Many thousands died

Confessions of a rat

Yassamine Mather gives her judgement on an extraordinary talk and subsequent BBC interview with the former governor of the notorious Evin prison

You can tell a regime is in trouble when some of its most senior security/judicial authority members try to take their distance from it. This week, Hossein Mortazavi Zanjani, the former head of one of Iran’s most notorious prisons in the 1980s, Evin, used a meeting on the social audio App, Clubhouse, to reveal the role played by senior officials of the Islamic Republic in what is called the “mass execution of political prisoners”. He added that he was making this broadcast because he fears the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is looking for another round of executions.

In the summer of 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was ending and ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was forced to accept a rather humiliating peace deal with his arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, the Islamic Republic executed thousands of political prisoners - some supporters of Mojahedin e-Khalq, others members and supporters of various leftwing organisations. Their bodies were dumped in unmarked individual and collective graves. It is estimated that at least 5,000 were executed. Thousands more, who were in prison at the time, were left traumatised for life. It is widely believed that Khomeini signed a fatwa authorising the killings.

Zanjani followed up the Clubhouse meeting with an interview with BBC Persian, where he denied claims that he was looking for fame, or that he is trying to clear his name. Apparently all he wants is that his words should be recorded somewhere with his own voice, because “if he dies” this opportunity will be lost. I have listened to the audio recording of this bizarre event and I heard the former governor of Evin and Gohardasht prisons “confessing” to former inmates that they had the right to be angry. However, as far as I could tell, at all times he was trying to exonerate himself: “Although we were not involved in the execution of their sentence, I made a mistake, I should have left, but I was there until the 90th minute.”

Zanjani says he is not proud of unfair trials that lasted just a few minutes or the subsequent executions: “Most of the prisoners were arrested en masse and many innocent people were killed. I say frankly, innocent people were killed.”

Zanjani also spoke about the trucks carrying corpses and various atrocities. He recounted the statement made by the father of a political prisoner about how his daughter was raped before being executed. This was a common practice in the Islamic Republic: our ‘devout Shias’ thought that executing a virgin girl would mean she would go to heaven. In order to make sure ‘the executed prisoner went to hell’, young women prisoners were raped before execution! Zanjani claimed he regretted his role in the judicial system, but, of course, after so many decades, to say that all this is ‘too little, too late’ would be a huge understatement.

Zanjani emphasises that he had no role in the actual executions - he was not even allowed to enter the hall where they took place. Critics do not believe such claims and reckon that, as the governor of a prison, he is hiding facts and wants to “create a narrative” for the benefit of the Islamic Republic.

Zanjani said he was very upset to be called “Khomeini’s executioner” in social media comments. He also claimed that, as he still lives in Iran, he has faced aspects of the state’s repression by the “brothers of Imam Zaman” (intelligence agents) who summoned and interrogated him many times. But he emphasised that he is “never willing to forget the issue of executions” and told them to either “take him and get rid of him or have nothing to do with him”. He is aware that many people will not believe his comments, adding

It is possible that many of my words are outdated and not useful. But the Islamic Republic is not ready for these words to be said. We, who were involved in the formation of the government at the beginning of the revolution, must confess, not repent. Repentance does not cure pain. I am ashamed today and I am announcing my shame in the style of the Japanese appearing in public. I am ashamed to speak today. What repentance should I do? They killed the children. They have made the families mourn.

One member of the audience asked of Mortazavi, “Is he ready to write a letter to Ali Khamenei?” He replied: “Khamenei does not understand what he is doing and killing is like drinking water for him, and he is not ready to go back on his word and fail.” However, he said that he is ready to write a letter to Khamenei in the name of the [former] head of Evin prison and request that executions be halted.

Zanjani talked for more than 20 hours in total over four consecutive days on Clubhouse. He also answered questions posed by the audience, which included relatives of those executed, as well as former political prisoners. Below are some extracts.


Question: What was the role of Ebrahim Raisi (current Iranian president and deputy prosecutor at the time of the executions)?

Zanjani mentioned the death squad, but said that he was informed about the executions through Raisi: “Ibrahim Raisi had a good relationship with me and he was the deputy prosecutor. Those who came to my office said that we went today and got an order for the execution of prisoners from the imam.”

Question: Did Ruhollah Khomeini or [his son] Ahmad Khomeini write the letter of execution of the prisoners?

In response to this, Zanjani said that he did not know the truth, but the executions could not be contrary to Khomeini’s wishes: “The only way to get rid of the Islamic Republic was to finish this issue of prisoners in the name of Khomeini until Khomeini passed away.”

Question: Did he [Zanjani] try to prevent the executions and did he go to ayatollah Montazeri? (Montazeri was Khomeini’s heir apparent until 1989, when they had a major falling out, partly because he was horrified to hear about the authorities’ role in the mass execution of political prisoners.)

Zanjani claims that he is one of those who informed Montazeri about the executions:

Ayatollah Montazeri held a meeting and asked for the heads of prison to attend, so I went. I was looking for an excuse to inform him. I was one of the channels that opened the story. I was a slave when I went to ayatollah Montazeri. When I said goodbye …, I said, ‘I am talking to you.’ He said, ‘Say it here’. I said, ‘I can’t talk here, it’s bugged’. I said in his ear that ‘Haj Agha decided to execute the children’. He said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘They received a ruling from Imam Khomeini, and a delegation has been formed that is supposed to come to Evin.’

Responding to all this, the son of ayatollah Montazeri said in a phone call to a news agency that, if such a claim was true, ayatollah Montazeri should have mentioned it in his memoirs. However, Montazeri does not definitively reject the claim. He says that there is a possibility that another person confidentially told ayatollah Montazeri about this.

Question: How many people were executed?

Mortazavi said that, according to the information he has, 5,000 deaths could not have happened in Evin prison, but he did not deny that executions may have been widespread throughout the country. He said he had a list of all the people who entered and left Evin, which could have contained valuable information, but he did not have it with him.

Question: Did the members of parliament and the government know about the executions?

He said he did not know, but at that time “the matter was completely secret [confidential]”. In another part, he emphasised that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the prime minister at the time, did not know about the executions. Mortazavi was actually one of the defenders of Mousavi’s high-ranking officials and also one of the officials in his headquarters for the 2008 elections. Of course, many officials have remained silent until now - amongst them Mousavi, who was not only the then prime minister, but was close to the leader of the revolution, and subsequently became leader of the Green movement. He is one of those who are criticised for this reason.

Question: Have you seen a refrigerated truck?

This is a reference to trucks used to move the bodies of political prisoners, executed in Evin and other prisons. Mortazavi said he had seen hearses being used and that was “absolutely true”, but he had never seen a refrigerated truck. He told how he was sitting in his office in Evin prison when some people from radio and television who were familiar to him came and took him with them to see what was going on. According to his own account, they opened the door of the truck and he saw “many” bodies lying on top of one another.

Zanjani says that he was persona non grata as far as the Islamic republic is concerned, mainly since the executions. However, we know that he stood in the parliamentary elections of 2016 - his candidacy and qualification were confirmed by state authorities.

So should we believe what he says? Yes and no. Some of what he says gives detailed information about the dark days of mass execution of political prisoners in Iran. However, we should not forget that everything he says is to save his own skin - like a rat escaping from a sinking ship.