An Autopsy of the Persecution of the Dead in Contemporary Iran – From the Bab to Khavaran

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Source: BBC Persian

By: Mehrdad Amanat, Historical Researcher

Translation by Iran Press Watch

In an article for the Op-Ed page, in reference to recently published reports of the destruction of mass graves, historian Mehrdad Amanat looks at the history of the destruction of dissidents’ graves in contemporary Iranian history.

The publication of the shocking report by two human rights organizations about the destruction of the graves of the victims of mass executions in the ‘80s, after the unexpected and scandalous discovery of a body that resembled Reza Shah, has once again drawn attention to the post-revolution executions of the so-called “Spring of Freedom” era.

The few minutes-long revolutionary trials were followed by the execution of hundreds of military personnel, as well as officials of the Pahlavi regime, ethnic activists, Baha’is and dissidents. But the “revolutionary executions” were just the beginning of a darker future. The emergence of documents detailing 120 mass graves across Iran is a sign of a wide-spread, and often clandestine, plan of horrific dimensions for the total elimination of those considered to be “dissidents”. In the mass executions of 1988, thousands of political prisoners were sentenced to death by brief and categorical decrees.

But the plan for the elimination of dissidents also had horrific consequences. The problem of thousands of dead bodies was a major problem for the authorities, who were trying to keep the massacre of prisoners a secret, and were afraid of leaving behind graves that might later turn into memorials for those who had lost their lives. The victims of those massacres were categorized according to their political views, and those who were considered infidels were transferred in refrigerated meat trucks to “Kofr-abad” or “Lanat-abad” – currently Khavaran – and were buried in shallow mass graves; a scene reminiscent of the mass graves of Jews in Nazi Germany, or the mass killings of Muslims in Bosnia.

This harsh treatment, which began with the destruction, confiscation and sale of the land of Baha’i cemeteries, today has grown to wider dimensions. The graves of Muslim athletes, poets, writers and new thinkers are not immune to the government’s serial destruction and the organized violation of sanctity either.

Religious and ideological considerations prohibited the burial of the “infidels” and “non-believers” such as Marxists and Baha’is in a Muslim cemetery. Cemeteries had to be cleansed of such elements, lest the souls of Muslims would suffer and their salvation on the Day of Resurrection be jeopardized. For this reason, the religious revolutionaries attacked those killed and executed during the revolution who were buried in the Behesht-i-Zahra cemetery. They exhumed their bodies and buried them in the nearby desert.

In Shi’a Muslim belief, a departed person’s place of burial has a bearing on their salvation on the day of resurrection. That is the reason why in the past, many people would go to a lot of trouble to transport their loved ones’ bodies to their holy places, and bury them in the vicinity of the shrines of the holy family: to guarantee their salvation on the Day of Resurrection.

Historical Background of Mistreatment of the Dead

In Islam and the Shi’a culture, the bodies of believers are treated with special respect. Unlike in the West, where cremation is an accepted practice and justified as environmentally friendly, cremation is against Islamic religious principles and is considered to be an insult to the survivors. Traditions and rites such as visiting the graves of loved ones, votive pledges, tying scraps of paper or cloth with wishes and prayers at the gravesite, and asking for their intercession on behalf of the living, are all part of Iranian popular culture. Perhaps for this reason, the cemetery, as a semi-sacred place, is an ideal venue for destroying dissidents’ beliefs.

At the same time, the destruction of graves also has deep roots in Iranian culture and beliefs. Some researchers have attributed the historic background of the exhumation of graves to the Turks and Mongols, who considered protecting the integrity of the skeletons of people and animals as a requirement for their revival, and the destruction of the remains of the dead as a way of putting an end to the continuation of their lineage. In the Safavid era, we find cases of graves being exhumed and the corpses of Sufi leaders burned as an insult to their followers, or for the purpose of exacting revenge for the supposedly wronged ancestors of the Safavid dynasty. This era might be the origin of expressions insulting the graves of one’s relatives in the Persian language, such as “Pedar-Sookhteh” and “Pedar Dar Avardan” (your father burned).

