In the summer of 1988, staff at Iran’s Gohardasht prison could only communicate by tapping Morse code on each other’s walls. This way they spread the news about a so-called death committee which started mass assassinations of the political prisoners following investigations into their «devotion». Almost a quarter of a century later, many of the survivors are finally able to speak out – in safety and with clarity – about the barbaric treatment suffered under the dominating regime during this dark period of Iranian history.
Not too-dissimilar to these were the opening words of the Iran-tribunal, a trial which took place in The Hague from 25-17 October 2012, and is portrayed in the Swedish-produced documentary Those Who Said No. On trial, the Iranian authorities (although absent in court), accused of violating human rights and crimes against humanity in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, as the theoretical 1980s government tightened its grip on the Iranian population.
Private initiative. The trial was initiated and financed by a large group of victims and their loved ones, due to the distinct lack of reactions from official, international organisations to the torture and executions – done by the same, incumbent government. Prior to the trial, a truth commission was set up, which collected statements from 75 people. During the three-day trial, some 25 main witnesses spoke about their experiences as political prisoners under the Ayatollah’s fatwa against alleged communists and other oppositions, which ran between 1980 to 1988 – leading to the execution of between 15,000 – 20, 000 political prisoners. The litigation happened in front of a panel of internationally renowned judges, led by South African judge Johann Kriegler, who had experience from that country’s process of liberation from its apartheid system.
Missing responses. The trial was filmed in its entirety and screened live online, not least so Iran’s people could learn of the extensive crimes committed by their country’s authorities. However, there is no doubt that the case received far too little attention worldwide, with a still noticeable absence of reactions seen from the international community – which first and foremost have focused on Iran as a nuclear power threat. Recent negotiations about the country’s nuclear politics have made some countries, including the USA and EU, lift their sanctions against Iran, and with the reform-friendly – mostly financial reforms – powers’ recent election victory there is reason to believe that the relationship between Iran and the West will only get steadily warmer.
Physical and mental torture is explained in depth.
This makes it imperative to explain that these crimes hark back to a quite recent past, for which the Iranian government was never held responsible. The privately initiated law court in The Hague was as such not legally binding, but nevertheless concluded that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for serious breaches of the human rights and crimes against humankind in the period 1980-1988. The tribunal advised further that the UN’s Council for Human Rights start an investigative commission to probe these crimes further, and encouraged each state to follow their duties with regards to human rights and make the perpetrators accountable for their actions. It is also worth noting that the Iranian authorities still persecute and incarcerate dissidents, and that the country according to the UN is one of just a few which still execute children, some supposedly as young as nine. In the aforementioned election, only candidates who swore allegiance to the Islamic regime could stand – so the country remains far from what might be considered a real democracy.
Attempted confrontations. As a result, Those who said no served a very important function precisely by providing an extensive documentation of what came out of the Iran-tribunal in The Hague. The film was directed by Nima Sarvestani, who lost his brother under the fatwa in the 1980s, and who is also one of the trial’s witnesses. In addition, his filmed material form part of the overall evidence. Nevertheless, Sarvestani did not give himself a particularly remarkable part in the film, instead opting to focus on a couple of other implicated exile-Iranians. The closest the film has to a main character is Iraj Medsaghi, who like the film maker, resides in Sweden, and who continues to suffer health problems following the torture he was exposed to. The film follows Medsaghi as he travels to The Hague to witness at the tribunal, but first trails him as he journeys to Japan. He hopes to here confront one of those responsible for the torture and executions, who ironically is there to be part of Iran’s official delegation in an international human rights conference. A large share of the material of Those who said no is based on recorded material from the trial – which in no way makes Sarvestani’s efforts as a film maker any less impressive. On the contrary, the director (and his editor Jesper Osmund) is praised for the way the editing of this material alongside other, self-filmed scenes and various archive footage, has resulted in a very well-functioning and in many ways powerful film story.
Torture. A relatively large share of the recording is dedicated particularly harrowing witness statements. As it should, as these are voices that need to be heard. The various witnesses – ordinary people working ordinary jobs in their adopted countries – show admirable composure as they detail the terrible assaults they saw and experienced. They explain in depth about both physical and mental torture, featuring lengthy sensory deprivation which was used to break down and «retrain» opponents. Perhaps the most upsetting is hearing the film’s second most central character, himself one of the volunteers working on the technical transfer of the trial, explain from the witness stand how he was forced to pull the trigger during the execution of very young prisoners. However, this is just one of dozens of statements which leave an extremely powerful impression.
Those who said no provide a long-awaited insight into the systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity by an incumbent regime, which become no less disturbing due to the film and the witnesses’ sombre depiction. Hopefully, having made this extensive documentation available, this will no longer be met with silence.
A 58 minute-long TV version is available to watch online at NRK .