ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — On Tehran’s southeastern edge is a plot of land called Khavaran. The spot used to be outside of the city, but urban sprawl is inching closer every year. It looks like a vacant lot, but dark secrets lie just below the surface. Iranian authorities call it la’nat abad – damned land. Here, some of the Islamic Republic’s skeletons are buried.
In 1988, as the Ayatollahs were contemplating accepting a UN-sponsored resolution to end the eight-year war with Iraq, their agents hurriedly buried in Khavaran hundreds or perhaps thousands of bodies of political dissidents from all walks of life. For the families of the victims, the terror of those days was renewed in April when Baha’is were ordered to bury their dead in the same plot of land, digging into the bones of those who were killed 33 years earlier.
Even in death, those deemed enemies of the Islamic Republic are tormented. Their bodies are denied the dignified burial enshrined in international and Islamic law, their families are forbidden to mourn, and the officials responsible are promoted. One is poised to take the helm of the presidency in Friday’s vote. The 1988 families and Baha’is alike are watching the election with worry and resignation that their suffering could increase under the rule of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
Baha’i is a religion that promotes peace. It preaches the oneness of humanity and equality, promoting the abolishment of the prejudices of race, class, and religion, and shunning confrontation. It is a monotheistic faith dating back to the early 19th century in Iran where its followers have faced discrimation since its founding.
The estimated 350,000 Baha’is living across Iran are not a recognized religious minority under the constitution, putting them outside of legal protection and making them targets of state-sponsored discrimination, labelled apostates who have abandoned the Muslim faith.
“After the [Islamic] revolution, the government, for reasons we do not know and because of old animosity towards Baha’is, did a lot against the Baha’i people and community,” said Mirza*, a Baha’i man from Tehran.
Baha’is had their property, money, land, and farms confiscated. Those working in the government were fired. Baha’i students were expelled from college and to this day they cannot attend university. About 200 have been executed since the revolution, including Mirza’s father-in-law.
“They would tell us you are najis [dirty] and you have to convert to Islam,” Mirza said, speaking in warm, measured tones via messages sent over an app. He only agreed to speak after a connection was made through a trusted friend. Other Baha’is declined to talk, too afraid, even with the promise of anonymity.
The government’s goal is the “silent destruction of the community,” suffocating Baha’is socially, economically, and culturally, said Simin Fahandej, representative to the United Nations for the Baha’i International Community.
Baha’is have even been barred from burying their dead. Before the revolution, the community had their own designated graveyards around the country. After the revolution, most of these cemeteries were confiscated or destroyed.
“The Baha’i are a large community. Death is inevitable,” said Mirza. When someone died, the family would have to go to the authorities and ask for land where they could bury their dead.
Grieving families would prepare the body of their loved one, place it in a coffin, and put the coffin in front of the municipal government offices where they made an anguished, public appeal to be allowed to have a funeral. Sometimes the authorities would take the body and, decades later, the families are still wondering what happened to their loved ones. Other times, the families would do the burial in the countryside while they negotiated with the authorities for permission to move them to a cemetery, sometimes years later.
After media picked up the story, the government began to little-by-little give Baha’is land for cemeteries, plots that were often far out of the city or locations no one else wanted to use. One spot was the Golestan-Javid cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Khavaran mass grave.
Over time, the Golestan-Javid cemetery filled up. Authorities gave the Baha’is another site, but in April, they reversed the decision. The state’s Behesht-e Zahra organization, which oversees burials in Tehran, issued an order giving Baha’is in the capital two options: bury in the narrow spaces between existing graves in Golestan-Javid, or in the nearby Khavaran mass grave.
“We were told to go dig the mass grave to bury our dead,” said Mirza. “It was very difficult for us. It was like they wanted two groups of families to fight with each other.”
One of the several thousands of people who was sent to the gallows and buried in Khavaran is Abbasali Monshi Roodsari. His daughter Bahareh was two-and-a-half years old when her parents were arrested in 1986. She and her four-month-old brother were put in jail with their mother. Bahareh is still haunted by memories of the prison that visit her at night, filling her dreams with terror.
“I do remember some of it,” she said, speaking from the United States where she now lives. “I remember the cell. But mostly the sounds stay with me. I guess because it was too dark, I didn’t see that much as a kid, but I heard a lot.”
The sound of rockets flying overhead, fired during the war with Iraq. The grind of weighty iron cell doors opening and closing. The cries of prisoners. Their screams during torture. Heavy experiences for a child of two.
Bahareh and her brother remained in jail for about three months before they were given into the care of their grandmother. Her mother was released another five months later. Her father was charged with opposition to the Islamic Republic and sentenced to six years in prison. In 1988, he was one of some 5,000 prisoners already serving sentences of a handful of years who were brought before a judge for a three-minute hearing and sentenced to die.
Then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini formed a four-person “death committee” that oversaw the prison massacres. One man on the committee was Ebrahim Raisi, deputy prosecutor general of Tehran at the time and a protégé of the current Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Raisi was born in 1960 in a village near Mashhad, Khamenei’s hometown. Helped along by nepotism, he made his way up the ranks of the justice system, from a Tehran court clerk to chief justice. “His knack, demonstrated over decades, for steadfastly following his superiors’ most controversial orders propelled his rise,” Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, wrote in 2017.
