The crowd shouting anti-Shah slogans at the demonstrations in Tehran on December 19, 1978. (AP/Michel Lipchitz)


Forms of Authoritarianism and Resilience in the Middle Eastern Context: The Complex Picture of Iran’s Forcibly Disappeared

There is abundant literature by different international human rights bodies, international non-governmental organizations and initiatives on the grave human rights violations committed by the regime in Iran. One can easily find various reports depicting a society with a very weak democratic space taken hostage by an omnipotent state apparatus. On the one hand, the alarming and severe situation that continues to undermine the full spectrum of human rights has led to the emergence and abundance of this literature. However, on the other hand, the international situation of Iran and its longstanding hostility with the United States and other important actors of the western world have also facilitated the intensification and diversification of this literature. Moreover, the relationships between state and society in Iran, as also revealed in the context of enforced disappearances, are far more complicated than it would appear from the perspective of the state-society dichotomy. Nevertheless, one thing is certain; the ongoing non-conformity with the basic norms of human rights and the rule of law paints a dark picture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The crime of enforced disappearance is not the most representative human rights violation in the context of Iran, however, it may be a useful starting point to scrutinize this agonizing and complicated picture.


The Islamic Republic of Iran was officially founded after the 1979 Revolution that initially began in January 1978 with mass demonstrations against the Shah regime. Following a year of massive political mobilization in the form of demonstrations, strikes and streets protests, Shah Mohammad Reza Pehlevi fled the country and the exiled leader of the Islamic Republican Party, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in February 1979 to form a new government. After holding two consecutive referendums, Iran officially became an Islamic Republic and approved a theocratic constitution in 1979. The new regime was faced with several uprisings while the different initial allies of the Islamic movement such as the communists and the nationalists criticized the establishment of the new status quo. The Khomeini regime, however, not only gained and sustained a massive support among the masses but also suppressed the opponents with success and managed to include different segments of the Persian elite in the newly established nomenklatura. With the onset of the Iraq war in 1980 that lasted until 1988, different forms of oppression vis-à-vis different armed movements and political oppositional groups were implemented with more ease in the militaristic context. By the end of 1988, Iran had lost 150,000 soldiers in battle and about 40,000 were listed as missing in action. The tremendous disaster of the war prevailed over the country.

People in the street during the Iranian revolution in 1979, carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. (Keystone/Getty images)
People in the street during the Iranian revolution in 1979, carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The response of the new regime to this ongoing atmosphere of war, contention and austerity, however, was rather successful. The new regime, despite its ideological and discursive emphasis on its total rupture with the Pahlavi era, did not dismantle the old regime’s frameworks of social welfare and provision. “Rather, a parallel system of social welfare took shape alongside them. This parallel system responded to real and urgent social needs among Iran’s poor and veterans of its eight-year war with Iraq but also generated significant legitimacy and political capital for the new revolutionary regime.”1 This new system was able to hold together a relatively stable and massive popular support as well as include the elite factions of the Persian society. Having said that, the regime also made systematical and selective use of different methods of coercion and violence. In other words, not only consent but also coercion was one of the main pillars of the Islamic government.

The scene left after the individual graves of victims of the 1988 prison killings in Qorveh were destroyed by bulldozers in July 2016. (Radio Farda)
The scene left after the individual graves of victims of the 1988 prison killings in Qorveh were destroyed by bulldozers in July 2016. (Radio Farda)
Taken on September 3, 2016 during the special conference organized to launch a general mobilization demanding justice for victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran. (Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Taken on September 3, 2016, during the special conference organized to launch a general mobilization demanding justice for victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran. (Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

There were several disenchantments with the existing regime; first of all, ethnic and religious minorities were at unease. Iran, as a multiethnic and multi-religious country, was the homeland of various minority groups. Ethnic minorities, and primarily the political movements of the Kurdish minority such as Kamala, struggled against the government of Ayatollah Khomeini during the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Kurds as one of the disadvantaged ethnic minorities facing discrimination that curtails their access to daily life requirements and the exercise of their cultural and human rights continued to experience poverty and marginalization in their provinces, namely Kurdistan, Kermanshah and parts of West Azerbaijan. Politically, Iran’s Kurdish minority had criticized the centralization of political life and the absence of measures to ensure the self-governance of the minorities. Kurdish political opposition had autonomist political party programs that were “given credence by the fragmentation of Kurdish territory, community and identity, historical features of the Kurdish community in modern times.”2

