Norman Paech, a prominent member of the German left party, Die Linke, has joined others in withdrawing his support for the Iran Tribunal after approaches from supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran, reports Tina Becker. This is an edited version of an article recently published on the website of the German magazine Hintergrund1
The Iran Tribunal continues to divide the Iranian left. Yassamine Mather’s articles in the Weekly Worker have been hotly debated in Iran, across Europe and the United States. Since she started to expose the links of the organisers to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a number of organisations and individuals have withdrawn their support. Other groups and parties have split over the issue.
It is therefore timely to take a closer look at the tribunal, its gestation, its corruption - and the fallout from Hopi’s scathing criticism.
During the 1980s, tens of thousands of political activists in Iran were arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Many leftwingers fled abroad and around 20,000 dissidents were murdered. The worst massacre was in the summer of 1988, when between 5,000 and 7,000 political prisoners were systematically executed in a matter of weeks, their bodies dumped in anonymous mass graves.
Since then, the relatives and former comrades of those killed have fought for justice. But how to do that in today’s world? That is the question that has sparked heated debates amongst the Iranian left. They are united in the view that a first, important step should be the publication of the details of the massacre. After all, the government in Teheran has never admitted these crimes and continues its cover-up. Many of those responsible remain in power.
“For many years, we have been fighting for an independent commission to examine the horrific murders and name the guilty parties. Our model is the Russell Tribunal, which was established by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967 and which exposed very effectively the crimes committed by the US military in Vietnam.” says Yassamine Mather, who has been living in exile in London for almost 30 years and today is chair of Hands Off the People of Iran. After dozens of her comrades were executed in the early 80s, comrade Mather and other members of her organisation - Fedayeen (minority) - fled to Kurdistan to continue their struggle. From exile, she watched in horror as many more of her comrades and political friends were murdered.
Like other exiled Iranians, she initially supported the preparations for the Iran Tribunal. She even supplied it with evidence. An impressive range of international politicians and lawyers were won to the project - for example, from Germany Norman Paech, a prominent member of the leftwing party, Die Linke, and respected professor of law.
The first stage of the tribunal sat from June 18-22 in Amnesty International’s London HQ, where 60 witnesses (all of them survivors of the massacre or relatives of those murdered) gave accounts to the “truth commission” detailing their experiences and those of their family members (they had also supplied written statements beforehand). A report of 359 pages has since been published on the tribunal’s website. It contains an overview of the horrific conditions in the prisons, a list of the names of the torturers and a detailed report of some executions. But the fully published witness statements in particular throw a harsh light on the brutal events. Rapes, beatings and torture were not just common, but the norm.
None of this evidence is really new or previously unknown - but the sheer volume of testimony underlines the brutal truth that the opposition was systematically exterminated. Thousands of political prisoners were set to be released in 1988. Their original crimes? Some had been arrested for distributing leaflets, others were members of banned organisations, some had helped to organise strikes and demonstrations. Most were arrested in the first wave of oppression in the early 1980s and sentenced to six or seven years in prison.
Their looming release came at a very inconvenient time for the government in Tehran. The exhausting and unpopular war against Iraq had come to an end, leaving the theocratic regime weakened and isolated. The regime was filled with horror at the prospect of thousands of left and militant oppositionists being released to potentially cohere and organise the growing discontent of wide swathes of the population. And so all political prisoners were dragged before makeshift courts, where an Islamic judge, a prosecutor and a representative of the intelligence services decided whether they were to live or die. There were no defence lawyers, no evidence, no jury.
The Iran Tribunal heard that these kangaroo courts then demanded to know if the prisoners were Muslim, if they prayed to god and if they had changed their political beliefs. If the judge did not like an answer, the defendant was sentenced to death. The condemned were piled into lorries and driven away to be hanged or shot - often in intervals of 30 minutes. Many relatives were informed only months later; others have never been told.
This gruesome report of the truth commission will be handed to a ‘court’ in a second stage of the tribunal. This court, made up of human rights lawyers from around the world, will meet in The Hague from October 25-27 in order to evaluate the material and announce a judgement.
“Of course, we cannot implement this judgement or the results of the commission,” say the organisers. “But the proceedings give tens of thousands of families a voice for the first time.”
So far, so supportable.
However, Yassamine Mather and others withdrew their initial cooperation when they noticed that the tribunal’s materials totally failed to mention the anti-Iran war plans of the United States and Israel. “The danger of war grows every day. I am a strong opponent of the regime in Tehran - but a war would be disastrous for the forces in Iran who have a real interest in democracy: the workers, women’s groups and social movements in that country.” Without clear opposition to war and sanctions, this tribunal effectively strengthens the hand of all those reactionary forces contemplating a military attack on Iran, Yassamine Mather says.
