Cinema Rex fire
|Cinema Rex fire|
|Date||19 August 1978 |
|Arson, mass murder, terrorism|
The Cinema Rex, located in Abadan, Iran, was set ablaze on 19 August 1978, killing 377 or at least 420 people. The event started when four men doused the building with airplane fuel before setting it alight. The attack was responsible for triggering the 1979 Iranian Revolution which saw the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy. It was the largest terrorist attack in history until the 1990 massacre of Sri Lankan Police officers, which itself was later surpassed by the September 11 attacks.
The ruling Pahlavi dynasty initially blamed "Islamic Marxists" for the fire and later reported that Islamic militants started the fire, while anti-Pahlavi protesters blamed SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, for setting the fire.
On 19 August 1978 at the Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, hundreds of people were watching The Deer when, at 20:21, four men barred the doors of the cinema and doused it with petrol from a can. The fire started outside three entrance doors to the main hall after the attackers allegedly dropped a match into the petrol. The attackers then fled and blocked the doors from the outside. Some people attempted to escape by the roof.
Motives and responsibility
There have been numerous allegations regarding the identity of the perpetrators of the Cinema Rex fire, but it is certain that the event was a key trigger for the Iranian revolution in 1978. Initially, the revolutionaries alleged that SAVAK intelligence agents were in pursuit of individuals who ran into the theatre and used it as an opportunity to hide in a large crowd there. Later, the fugitives (or the SAVAK agents chasing them) locked the doors of the cinema. Unable to escape from the building, everyone inside the cinema died in the conflagration. The Iranian newspaper Sobhe Emruz blamed radical Islamists in an editorial addressing Kayhan newspaper run by Shariatmadari (Shariatmadari has been described as being "a close confidant of Iran’s supreme leader" Ali Khamenei, and as having "links" to Iran's intelligence services). Sobhe Emruz wrote "Don't make us disclose who were really behind the Cinema Rex fire" causing the newspaper to be shut down shortly after.
Post-Islamic revolution followup
According to the Washington-based group Human Rights & Democracy for Iran, the families of the victims led the charge for further investigation of the case, even resorting to a long sit-in protest from April to August 1980. The new Iranian government arrested Captain Monir Taheri, who was accused by the Revolutionary Tribunal of Rudsar of having received guerrilla training in the United States. Taheri's defense maintained that he had never visited Abadan and that he was in Ahvaz at the time of the blaze. The tribunal found Taheri guilty and executed him shortly thereafter on 23 February 1979.
Books and references
According to the historian Abbas Amanat: "From what is known, the Rex Cinema’s exit doors were intentionally locked. Widespread rumors at the time held Savak and the pro-government agents pro-vocateurs responsible. Yet the arson was consistent with a pattern of Islamic activists’ setting ablaze cinemas and other venues of supposed Western decadence for more than a decade. As was witnessed in many instances of arson that destroyed cinemas, first in Qom and later in other cities, the Rex Cinema incident displayed the perpetrators’ utter lack of moral scruples, as became evident in the course of their trial a few months later. The Islamic opposition, however, stood to reap major propaganda advantages from the tragedy in the prevailing environment of suspicion and anger".
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 neighbourhood and was showing the film Gavaznha, starring well-known actor Behrouz Vossoughi, which Hiro claimed had "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 he described as "tepid", strengthened the public belief that the Shah had the cinema burned.
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."
According to Middle East expert 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…"
As the event took place during the revolutionary period, it was quite difficult to identify the perpetrators, 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 under which the fire was set did not aid the Shah's pleas of innocence. The location of the incident, an impoverished district of Abadan, and its timing did not coincide with preceding patterns of protest, 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 the anti-government film playing there.
Lasting from 25 August to 4 September 1980, the Revolutionary Tribunal oversaw 17 court sessions that involved the trial of 26 individuals, including the only survivor of the four-man arson team, Hossein Takbalizadeh, who stated in his defense that he was an unemployed drug addict. After much deliberation, Takbalizadeh and five others were put to death in public.
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