The photo of a grave taken before the Kharavan Cemetery was bulldozed and all the gravestones, trees and other signs were removed in January 2009. (Ja’far Behkish)
The photo of a grave taken before the Kharavan Cemetery was bulldozed and all the gravestones, trees and other signs were removed in January 2009. (Ja’far Behkish)

The Baloch people, who live in southeastern Iran bordering Pakistan, was yet another community subjected to different human rights violations. Furthermore, religious minorities were also experiencing severe human rights violations and forms of state violence. Especially the Baha’i movement, a religious minority that was not recognized under the Iranian Constitution, faced severe violence and struggled to practice their religion.3 Not only the political movements of ethnic and religious minorities but also several different political opposition movements were active during the Khomeini government. One of the responses of the government to the works and activities of these movements was the implementation of enforced disappearances.

Patterns of Crime

According to the data of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (WGEID), 541 individuals had been forcibly disappeared in the Islamic Republic of Iran between 1980 and 2015.4 Detention incommunicado, arbitrary abductions, summary executions and torture are widespread practices employed against the opponents of the regime; enforced disappearance, on the other hand, is neither a symbolic nor the most frequently committed state crime in Iran. Nevertheless, the aftermath of the disappearances, the shield of impunity protecting the perpetrators, the affront to the mourning of the relatives of the disappeared and the systematic desecration and destruction of the mass graves reveal important insights about the state apparatus in Iran.

There are different periods and different forms of enforced disappearances in Iran, however, most of the individuals were disappeared as a result of the mass extrajudicial executions of 1988. After the unsuccessful armed rebellion in July 1988 by the then People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, an Iraq based political organization that advocated for the downfall of the Islamic regime, several individuals were incarcerated between late July and early September 1988 because of their alleged illegal conducts and affiliations. Already incarcerated prisoners also became targets of enforced disappearance. “Prisoners from across the country were made incommunicado, with no news of them heard for months afterward. Reports circulated among relatives that prisoners were being executed in groups and buried in unmarked mass graves. Distraught family members searched the cemeteries for signs of freshly dug trenches. Most remain missing to this date.”5 The data of the WGEID also confirms this information; accordingly, 116 individuals had been forcibly disappeared in 1988 and 136 in 1989.6 Most of these individuals were executed by the death committees established throughout the country since the detainees were in different prisons of various provinces and cities, including Ahvaz, Mashhad, Tabriz, Rasht, Qorveh and Sanandaj. Accordingly, several prisoners and sentenced individuals were executed because of their alleged treason to the Islamic Republic of Iran. These individuals, in most of the cases, were the convicted or incarcerated persons serving lengthy prison sentences, often for exercising their rights such as participating in political demonstrations, distributing newspapers and leaflets, and being affiliated with various oppositional political organizations. “Some had been released several years earlier and then re-arrested in the weeks leading to the killings. Others had already completed their sentences but had not been released because they refused to make statements of ‘repentance’.”7

Even though the novel spates of disappearances occurred at different times, the most crucial event concerning the disappearing was the prison massacre of 1988. It is still unknown how many persons lost their lives during this catastrophe, however, even the most modest estimate is about 4,000 to 5,000. During the 1990s, especially at the end of the 1990s (between 1998 and 2000) when the political scene witnessed a huge competition between the conservative and moderate wings of the state apparatus, several prominent opponents were also disappeared. Illegal detention centers were always operational and became more active during moments of the rise of mass political mobilization and public demonstrations. Moreover, throughout the 2000s, disappearances were carried out vis-à-vis different groups including the Kurdish oppositional groups and the Baha’i community as well, however, the immense scale of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners is incomparable with the more recent cases. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that disappearance in Iran is not a crime of a distant past but a very actual phenomenon, tragically revealed by the experiences of the relatives of the disappeared as well.