Mather wrote to the tribunal’s committee to point out the need for a clear statement against war and sanctions. She also reminded them that many of those killed were actually socialists who were implacable not simply in their opposition to the Iranian regime, but also capitalism and imperialism. Surely, given this, it was incumbent on the tribunal to make its position on the terrible prospect of another disastrous war in the Middle East crystal clear. “I never even got a reply,” she notes.
Mather and other Iranians were taken aback by this silence and took a closer look at the committee, its composition and its funding. They soon uncovered the fact that the tribunal is supported and financed by the Iran Human Rights Documentation group, whose founder, Payam Akhavan, acts as the chair and spokesperson of the tribunal’s steering committee.
The IHRD has over the years received a large amount of funding from the US government.2 Akhavan is also active in Human Rights and Democracy for Iran (also known as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation). This is financed by a variety of American and European foundations, amongst them the infamous National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED was founded in 1983 by former US president Ronald Reagan to spread his version of “democracy” around the globe.
It is established fact that the US has destabilised and sponsored coup d’etats and proxy wars to rid itself of regimes it regards as hostile to its interests. The CIA finances, organises and trains local pro-US opposition groups. In Chile, Guatemala and many other countries, democratically elected governments were overthrown and replaced by dictators, some of whom went on to oppress their peoples for decades. In 1953 the CIA - with the help of the British government - toppled the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh.
While the war drums beating against Tehran make it clear that military force remains on the agenda, the US strategy has been refined and more layers of sophistication have been added. In particular, in the aftermath of the collapse of USSR and the regimes of eastern Europe, pro-western regime change from above is pursued under the banner of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’.
In the Iranian presidential elections of 2009, the west heavily supported presidential green movement candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi. The ‘democratic’ credentials of this man expose the hollowness of all the talk of ‘democracy’ that comes out of Washington and London. Ironically, he was actually prime minister of Iran in 1988 and thus directly responsible for the mass murders and the extermination of the opposition (even if he did not order them personally). Unsurprisingly then, the opposition politically differentiated and split; the ‘green wave’, which brought more than a million people onto the streets of Iran, has largely ebbed away.
“The NED is supposedly a private, non-government, non-profit foundation, but it receives a yearly appropriation from the US Congress,” explains the former CIA agent Philip Agee in an article on the website Clearing House.3 In 2009, it was funded to the tune of $135 million by the US government.
“No left activist should accept money from such sources,” says Mark Fischer, chair of Hands Off the People of Iran. “When they do, what started as a worthy project that originated on the anti-war left - to hold the Iranian regime to account for its crimes - is totally usurped and turned into its opposite. The tribunal has become part of the drive by Washington to topple the Islamic government and replace it with a US- and Israel-friendly regime.”
Yassamine Mather and Hopi have been sharply criticised by some for their ‘purism’ - ‘What is so bad about accepting money from the US government?’ some have asked. After all, it is possible to receive funds from pigs without having to grunt yourself.
“Of course it is,” responds Fischer. “But only if the financier places no political conditions or demands on you. But the NED is an important arm of US-sponsored foreign policy.” Fischer says it is no coincidence or oversight that the website of the tribunal does not come out in opposition to war and sanctions. Or that it does not mention even once that many of the victims of the 1988 massacre were communists and socialists.
The main organiser of the tribunal, Payam Akhavan, is not only centrally involved in a number of organisations that have accepted money from the NED and various western governments. For years, he has been pushing his sponsors’ agenda for ever harsher sanctions on Iran (and, in effect, regime change from above). He is one of the authors of the International report published by the ‘Responsibility to Prevent Coalition’, which calls for “a comprehensive set of generic remedies - smart sanctions - to combat the critical mass of threat, including threat-specific remedies for each of the nuclear, incitement, terrorist and rights-violating threats”. This 2010 report was, incidentally, also signed by Tory MP Michael Gove and "Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy".4
In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, Akhavan boasts: “After years of lobbying, we succeeded in persuading both the US and EU to adopt targeted sanctions against Iranian officials. Canada is far behind in this regard.”5 On March 8, he attended a meeting of the European Union to present a report he had co-authored that contains the proposal to blacklist not just “individuals”, but “the organisations and government bodies that commit these violations”, which “should also be put under sanction”.6
And wasn’t he successful? Since sanctions were ratcheted up on July 1, the Iranian currency, the rial, has gone into freefall: it has lost 57% of its value in the past three months and 75% in comparison with the end of last year. The result: the price of staple goods is soaring, leaving many Iranians in dire poverty and hunger. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services. Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs,” reports The Guardian.7
In the mind of Akhavan and his sponsors in the west, these sanctions will destabilise the theocratic regime, so that it can be easily toppled. But, while there have been clashes on the streets of Tehran over the price of food - even stallholders at the Grand Bazaar are supporting the demonstrators8 - most Iranians will tell you that the sanctions are the main reason for their misery. In other words, they help deflect opposition away from the theocratic regime.
