On November 27, Iran's opaque Special Court of Clerics (dadgah-e vijh-e rouhaniat), sentenced Ahmed Montazeri, the son of the late former deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, to six years in prison. The charges included "acting against national security" and "revealing state secrets".
And what was the apparent treason committed by the son of a central political figure? Montazeri posted an audio recording in August on the messaging application Telegram, which was quickly re-broadcast on the widely listened-to BBC Persian, of his father harshly criticising Iran's 1988 mass execution of political prisoners.
"In my view, the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands," stated Khomeini's one-time heir apparent to judicial authorities responsible for the decision. "They'll write your names as criminals in the history [books]."
The events of 1988 represent a grim nadir in Iran's recent human rights record. Without even the formalities of a show trial, the Iranian government summarily executed thousands of political prisoners who had languished in its jails for years. The majority were supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization, better known by their Farsi-language abbreviation MEK.
The MEK was an armed opposition group that fought against the Shah and later the Islamic Republic after being excluded from political power. In 1988, as the bloody Iran-Iraq war drew to a close, an armed wing of the MEK, called the National Liberation Army (NLA), launched an armed incursion into western Iran from its bases at the time in Iraq.
Human rights groups believe that the mass executions happened shortly after the failed attack. Multiple countries previously listed the MEK as a "terrorist organization," but following extensive lobbying efforts, it persuaded the US, UK, Canada and the EU to remove this designation in recent years. Iran's 1988 mass executions also included members of various leftist and Kurdish parties such as the Communist Tudeh Party and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran.
It is not surprising that hardliners such as Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judiciary, have staunchly defended the mass executions as legitimate under Iranian and Islamic law. However, the fact that moderate and reformist political leaders neither defended Montazeri nor condemned the grave crime of 1988, makes a mockery of the purported principles of Iran's Islamic revolution.
In addition to being a failure of moral courage, the silence is also a strategic miscalculation, as previous examples show that high-level critiques of clear abuses can attain at least a modicum of needed accountability.
During the 1990s, Iran's Intelligence Ministry was accused of orchestrating a series of assassinations of prominent Iranian intellectuals and political activists. This included the assassinations in November 1998 of Darioush and Parvaneh Forohar, widely respected political activists who had been leaders of the Mellat Party of Iran since 1951.
In January 1999, then-President Mohammad Khatami pressured the ministry to acknowledge that its members were responsible for the killings of at least five activists. Subsequently, authorities arrested 18 people and tried them in connection with the killings. They later announced that the mastermind behind the serial killings was a high-ranking Intelligence Ministry official, Saeed Emami, who then committed suicide while in custody under murky circumstances.
Following the brutal crackdown on the 2009 presidential election protests in Iran, it was strong public pressure and the firm stance of the opposition candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, that led a parliamentary panel to investigate mistreatment and torture of detained demonstrators.
This investigation was formed despite the parliament's overall lack of sympathy with Iranian protesters' demands, and in fact the two former candidates have been under house arrest since 2011. The panel stated that the former prosecutor general of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi, was directly responsible for the ill-treatment of detainees in Kahrizak Prison, outside of Tehran, and for the deaths of three detainees there.
The judicial authorities eventually opened criminal investigations of Mortazavi in 2013 that ended his role in the judiciary.
While the government's actions in both instances fall far short of achieving accountability, strong political pressure from reformists and moderates led to at least an acknowledgment of state responsibility for serious violations of human rights.
Yet in the wake of Montazeri leaking audio recordings that revealed that senior leaders acknowledged committing a mass execution, only a few serving Iranian politicians have offered mild dissent to the government's shameful official defense of this historical crime.
One member of parliament, Ali Motahari, son of a religious leader during the Iranian revolution, has asked for clarification from authorities on the audio recording. Another reformist politician, Mosatafa Tajzade, who served six years in prison following the 2009 election, apologized to the families of the 1988 mass execution and asked for their forgiveness.
To move forward, Iran needs to directly confront the legacy of atrocities committed by the government in the past, and this burden will fall on the shoulders of domestic moderate and reformist forces to push for action.
So far, a deafening silence surrounds not just President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet on this issue, but even otherwise outspoken political figures such as former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and high ranking members of the banned Mosharekat and Mojahedin-E-Enghelab parties.
These political leaders should immediately mobilise pressure on the government for Montazeri's unjust sentence to be overturned. His brave act has given them an opportunity to be on the right side of history, and to call forcefully for the complete truth, no matter where it leads. History rarely gives leaders another chance to stand on the side of justice.