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Haunted Memories: The Islamic Republic’s Executions of Kurds in 1979

3.1 Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali

Ayatollah Khalkhali in military fatigues (from his Memoires)

Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali was the son of a farmer born in 1926 in the village of Givi on the outskirts of Khalkhal in the Northwestern part of Iran. When he was young, he was sent to the holy city of Qom for religious education.76 A former seminary schoolmate and long time supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, Khalkhali had been banished by the Shah’s government to remote parts of Iran. He was sent to Anarak, Bandar Lengeh, Lar, Baneh, Rafsanjan, Roudbar, and other far flung towns before he eventually joined Khomeini in exile in Paris.77 Khalkhali has been described as “an ardent advocate of the omelet theory of revolution, glamorizing the cruelties of terror and executions as the necessary ingredients of a successful social transformation.”78

Ayatollah Khomeini appointed Khalkhali as head of the Revolutionary Court soon after his return to Iran in February 1979. Khomeini created the Revolutionary Court to try supporters of the former regime for the crimes of “intervention leading to such acts that benefit foreign agents and the detested Pahlavi regime, … having a major role in looting and wasting the public fund and disrupting the economy of the country, and attempting an armed attack or murdering or injuring or imprisoning the people as of late, or having relations against national interest with foreigners or any form of forced assault on the virtue of the people.”79 He ordered that Khalkhali be “present at the trial of the accused and imprisoned and, after completing the necessary trial procedure in accordance with Shari’a, issue sentences in accordance with Sahri’a.”

Khalkhali was merciless and reveled in his power. In March and April of 1979, he presided over the summary trial of former Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and ordered that he be shot to death. While Khalkhali did not apparently pull the trigger, he was proud to have been present at the execution and kept the pistol as a memento. He soon boasted to a journalist that he had ordered 400 hundred executions, earning the soubriquet “The Hanging Judge.”81 While he was often dressed in religious robes, he was proud to be photographed wearing military fatigues.82

Khalkhali claimed that he had the blessing of Khomeini, and there is no reason to believe otherwise. In May, he introduced himself as head of the Revolutionary Court at a press conference, and ordered the execution of the deposed (and exiled) Shah, and some of his family members.83 Ebrahim Yazdi—at the time, a minister in the interim government—disputed Khalkhali’s claim that he was head of the Revolutionary Court, precipitating a very public power struggle that resulted in Khalkhali’s initial resignation but swift reinstatement, almost assuredly at the behest of Khomeini.84 On June 22, Khalkhali announced a prize of US$131,000 for the assassination of the former Shah.85


[76] Haleh Afshar, Obituary: Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, GUARDIAN, Dec. 1, 2003, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2003/dec/01/guardianobituaries.iran. Khalkhali has been described as having little education and as follows: “his round face, fleshy cheekbones, low brow overhanging small, shifty eyes, thin beard jutting from his jaws, and oversized turban all created an eerie image of the marauding Mongol horseman who haunts so may Persian miniatures.” ABBAS MILANI, THE PERSIAN SPHINX: AMIR ABBAS HOVEYDA AND THE RIDDLE OF THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION 309 (2004).
[77] AYYAM-I INZIVA, supra note 72, at 28; MILANI, supra note 76, at 309-310.
[78] MILANI, supra note 76, at 310.
[79] Ayin-namihyih Tashkil va Nahvihyih Risidigiyih Dadgahhayih Inqilab-i Islami [Code of Formation and Procedure for Revolutionary Courts], ETTELAAT, [Apr. 5, 1979], available at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.
[80] KHATIRAT-I AYATOLLAH KHALKHALI AVVALIN HAKIM-I SHAR’ DADGAH-I INQILAB [MEMOIR OF AYATOLLAH KHALKHALI, THE FIRST RELIGIOUS MAGISTRATE OF THE REVOLUTIONARY COURT] 19 (2005).
[81] MILANI, supra note 76, at 311, 337-339.
[82] AYYAM-I INZIVA, supra note 72, at 19.
[83] MILANI, supra note 76, at 331.
[84] Ayatollah Khalkhali Isti’fa Kard [Ayatollah Khalkhali Resigned], ETTELAAT, [May 23, 1979] (quoting resignation letter), http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.
[85] Thurgood, Kurds Threaten to Abandon Iranian Citizenship Unless Demands Are Met, GUARDIAN, June 22, 1979, available athttp://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.

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