LONDON: Members of Iran’s minority Baha’i religious sect are being forced by Iranian authorities to bury their dead in mass graves originally used for political prisoners in 1988.
The instruction was issued last week, according to the BBC, who said they had identified at least ten new graves dug at one known site.
Iran’s Baha’i are a persecuted minority. Numbering just 350,000, they face systematic abuse and repression as the Shia state considers their religion heretical.
They are among Iran’s many religious minorities who routinely suffer harassment, prosecution and imprisonment by authorities solely for practising their faith, as well as having their places of burial regularly destroyed, according to various human rights groups.
Baha’is had been accustomed to burying their dead alongside Hindus and Armenian Christians in a cemetery southeast of Tehran, but recent orders have forced them to change this practice.
Baha’i families told the BBC that Iranian authorities ordered them to start using the nearby site of a mass grave from 1988, initially created when the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners detained by the state in the tumultuous years following the Iranian revolution.
The families and human rights activists fear that by burying people at the site, the Islamic Republic is attempting to erase evidence of the executions, which remain a sensitive issue in Iran even today. The site has been bulldozed multiple times in recent decades.
Simin Fahandej, a representative of the Baha’i International Community, told the BBC that his community did not want to use the mass grave, not only out of respect for their dead, but also for the executed prisoners.
A letter signed by 79 families of executed prisoners to the mayor of Tehran and President Hassan Rouhani said: “Do not coerce Baha’is to bury their loved ones in the mass grave. Do not rub salt into our old wound.”
Diana Eltahawy, deputy Middle East director at Amnesty International, said: “This is the latest in a series of criminal attempts over the years by Iran’s authorities to destroy mass grave sites of victims of the 1988 prison massacres in a bid to eliminate crucial evidence of crimes against humanity.
“As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are wilfully destroying a crime scene.”
Most of those killed at the site were from Iran’s Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — an armed group that participated in the 1979 revolution but was later banned by the Islamic Republic and violently suppressed. It is thought that at least 4,000 MEK members were executed following sham trials, though the group says the number is as high as 30,000.
In a statement issued to Arab News, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella body which includes the MEK and its remaining members, said: “Destroying the graves of the martyrs of the 1988 massacre to eliminate evidence of the crime against humanity is a well-known practice of the clerical regime.”
Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the NCRI, said she condemned Iran’s use of MEK graves as burial sites and urged the UN to investigate the attempted coverup.
Leaked recordings have since revealed that, even among Iran’s then-leadership, the execution order made by Khomeini was controversial. Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri refused to support it, warning that it constituted a “a major historical crime.” He was removed from office within a year.
Others, such as Ibrahim Raisi, who is the current head of Iran’s judiciary and rumored to be a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, argued that the executions were justified.
Eltahawy said: “Those against whom there is evidence of direct involvement with these crimes continue to hold top positions of power. They include the current head of the judiciary and minister of justice, whose roles are vital for the pursuit of justice.”