FATAL WRIT An Account of Murders and Cover-ups 2000

Executive Summary

This study deals with the repercussions of a series of brutal murders in the Iranian capital, Tehran at the end of 1998, later to be described in the Iranian media as the "chain murders".

The victims were intellectuals who posed no conceivable threat to the security of the Iranian regime. Following widespread public concern, 23 people were arrested in January 1999, and in April, four of the detainees were mentioned by name. The most prominent was Sa'eed Emami, a deputy Intelligence Minister named as the ringleader of the murder gang. He committed suicide in Evin Prison in mysterious circumstances, after recording a confession, only excerpts from which have ever been published. The surviving detainees were held until April 2000, when they were released without trial.

Throughout 1999, and into the beginning of 2000, there was a lively discussion in the Iranian media of the background to the chain murders, their links to previous killings of opponents of the regime at home and abroad, and the extent to which very senior officials were involved in these crimes. When the discussion threatened to get out of hand, and the name of former President Rafsanjani began to appear in the frame, many newspapers were closed down.

The whole debate had been cast in the form of a dispute between 'liberals' and 'hardliners' about the responsibility for the assassination policy. It is no longer denied that agents of the regime killed dissidents such as former Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, Kurdish leader Abdurrahman Ghassemlou and NCRI's representative in Switzerland Kazem Rajavi, but the two factions each blamed the other, while stopping short of naming the masterminds.

The victims of the chain murders were dissidents and intellectuals who were more or less tolerated and survived years of oppression, but then paradoxically became victims in the supposedly more liberal era of Khatami's Presidency.

One possible explanation was that in order to challenge President Khatami, the 'hardliners' decided to kill a few harmless dissidents, to show that his 'liberal' policy was leading to insecurity. Another and more plausible view was that the assassinations were an inevitable component of the mullahs' strategy to retain their power over the state. While the 8os were stained with mass executions, the last decade was predominantly one of single killings, both judicial and extra-judicial, of anybody seen as a potential threat to theocratic dictatorship. According to this theory, all other ideologies were dangerous and had to be eliminated, even when their exponents had no mass following, and the targeting of well-known individuals, from Bishop Tateos Michaelian to Dariush Forouhar, had the effect of warning all opponents to keep with certain limits

Was there really any political will by Khatami's government to expose the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice? The number of abortive investigations, the failure to bring any persons to trial, the acceptance of the unlikely story of Sa'eed Emami's suicide, and the inexplicable neglect to interrogate the ministers who were in charge over the decade of assassinations and terrorist outrages, indicate that the authorities were going through the motions, for the sake of appearances. There was never any firm intention of uncovering the full background to the chain murders, because the revelations would have undermined the foundations of the regime.

The Chain Murders

When 70-year-old dissident Dariush Forouhar and his 54-year old wife, Parvaneh, were brutally murdered at the end of 1998, their flat was under 24-hour surveillance and the crime was videotaped by the security forces. The authorities knew who the assassins were, and they also knew who killed the poet Mohammad Mokhtari, and Mohammad Pouyandeh, an essayist and translator.

Arrests were made of some 20 people allegedly responsible for these murders alone, but the violent deaths of 80 other dissidents over the previous decade were still unexplained.

At first, officials blamed foreign elements and the main Iranian opposition group, the People's Mojahedin, even after the Ministry of Intelligence admitted that some of its agents had been the perpetrators. The agents, under ringleader Sa'eed Emami, a deputy of Minister Intelligence, were said to be rogue elements influenced by Zionists.

Mr Emami recorded a confession, but then allegedly committed suicide in Evin Prison by drinking hair remover containing arsenic. He had previously recorded a confession, but various undertakings that it would be shown on TV remain unfulfilled.

Eighteen months after the latest round of the political killings, the trail has gone cold. None of the assassins have been brought to court. Emadoddin Baghi, a close ally of President Khatami (and who was recently jailed), says that some are intent on reviewing the handful of recent murders to put an end to the case, since opening previous cases endangers the regime. He believes, however, that it is not possible to keep the secrets of crimes even if the enemies of the revolution and the Islamic Republic exploit them.

This paper argues that, taking into account the power structure within the ruling clerical establishment, the numerous political assassinations at home and abroad in the last decade could not have been known to just a few people or a small faction. This is why, although each faction is keen to exploit the chain murders to its own advantage in the power struggle between them, neither wants to uncover the whole truth. At the end of 1999, while the media were still relatively free, the pro-Khatami press were saying frankly that it was in their interest to put an end to the case of suspicious killings, and not to pursue leads above the level of Emami. It was argued, as many in the West did also, that reformists were pursuing change, and anything that threatened the security of the county was dangerous for them as well. In other words, preference was to be given to pragmatism over justice; dozens of murders should be covered up, for the sake of the reform process.


Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been one of the leading countries in the number of official executions, and in the perpetration of extra-judicial killings all over the world. These matters have been covered routinely in the reports of successive UN Rapporteurs on Iran, and in the US State Department's annual surveys of world terrorism, without arousing any disturbance of the political scene in Iran. The "chain murders", however, triggered off a far-reaching debate, and acted as a catalyst for unsettling rivalries which have not yet played themselves out.

Although the Iranian regime's officials insist that a small group without the knowledge of even more senior Intelligence or other officials carried out the four political killings, nobody believes their story. It is inconceivable that dozens of murders could have been perpetrated over a period of many years and not even one of the assassins arrested, if the conspirators were not shielded by very senior and powerful protectors. None of the present leaders of the regime are interested in real transparency, because the unmasking of the top conspirators would be likely to sap the very foundations of the clerical state.

For the last few years, during which an intense the power struggle has been going on between the two wings of the regime, there had been an unwritten code of conduct adhered to by all protagonists. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for many years considered to be acceptable to all shades of opinion, has now come under attack, and the field of criticism extends even beyond the political murders, into what had been forbidden zones, such as criticism of the war policy. Rafsanjani was accused of being responsible for continuation of the war after the capture of Khorramshahr in 1982, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of the best children of Iran, leaving thousands disabled, and causing billions of dollars worth of damages.

This issue is so perilous for the regime that even Khatami's camp rallied in support of Rafsanjani, warning that there should be no more references to "the sacred war". Questioning the legitimacy of the war from within the regime would be disastrous, because it was Khomeini himself who refused to make peace. Those who suffered, or were bereaved, might call the heirs of Khomeini to account if the prolongation of the war now appears to have been unnecessary.

Another important issue formerly considered being within the forbidden /.one, is the murders of Christian priests in 1994. The whole world was shocked at the horrific killing of three Christian leaders and the bomb explosion in the same year at the holy shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad (northeast of Iran), which resulted in the death and injury of many pilgrims. At the time, the authorities framed three women for these crimes, which they confessed the Mojahedin had ordered them to commit.

Five years later, Abdollah Nouri a member of the Expediency Council and of the National Security Council at the time of the killings, spilled the beans at his trial in November 1999 that the Intelligence Ministry was responsible for those murders.

It also emerged that the Intelligence Ministry orchestrated the misinformation campaign of the regime regarding these crimes.

Despite all the circumstantial evidence, the mullahs always denied their role in terrorism abroad, a view accepted by the European governments at least up to the time when Ali Fallahian, then Minister of Intelligence, was nnmed as the mastermind behind the notorious Mykonos murders in (Jermany. But now, Ruhollah Hosseinian, one of the regime's prominent clerics, quotes Sa'eed Emami as having strongly believed that opponents of the Islamic Republic must be killed. Emami was in charge of security and wus involved in perhaps hundreds of operations against the Mojahedin outside Iran, including the 1995 bombing of the Mojahedin's central office In Baghdad. Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani also acknowledged that the weapons confiscated in Belgium in 1996 were sent by the Ministry of Intelligence. The latest defector, Ahmad Huhbahani, who was responsible for liaison with the Ministry of Intelligence within President Rafsanjani's office, has admitted that he personally murdered the Kurdish leader Abdurrahman Ghassemlou.

Three years after the election of Mohammad Khatami as president, there are still many in the West who cling to the hope that his success, and the evidence of support for his faction at the Majlis elections this year, mean that there is a process of evolution in Iran, towards a more democratic, secular, pluralist system of government in Iran. The attempted assassination of Sa'eed Hajjarian, a close adviser to Khatami, was not a good sign for hope for peaceful transition, however. It would be naive to assume that either faction would open up the political space for opponents of theocracy.

"Silence is a satanic policy" Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr appealed to the world, before he was silenced by an assassin's bullet in 1994. His warning has been vindicated again and again by the incessant use of murder as a tool of politics in Iran since his death, up to the present day. The Iranian people deserve better than this, and we are morally obliged to raise our voice in support of the bereaved. Let not the victims of the chain murderers to have died in vain.




  • FATAL WRIT An Account of Murders and Cover-ups 2000

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