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

Iranian newspapers reported on Khalkhali’s brutality and the news of the executions eventually spread around the world. A photograph of the executions of 11 men taken in the town of Sanandaj (on the cover of this report) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and was a dramatic illustration of the new regime’s brutality and lack of respect for human life. The U.N. Subcommission on Human Rights condemned the executions. While Khalkhali was ultimately removed from his post as head of the Revolutionary Court—after having ordered the executions of hundreds of perceived political opponents—he remained an Islamic Republic insider. The Islamic Republic never launched an inquiry or investigation into the human rights violations and crimes Khalkhali committed in the Kurdish regions under the direction of Khomeini.

This report provides a detailed account of Khalkhali’s unlawful summary trials and executions in the Kurdish regions of Iran during August and September of 1979. The report begins with a brief description of the history and rich culture of Iranian Kurds. The second section examines the post-revolutionary period during which escalating tensions cumulated in Khomeini’s desperate fatwa that led to the military campaign and executions. This section describes Khalkhali’s visits to five towns – Paveh, Mariwan, Sanandaj, Saqqez, and Mahabad – and includes extensive witness testimony as well as contemporaneous press accounts. This is followed by a brief section analyzing the regime’s violations of its responsibilities under international and Iranian law to respect every person’s right to life, to a fair trial, to freedoms of expression and association, and to redress.

This report captures only one brutal episode among many that the Islamic Republic perpetrated in the Kurdish regions, as well as the rest of Iran. The battles and killings continued in the Kurdish regions, and eventually blossomed into a full-scale war that lasted for years. Iranian Kurds, as well as other ethnic minorities, continued to work to preserve their cultural and political rights, and the Islamic Republic continued to arrest, torture and imprison Kurds.

Map of Western Iran highlighting the location of towns discussed in this report.

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