July 13, is a very heartfelt and meaningful day for the Kurdish nation, a day in which the life of a much-loved and respected Kurdish leader was extinguished. We gather each year to remember Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and his colleagues. This day commemorates the passing of a great light from this world. Why do we take the time to recall a past, fallen hero?
First and foremost, Ghassemlou was a man of very high principles and uncommonly in the world of politics, he actually lived those principles. His ideas were so far ahead of his time that even within his party, he was greatly misunderstood. Ghassemlou came to his people with the vastness of the ocean and was often met with the limitations of a closed-in world.
It is twenty-two years since that tragic day when Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was struck down in Vienna. Twenty-two years of sorrow and slow movement forward in Iranian Kurdistan. Twenty-two years of impunity and complicity have also passed – during which justice has not been served. Ghassemlou was killed, but his assassins failed to destroy what he represented. His ideas of freedom and democracy continue to inspire the hearts of all those who believed in him.
We must also speak about the twenty-two years of shame – shame upon those who have allowed the murderers to flee and have kept silence to protect these wrongdoers.
Our presence here today speaks to the silent and complicit Austrian authorities as well as the Islamic regime of Iran, saying, “We do not forget.”
Our voices join those of thousands in Iranian Kurdistan and around the world who on July 13th honor Ghassemlou regardless of the threats of that criminal regime. We will continue to remind the world until justice is finally served.
The steps that led up to this heinous crime are the historical events of the Kurdish nation and Ghassemlou’s life. In looking more closely at Ghassemlou’s political program, it’s no surprise that he ended up being a target. His perspective was in direct opposition to the agenda of the Islamic Republic of Iran. From the moment he emerged as a political force, the plan he held for his country drew the ire of the regime.
The murder of Ghassemlou was not only a tragedy for the Kurds of Iran but also for the entire Kurdish nation. Ghassemlou was a farsighted leader whose political program forged a democratic and humanistic vision for his people. Especially in those days, but true also today, his national ideal went beyond local tribal agendas.
Ghassemlou was a harbinger of real unity among the Kurds. He understood that the Kurds could only gain strength as a national movement if they were united. Such unification would put an end to the cycle of short-sighted victories and manipulation of the different regional governments.
He took a higher road. Freedom and democracy, minority rights and justice were the cornerstones of Ghassemlou’s vision. He said that it was of utmost importance to protect democratic freedoms and strengthen a proper democratic government in Iran. Without a democratic regime in Iran, the Kurds could not achieve their rights, and without securing the Kurd’s rights and other nationalities in Iran, the regime could not be truly democratic.
For Ghassemlou, democracy entailed three aspects that could not be divided. These included social, economic and political democracy. Pluralism was another aspect that Ghassemlou supported. About this he said if one is a Democrat and believes in pluralism, then one must allow others to give their opinions.
Ghassemlou firmly believed that the Kurds alone could not bring forth a democratic regime in Iran. Iran is a country with many nations. Therefore it was and continues to be necessary to work with and fight with the other national groups for self-determination. We know this very well from the present-day realities. He thought that cooperation among the different national groups was paramount to bring about democracy in Iran. All nations have the right to choose their destiny; all men have the right to practice their religion.
Even though Ghassemlou’s wish was for unity, the tendency within the Kurdish parties is towards divisiveness. This is an aspect that does not seem to have changed. Personal differences and intolerance within the party ranks have been the cause for ongoing division among the Kurdish parties for generations. Even today, Kurds are still struggling to achieve an ongoing, working dialogue with one another.
Ghassemlou taught the Kurds to be proud of their identity and heritage. He realized that one of the keys to genuine social and political progress for Kurdistan was the quality of self respect. “You will learn to speak and write in Kurdish,” he would tell his peshmergas.
Thirty years ago, he embraced social democracy for his nation. To do this, he left behind the dogma of the radical left. Even though Ghassemlou’s party led an imposed armed struggle against the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the PDKI was perhaps the only Third World revolutionary movement that opposed popular terrorist methods – especially at that time.
About this Ghassemlou said: “As a democratic organization we have always opposed all acts of terrorism, be it hijacking of planes, taking hostages, putting bombs or any action that threatens the lives and security of civilians. To renounce our principles and thus lose our image as a responsible, democratic and humanitarian party, in return for fleeting publicity is both vain and useless.”
Throughout his ten years as the leader of the Iranian Kurds, following the 1979 Revolution, Ghassemlou had always sought dialogue with the authorities. War, he said, had been imposed on the Kurds who had no option but to resist and defend themselves. He believed the solution lay on the negotiation table.
In 1988, the war between Iran-Iraq was over and Ghassemlou and his Party believed that if the regime in Iran was willing to sit down with the arch enemy Saddam, why not with Kurds. At the same time Ghassemlou feared that both governments in Tehran and Bagdad would agree to crush the Kurdish rebellion in their respective countries, as it had happened in 1975 after the Algiers Accord.
Tehran reached out to Ghassemlou through Jalal Talabani (current president of Iraq) proposing a dialogue with the PDKI. The party accepted it and Ghassemlou traveled to Vienna to meet the Iranian representatives in December 1988 and January 1989.
Talabani organized the first set of meetings under extreme security measures which were supposed to continue in 1989. But the Iranians interrupted them. At the time, Talabani thought that the Iranians were abandoning the negotiations due to changes in the internal political situation in Iran: Khomeini’s health was declining and the fight for succession had intensified. In this way they deftly put Talabani aside, for their plan was in fact to murder Ghassemlou.