In late July 1988, prisons across Iran were put on lockdown. As the weeks went by, rumours began to circulate of prison killings and bodies dumped in mass graves. Bahareh’s family, like many wondering what had happened to their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters who had disappeared in the shadowy prison system, continued to go to the jails, even though visits were cancelled. Eventually, some visitors were given bags containing the possessions of their family members, and they knew they were dead.
Bahareh’s grandfather and aunt visited the jail. Her aunt’s husband was also imprisoned. He had completed a one-and-a-half year sentence four months earlier and should have already been released. Instead, the family were handed bags containing their belongings and a guard told Bahareh’s grandfather he should be grateful.
“The guard tells my grandfather, ‘You should thank us because he was not a good kid for you anymore, so we killed him’,” recalled Bahareh.
“He was a Marxist. He was a communist,” Bahareh says of her father. “Most of them that were killed were that. They were just thinkers. They didn’t actually fight against [the Islamic regime], they just talked against them.”
The grave site at Khavaran is empty ground, “literally it’s just a very, very big nothingness,” said Bahareh. Families of the victims have tried planting flowers, roses, to create a sense of peace in the final resting place of their loved ones. Bahareh and her family marked out a corner of the mass grave where they would remember their father and visit at least once a month. One time, her young brother brought a plastic shovel with him – a toy used to build sand castles at the beach. He wanted to dig the grave and see his father.
The Iranian authorities rip out the plants, remove memorial markers, and have even bulldozed the site several times.
The Baha’is have mourned alongside the 1988 families. Their cemetery “is right next to Khavaran so they have seen us, they have grieved with us, they have seen all of it,” said Bahareh.
Baha’is refused to comply with the order to bury in Khavaran, because “they did not want to cause others to experience the same pain they had experienced” over the years, said Fahandej.
It appears that authorities either forced some to bury their dead or did the burials themselves. Amnesty International reported two new graves and eight freshly dug empty graves in Khavaran in late April.
“As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are wilfully destroying a crime scene,” said Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Eltahawy.
The order to bury in Khavaran was lifted in early May, likely because of an international outcry after Amnesty got involved. Baha’is can now bury their dead in a proper cemetery, but they expect this is a temporary reprieve.
“We used to have control of the buildings and the keys and use it for funerals. But not anymore,” said Mirza, referring to a building at the cemetery they use for washing the bodies and conducting services. “They have control now.”
Iranians will go to the polls on June 18, but turnout is expected to be low. Baha’is likely won’t vote.
Mirza said he is indifferent to the election. He’s voted only once in his life, in the last presidential campaign four years ago. Iran had committed to the nuclear deal and there was new optimism for engagement with the international community and improvements at home. But the changes did not come and pressure on Baha’is has increased. They are facing persecution on every side, “every single day,” said Fahandej, who is worried the government has a plan for a wider crackdown.
“The goal of the Iranian government with spreading propaganda against the Baha’is has been to introduce the Baha’is as others in their community and to try to create segregation,” she said.
History has taught us that such tactics are favourites of oppressive governments. “Hate propaganda has been one of the methods and a precursor to larger crimes happening within a country,” said Fahandej.
In recent months, government-owned television channels have aired programs attacking Baha’i beliefs. In the cities of Shiraz and Baharestan in the central province of Isfahan, Baha’i homes were raided, belongings were seized, and more than 20 people were arrested, sometimes violently. Elderly Baha’i residents of a care home in western Tehran have been evicted. Baha’is living in the village of Ivel, in the northern Mazandaran province, saw their properties seized.
In the town of Sari, also in Mazandaran, the Commission on Ethnicities, Sects, and Religions issued a directive for the education system to encourage Baha’i children to convert to Islam and for official entities to “monitor and control the Baha’i community. The word control is actually used several times in the document,” said Fahandej.
And then came the order to bury their dead in the mass grave.
“The situation is so bad that it doesn’t matter who’s coming next,” said Mirza of the election.
Elections in Iran are carefully orchestrated affairs, though they can sometimes produce surprising results. While nearly 600 candidates registered to run this year, just seven were approved by the powerful Guardian Council.
Raisi is the clear frontrunner. Under his two-year tenure as head of the judiciary, Iran has continued its executions, mistreatment of political prisoners, forced confessions, torture, and assaults on defense lawyers. And Baha’is have been imprisoned because of their faith.
“Raisi is a pillar of a system that jails, tortures, and kills people for daring to criticize state policies,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Instead of running for president, he should be tried in an impartial court and held accountable for his role in the extrajudicial executions of thousands of prisoners.”
Raisi is running on a promise of a justice-oriented government, saying he will be “the voice of all Iranians who no one has seen or heard for years.” Hollow words for the thousands who have disappeared under his brand of justice.
When she heard that the man who helped kill her father was contesting the election, Bahareh said she was “furious,” her voice shaking with anger.
“They killed all of these people, our family members, our loved ones. And then they’re walking around like nothing happened. And they become presidents,” she said. “They all together killed people, they all together covered it up, and they all together are running the country like nothing happened.”
* His name has been changed to protect his identity
Cover photo: A man walks by posters of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi outside a campaign office in Tehran on June 7, 2021. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP