah to Palestine, and had nothing to do with the Israeli government. One of the defendants also poses a very insightful question to the judge: If you are a follower of Ayatollah Khoi who lived in Iraq, and when atrocities are committed against you, you correspond with him in this way, does it mean that you are in contact with the government of Iraq (which at the time was under Saddam Hussain, and a deadly enemy of Iran)? Or that you are a spy of the Iraqi government? Of course, no answer was given to these questions, neither in that trial, nor at any time until the present. The defense offered by the Baha’i leaders in this trial – in particular, the defense offered by Kamran Samimi, with a bitter smile on his lips throughout the footage of the trial, and Cirrus Roshani, with his blunt and repeated depiction of what has befallen the Baha’is – illustrates the brightest and yet the most painful moments – especially when you are aware that these bodies pressed into the seats – these pain-ridden but determined faces – were executed by firing squad only a few hours after recording this film, and secretly buried in Khavaran – and the only remaining witness to testify about their final moments is this footage.
2. Truths about the revolutionary courts: A few months before the revolution, in many cities, people who were provoked by the clergy flooded the homes and businesses of Baha’is, evicted them and looted their property. In other words, they collectively, in an impromptu “court of the people” trial, condemned them to what they believed these Baha’is deserved. In my opinion the revolutionary courts were established in those days, and Ayatollah Khomeini, by designating Ayatollah Khalkhali* as the president of Iran’s post revolutionary courts, institutionalized those courts of the “people”. We can observe a more institutionalized version of this court in this footage.
This footage illustrates the method, manner and attitude of the revolutionary courts – which up to today has only been achieved through scattered the testimony of former prisoners of conscience – in a comprehensive form, and clearly demonstrates its function. This footage, as also testified by many of the survivors, presents a complete and undeniable pattern executed by the revolutionary courts, for all to see. For example, in all the scenes, the trial judge presents all the accusations as judgments by the “Iranian people” and emphasizes that the “Iranian people” are those who do not allow foreigners to interfere in its internal affairs, and that these are the “Iranian people: who are conducting the trial and the sentencing. Sentences such as “after the revolution, on behalf of the people of Iran, you are banned from entering Israel” is a sign that the judge aims to portray the Government and the people of Iran as one and the same entity, which can clearly be observed in this show.
At the same time, in all the scenes, through the eye of the camera, the judge is not only addressing the defendants but is also addressing “the people of Iran”. The judge repeatedly asks that documents be placed in front of the camera, and then addresses the Iranian people, so that the Iranian people can see what these people (the defendants) have done… In other words, this is not a court in the legal sense, but is a theatrical exhibition by “the people” for “the people”. In addition the judge considers himself to be the legate and the absolute legal representative of the Iranian people, who shoulders the duty of explaining this issue to the Iranian people. At the same time, this image of “by the people for the people”, involves the assumption that the people are a homogenous and likeminded unit who are free of mistakes, which even until today is the essential and principal assumption of the Revolutionary Courts. This is exactly why these courts do not resemble ordinary courts, even in the corrupt and broken judicial system of the Islamic Republic. In these courts we are not facing a court in its legal sense, but rather a clannish investigation into charges of being “anti- revolution”, which instead of occurring in villages and neighborhoods takes place in rooms behind closed doors. It is exactly because of this very different nature of the revolutionary courts, compared to a court of law in its legal form, that any conversation related to fair trials in these courts is rendered meaningless and contradictory to the very nature of a court of law. In other words, even though they call this setting a court, and use legal terms such as indictment, prosecution and the like, its true nature is that it is a show in which the judge, with political accusations – supposedly on behalf of people who are assumed to resemble those who destroyed the homes and stores of Baha’is – implements exactly the same type of deeds as those who previously, using the same reasons and similar arguments, had acted in the villages and neighborhoods. The film clearly exposes the exhibitionist nature of the revolutionary court in its true and historical form, and reminds us that we should not be deceived by names and appearances, and fall victim to the snare of false expectations regarding the presence of a lawyer, the right to a defense, an explanation of the charges and a verdict, based on documents and papers… or we will go astray. The Revolutionary Courts follow a different paradigm altogether, and should be analyzed in that context – not in the framework of domestic and international legal standards of fair trials.
Another feature of the “by people for the people” show, which becomes abundantly clear in this footage, is forcing the prisoners to express remorse and to repent in order to earn a reduction in punishment. The judge, in a breathtaking Q & A, insists that one the defendants say that he condemns the government of Israel and its crimes in Palestine. In another scene he (the judge) says: “If you say that you despise the measures taken in the early 1960s by the Baha’i community, your punishment will be reduced.” In this respect, the Revolutionary Court is more of a spectacle of interrogation than actually attending to the actions of the accused. Legally, of course, a crime is an act or a lack of action, and the offender’s thoughts while committing the act and his thoughts in the court room are not so important. In this exhibition, you are always given a chance to repent and become one with “the people”, and to adopt their beliefs.
