Cinema Rex fire

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Cinema rex fire headlines
Cinema Rex building after the fire

On 19 August 1978 in the Cinema Rex fire, the Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, was set ablaze, killing at least 470 individuals.[1]

The ruling government of Iran reported that Islamic militants set the fire, while the anti-Shah protesters blamed the intelligence service of the nation, SAVAK for setting the fire.[2][3] Later it was disclosed that Islamic militants set the Cinema Rex fire.[4][5][6][7]

Death toll[edit]

Family members of a victim overlook a cemetery dotted with unmarked graves. Many of the dead were simply unidentifiable due to the extent of their burns

There is speculation over the actual number of casualties incurred during the fire. Various sources draw their own conclusions concerning the death toll. Some of the numbers considered include: 400,[8] 410,[9] 430,[10] and (over) 800.[11] The National Fire Protection Association, a reputable source on fire-related issues lists the number of dead at 422.[12]

A 1980 Amnesty-International report states that there were 438 victims, including individuals who were tried and wrongfully executed after the fire itself.[13]

According to Daniel L. Bynam in the Washington Post in 2007, the fire was "the second-deadliest terrorist attack in modern history," after only the September 11th, 2001 attacks; it has since been surpassed by the 2007 Kahtaniya bombings in Iraq, which killed 796.

Motives and responsibility[edit]

There have been numerous allegations in the past regarding the circumstances which led to the Cinema Rex fire, however it is certain that it was a key event that triggered the Iranian revolution in 1978.

Initially, the revolutionaries alleged that intelligence SAVAK agents were in pursuit of individuals who ran into the movie theatre and used it as an opportunity to hide in a large crowd at the cinema. Later, either the fugitives, or the SAVAK agents chasing them decided to lock the doors of the cinema, and a fire was started in the theatre presumably by the fugitives. Unable to escape from the building, everyone inside the cinema died as a result of the conflagration.

Later findings showed that revolutionaries (presumably Islamists) started the fire in order to cause anger and hate against the Shah and his government.[4][5][6][7][14]

The Iranian newspaper Sobhe Emruz pointed fingers to the radical Islamists in an editorial, "Don't make us disclose who were really behind the Cinema Rex fire" they said. This caused the newspaper to be shut down shortly after.

Post-Islamic revolution follow up of the case[edit]

According to the Washington-based IranRights.org, the families of the victims followed up the case and the newly established Islamic regime arrested Captain Monir Taheri. The Revolutionary Tribunal of Rudsar showed that Captain Taheri had received guerrilla training in the United States, while the defense maintained that Taheri had never visited Abadan, stressing that he was in Ahvaz at the time of the blaze. The revolutionary tribunal found Taheri "guilty" and executed him shortly thereafter on February 23, 1979.[15]

According to Washington-based IranRights.org:

The day after Captain Taheri’s execution, his family asserted his innocence in an open letter published in the press and called on his fellow officers to come forward and testify. The letter also refuted the allegation regarding the defendant's guerrlla training in the US and referred to the fact that he had never traveled outside Iran. The letter refuted the charge related to the Cinema Rex fire noting that Captain Taheri had never been in Abadan and that there are documents proving that at that time he was on vacation elsewhere. The Medal of Honor, it stressed, was given to him prior to the Rex Cinema fire.

After an effective public campaign headed by disillusioned families of Cinema Rex victims, that included a four-and-a-half month sit-in at a government office, a representative of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Zia Rohani, presided over a public trial that would reopen the Cinema Rex case for the final time.

Lasting from August 25 to September 4, 1980, the Revolutionary Tribunal would oversee seventeen court sessions that involved the trial of twenty six individuals, including the only survivor of the four-man arson team. After much deliberation, Hossein Takbalizadeh, the lone surviving arsonist, and five others were put to death in public.

“In his defense statement, the principal defendant admitted to having started the fire along with three other religious activists and denied having had connections with the former regime’s security apparatus.”[13] Many families believed that the main group that was leading the religious activists involved in the tragedy escaped justice.

Books and references[edit]

Dillip Hiro, author of Iran Under the Ayatollahs, said that anti-Shah groups were not likely to have caused the fire, since the Cinema Rex was located in a working-class neighborhood and showed the film Gavaznha ("The Deer"); Hiro added that Gavaznha "passed the censors with considerable difficulty." Hiro also said that the deliberate closure of the cinema doors and the local fire station's efforts, which Hiro described as "tepid," strengthened the public belief that the Shah had the cinema burned.[3]

According to Roy Mottahedeh, author of The Mantle of the Prophet, "thousands of Iranians who had felt neutral and had until now thought that the struggle was only between the shah and supporters of religiously conservative mullahs felt that the government might put their own lives on the block to save itself. Suddenly, for hundreds of thousands, the movement was their own business."[16]

According to Daniel L. Byman, "The movies were an affront to God, encouraging vice and Western-style decadence. So in August 1978, four Shiite revolutionaries locked the doors of the Cinema Rex in the Iranian city of Abadan and set the theater on fire…" (see Byman).

