Islamic Republic World leader in impunity for murders of journalist
On the 18th anniversary of a wave of murders of journalists, intellectuals and other free speech advocates in Iran in the latter part of 1998, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the prosecution of both the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes, some of whom today hold senior government positions.
The Association of Iranian Writers* and relatives of the victims tried to hold a demonstration to mark the anniversary on 2 December but, as in previous years, it was dispersed by intelligence officials. Force was used to arrest several participants including Nasser Zarafshan, a lawyer who represents the families. They were freed a few hours later.
The many journalists and intellectuals murdered in 1998 included Darioush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh, both emblematic members of the liberal opposition, who were found stabbed to death in their Tehran home on 11 December 1998.
They also included the journalists and writers Majid Charif, Mohamad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, who disappeared one by one from 25 November to 11 December 1998. Their bodies were found a few days later in a Tehran suburb. They were preceded by Pirouz Davani, the editor of the newspaper Pirouz, who disappeared in August 1998. His body was never found.
The wave of murders triggered an outcry in Iran’s reformist media and widespread international condemnation, as a result of which the Iranian authorities set up a commission of enquiry into the deaths. In January 1999, the intelligence ministry formally acknowledged the involvement of some of its operatives and announced the arrest of dozens of suspects.
Fifteen intelligence ministry agents were convicted in January 2001 for the murder of the Forouhars. Three were sentenced to death. The other 12 received prison sentences. Three other suspects were acquitted. The supreme court upheld the verdicts but in the end the maximum sentence, imposed on two of the defendants, was 15 years in prison.
The families of the victims denounced the inadequacies of the investigation, which never named any instigators, and referred the affair to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in November 2002.
Protecting the instigators
Although the involvement of high-level figures has been demonstrated, there has never been any political will to bring them to justice. The suspects include Mostafa Pourmohamadi (the current justice minister), Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei (the judicial system’s current spokesman) and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi (the intelligence minister at the time of the murders and public prosecutor), but none has ever been questioned or arrested.
Only around 15 intelligence ministry operatives were convicted and given sentences ranging from three to 12 years in prison. All are now free.
The impunity prevents the human rights lawyers who represent the families from doing their job. In fact, the lawyers themselves have been persecuted. Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi had to leave the country. Mohammad Seifzadeh served a jail term. Abdolfatah Soltani is still serving one.
One of the most emblematic of the lawyers, Nasser Zarafshan, who himself spent five years in jail from 2002 to 2006 on a charge of divulging evidence from a judicial investigation, told RSF he regarded the investigation into the 1998 murders as far from concluded.
“This investigation has never been taken to its conclusion and important evidence has disappeared from the files during the proceedings in order to protect senior officials,” he said. “Journalists and writers needs security to do their work (...) These murders sent a clear message that they should shut up. The impunity for these murders is now the continuation of this message.”
Parastou Forouhar, the artist and writer daughter of Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, has been hounded, subjected to judicial interrogations and psychological threats, and now lives in Germany. But she returns to Tehran every year to organize a commemorating event in her parents’ house, an event that the authorities always prevent from taking place.
“Justice has not been rendered for all the victims of politically-motivated murders and all those who were killed because of their opinions, so these are dead people who have not been buried,” she said. “At the same time, there is no statute of limitations on these crimes.”
Forouhar still expects a great deal from the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, which for the time being has just referred the families to the Iranian judicial system.
There have been many other murders of journalists in Iran in which neither the perpetrators nor the instigators were ever questioned or arrested.
The victims include Ebrahim Zalzadeh, who disappeared in March 1996 and whose body was found a month later with 15 stab wounds, Zahra Kazemi, a photographer who died in detention in 2003, Ayfer Serçe, a Kurdish reporter for the Firat news agency killed in 2006, Omidreza Mirsayafi, a young blogger who died in detention in 2009, journalist Alireza Eftekhari, who died on 15 June 2009 from a cerebral attack after being beaten, Haleh Sahabi, a journalist and women’s rights activist killed in June 2011, Hoda Saber, an Iran-e-Farda journalist who died in detention the same month, and Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who died in detention in 2012.
Iran is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
*The Association of Iranian Writers is Iran’s oldest civil society organization. It has always been banned both under the Shah and under the Islamic Revolution.