In the Qajar era, at the advent of the Babi movement, the mistreatment of the dead intensified. Following the execution of Siyyid Ali Muhammad the Bab and one of his followers, their bodies were hung by a rope, remained in the Sabzeh Maydan of Tabriz until sunset, and after being taken around town, were thrown in the moat outside the gate of the city, to be devoured by wild dogs. But in the middle of the night, Babis recovered the bodies, and kept and hid them in a box. After decades of clandestine transfers from place to place, in 1915 those remains were interred in Haifa, located at the time in Ottoman Palestine.

In the year 1870, Sheikh Mazgani, an elderly man accused of participating in the Babi uprising near Kashan, requested two things of his executioner. First, water for ablution and performance of his last obligatory prayer, and second for his body not to be taken around town. Also, when in 1883 Ali Jan Mahforujaki, a young and popular Mujtahid who had become a Baha’i, was turned over to the executioner, a number of Baha’i women, by paying money and bribing with their own jewelry, retrieved his body and buried him. But protest against his burial in the Muslim cemetery continued, and with the intervention of government agents, ended in exhumation.

In contemporary times, after two decades of Reza Shah’s rule, during which time civil and religious uprising and unrest was less frequent, interest in mistreating the dead was revived. Muhammad Reza Shah, who in the early years of his rule was focusing on strengthening the weakened foundation of his monarchy, did not hesitate to accommodate the Shi’a clergy. For instance, in 1955, as a reward for the clergy’s cooperation in the suppression of the National Front and the Tudeh Party, he conceded to Ayatollah Boroujerdi’s request to attack Baha’is. For the first time, anti-Baha’i elements benefited from the government’s support and access to modern propaganda apparatus such as radio. Many Baha’is in villages and provincial towns were attacked, a number were killed, and their remains were disrespected.

During the brief unrest of June 5, 1963, which began under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, in protest against land reforms, women rights and the United States’ influence in Iran, some people raided the Baha’i cemetery in Tehran, destroyed a number of the graves, and even set the bones on fire.

In 1981, the Baha’i cemetery, known as “Golestan-i-Javid” – the Eternal Garden – was confiscated. Ten years later, the City of Tehran demolished the cemetery in order to build the Khavaran Cultural Complex. In accordance with Shi’a jurisprudence, the conversion for the purpose of so-called “improvement” of a cemetery is only permissible after 30 years, but in this case only ten years had passed. It is amazing that, despite the Shi’a obsession with the details of the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Resurrection, they are so pragmatic in the matter of recycling cemeteries, to the point that even some schools of the Pahlavi era were built on top of abandoned cemeteries.

Yellow circles show possible mass grave locations near the “Behesht-i-Zahra” cemetery in Mashhad.

But the authorities of the Islamic Republic did not have the patience to wait 30 years for the “infidels”. Ten years after the confiscation of the Baha’i cemetery, the construction of the Khavaran Cultural Center, which required deep excavation and the disinterment of more than 1,000 bodies, began. The design for the sunken yard and the vast basement of this complex was in reality a modern solution to the doctrinal problem of cleansing the soil of the “contamination” of the “unclean” remains of Baha’is. During the excavation and recycling of the soil, the remains of the “non-believer” Baha’is were apparently used in the foundation for the road and a new overpass.

The Bitter Memory of Khavaran

The name of the Khavaran Cultural Center is enmeshed with another bitter memory in the contemporary history of Iran, which unlike those buried within it, is very much alive, and continues to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be. In 2008, under the guise of organizing Khavaran, the authorities used bulldozers to plant trees and build a park in this location. Perhaps the trees were used to purify this vile space, to eliminate the sad memories and to erase their crimes. The result, however, was that the bulldozers dug up the clothes and personal effects of those whose lives had been taken. As if those objects were a symbol of the struggle of the dead with the government’s hegemony and absolute power. The bulldozer that digs up a mass grave (like the crane that has taken the place of the gallows) is a telling sign of modern industrial violence, which is more horrifying than the scene of devout believers carrying an “infidel’s” body around town at the behest of a Mujtahid.

As reported by these two human rights organizations, the Islamic Republic’s authorities have been searching for a long time, for new ways to finally eliminate traces of these mass graves. For example, we can point to road construction, pouring concrete, dumping trash or selling new graves (without the knowledge of buyers).

This harsh treatment, which began with the destruction, confiscation and sale of the land of Baha’i cemeteries, today has grown to wider dimensions. The graves of Muslim athletes, poets, writers and new thinkers are not immune to the government’s serial destruction and the organized violation of sanctity either.


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