And how did they deal with left-wing activists?

Baradaran: They were asked: "Are you a believing Muslim? If this question was answered in the negative, it meant execution. When someone said, "I was born into an Islamic family", other questions were asked, such as: "Do you pray?" And then, depending on the arbitrary verdict arrived at by these judges, the prisoners were either executed or not.

So you could escape death by lying?

Baradaran: Yes. But most prisoners had no idea what these interrogations were ultimately for. Some thought it was simply a matter of separating certain groups within the prison.

Why did the regime end the mass executions? Why not eliminate all left-wing prisoners and mujahideen?

Baradaran: There are no plausible reasons for this. But I assume that the regime was convinced that it had spread enough terror with these mass executions to silence its political opponents. By not prolonging the horror they prevented the possibility of protests by families and human rights activists.

Kharavan cemetery, Iran (photo: IHR)
Khavaran Cemetery - mass grave of the opposition: at first sight fallow land, Khavaran hides the mass graves of executed dissidents. A place synonymous with the systematic elimination of sections of the Iranian opposition in the 1980s

So you donʹt believe that criticism within the regime could have been a reason for ending the massacre?

Baradaran: Ayatollah Montazeri – heir presumptive to Revolutionary Leader Khomeini – who later fell out of favour and was placed under house arrest, did protest. Not so long ago, a recording was published in which he spoke to the judges who had sentenced the prisoners to death in the summer of 1988. On these recordings he expresses outrage at what happened. Then we hear the judges talking about the role they played in a totally off-hand manner, as if they werenʹt talking about killing people, but about some business matters.

Apart from those responsible, was everyone else really in the dark about these secret executions?

Baradaran: Of course not, some bits of information inevitably leaked out. The families knew that the visiting ban could not be a good sign – that something unusual was going on. So they kept gathering in front of the prisons and asking for explanations. They also informed foreign countries about what was happening, finally human rights organisations such as Amnesty International got wind of it. Some Friday preachers in Iran like Rafsanjani or Mousavi Ardebili had also dropped terrible hints. But nobody knew about the real extent of the executions.

Were you interrogated?

Baradaran: No.

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