Waiting for the Truth The Life and death of a left-wing newspaper editor in Iran

Thirty-one years after the massacre in Tehran’s Evin Prison, two sisters continue to want to know what really happened to their father in 1988.

Today, 30 August, is marked globally as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.  Amnesty International revealed on 28 August that one of the key focuses of the day will be on the case of the mass execution of around 5000 political prisoners in 1988.

The press release by Amnesty international reads, “The Iranian authorities’ continued failure to disclose the fate and whereabouts of thousands of political dissidents who were forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret during Iran’s 1988 prison massacres has sparked a crisis that for decades has been largely overlooked by the international community.

Thousands of the victims’ deaths remain unregistered and, across the country, there are thousands of missing bodies buried in unidentified mass graves.

For more than 30 years, the Iranian authorities have failed to officially acknowledge the existence of these mass graves and concealed their locations causing immeasurable suffering to families who are still seeking answers about their missing loved ones.”

“The families of those secretly killed in the 1988 prison massacres are still living through a nightmare. They and many others in Iran are haunted by the thousands of missing bodies, which have cast a spectre over the country’s justice system to this day,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director at Amnesty International.

Amongst those killed were hundreds of the leaders and cadres of the Tudeh Party of Iran. The Morning Star has decided to publish the case of Dr Manouchehr Behzadi, the editor of the daily newspaper, Mardom (People), a well-known politician and a leader of the Tudeh Party of Iran.  Behzadi’s body was never released to his family nor was his place of burial revealed by the authorities.  His German wife as well as his three children have been campaigning for information about the circumstances of his execution 31 years ago in August 1988, and the whereabouts of his grave. CODIR, the Iranian Solidarity Campaign in Britain, has recently located an article based on the interview with Manouchehr Behzadi’s two daughters, Laleh and Azita, which was published by the German section of Amnesty International in the Amnesty Journal on 26 July 2018.  CODIR now publishes an edited English version to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.




By Markus Bickel, Amnesty Journal, 26 July 2018

Laleh Behzadi speaks calmly and thoughtfully. “It is not easy to remove traces without someday falling back on a society,” says the Arabist. Thirty years after the assassination of her father Manoucher in Tehran’s Evin Prison, we are sitting together in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Here, in the Mitte district, Laleh graduated in 1987 and her sister Azita, now a psychologist at the Berlin Charité, did so seven years later. Their father came to the GDR in the 1960s and it was Leipzig where he met Brigitte Stark, his future wife.

“We will continue to ask about our father’s grave,” say the two women who know Tehran from their own time there. Azita was four and a half years old and Laleh ten when the family moved to their father’s homeland in 1979 after the fall of the Shah – full of hope for a transformed Iran. After almost a quarter of a century of exile, Manoucher Behzadi worked in Tehran as editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper, Mardom, the publishing of which he had already been overseeing while in Leipzig. He was full of verve remember the daughters. The country was flourishing and a variety of parties, newspapers and forums emerged.

However, the hope for a pluralistic Iran soon proved to be an illusion, the arrests of left-wing oppositionists were mounting. Like the other leaders of the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, Behzadi was arrested in February 1983 for alleged espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. He was sent to solitary confinement in Evin Prison, which was notorious for the torture practices there during the times of the Shah.

According to surviving fellow inmates, he was beaten for hours with a whip and hung with his arms crossed behind his back. In 1983, Iranian television broadcast images of a staged jail conference in which several men praised the Islamic Republic and condemned their own “wrong path.” There are further recordings of Behzadi in which he gives information about his career before a tribunal. The signs of torture are obvious.

Brigitte Behzadi had already returned with her daughters to East Berlin. The risk had become too great from the Islamist rulers; she did not want the children to experience any more of their husband’s dangerous hide-and-seek and constant house searches. Her older daughter, Laleh, remembers how the initial enthusiasm about the Revolution turned into an oppressive atmosphere as more and more rights were curtailed, from women’s clothing to freedom of the press and assembly.

Twenty-five letters from prison are all that the two sisters and their mother have of those years Dr. Behzadi was in custody. The letters consist of a seven-line form; on the back seven lines are provided for the prisoner’s answer. According to the older daughter, Manoucher Behzadi always wrote identical responses. Only his brother, Cirus, was allowed to visit him and the news about his health, relayed on to Brigitte Behzadi in Germany by phone, over time got progressively worse.

In the summer of 1988, contacts with relatives were abruptly broken off. In retrospect, it is clear that mass executions were being prepared. Prisoners were sorted by party and group affiliation and picked up for interrogation. There was no talk of espionage anymore. Instead, the interrogation committees asked questions about faith and prayer practice. Everything was geared to prove the charges of apostasy levelled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, himself.

The executions began shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war and after an armed attack by thousands of renegade Mojahedin-e Khalq (MKO/PMOI) members on the city of Kermanshah. According to Amnesty, more than 5000 people were executed between August 1988 and the tenth anniversary of the Revolution in February 1989, without any due process. At the height of the wave of executions, prisoners were hung at half-hour intervals, often with five or six extra cranes to speed things up. When this method proved too time-consuming, the authorities resorted to shootings that had previously been avoided because of the telltale noise. With lorries and helicopters, helpers removed the bodies out of the prisons and took them to mass graves.

In November 1988, the authorities informed Cirus Behzadi that he could pick up his brother’s last belongings from prison. There was never an official death certificate. In 1991, at the request of the German Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed succinctly “the death of the named”. To date, Lalehh and Azita Behzadi do not know how their father died in 1988 and where he lies buried. He was probably buried like thousands of other victims of the 1988 wave of executions in the Khavaran cemetery near the capital.

However, it is not only the relatives that keep alive the memory of the massacre, but also Amnesty International. In a report released in April, the organisation was able to use satellite images to show that new buildings were being erected upon gravesites throughout the country and monuments had been razed to the ground. The aim is, in the opinion of Amnesty, to destroy evidence that could bring to light the extent of this crime. Since the sites were under constant surveillance by the security apparatus, it can be assumed that both the secret services and the judiciary were privy to the destruction of their tracks.

Justice for Iran, a non-governmental organisation, estimates that the remains of those executed in Evin prison in 1988 are located in 120 mass graves in various parts of the country, with at least seven having been destroyed by the authorities between 2003 and 2017. To this day, relatives are prohibited from publicly mourning together. Nor may they even leave flowers or short written messages in the places where they suspect their loved ones are buried. Any memory should be stifled; any demand for action should be stopped.

In the long term, however, this will not succeed. In any case, the Behzadi sisters will, as often happens, commemorate their deceased father in September. And, Azita Behzadi is certain: “One day these events will resurface, and one generation will blame and demand answers from another.” Her older sister, Lalehh, agrees. “Let’s say the Iranians are looking for a new government one day and then these unfinished stories will be put on the table.” So far, of course, the cartel of silence has held out at the top of the Islamic Republic. “Regardless of how reform-oriented governments have been over the past three decades, there has never been a statement on the massacre at Evin Prison.”




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