Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Reza was sentenced to death by the ‘Butcher of Tehran’. Now in Australia, he’s ‘forgotten nothing’

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun8,2024
Key Points
  • Iran’s late president, Ebrahim Raisi, has been buried days after he was killed in a helicopter crash.
  • Some who fled persecution in Iran say they wanted Raisi held responsible for crimes against humanity.
  • Advocates warn a new presidential election in June will not lead to significant changes in human rights in Iran.
Reza Akbari was hours away from execution for his political activities in Iran. Nearly 40 years later, having escaped to Australia, the memories of waiting on death row still haunt him.
“Death is scary; you can’t say you’re not afraid. But waiting for it is more stressful,” he told SBS News.
“It takes a minute to be hanged or killed in front of a firing squad. However, it is awful to be alive and carry all the trauma and memories that constantly resonate in your dreams and flashbacks.”

Akbari was among thousands of political prisoners who were sentenced to death in Iran in 1988, part of a mass execution ordered by Iranian authorities.

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Reza Akbari in his home in Sydney. Credit: SBS

These individuals had already been sentenced to long-term imprisonment but were suddenly isolated from the outside world and any contact with their families.

Months later, their families were notified of their execution.

Many experts believe these individuals didn’t stand a fair trial, and in 2018, Amnesty International called the executions “crimes against humanity”.

‘They killed a lot of people emotionally’

Spending years in Evin prison in Tehran, Akbari recalled the time he first heard rumours about the executions.
“We heard that they were killing some people in the prisons. We couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“Suddenly, everything started to move in front of my eyes … I thought this was the end of the story. For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of slow motion.”
The exact number of individuals killed in 1988 remains unknown. Amnesty International estimated that at least 5,000 prisoners were executed in Iran at that time.
Human Rights Watch estimated that between 2,800 and 5,000 prisoners were executed in at least 32 cities in Iran.
Akbari said on the day he was scheduled to be executed, the killings “suddenly stopped” amid internal pressures.
“We survived, and I left Iran. And here I am, having forgotten nothing,” he added.

“They not only killed people in that massacre, but they killed a lot of people emotionally and psychologically … they are criminals.”

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Reza Akbari in Iran. Credit: SBS

‘I can remember his face’

Akbari recalled seeing Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, then the country’s deputy prosecutor general, on the day he was to be executed.
“We had a blindfold, and in the middle was a tiny hole that you could see through. I saw him. I can remember his face,” he said.
“He loudly told the prison director to ‘put them in the cells individually. I will come back on Wednesday and end it.’”
In an interview with CBS News in September 2022, Raisi defended the executions.
“They were assassinating people, and what happened to them was exactly proportionate to what they did,” he said.

Raisi, who died in a helicopter accident last week, was one of the four members of a group known as the ‘death committee’ by many survivors of the executions. This group decided the fate of those jailed for their political views.

“In 1988, Raisi was involved in the deaths and enforced disappearances of at least 5,000 prisoners. And he has left a horrifying legacy in Iran of human rights abuses,” Nikita White, International Issues Campaigner for Amnesty International Australia, told SBS News.
“He oversaw the deaths of thousands of people who were political opponents, activists and protesters.”
Some activists say this didn’t stop in 1988.
“After Raisi became president in 2021, there was an increase in policing of women who were not complying with the forced veiling laws, and we saw the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in 2022 that led to the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising,” White said.
“The violent oppression of that uprising has been overseen by Raisi. That has led to detention, torture and execution of protesters.”
Iranian authorities have announced that new presidential elections will be held on 28 June.
Some advocates warned this will not lead to any significant changes in human rights.
“We’ve seen in recent years in Iran that many people like Raisi haven’t been held accountable, and instead, they have been praised.

“Unfortunately, we can’t expect to see changes in Iran,” White said.

‘My brother was one of them’

When Raisi rose to the presidency in 2021, human rights groups called for him to be investigated for crimes against humanity.
In reaction to these calls, Raisi said in a press conference that, as a judge for the 1988 cases, “he should be applauded”.
Saba Vasefi is an expert on state-sponsored violence at the University of Sydney. She escaped persecution in Iran for her research on capital punishment.
“Raisi, for over his four-decade career in Iran, is characterised by politically motivated extra-judicial killing, execution, enforced disappearance, (and) inquisition within the Islamic Republic Regime,” she told SBS News.
“As a loyalist soldier of the regime, he ascended through the ranks of power, benefiting from the bloodshed and suffering of thousands, including minors and adolescents.”
Shohreh Entesari is still seeking justice for her brother, Farshid, who was executed in 1988 at 34 years old.
This prompted her to come to Australia with her mother one year later.
“It completely changed my life. I didn’t want to leave the country, but after that, it never was the same, especially when I was thinking about what I should do if something like that happened to my children,” she told SBS News.

“Up to the end, my mum hoped that maybe he was alive and would call us. Sometimes, she was saying we shouldn’t move to Australia. She was expecting that until the end of her life [that her son is alive].”

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Shohreh Entesari with a photo of her brother, Farshid, who was killed during the 1988 executions in Iran. Credit: SBS

Farshid was first sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1981 for his political activities and executed seven years later. His family still don’t know where he was buried.

“After seven years, we were expecting him to be released. In the summer of 1988, they started executing all the political prisoners so that they didn’t change their beliefs. My brother was one of them,” Entesari said.

“I blame every single one of this government. When executing my brother, Raisi was a puppet. One thing I can say is that he lacked humanity.”

Searching for justice

After Raisi’s death, the government declared five days of mourning in memory of him and others who were killed in the crash.
Iranian state media reported that thousands marched in Iran. However, many, like Entesari, are not mourning.
“I’m happy Raisi is dead because he was responsible for the 1988 killings,” she said.
“But I’m sad at the same time because my mother and father weren’t here to witness the death of the ‘Butcher of Tehran’.
“I also wanted them to see him stand trial and pay for what he did by becoming a prisoner.”
Akbari echoed a similar sentiment.

“I definitely hate all of them. But hate is not enough. Hate is the beginning, and trying to change is the other step,” he said.

SBS approached the Iranian embassy for comment but did not receive a response.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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