Legal Situation

Iran has a very peculiar political and legal system. The Supreme Leader, who is not popularly elected and enjoys a practically untouchable political position throughout his lifetime, controls a security apparatus that has the authority to repress domestic political movements and internal dissent. “Citizens who want to run in the elections for the parliament and presidency need their political credentials to be approved by an institution (the Guardians Council) whose members are not popularly accountable. The same institution can also strike down any parliamentary legislation or presidential bill on the grounds that it violates the constitution or Islam.”8 Güneş Murat Tezcür, an important scholar who scrutinizes the roots and patterns of authoritarianism in Iran, also emphasizes the importance of popular elections and the window of opportunities that the elections open up for the oppositional movements. Instead of understanding the authoritarianism of Iran through the state – society dichotomy, Tezcür offers an alternative explanation focusing on the interconnectedness of the state and society in the Iranian context. Accordingly, the conflict among state actors, the capacity of elections for expanding the societal participation in politics, and the fact that the reformists have also been deeply embedded in the state apparatus complicate the picture.9 In any case, there is a strong political and societal mobilization in Iran that exceeds the over-simplistic explanations of state-society dichotomy and tales of an omnipotent, totalitarian state apparatus.

The constitution of Iran, drafted in 1979 and amended in 1989, guarantees equality of all citizens before the law and recognizes their civil, political, economic and social rights. These rights are granted in line with Islamic principles. Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognized in the constitution as religious minorities with the freedom to perform their own religious ceremonies and rites. Moreover, according to the constitution, citizens have the right to submit petitions to the Majlis, the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has two co-existing systems of law, the law of Muslim jurists (mujtahids) and the codified positive law. The judiciary is comprised of ordinary, military and revolutionary courts of the first instance and appeal courts. The highest court is the Supreme Court which does not have the power to review the constitutionality of laws or the power to hear petitions on violations of human rights since these powers are concentrated in the hands of the Guardians Council and the Majlis, consecutively. Moreover, there is also a Court of Administrative Justice that has the power to investigate complaints, grievances and objections with respect to government officials, organs, and statutes.10

There is a very strong shield of impunity for the perpetrators of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

Within this complicated picture, however, some things are very straightforward. There is a very strong shield of impunity for the perpetrators of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Suffice to say that no Iranian official has been investigated or tried for any of the extrajudicial executions or disappearances committed in the context of the 1988 massacre. According to the most exclusive report on the disappeared and executed of the 1988 massacre drafted by Amnesty International and Justice for Iran, some of the alleged perpetrators continue to hold political office or other influential positions, including in the judiciary and Ministry of Justice.11 In August 2016, a very important recording was released; it was “an audio recording of a meeting in 1988 in which senior officials are heard discussing and defending details of their plans to carry out mass executions. The release of the audio recording triggered a chain of unprecedented reactions from high-level officials, leading them to admit for the first time that the mass killings of 1988 were planned at the highest levels of the establishment.”12 However, the shield of impunity still remained intact in Iran.

Representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran held occasional meetings with the WGEID and provided information on the cases of 12 disappeared persons in total. Mostly, they emphasized the difficulties encountered by the government such as the similarity of the names, the lack of enough personal information for the identification of the disappeared, and the lack of direct application by the families themselves. To overcome these difficulties, the representatives of the government informed the WGEID that “[…] the Government was encouraging families of the disappeared persons to contact directly the Iranian judiciary system or the recently created Iranian Working Group on Enforced Disappearances and provide them with factual and detailed information.”13

Memorialization Efforts

According to the estimates of Justice for Iran, there may be more than 120 locations across Iran that contain the remains of the victims of the 1988 disappearances and killings. “Many gravesites are located in deserted areas inside or in the vicinity of cemeteries; during the 1980s, it was the established practice of the judicial authorities and security officials to bury the bodies of prisoners executed for political reasons in such areas, which they colloquially referred to as ’damned land’ (la’nat abad).”14 The examination conducted by Amnesty International and Justice for Iran on the seven confirmed or suspected mass grave sites has revealed that the Iranian authorities have engaged in various actions between 2003 and 2017 in order to desecrate and otherwise damage the sites. These actions include: “bulldozing, hiding the mass graves beneath new, individual burial plots; constructing concrete slabs, buildings or roads over the mass graves; and turning the mass grave sites into rubbish dumps. In at least three cases, the authorities appear to be planning actions that would further damage the mass graves.”15

This systematic desecration and destruction expose the limits of the state’s approach vis-à-vis any kind of memorialization efforts. Even though the cemeteries in Iran are under the management of municipalities, these mass grave sites are patrolled by security or intelligence officials and kept under their strict surveillance. In many cases when the relatives of the disappeared were verbally and unofficially informed about the burial place of their loved ones, the families tried to decorate the mass grave sites with memorial messages and hold commemorative gatherings. Thereupon, the burial place was destroyed once again and the relatives were harassed, intimated and even persecuted. “Amnesty International and Justice for Iran understand that they [Iranian authorities] have consistently destroyed the memorial signs and stones erected by the families, installed security cameras in the area to instill fear, and occasionally directed water over the mass grave sites to create flooding.”16 Repression of the initiatives searching for justice increased after the release of the aforementioned audio recording which retriggered the calls for an inquiry into the 1988 disappearances and killings.

