Friday, January 20, 2006

Out of Terror, Hope

Francis Fukuyama, The Wall Street Journal:
One of the profound disappointments of 2005 was the election in June of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president of Iran, thus ending a period when it appeared that nation might be liberalizing and leading the Muslim world out of Islamic dictatorship. What we have, instead, is an Iran moving ahead full-bore on its "peaceful" nuclear program, with a president who thinks the Holocaust never happened and wants Israel wiped off the map.

Eventually, Iran will have to come to terms honestly with the moral legacy of its 1979 Islamic revolution -- just as former dictatorships in Chile, South Africa and El Salvador have done. The date of this reckoning has been put off indefinitely. But we have, in the interim, an important effort to set that record straight, in the form of Omid, a Web site that comes online today and documents the individual stories of the victims of the Iranian regime (

Omid (which means "hope" in Farsi) is the work of a team led by two sisters, trained as historians in France, Ladan and Roya Boroumand. Their father, Abdorrahman Boroumand, was a lawyer who worked closely with Shapur Bakhtiar, the short-lived prime minister of Iran appointed at the end of the Shah's rule who sought to liberalize the monarchy. When Bakhtiar was forced out by Ayatollah Khomeini, he and Boroumand went into exile in France. Both men were assassinated by agents of the Iranian regime in Paris in the early 1990s. Omid started as an effort to memorialize not just them, but all of the victims of the mullahs' regime.

It is unknown how many there are: The number reaches into the tens and possibly hundreds of thousands, particularly if one counts those like the children sent to clear land mines during the Iran-Iraq war. Omid is a remarkable effort to document these victims as individuals, based on careful research into publicly-available documents (mostly Iranian newspapers). The database, based on software developed specifically to track human-rights violations by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, now has nearly 10,000 people in it. A family member can search in either Farsi or English for a particular name, and find out when that person was executed, what the charges (if any) were, and how the killing violated internationally recognized standards of human rights. Omid is non-partisan and even-handed; it documents the killings of Savak agents, Communists, members of the Mujahedeen-i-Khalq (a leftist opposition group frequently accused of terrorism), and fellow-travelers who fell afoul of the clerics, as well as ordinary criminals and prostitutes denied due process.

Browsing through the database is a remarkable experience. The victims come from all religions, nationalities and walks of life.
  • There is the young girl who, by swimming in a bathing suit in her pool at home, was found guilty of "causing a state of arousal" in a neighbor and was lashed to death.
  • Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" into Japanese, was stabbed to death in Japan in 1991, presumably in response to Khomeini's fatwa to kill anyone associated with the publication of that book.
  • Azizu'llah Gulshani, a Baha'i, was executed in 1981 for "promoting the dirty, non-Islamic sect of Bahaism in the Islamic Republic of Iran."
  • Mehdi Dibaj was a Muslim who converted to Christianity and became a minister in the Assemblies of God; he was executed in 1994 for apostasy.

The charges in capital cases range from drug trafficking, prostitution and adultery to "waging war on God" and "corruption on earth."

Omid is a work in progress; the Boroumand sisters still have thousands of cases yet to enter into the database. Friends and family members of victims with more information will be able to update individual cases beyond information that is publicly available. There are thousands of other victims, unfortunately, for whom there is no record or evidence.

A project like Omid, it seems to me, has two important purposes. The first is to remind the world about the kind of regime Iran continues to be, as it seeks nuclear capabilities and expands its influence into Iraq. Extrajudicial killings have not stopped; indeed, the return of conservatives to power in Tehran has been accompanied by an upturn in executions of regime opponents in the past year. This is a dangerous model that the religious parties in Iraq may be tempted to follow.

But the documenting of individual human rights abuses serves another goal. We become inured to statistics about violence and human rights violations when the numbers reach into the thousands and thousands; we fling the numbers around as political footballs, forgetting that behind each one stands a father, daughter, friend or colleague, each with a personal history. Some day, a future Iranian regime will itself come to account with its past. Until then, the Internet has given us a wonderful resource for remembering and hoping.

Mr. Fukuyama, professor of International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy," forthcoming from Yale.