“Financially and politically the tribunal is an integral part of the campaign for ‘regime change from above’,” says Fischer. This is a multi-front campaign that utilises bombs, military threats, sanctions, killer commandos despatched by the Israeli secret service Mossad ... and ‘human rights’ initiatives like the Iran Tribunal. For the sake of legitimacy - especially when it comes to ‘soft war’ initiatives like the IT or sanctions - the support of pliant politicians of the Iranian opposition is vital in this. Indeed, some of these forces have foolishly suggested that the worse the social conditions become in Iran, the weaker the regime.
Yassamine Mather adds: “Actually, what is weakened first and foremost are the ordinary people in Iran. The workers’ movements and women’s organisations are currently more feeble and embattled than they have been for many years. People struggle to get by in worsening economic conditions and simply have no time, space or energy for the political fight.”
Comrade Mather also criticises the composition of the steering committee of the tribunal, which “reads like a ‘who’s who’ of establishment luminaries who fight for ‘human rights’ in a total political vacuum”: eg, Sir Geoffrey Nice is a supporter of the Human Rights Commission of the British Conservative Party; lawyer John Cooper is also a well-known Tory. Payam Akhavan was voted “young global leader” at the World Economic Forum in 2005. All three are well-known, high-ranking lawyers, who in the name of what they dub “the international community” have over the years confronted many dictators and government heads in international courts (generally when these have turned on their former sponsors in the US, of course).
The government in Tehran was able to easily dismiss the tribunal as part of a western plot against Iran: the radio stations, Voice of America and Radio Free Iran - both financed by Washington - broadcast the witness statements uncut and for many hours.
Israeli socialist and Hopi supporter Moshé Machover believes that some of the organisers and participants have “acted with evident good will, but that is not enough. It often happens that people of good intentions lend themselves out of naivety to be exploited by evil forces. This is a danger that we must always guard against. Many good people, out of genuine and justified concern for women’s rights, were duped into lending legitimacy to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001; and similarly good people, with genuine horror of Saddam Husain's atrocities, were duped in 2003 into lending legitimacy to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.”
From as early as 2010, a number of former political prisoners have been criticising the mooted tribunal and its links to the US government. But the body only became the subject of an international controversy when Yassamine Mather began to publish her damning research in the Weekly Worker from June 2012.
Many Iranians have since added to her critical voice. For example, a number of tribunal witnesses have used their statements to condemn the links of the committee to the NED and publicly stated that they are against war and sanctions on Iran. Several organisations have withdrawn their witnesses, support for and cooperation with the tribunal - amongst them Rahe Kargar (Komitee Ejraai) and the communist organisation Charikhaye Fadai Khalgh (one of the offshoots of the original Fedayeen). Others, like the Communist Party of Iran, have dropped their support. The Marxist-Leninist Party of Iran (Maoist) has split over the issue, as has the Iranian Left Socialist Alliance in the US and Canada.
The most ferocious criticism has come from the tribunal’s Norwegian support committee. In two highly critical statements it describes how all IT witnesses who arrived in London on June 17 were taken to a briefing session, where they were explicitly asked not to raise any politics during their session. They would not be asked the name of their organisation or their political views, as this was “not a political tribunal”.
Worse, they then spotted Maurice Copithorne, who was about to chair one of the sessions. Between 1995 and 2002 he acted as UN human rights rapporteur for Iran. “Some Iranians travelled to meet him in 1995 in order to get him to start an investigation of the 1988 massacre,” according to a member of the Norwegian committee. “But they weren’t even allowed to meet him. His aide told them that he would only deal with the current situation in Iran and was not interested in things from the past.”
Of course, this was at a time when the US was making efforts to stage a rapprochement with Tehran and to enlist it as an ally in the fight against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. It was in this geo-political context that Copithorne’s 1998 annual human rights report was seen as a “political whitewash” of the theocracy’s oppression, explains Yassamine Mather. For example, in that report he opines that, “while the Islamic Republic of Iran is making progress in the field of human rights, this progress is uneven and a number of sectors are, at this time, being left behind. The government needs to broaden its agenda for change and to declare a strong commitment to achieving certain goals within specified time-frames.”9 This brand of almost technocratic advice to encourage the Tehran regime’s human rights “progress” seems surreal when the grim daily reality of poverty, repression and censorship for ordinary Iranians is borne in mind.
