At the outset of the 1979 Iranian revolution, in Abadan, a city in the south of Iran, the Rex cinema caught fire. More than 400 people were burnt alive. Political opposition groups immediately accused the Shah’s regime of arson. The regime, for its part, denied that it had played any role. But given that the Shah’s forces had already killed scores of protestors in Qom and Tabriz and also Savak was known for its brutal methods, and as assaults on peaceful demonstrators in different cities had become routine, no one could quite believe that the regime itself was not responsible. The incident swelled the rank and file of opposition across the entire country.
After the revolution, under pressure from the victims’ families, the post-revolutionary regime tried a number of people. It soon became clear, however, that the courts were reluctant to undertake any more thorough investigation about the crime. This seemed inscrutable. As information leaked out, it gradually became clear that the new regime’s inexplicable reluctance was due to the fact that it had not been the Shah’s regime which had set the cinema alight. It was a fanatical Muslim group within the city. Their reason was that until then, despite the city’s importance as home to the world’s largest oil refinery, it was least active in the revolution. The group therefore decided to provoke people into action. Siavash, the name of one of the accused, had joined the Islamic Republic Party after the revolution and had been “elected” from the city to the Parliament.
The memory of this horrific experience should serve as a caution for those now tasked to investigate the Houla massacre, a caution against jumping to quick conclusions. From one side, we know there are factions with the Syrian opposition which would not hesitate to use violence against any one so long as it served their goals. Recent suicide bombings creating high levels of “collateral damage” are indicators of this. From another side, when trying to understand the possible motivation for anyone to carry out such heinous acts of brutality, it is worth asking whether the Syrian regime could be so ignorant to do so during such a sensitive time, when Kofi Annan was about to return to the country. For while the brutal nature of this regime is nowhere in doubt, its levels of idiocy might be.
For the sake of the victims and their families, and for all those Syrians who are struggling for democracy, it is therefore of utmost importance that Kofi Annan undertakes a thorough investigation of the Houla massacre. He must identify and name the criminal groups and individuals involved for these savage acts. And, if any belong to opposition factions, then the democratic factions must not let justice be muffled by expediency. In the Iranian case, those responsible for the Cinema Rex massacre were rewarded by the clergy seeking power soon after the revolution, and they later, played an active role in suffocating the freedoms which had emerged after the revolution.