By Daniel Keyvanfer
June 26, 2021
The story Manuscripts Do Not Burn, by Mohammad Rasulov, begins with a murder by Khosro, a low-ranking employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, whose mission it is to kill intellectuals and writers.
Rasulov is thought to have drawn Khosro’s character from the real-life figure of Khosro Barati, the driver of the infamous bus to Armenia who in 1996 twice tried to drive this bus off a cliff to kill the 21 writers and poets it was carrying to a conference in Armenia. Barati’s name later became public as these attempted murders – and a series of other successful ones, known as the Chain Murders, targeting intellectuals and dissidents – came to light. He was tried for aiding and abetting murder and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was soon released, though did not hold onto his freedom for long.
The driver of the bus to Armenia has been involved in court cases and prison interrogations for years. But these legal tangles have not been because of the attempted murder of the writers nor his complicity in other Chain Murders cases. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for smuggling weapons and is currently in prison in Greater Tehran with his son. What has happened to him over the years is extremely strange.
According to the testimony of several people who have seen Barati, in Ward 2A of Evin Prison, in Andarzgah 4 of the same prison, and in Greater Tehran Prison, he is unhappy and addicted to drugs. But to understand who Khosro Barati is we must go back to August 6, 1996.
Failure of the First Mission
Twenty-one Iranian writers, poets and journalists, who had been invited by the Writers’ Union of Armenia to a conference, left for Armenia by bus on August 6, 1996. Khosro Barati drove the bus. He did not talk to his passengers along the way and was in a hurry to reach their destination. He did not stop to rest or eat, and if he stopped at the insistence of the passengers, during these pauses, he insisted on getting the passengers back on the bus as quickly as possible. From the beginning of the journey, Massoud Toufan and Shahriar Mandanipour decided to take turns sitting next to the driver to ensure he did not fall asleep.
During the drive, in the early hours of the morning when most of the passengers were asleep, Khosro pointed the bus to the cliff edge and jumped out. But the was stopped at the edge of the cliff by a larger boulder; the boulder became stuck under the crankshaft, preventing the bus from falling into the valley.
The passengers, now awake and terrified, and disembarked from the bus, thought the driver had fallen asleep and had jumped free as he saw the bus falling. Everyone went back into the bus, Khosro Barati resumed driving the bus, again tried to drive it off the cliff, and again jumped free. But this time Massoud Toufan took the wheel and Shahriar Mandanipour pulled the handbrake. The large rock stuck under the bus again prevented a fall.
After the failed attempts, a man appeared at the scene, detained the passengers, and interrogated them at the nearby Astara prison. The man called himself Hashemi. For most of the passengers, who were repeatedly interrogated after the incident, Mr. Hashemi beame a familiar figure; two years later, they saw him again, now on trial for the Chain Murders and called Mehrdad Alikhani. Khosro Barati, their driver, was also named as a defendant and was husband to Mehrdad Alikhani’s sister.
The Chain Murders came to light in 1998 after a particularly gruesome series of killings, in December 1998, which included the writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammed Jafar Pouyandeh. The Ministry of Intelligence claimed that “rogue elements” were responsible for the killings. But had it not been for the Armenia bus incident, and the attempted murder of 21 writers and journalists, the Chain Murders would never have been acknowledged.
Massoud Toufan, one of the passengers on the bus, had said about Khosro Barati: “We forgave the poor man. We did not even say he was an agent, and he was excused, because he was more like a psychotic man who was hospitalized. We did not know that a year and a half later he would be sent to kill Mohammad Mokhtari and Pouyandeh,” he added, referring to the 1998 Chain Murders victims.
Ten-Year Prison Sentence in a Serial Murder Case
The Chain Murders in the autumn and winter of 1998 were like a political earthquake in Iran. On November 22, 1998, Dariush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, leaders of the People’s Party of Iran, were stabbed several times to death in their home in Tehran. Less than two weeks later, on December 3, Mohammad Mokhtari, a writer, poet, and member of the board of directors of the Iranian Writers’ Association, who had left home to buy milk, disappeared, and his body was later found in the desert. He had been strangled to death. Six days later, Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, a translator and one of the most active members of the Writers’ Association, disappeared. His body was also found in the desert near Shahriar – he had also been strangled. But Majid Sharif, a writer and translator of religious critics, had been assassinated earlier in the fall of November 1998, and before that, Pirouz Davani, a journalist, researcher, translator and political activist, had disappeared on August 25 of the same year.