Copithorne’s sudden interest in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners (in the new geo-political context of a US-led drive to war against Iran, of course) impressed few and most of the witnesses from Norway (as well as a number from Great Britain and Germany) decided at this point to withdraw from the proceedings. In protest at the farce unfolding in London, the Norwegian committee decided to dissolve itself, explaining that its members felt they had been “duped” by the organisers. In its statements, the presence of Copithorne, Nice and Cooper is criticised, as are the attempts to depoliticise the witness statements, and, of course, Akhavan’s leading role in the whole initiative and his links to the Broumand Foundation and IHDRC are emphatically rejected.
One witness, however, wanted to challenge the tribunal and at the end of his 30-minute session made an anti-imperialist statement. Outrageously, his whole statement was excluded from the tribunal’s report.
The furore has now started to make waves amongst the non-Iranian left. When Hopi supporters confronted the leading German politician cited at the beginning of this document, Norman Paech of Die Linke, with the evidence gathered by comrade Mather, he immediately cut off his cooperation with the tribunal. This is his statement in full:
“I have indeed supported the intention and the work of the committee to prepare this tribunal. I still think it is absolutely necessary that all facts about the horrific murders, the torture and the crimes of the 1980s are brought to light. But the background of the funding and the obvious links to the NED, of which I had no knowledge and which have only just been brought to my attention, make it impossible for me to continue this support. I find myself in particularly strong disagreement with the committee when it comes to my resolute opposition to sanctions and the threat of war on Iran. I do not want to be part of a project which is supported by the pro-war Mujahedin.”
He has since come under pressure from a number of Iranians in Germany to withdraw his statement. But his political biography suggests he is astute enough to stand firm.
Paech left the then governing Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 2001, when it sent German troops to Afghanistan. He became a member of parliament for Die Linke in Germany in 2005, where he acted as the fraction’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and led the (failed) attempt by the party to declare the despatch of fighter jets to Afghanistan to be illegal. In 2010 he was on board the ship, Mavi Marmara, which attempted to deliver goods and food to Gaza. Notoriously, it was raided by the Israeli army and nine people were killed. Afterwards, Paech and two other Die Linke members on board were heavily criticised by the German media for their involvement, which “also harboured many extremists and Hamas supporters”. Because of the still strong German ‘collective guilt’ complex over World War II and the holocaust, any kind of criticism of Israel is widely misconstrued as anti-Semitism and Paech was slammed even by right wing sections of his own party.
It is also important to point out that, to his credit, he has been very critical of attempts to charge so-called ‘war criminals’ in international courts. These courts act very much as the courts of the victors who are rewriting history for their own purpose. They are not interested in and cannot deliver ‘justice’.
We should also have no illusions in the ability of the US, Israel or any western government to bring democracy to Iran. Iraq and Afghanistan surely serve as horrific examples of imperialist-led ‘regime change from above’.
“In reality, the plan is to rebuild the politically unstable Middle East in a US-friendly way and preserve the regional hegemony of Israel. The biggest obstacle here is the regime in Iran,” says Machover. The Iran Tribunal is now a secondary, but nonetheless important, part of that reactionary project.
Despite all of this, there are still a number of Iranian ‘left’ groups who continue to support the tribunal as an important element of their opposition to Tehran: for example, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). For this organisation, the overthrow of the regime has always been the key objective and it explicitly supports sanctions and war to achieve it (in the first Gulf War, it famously sided with Saddam Hussein and supported his attacks on Iran, including militarily). The Mujahedin’s backing for the Iran Tribunal is actually disputed by the organisation, yet the involvement of people with close links to the MEK seems to tell a different story. Hardly surprising: after all, the US government has recently announced that it has removed the Mujahedin from its list of terrorist organisations.
Leila Ghalehbani (who is featured in a video on the tribunal’s front page) is the sister of a number of Mujahedin prisoners who were killed in 1988. Iraj Mesdaghi, a survivor of the massacre, describes himself as “a former member” of the organisation. The website of the pro-Mujahedin organisation, Human Rights and Democracy for Iran, has just published a very sympathetic interview with Payam Akhavan, in which he is sympathetically prompted to tell readers how he feels about being “slandered” by the Weekly Worker.11
“For some, the end justifies the means,” concludes Yassamine Mather. “They think that sanctions, the tribunal, even the threat of war will help to topple the regime in Iran and their day will have come. But they seem to wilfully ignore the fact that the US and Israel have no interest in democracy of any sort for Iran. So they are playing a dangerous game. I am sure that many of those who were killed in 1988 would be turning in their grave if they could now see what has happened to their comrades.”
Hopefully, many other politicians and left activists and organisations follow Norman Paech’s lead and disengage from the tribunal. What we need is a genuinely independent tribunal that can investigate the crimes - and at the same time speak out against war and sanctions on Iran.
7. The Guardian October 1.