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

No evidence was presented but after about 30 minutes, Khalkhali ruled that the men were “corrupt on earth.” Bahrami remembers that some of the men cried. The blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners each put a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him and they were led “through the airport’s concrete lobby, through a metal doorframe and toward an open airfield.” One of Khalkhali’s bodyguards, Ali Karimi, dressed in white pants, sunglasses and twin hip holsters followed the column. They passed about 30 airport workers and stopped after about 100 yards on a “plain of dry dirt.” The prisoners were in plain clothes and the executioners wore camouflage. All but one of the 11 executioners covered their faces. Nobody seemed to care that Razmi was taking photographs.

Razmi stood a few feet behind the only unmasked executioner. At 4:30, the executioners fired and the eleven men fell. Razmi later recalled that not all the men were dead. Karimi took a pistol off his hip, leaned over Ahsan Nahid who was on the stretcher and fired a bullet into his head. He proceeded to shoot each man in the head. Ambulances soon arrived and took the bodies away. 155

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo (on the cover and below) shows prisoners in mid-fall as the executioners fire. Twenty six of the approximately 70 photographs taken by Razmi were later made public and are reproduced in Appendix 1 to this report. They confirm Bahrami and Razmi’s recollections. In the first of the series, the prisoners stand in line before their crouched executioners who are aiming automatic rifles at them. Some of the prisoners wear traditional Kurdish dress of baggy pants and wide cloth belts. All are blindfolded. In one photograph, a man lies prostrate before the firing squad on a stretcher.

Pulitzer Prize winning photo of executions at Sanandaj airport

Subsequent photos capture some of the men in mid-fall as the executioners’ shots drop them to the ground. One man futilely raises his hands in defense as bullets hit those around him. In later photos, the victims lie in crumpled heaps on the ground while a man dressed in white shirt, white bell-bottoms and white shoes surveys the scene, gun in hand. A plume of white smoke envelops the barrel of his pistol as he leans over the prostrate bodies, shooting them one by one either to ensure the job is complete or perhaps simply for his own sadistic pleasure.

Jamil Navareh—a Kurd from Sanandaj—was fortunate to have not been on the field that day. However, he shared a room in the makeshift detention center at the Sanandaj airport with eight of the Kurdish victims and remembers what happened before their executions. 156

At the time of the Islamic Revolution, Navareh worked as a school teacher in the small village of Dardaneh where he taught sixth grade. Like many other Iranians, during the Revolution, he became increasingly engaged in politics. He joined the Society for the Protection of the Freedoms of the Revolution (“Society)—a leftish organization created by Komala dedicated to supporting the Kurdish working people. During the three month summer school holiday, Navareh lived in Sanandaj and worked with members of the Society.

On August 19, Navareh and other members of the Society were in the village of Bagh Cheleh participating in the distribution of former feudal lands among local farmers. The radio suddenly reported that Democrats in Sanandaj had taken women hostage at the local mosque. Navareh knew that “Democrat” meant “Kurd.” Although he and his friends did not believe the reports, he feared that as a young Kurdish man, he could become a government target. He and other Society members returned to Sanandaj, and shortly thereafter Navareh went to the village of Kilaneh, near the village where he taught. There, he and met a friend named Ashraf and they hid in a garden shed.


[155] Id.
[156] Navareh Interview, supra note 146 (stating that the ninth victim was Mr. Fouladi). The text that follows is from Navareh’s Interview.

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