3. Truths about Seeking Justice: Normally, much of the defense revolves around “seeking justice”. The Baha’i community leaders frequently reiterate that their correspondence and contact with the world outside the borders of Iran began when their correspondence and contacts with Iranian government authorities and clerics about human rights violations against Baha’is fell on deaf ears. They continuously repeat that their desired outcome, by sending the news of the destruction of homes and places of business, forced displacement of Baha’is from their place of residence, disappearances of previous leaders, arrests, imprisonment and execution of Baha’is, etc., which took place during and after Prime Minister Bazargan’s term, was an attempt to seek justice. However the judge constantly insists that sending this news to foreigners is a sign of being linked to foreigners, which constituted interference in the internal affairs of the “people of Iran”, and created a poisonous atmosphere against Iran. The judge emphasizes that the defendants are not being prosecuted because of being Baha’is, but due to their communication with foreigners. This dichotomous view of justice and of the right to seek justice continues to the present: the interpretation of the revolutionary courts in matters of justice is that seeking justice is considered a criminal act. Current discourse considers any kind of communication regarding human rights violations to be propaganda against the regime, and a crime that deserves punishment – yet working on behalf of justice requires that the person or the group facing human rights abuses carried out with absolute impunity by the human rights violators must resort to the media, human rights organizations and the international community responsible for such matters. The discourse of animosity with the United Nations and other governments, and creating an image that everyone is interfering in the Iranian Government’s internal affairs, and that there is a conspiracy behind every human rights intervention, continues to be the dominant discourse up to the present, not only by the rulers of Iran, but also to a great degree in the discourse involving the intelligentsia and influential Iranians. This discourse not only led to the death and imprisonment of these Baha’i leaders because they were seeking justice, but also validates the authenticity and the expressed or implied legitimacy of many other victims’ imprisonment, torture, and persecution stemming from human rights violations, before and after this event.
Like any evidence obtained in the process of seeking for truth, the footage of the two-hour trial of Baha’i leaders sheds light on many facts, but also leaves many unanswered questions, guesses, and speculations. One of these questions is the ambiguous situation of Jinoos Ne’mat (Mahmoudi).
The Baha’i community leaders who were arrested in 1981 were seven men and one woman – Jinoos Ne’mat (Mahmoudi). Although in the one page of the indictment that has been obtained, Jinoos Mahmoudi’s name is present as an accused person along with all the others, in the film, and in all probability altogether – she is absent from the trial. Nevertheless she, like all the others, is sentenced to death, while we don’t know if she even had a trial. As mentioned, the film was likely produced with the intention to show this trial on TV and radio. The purpose of the film perhaps reflects the reason for the absence of Jinoos Ne’mat (Mahmoudi), the film’s producers – for whatever reason – did not want to have a woman among the actors in their play. This trial was an exhibition, a show; all the components of a show had to be in place. Jinoos Mahmoudi did not belong on this stage, and had to be removed. She was a woman who could have challenged the traditional image of a women that they were hard at work to produce, and also arouse public sympathy towards the Baha’i community. Nevertheless, and despite the absence of Jinoos Ne’mat (Mahmoudi), it seems as though the show was not to the producers’ liking, as, contrary to their apparent original intentions, the footage was never broadcast on television. The reason for not broadcasting this film on television is another one of those unanswered questions.
Another ambiguous point that repeated reviews of the footage does not clarify is the identity of any of the actors across the table. In this exhibition the faces of none of those in power – including the judge, the prosecutor, the clerk and potential employees, guards, and the audience – are visible. In other words, although they claim to represent the people, and to be the executors of the people’s will, in practice they do not consider the people trustworthy enough to show their identity and their faces to them. This footage, from the very beginning, was carefully arranged and all measures were taken to ensure that none other than the seven men on trial fit into the camera frame. It was as if the judge and the rest of the producers knew that one day they might be faced with the questions and blame of the “people”; therefore they thought of all the necessary provisions before turning the camera on. It is as if somewhere deep in their hearts they knew that they were doing wrong, and that one day there might be retribution; so, like many hundreds of interrogators, torturers, Revolutionary Guard officers, prosecutors, and judges of the 1980s, they decided to stay in the darkness which continues to offer them immunity to the present day.
Finally, the question linked to viewing this footage and analyzing it is this: we are now armed with the truth that has been trusted to us today – the question is, what will we do with it? This is a question that each of us – the audience witnessing this bitter history – have to respond to according to the exigencies of today – and then we have to act on our response. This is the only way to take a step further on this rocky road of the search for truth.
*Ayatollah Khalkhali was often called the “Hanging Judge”. See http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/28/local/me-khalk28