The Iranians then sought a dispensable intermediary, an Iraqi Kurd who had ties with influential officials in Iran. This intermediary contacted Ghassemlou and invited him to meet in Vienna once more with the Iranian delegation in July, 1989. Ghassemlou accepted but did not inform the PDKI. The party had come to believe that peace negotiations with Tehran were futile.
This second set of meetings was part of the Iranian plot to eliminate Ghassemlou. In fact, the first meetings were meant as bait that would lead to a second round of meetings without Talabani and without security measures. Absolute secrecy was probably asked of them.
Why did Ghassemlou accept this? He mistakenly believed that Iran, weakened by eight years of war with Iraq, needed to resolve the Kurdish problem after Khomeini’s death. He also felt that Rafsanjani, who had presented himself as a pragmatic candidate for the Iranian presidency, would be the man to take on the Kurdish issue.
Ghassemlou took the bait. He went to Vienna to meet with the Iranian emissaries without taking security precautions and did not inform the party.
After the first meeting on July 12th, he was confident and happy. On the second meeting, July 13 1989 Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed together with his assistant, Abdullah Ghaderi and the intermediary, Fadil Rasoul.
During the shooting a stray bullet wounded one of the emissaries. Because of this stray bullet, the Iranian plot was not the perfect murder. Two of the three Iranian emissaries negotiating with Ghassemlou were taken into custody. The head of the Austrian anti-terrorism unit was overheard saying: “We’ve got dead Kurds and surviving Iranians. The matter is clear. The rest will be politics.”
And politics it was. Tehran threatened reprisals, but there was also a political scandal, Noricum Prozess, which implicated high-level Austrian officials in the sale of weapons to Iran and Iraq violating Austria’s neutrality. So the Austrian authorities released the Iranian witnesses who left the country.
It was because of this commercial exchange of weapons with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its fear of retaliation from the Iranian regime that Austria, a democratic European state, released the witnesses and suspects of the crime. Not only did they cover up a state murder but they blocked any investigation thus becoming by omission the accomplices to a terrorist act.
In 1991 Helene Krulich, Ghassemlou’s widow, initiated a legal proceeding against the state of Austria for the crime against Ghassemlou. She said, “For us and for all the Kurdish people, the question of why Austrian justice is silent in the face of this crime is still pending.”
A year and a half later the Austrian high court ruled that “there had been no deficiencies in the proceedings, because the respective and relevant facts had not been clear to the authorities in time,” the judge said. The case was dismissed.
In 2005, the Austrian parliamentary Peter Pilz brought forth new evidence regarding the participation of the Iranian regime in the murder and allegedly implicating the then president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the newly elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the planning of the assassination.
According to this new evidence there had been two Iranian teams involved in the murder – a negotiations team and an execution team. Pilz demanded the case be reopened and that there be a parliamentary inquiry. The request was denied.
In 2009, Peter Pilz once again accused Ahmadinejad according to a confession of a German arms dealer to the Italian police. This man affirmed having delivered the weapons that killed the Kurds to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. He also said: “A certain Mahmoud who later became president had been present.”
Twenty-two years later, the case has never been resolved and the Austrian authorities have not even released the evidence.
Has anything changed within the Islamic regime of Iran since Ghassemlou’s murder in 1989?
Today the Iranian regime is not killing dissidents in Western cities due to the exposure brought forth by the Mykonos Trial, on the murder of Ghassemlou’s successor, Sadeq Sharafkandi and three colleagues in Berlin in 1992. But the elimination of dissidents has continued in Iraq, Turkey and of course in Iran.
Thanks to the Mykonos Trial, we learned that assassinations of political dissidents within Iran and abroad were ordered directly by Khomeini. After his death in 1989, a Special Affairs Committee (Komitey-e Omour-e Vizheh) was established to make decisions on matters of state. One of the issues was the suppression and elimination of political opposition to the Islamic Republic. This Committee appointed Iran’s Minister of Intelligence to oversee the systematic elimination of PDKI’s leadership. Eliminating dissidents through terror expanded as part of the regime’s internal and foreign policy.
The Mykonos trial revealed that the Islamic Republic of Iran led a ferocious, state-sponsored campaign of political assassinations abroad. From 1979 to 1992 high level Iranian officials were linked to 162 extrajudicial killings of key political opponents around the globe, especially in European cities. With the discreet tolerance of the respective governments, no justice was served. Many had commercial interests with Iran. This is yet another example of the rights of Iranian citizens being cast aside.
The crucial point here is this: had Europe and the world spoken against the earlier crimes of political dissidents, Iran’s terror machine may not have developed as it has in the years following the revolution.
We are going to be hearing much more about this topic in the talks that follow. Keep in mind as you hear the ensuing speakers, the courageous and valiant hearts of the Kurdish people. It is this spirit that beats ceaselessly within this nation, despite years of senseless crimes and persecution. When I say this will to survive endures, I mean strength and hope lives on within each and every Kurd – no matter in which nation he/she lives, the particulars of their daily lives.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou had his finger on the pulse of the Kurdish will to live and more than live, to live in freedom. He believed in the resolute dream he held most dear. That one day, his people would have the right to their culture and to live in peace. Not such a far-fetched notion, yet one that remains elusive.
The life of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou ended before he could see the actualization of this wish for his people come to fruition. While reaching for its manifestation, Ghassemlou met the untimely end that cut short his vision for a brighter and united future.
May his dream continue to guide his countrymen and women to fulfill the destiny that is rightly theirs. Though his flame was extinguished much too early, the fire and passion of his vision endures in the hearts of millions of Kurds. Ghassemlou wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.