Looking Back at the Mykonos Trial The End of the Dispensable Iranian

Europe’s courts must stand up to terror against Muslims.
Von Roya Hakakian

Dawn had always arrived in Berlin's Turm Strasse with the bustling of shopkeepers and the drowsy hiss of buses pulling into their stops. Always, except on the morning of April 10, 1997. On that day, the street had been cleared of traffic and blocked to anyone but pedestrians. On the rooftop of every building leading to Nos. 91-92, snipers had been stationed.

Turm Strasse 91-92 is the address of Berlin's highest criminal court. It is also the site of one of the least known, yet most momentous events in the contemporary history of Germany and Iran. The 1992 assassinations of four Iranian Kurdish leaders at a restaurant called Mykonos led to a trial that took nearly four years and culminated in a verdict, 10 years ago today, that implicated the Iranian leadership -- the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; the president at the time, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; and the foreign minister, Ali Velayati -- as the masterminds of the crime. An arrest warrant had already been issued for the minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian.

Nostalgia has a way of augmenting reality, which may be why those who were there remember droves of thousands along the street. The crowds were ready for mayhem -- armed with bullhorns, boom-boxes and loudspeakers-- if the verdict were lenient toward the assassins, who had been members of the Hezbollah, or if it failed to address the role of the Iranian leadership in the murders, the latest in a chain of assassinations of Iranian dissidents throughout the world.

Suspense had everyone in its jittery grip. A few with mobile phones anxiously awaited calls from a handful of spectators who had managed to get inside the court. At nearly 9:30 a.m., Parviz Dastmalchi, one of the survivors of the Mykonos shootings, finally heard from a friend. "They named them all," the voice whispered at the other end. A perennial skeptic, Mr. Dastmalchi chalked the statement up to the Iranian penchant for hyperbole. But when the silent throngs on the street broke into cheers, he knew it was true.

Suddenly, the Iranian opposition was united. From one end of Turm Strasse, members of the People's Mujahedeen crossed the street to embrace monarchist sympathizers on the other side. Former enemies linked their arms as a decadent Persian dance tune called "Baba Karam" blared on the loudspeakers. Mr. Dastmalchi and other political activists who had observed the trial with stoicism began to weep. The widows and children of the victims, who had wept for years, were jubilant.

The verdict resulted in almost all the European Union's members recalling their ambassadors from Tehran for several weeks.

The diplomatic blackout is one reason Mohammad Khatami, who was lagging behind the incumbent, Mr. Rafsanjani, in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, pulled ahead. However dead the reform movement now seems -- though many insiders consider it only dormant -- it began with the election of Mr. Khatami and reached its pinnacle in 2000. That is when the investigative journalist Akbar Ganji published his series of books on the assassinations of political leaders and writers within the country. These books, which set off a debate about civil society and the rule of law among Iranian intellectuals, may have never existed without that verdict, the indefatigable German prosecutor, Bruno Jost, and the extensive volumes of testimonies and records that were released.

Through tens of hours of interviews, I have often wondered why I, the supremely squeamish, the one who reaches for the remote when an actor reaches for his revolver, should be interested in the story of so gruesome a murder. The answer came to me as I sat packed among strangers in the coach class of a Berlin-bound Continental flight: Tyrannies strip nations of dignity, as do exile and war. And I have experienced that unholy trinity. I am an exile who has lived through the Iranian regime's tyranny and the early years of the Iran-Iraq war.

The verdict in the Mykonos trial was a victory for every displaced or oppressed Iranian. Through this trial, the German judiciary restored dignity to Iranians by insisting that we were not dispensable beings. If there is one community of Muslim immigrants about whose assimilation Europe needs not worry, it is the Iranian community in Germany. By extending its laws to these immigrants, by giving them justice, the German judiciary gave Iranians a taste of what they could never have in their own country.

More than any assimilation program possibly could, this event turned ordinary Iranian immigrants into loyal German patriots. Former political prisoners, whether under the shah or the current regime, saw how a real court operates. Democracy, many of them believed, was a superior system, the right way to run a society. In this particular case, it was also highly therapeutic.

For once, Iranians had the pleasure of proving to Westerners, who are perpetually consumed by atrocities committed against their own, that the first victims of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah were Muslim Iranians, and that their war with the Western world began much later than their war against Iranians. Had Europe, had the world, spoken against those earlier crimes, the beast of terrorism may not have grown into the multiheaded monster that it is today.

What the Mykonos trial did for the cause of democracy and rule of law in Iran cannot be accomplished by military might. The 1992 case is still open, as are the cases of several other murders throughout Europe. Solving these murders and bringing justice to their victims are among the most effective steps the international community can take to strengthen the hands of the democratic forces in Iran.

Roya Hakakian, the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the author of "Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran," is writing a book about the assassinations at Mykonos.

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