Iranian diplomats mounting 'denial and misinformation' campaign over protests crackdown

Anniversary of Islamic Republic a reminder that pattern of official denial stretches back to infamous 1988 prison massacres

Iran has sought to claim recent protest deaths were responsibility of ‘hired terrorists’ or were ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’

‘The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained an iron grip on power for decades through the commission of horror after horror’ - Diana Eltahawy

Iranian officials are using familiar tactics of “denial and misinformation” to try to discredit a new generation of protesters and dissidents as “rioters” in a bid to avoid accountability for hundreds of unlawful killings, said Amnesty International as the Islamic Republic celebrates its 44th anniversary.

In a new 17-page briefing - Involvement of Iran’s former diplomats in the cover-up of 1988 prison massacres - Amnesty shows how current Iranian officials are replicating the behaviour of past generations who denied responsibility for mass enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions during the country’s infamous 1988 prison massacres. 

Then, as now, Iran’s diplomats have worked to spread misinformation and oppose an international investigation in the face of mounting credible evidence. Last November, in the lead-up to a special session at the UN Human Rights Council on Iran’s recent lethal crackdown on protesters Iranian officials in Geneva distributed lengthy briefings which blamed the killings of protesters on “hired terrorists”, “suicides” or “accidents”.

Amir Saeed Iravani, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, called on countries to refrain from supporting an informal meeting of the Security Council regarding Iran’s crackdown, which he described as a “mischievous disinformation campaign”. Ignoring a vast body of evidence on the unlawful killing of hundreds of protesters and bystanders including children by Iran’s security forces, he claimed that “the right to free expression and peaceful assembly has been recognised and ensured by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the enjoyment of our people of this right has always been supported by the Government”.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“The anniversary arrives amid a horrific wave of bloodshed around the latest protests, as well as arbitrary executions and death sentences targeting protesters.

“For decades, Iran’s government and its diplomatic representatives around the world have orchestrated denial and misinformation campaigns to mislead the international community and rob those affected and society at large of the right to truth.

“They hide or destroy mass gravesites, and harass and intimidate survivors and relatives seeking truth, justice and reparation.

“The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained an iron grip on power for decades through the commission of horror after horror with absolute impunity.” 

1988 prison massacres cover-up

Between 1988 and 1990, Iranian diplomats around the world and government officials in Iran dismissed reports of mass executions in 1988 as “propaganda from opposition groups” and claimed the killings had occurred in the context of the armed incursion of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, an opposition group then based in Iraq.

Amnesty has gathered evidence pointing to the involvement of various former diplomatic representatives and government officials in Iran in this cover-up, including the following (former position in brackets): Mohammad Jafar Mahallati (Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York), Sirous Nasseri (Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva); Mohammad Ali Mousavi (Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires in Ottawa); Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh Basti (Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires in London); Raeisinia (first name unknown) (First Secretary of Iran’s Embassy in Tokyo); Abdollah Nouri (Minister of Interior); Ali Akbar Velayati (Minister of Foreign Affairs); Mohammad Hossein Lavasani and Manouchehr Mottaki (Deputy Foreign Ministers).

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York at the time, played a particularly active role. In November 1988, he denied reports of mass executions at a meeting with the UN Rapporteur and falsely claimed “many killings had in fact occurred on the battlefield”. In December 1988, he described a UN resolution expressing concern about the executions of July-September 1988 as “unjust” and said “a terrorist organisation based in Iraq” was the main source of “fake information”. According to media reports, in the weeks leading up to the adoption of the resolution Mahallati tried to have the resolution “dropped” or “watered down” and conditioned Iran’s cooperation with the UN on the removal of critical references to Iran’s human rights violations, including mass executions, and pushed for the adoption of “a softer text that would merely welcome Tehran’s decision to cooperate with the [UN] Human Rights Commission”. 

On 28 February 1989, Jafar Mahallati also sent a letter to Amnesty which again “denied the existence of any political executions” and described victims as “individuals who, as admitted by themselves, had in an offensive against Iran killed 40,000 Iranians”. Amnesty has long called for the international community to take action to end impunity for past and continuing crimes against humanity arising from the 1988 prison massacres. In 2021, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances joined the call for an international investigation.

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