Finally, Islamists opposed cinema for ideological or doctrinal reasons. While Shia Muslims (unlike some strict Sunni Muslims) do not forbid pictures, many strict Shia believe any motion pictures "with music, dance or any other un-Islamic portrayal is haram to view." Ever since motion pictures were first introduced into Iran at the turn of the 20th century, the clerical establishment saw the medium as not only a threat to moral righteousness, but also a direct attack on their position as authority figures. The depiction of women without proper religious attire and other blasphemous content furthered anti-Western sentiment, solidifying an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that in part continues to maintain clerical dominance over Iranian society.[8]

As the event took place during the revolutionary period, it was quite difficult to make out who the perpetrator(s) was (were), making ill-conceived accusations rather prevalent. Many elements of the revolutionary bloc laid blame on Mohammad Reza Shah, the now deposed monarch of Iran, and SAVAK (Sazeman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat-e Keshvar), the country’s domestic security and intelligence service. Although sufficient evidence was never brought forth to facilitate such claims, the labeling would have far-reaching implications on the subsequent direction of the revolutionary movement. The circumstances in which the fire was set did not aid in the shah’s pleas of innocence either. The timing and the location of the incident (an impoverished district of Abadan) did not coincide with preceding patterns of protestation, which raised the level of suspicion. It was also believed that the shah specifically targeted Cinema Rex for the sole purpose of killing political dissidents who had gathered to watch a controversial anti-government film called Gavaznha (The Deer) starring well-known actor Behrouz Vossoughi.[10][17][18]

Another highly unlikely rumour suggested that the shah intentionally blamed the incident on Islamist militants in an attempt to discredit and potentially dislodge them from their growing influence within the undefined hierarchy of the revolutionary forces.[13]

Captain Monir Taheri’s trial and execution[edit]

Captain Monir Taheri after his execution

After the success of the revolutionary forces, Islamic tribunals were established as part of the Islamization of society. Members of the shah's regime who were unable or chose not to leave the country were often subject to the judgment of the newly instated judicial process. In the midst of revolutionary terror and general uncertainty, many were tried and convicted for crimes they had little or nothing to do with. This was for the purpose of quelling the population’s thirst for revolutionary justice. The Cinema Rex fire was an event that continued to loom over the minds of many Iranians, and closure, no matter how vulgar the result, was vital not only for legitimizing the newborn government’s capacity to fulfill public demands, but also to crush any form of royal revivalism.

Captain Monir Taheri, member of Iran’s pre-revolutionary armed forces, was arrested in the town of Mianeh, two days before his trial and execution, on February 21, 1979; a few months after the fire at Cinema Rex. According to published sources, there was no evidence to suggest that the Captain had any involvement in the fire. Additionally, no mention of Taheri was made by either defense or prosecution staff during the public trial of 1980. Like many other defendants who were brought before an Islamic tribunal at this time, Taheri was not given sufficient time to organize any form of defense.

Before his execution by firing squad on February 23, 1979, the court fulfilled four of Taheri’s requests, including: not to be blindfolded, to avoid being photographed during the execution, to personally give the firing squad the order to fire, and to return his body to his family.[13]

Public trial[edit]

After Captain Taheri’s family protested the charges that eventually led to the officer’s execution, the public had quickly become restless over the secretive posture assumed by Abadan authorities. After an effective public campaign headed by the disillusioned families of Cinema Rex victims that included a four-and-a-half month sit-in at a government office, a representative of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Zia Rohani, presided over a public trial that would reopen the Cinema Rex case for the final time.

Lasting from August 25 to September 4, 1980, the Revolutionary Tribunal would oversee seventeen court sessions that involved the trial of twenty six individuals, including the only survivor of the four-man arson team. After much deliberation, Hossein Takbalizadeh, the lone surviving arsonist, and five others were put to death in public.

“In his defense statement, the principal defendant admitted to having started the fire along with three other religious activists and denied having had connections with the former regime’s security apparatus.”[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Stay informed today and every day (2012-11-03). "Iran: In with the madding crowd". The Economist. Retrieved 2014-03-02. 
  2. ^ Daniel, Elton L. and Mahdi, Ali Akbar (2006) Culture and Customs of Iran Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, page 106, ISBN 0-313-32053-5
  3. ^ a b Hiro, Dilip (1985) Iran Under the Ayatollahs Routledge and K. Paul, London, page 74, ISBN 0-7100-9924-X
  4. ^ a b Afkhami, R. Gholam (2009) The life and times of the Shah University of California Press, page 465 & 459, ISBN 0-520-25328-0
  5. ^ a b Ansari, M. Ali (2007) Modern Iran: the Pahlavis and after Pearson Education, page 259, ISBN 1-4058-4084-6
  6. ^ a b Federal Research Division (2004) Iran A Country Study Kessinger Publishing, page 78, ISBN 1-4191-2670-9
  7. ^ a b Bahl, Taru, Syed, M.H (2003) Encyclopaedia of the Muslim World Anmol Publications PVT. LTD., 2003, page 105, ISBN 81-261-1419-3
  8. ^ a b Haghighat, Mamad (2000). "After the revolution: the cinema will carry us - cinema flourishes in Iran". Find Articles. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  9. ^ "The Iranian Revolution: King Pahlavi (the Shah) against Dissent". MacroHistory: The Prehistory to the 21st Century. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  10. ^ a b "Abadan". Answers.com. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  11. ^ "The Real Iranian Hostage Story". Venus Project. Archived from the original on 2006-08-12. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  12. ^ "Important dates in fire history". National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  13. ^ a b c d e "One person's story: Mr. Monir Taheri". Boroumand Foundation. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  14. ^ Glenn Eldon Curtis, Library of Congress (2008) Iran: a country study Government Printing Office, page 48, ISBN 0-8444-1187-6
  15. ^ "Mr. Monir Taheri - Iran Human Rights Memorial". Iranrights.org. Retrieved 2014-03-02. 
  16. ^ Mottahedeh, Roy (2004). The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, page 375.
  17. ^ "The unvanquished". Behrouz Vossoughi.com. Archived from the original on 2006-10-23. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 
  18. ^ "The hero and the heroin". Payvand. Retrieved 2006-08-21. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Mottahedeh, Roy P. - The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, Oxford, Oneworld, 2000.
  • Byman, Daniel L. The Rise of Low-Tech Terrorism, Washington Post, 6 May 2007: B03.

External links[edit]