Those who said no to Khomeini
Directed by Nima Sarvestani
In the summer of 1988, prisoners in the Gohardasht prison in Iran could only communicate with each other by dropping mother signals on the walls to each other. In this way, they spread the news of a so-called death committee, which initiated mass executions of the political prisoners following investigations into their "piety". Almost a quarter of a century later, many of the survivors could finally speak – with certainty and clarity – about the barbaric treatment they received from the oppressive regime in this dark period of Iran's recent history.
Just like that, some of the words that led to the Iran tribunal, a trial that took place in The Hague, 25. – 27. October 2012, which is portrayed in the Swedish-produced documentary Those who said no to Khomeini (Those Who Said No). Here, the Iranian authorities (albeit absent) stood accused of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the wake of the Islamic revolution, as the theocratic government in the eighties hardened the grip on the Iranian people.
Private initiative. The lawsuit was initiated and funded by a larger group of victims and relatives, as a result of the lack of reactions from official, international organizations to the torture and executions carried out by the same authorities – which remain in power in the country. Prior to the trial, a truth commission was also organized, where testimonies from around 75 people were collected.
Over the course of the trial, 25 main witnesses were told of their experiences as political prisoners during the Ayatollah's fatwa against alleged communists and other oppositions, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 – and which must have resulted in the execution of between 15 and 000 political prisoners. The case was brought before a panel of internationally recognized judges led by South African judge Johann Kriegler, who had experience of the country's liberation process from the apartheid system.
Lack of reactions. As it went on, the trial was filmed in its entirety and broadcast live online, not least for Iranian residents to become aware of the widespread crimes the country's authorities have committed. But there is also no doubt that this has received too little attention in the rest of the world, with a continued noticeable absence of reactions from the international community – which has primarily focused on the threat Iran poses as nuclear power. Recently, negotiations on the country's nuclear policy have, among other things, led the US and the EU to ease sanctions against Iran, and with the reform-friendly – first and foremost, economic reforms – the recent election victory of the forces is reason to believe that the Iran-West relationship will grow ever hotter.
It tells in-depth about both physical and mental torture.
This makes it no less necessary to disclose these crimes from a not-too-distant past, for which the Iranian regime has never been responsible. The privately initiated International Court of Justice in The Hague was not legally binding in this respect, but concluded that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for both gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the period from 1980 to 1988. The Tribunal further advised that the UN Human Rights Council establishes a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes, and urged all individual states to comply with their obligations under international law to place the perpetrators responsible for their actions.
It is also worth remembering that the Iranian government is constantly persecuting and imprisoning dissidents, and that the country, according to Amnesty, is one of the few where children are still executed, probably down to the age of nine. Moreover, in the said elections, only candidates who swore loyalty to the Islamist regime could stand – so the country is still far from what one might consider a real democracy.
Attempt to confront. Consequently, also serves Those who said no to Khomeini a very important function precisely by providing comprehensive documentation of what emerged during the Iran tribunal in The Hague. The film is directed by Nima Sarvestani, who himself lost his brother during the fatwa in the eighties, and who also poses as one of the witnesses during the trial – in addition to his filmed material being among the evidence presented. Sarvestani, however, has not given himself a particularly prominent role in the film, but instead focuses on a few other of the exiled Iranians involved. The closest one comes to a main character is Iraj Medsaghi, who, like the filmmaker, resides in Sweden, and who constantly has health problems after the torture he was subjected to. The film follows Medsaghi as he goes to The Hague to testify before the tribunal, but also when he makes a trip to Japan before that. Here he hopes to confront one of the centrally responsible for the torture and executions, which paradoxically will participate in Iran's official delegation to an international conference on human rights.
A big part of Those who said no to Khomeini is based on the filmed material from the trial – well not to mention without making Sarvestani's efforts as a filmmaker somewhat less impressive. On the contrary, the director (and his editor Jesper Osmund) is to be praised for how he has put this material together with his other, self-filmed sequences and various archive clips, into a very well-functioning and in many ways strong film narrative.
Torture. A relatively large part of the playing time, however, is devoted to the particularly disturbing testimonials. And it should just be missing, as these are voices that really need to be heard. With admirable fatigue, the various witnesses – ordinary people with ordinary jobs in the countries in which they have settled – lay out about the horrific abuses they have witnessed and survived. It is told in depth about both physical and mental torture, where, among other things, prolonged sensory deprivation was included in attempts to break down and "retrain" opponents. Perhaps most disturbing is hearing the film's other central character, who himself is among the volunteers working on the technical transfer of the trial, telling from the witness box how he was forced to press the trigger during the execution of some very young prisoners. But this is just one of multiple testimonials that make an extremely strong impression.
Those who said no to Khomeini provides a long-awaited insight into the systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity of a constantly-seated regime, which is no less appalling by the film's as well as the witnesses' sober presentation. Hopefully, the extensive documentation that is now on the table will cause this to no longer be met with silence.
A 58 minute TV version can be watched NRK webcast.