by Bob Blackman MP

At the end of July, Amnesty International released a new statement on one of the worst unresolved crimes against humanity in recent decades.

The statement was motivated by the latest remarks to emerge from Tehran regarding the Iranian regime's systematic massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Far from being held to account, the architects and participants in that massacre have been richly rewarded with positions of power and influence in government and various state-affiliated organizations. And this has helped to reinforce a sense of impunity, which allows for public commentary that reflects not only a lack of remorse but ongoing admiration for the killings.

This was apparent in 2016 when then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi responded to newly leaked information about the massacre by saying he was "proud" to have helped carry out "God's command" of death for its main targets, the pro-democracy Iranian opposition, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK/MEK).

In 1988, Pour-Mohammadi was among the clerical officials to serve on "death commissions" that were set up around the country in response to a fatwa from the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic and first supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, to identify disloyalty to the theocratic system and passing summary death sentences on those who still harbored dissident ideals.

Now serving as a leading adviser to the head of the Iranian judiciary, Pour-Mohammadi has resumed his public defense of the massacre and may even be working to lay the groundwork for a new assault on the MEK, which remains the greatest domestic challenge to the clerical regime.

"We have no ambiguity about the [MEK]," he said after condemning an interviewer from the magazine Mosalas for questioning whether any of the 30,000 killings were unjustified. "We are at a time of war. Now is not the time for talk. Now is the time to fight them, now is the time to subdue them. Now is the time to conduct prosecutions."

We know not just from 1988 but from the entire history of the Islamic Republic that such prosecutions are very likely to lead to torture, long-term prison sentences and even death. The massacre was only part of a long and insidious campaign to stamp out opposition. All told, 120,000 individuals, the majority of them MEK activists, have been killed amid their efforts to promote democracy and civil liberty in their homeland. Iranian citizens have been hanged, some of them in public, for "crimes" as insubstantial as donating money to satellite news networks affiliated with the Iranian resistance.

Crucially, though, this campaign of repression has not had its intended effect. To the contrary, the MEK has only grown in popularity and public influence since the 1979 revolution and the 1988 massacre. Those who have been killed by the clerical regime were memorialized last month at a gathering in Albania, at the newly completed residence of 3,000 MEK members who had previously spent years struggling to survive amid attacks by Iran-backed militants in Iraq. Their relocation represented another significant blow to the regime's efforts at suppressing dissent, and it provided the MEK with newfound stability as it works for a change of government in Tehran.

Some 350 political dignitaries visited from 47 countries, with many delivering speeches alongside Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. These remarks overwhelmingly expressed confidence in the prospect for regime change, with Rajavi declaring that "the mullahs' religious fascism has reached the end of the line and is struggling to survive a crisis leading to its overthrow."

That crisis became evident at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, when the Islamic Republic found itself rocked by a nationwide uprising, with participants in every major city and town chanting slogans like "death to the dictator" and condemning the lack of serious differences between avowed hard-liners and so-called reformists in the regime's political mainstream. Months earlier, MEK activists had risked arrest by urging the public to boycott the polls and "vote for regime change" during the race that led to President Hassan Rouhani's re-election.

Throughout his first term, Rouhani had demonstrated disinterest in following through on his professed commitment to improving Iran's human rights record. Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in his perverse appointment of Pour-Mohammadi to head the Justice Ministry. His tacit endorsement of the regime's past crimes, and specifically of the 1988 massacre, was reiterated after his re-election when Pour-Mohammadi's replacement turned out to be another official who had helped to select victims while serving on a death commission.

And this year, supreme leader Ali Khamenei went even further in reinforcing the sense of impunity surrounding the massacre when he appointed a leading culprit in the killings, Ebrahim Raisi, to head the nation's judiciary. This appointment stands alongside the recent remarks from Pour-Mohammadi as probable signs that the regime is on course toward even greater violent repression than has pervaded the country amidst recent and ongoing protests.

For all these reasons and more, it is vitally important that the international community take steps toward holding Iranian officials to account for their past crimes. Silence from the international community would only encourage the Iranian officials' impunity.

The sense of urgency for such actions is clear as the authorities arrested over 7,000 people from students, women's rights activists to environmentalists to journalists during the protests that have been going on since last year, according to an Amnesty report.

The MEK and other critics of Tehran's human rights record have long urged the United Nations to establish a commission of inquiry into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners to ascertain the precise scope of the killings, identify the locations of secret mass graves and set the stage for prosecution of the responsible parties in the International Criminal Court.

Unfortunately, there has been some resistance to this appeal from policymakers who hope to compromise with the Islamic Republic and avoid the escalation of tensions. But for reasons that are mostly unrelated to the regime's human rights record, that escalation has already occurred. Thus, there is no more excuse for avoiding action on this particular issue.

This article first appeared in UPI