Iranian authorities have ordered members of the minority Bahai religious community to bury their dead in a former mass grave for political prisoners executed in 1988. Bahai families, as well as relatives of those already buried there, denounce the situation and state that the instruction was issued last week.
Bahais are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, numbering some 300,000 people, and have been systematically persecuted for 42 years and branded as a heretical religion by the government, as widely reported by the United Nations. More than 200 Bahais were executed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and, since the 1980s, they have had no access to higher education or decent livelihoods, have been defamed in the media and even had their cemeteries desecrated.
They are one of many religious minorities in Iran who routinely face harassment, persecution and imprisonment by the authorities simply for practising their faith, as well as regular destruction of their burial sites, according to several human rights groups. Bahais used to bury their loved ones in a space previously set aside for them in Tehran's Khavaran cemetery, located in the southeast of the city, alongside Hindus and Armenian Christians, but recent orders have forced them to change this practice.
Baha'i families have told the BBC that the Iranian authorities have ordered them to start using the nearby site of a 1988 mass grave, initially created when former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners held by the state in the tumultuous years following the Iranian revolution.
Families and human rights activists fear that by burying people at the site, the Islamic Republic is trying to erase evidence of the executions, which remain a sensitive issue in Iran even today. Simin Fahandej, a representative of the Bahai International Community, told the BBC that his community did not want to use the mass grave, not only out of respect for their dead, but also for the executed prisoners.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government began desecrating and, in some cases, demolishing Bahai cemeteries in Tehran and throughout the country. In 1981, the central Baha'i cemetery in Tehran was confiscated and more than 15,000 graves were demolished. Subsequently, the Bahais were allocated a plot of land in this cemetery, in a part colloquially known as the 'place of the damned'. However, the government refused to sell the entire property to the Bahais and has since substantially increased the price of each plot.
The Bahais are now forced to choose between impossible options. One is to use the narrow spaces between the existing graves to bury their loved ones, while the other is to use a massive grave of political prisoners, which the authorities say it has recently emptied.
A letter signed by 79 families of executed prisoners addressed to Tehran's mayor and President Hasan Rohani said: "Do not coerce Bahais to bury their loved ones in the mass grave. Don't rub salt in our old wound". Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International's deputy Middle East director, said: "This is the latest in a series of criminal attempts over the years by the Iranian authorities to destroy the mass graves of victims of the 1988 prison massacres in an attempt to remove crucial evidence of these crimes against humanity. "In addition to causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Bahai minority by depriving them of their right to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, the Iranian authorities are deliberately destroying the scene of a crime" he added.
Most of those buried in the graves belonged to the Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), an armed group that took part in the 1979 revolution but was subsequently banned by the Islamic Republic and violently suppressed. At least 4,000 MEK members are believed to have been executed after sham trials, although the group claims the figure is as high as 30,000. In a statement, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the umbrella body of the MEK and its remaining members, said: "Destroying the graves of the martyrs of the 1988 massacre to remove evidence of the crime against humanity is a well-known practice of the clerical regime.