Despite these difficult circumstances, the relatives of the disappeared—comprised mostly of women as is the case across the globe—and human rights activists tried to gather together and struggle for justice, accountability and recognition. Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI) was founded in 2006 by a small circle of activists to struggle against human rights violations with a particular focus on defending political prisoners. After 2009, as the organization grew, it also attracted the attention of the government, which in turn began to arrest its founders and organizers. Thereupon, HRAI registered itself in the United States of America as a non-profit and charitable organization in 2010 and has since continued its work.17 Justice for Iran, a London based human rights organization founded in 2010, also struggles to document the human rights violations occurring in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The organization addresses the practice of impunity in Iran and reveals the identity of different perpetrators on its official website; it also publishes thematic reports about various human rights violations.18

Individual Story

Roghieh and Abdolreza Akbari-Monfared were among the approximately 5,000 political prisoners who were disappeared and executed in the summer of 1988. “Many of these political prisoners had served long prison terms and were waiting to be released. Some, like Abdolreza, had already completed their original sentences but were never released.

In February 2017, 29 years after their disappearance, their sister Maryam Akbari- Monfared asked the UN to help her find the truth about the fate of her loved ones. The Iranian government had verbally informed the family that their children were executed, but has never revealed their place of burial, leading the UN Working Group on Involuntarily and Enforced Disappearances to recognize the two victims as enforced disappeared persons.”19

Maryam Akbari-Monfared lost three of her brothers and one of her sisters in the 1988 massacre in Iran. Monfared herself was also arrested on December 31, 2009, and was forcibly disappeared for five months. She was kept in solitary confinement during the first 43 days of her detention and interrogated without access to a lawyer. After her trial before the Branch 15 Revolutionary Court in Tehran, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“Even while detained, Maryam Akbari-Monfared campaigns from prison and raises her voice by publishing open letters about prison conditions for women. Also while in prison, she filed a formal complaint demanding truth and justice for her siblings and several thousand political prisoners who were victims of extrajudicial executions in 1988. As a result, she has been threatened with an extended prison sentence and denied medical care.”20 Maryam Akbari Monfared, now in her ninth year of imprisonment, has been detained in several prisons, including Shahr-e Ray, Gohardasht and Evin. She continues to petition the UN bodies about the execution of her brothers and sister, sends letters to foreign ambassadors in Iran about the conditions of women prisoners, and writes to her children about her life in prison.


Allen, Paul D. “The Baha’is of Iran: A Proposal for Enforcement of International Human Rights Standards.” Cornell International Law Journal 20, no. 2 (1987): 338 – 361.

Amnesty International and Justice for Iran. Criminal Cover-Up. Iran Destroying Mass Graves of Victims of 1988 Killings. London: Amnesty International, 2018.

Amnesty International. “Challenging power: Meet women human rights defenders.” Wire, April-June 2018.

Cohen, Jared. “Iran’s Young Opposition: Youth in Post-Revolutionary Iran.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 26, no. 2 (2006): 3 – 16.

Eivazi, Nafiseh. “A Closer Look at the Judicial System of Iran with Emphasis on the Criminal Courts and Howness of their Practice.” International Journal Series in Multidisciplinary Research (IJSMR) 3 (2017): 51 – 60.

Fathollah-Nejad, Ali. “Why sanctions against Iran are counterproductive: Conflict resolution and state–society relations.” International Journal 69, no. 1 (2014): 48 – 65.

Heydemann, Steven and Reinoud Leenders. “Authoritarian Governance in Syria and Iran. Challenged, Reconfiguring, and Resilient.” In Middle East Authoritarianisms. Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, edited by Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, 1 – 35. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Tezcür, Güneş Murat. “Democratic Struggles and Authoritarian Responses in İran in Comparative Perspective.” In Middle East Authoritarianisms. Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, edited by Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, 200 – 221. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018.

UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, 10 August 2015, A/HRC/30/38.

Vali, Abbas. “Reflections on Kurdish Society and Politics in Rojhelat: An Overview.” In Kurdish Issues: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Olson, edited by Michael M. Gunter, 283 – 314. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2016.