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

1. Introduction

On August 12, 1979, only months after establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini cautioned a group of Muslim teachers about a common enemy:

They fear Islam. They fear Islamic law. They want for Islam to not exist, no matter what the alternative is. This is conspiracy! Now that conspiracy has happened we cannot see it through until the end and accept the conspiracies. The issue is that of Islam and the interest of Muslims. We cannot neglect it.1


While he could have been referring to supporters of the recently exiled Shah or members of opposition leftist groups, he was commenting on Iranian Kurds – one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the country. The Kurds, almost all Muslims, had supported the revolution and sought some form of autonomy in post-revolution Iran. Khomeini deemed any form of self-rule – by the Kurds as well as by other Iranian ethnic minority peoples - as non-Islamic and therefore unacceptable.

Days after his speech, Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering the military and the newly-created Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Sepah-e Pasdaran) to crush the Kurds and take control of the Kurdish regions in Northwestern Iran. For three weeks, government forces waged a brutal campaign, surrounding towns with artillery and tanks, and bombing from the air. By the beginning of September, they controlled the major towns and the Kurdish fighters (peshmerga) had fled into the mountains from where they continued to wage a guerilla campaign.

But Khomeini did not only send the military and members of the Revolutionary Guards. As an added measure of terror, he dispatched his long-time comrade Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali to summarily try and order the execution of the so-called rebels. Khalkhali, as the head of the newly-formed Islamic Revolutionary Court, was already known as “The Hanging Judge” due to his enthusiasm for holding summary trials and issuing execution orders, including one to the exiled Shah.

For several weeks in August and September, as government troops took control of towns in the Kurdish regions, Khalkhali and his deputies conducted trials of men, women and boys who had been arrested without warrants or charges. He and his deputies briefly questioned the prisoners before convicting them of crimes such as “corrupter on earth and at war with God and his prophet,” and expressing support for Kurdish political parties, “direct participation in Mariwan’s events” and “gathering armed individuals” before sending them to the firing squad. The entire process usually took only a day and sometimes was completed in a matter of hours. Families were given no advance notice of the impending executions. Many were told that their loved ones would be released, only to discover that they had been executed. Some were forced to search for bodies in piles of corpses covered in ice. In some cases, families never recovered the bodies. While the total number of executions is unknown, it was reported at the time that as many as 80 people were executed in three weeks.2


[1] Imam dar Didar ba A’zayih Anjuman-i Islamiyih Mu’aliman: Arzihyih Maktab Qayr az Suzandan-i Kharman Ast [Imam meeting with the Islamic Society of the Teachers: Offering an Ideology is Separate and Apart from Burning (Farmer’s) Harvest], KAYHAN, [Aug. 19, 1979], available at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.
[2] See Thurgood, Iranian Forces Pursue Retreating Kurds, GUARDIAN, Sept. 6, 1979, at 7 (reporting 80 executions); Death in the Afternoon, ECONOMIST, Sept. 1, 1979 (reporting 68 executions), available at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.

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