The killings, which some believed were not limited to just these, had begun years earlier. More than 80 victims were killed in total. But after the 1998 killing the courts only dealt with the murders of Forouhar, Mokhtari and Pouyandeh. The trial was held two years later, in 2000, and after 12 closed sessions, presided over by Judge Aghighi, head of Branch 1 of the Tehran Military Court, in January of the same year, 18 defendants were convicted. According to the verdict, several defendants were sentenced to “retaliation” by relatives of the victims, i.e. claims of blood money, others to life imprisonment and some others to prison terms ranging from two to 10 years. Official sources stated that Saeed Emami, the first defendant in the case and a deputy in the Ministry of Intelligence, committed suicide in prison.
On January 28, 2003, the Public Relations of the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces announced that the Supreme Court had upheld the sentence of 11 defendants in the case, including the punishment of the main defendants who had issued the orders for the crimes to be committed.
A statement from the Judiciary of the Armed Forces read: “According to the verdict issued by Branch 34 of the Supreme Court, and the verdict issued by the Fifth Branch of the First Military Court of Tehran, regarding the conviction of first-degree defendant Seyed Mostafa Kazemi and second-degree defendant Mehrdad Alikhani, were each sentenced to four years in prison for directing the murders. The defendant Khosro Barati’s conviction on charges of aiding and abetting murder was upheld and he is serving 10 years in prison. According to the verdict issued by the Supreme Court, the sentence of the convicts … is final and binding.”
But prison failed to hold these individuals and they were released long before the end of their sentences. Parastoo Forouhar, the daughter of Dariush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, two of the victims told the BBC in a 2018 interview: “Kazemi and Alikhani, the two defendants who were introduced as leaders in the plot, were sentenced to four years in prison each; how can they be free now? I only know the fate of the defendants in the form of news in the press or online and I do not have exact information.”
IranWire reported on Alikhani’s presence at a funeral on November 24, 2017: “Mehrdad Alikhani was released in 2013. On October 1, 2014, pictures of the funeral of the wife of Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, the representative of the Supreme Leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, were published. After the pictures were broadcast, Voice of America radio said that Mehrdad Alikhani was among those present at the ceremony and published a picture of him; it is the only picture of the veteran security official.”
Barati was the only defendant in the Chain Murders trial who was not officially a member of the Ministry of Intelligence. He was first sentenced to death in court, but was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for what was called parental consent. Journalist Massoud Behnoud has reported that Barati had been released in 2005, five years after his trial.
Barati was arrested again in 2014 on charges of arms smuggling. He was imprisoned for about a year in Ward 2A of Evin Prison, a special detention center for the IRGC Intelligence Organization, and was released on bail in 2015. But in 2017, his final sentence of 12 years in prison on charges of arms smuggling was upheld.
On May 23, 2018, he was arrested to serve his prison sentence, but instead of a general ward, he was again sent to solitary confinement in Evin’s Ward 2A. On the same day, his son was arrested and transferred to the Greater Tehran Prison to serve his eight-year prison sentence as the second-degree defendant in his father’s case.
According to sources inside the prison, who have seen Khosro Barati at various times, he was transferred to the general ward after passing a few days in solitary confinement. Barati entered the communal Andarzagah 4 ward of Evin Prison in August 2018 and was held in Hall One. His presence in the communal ward, however, did not last. Barati apparently lost his temper, entered into conversations with some prisoners, and told them some unspoken things about his mysterious life. Following this event, Barati was sent back to Ward 2A. He was later taken to Andarzgah 4 again for one night and the next morning was deported to Greater Tehran prison to continue his sentence.
“They made a case against me and my son,” Barati told one of his inmates in Ward 2A. I have never been an official employee of any institution in my life. Through my brother-in-law [Mehrdad Alikhani], I collaborated as a colleague outside the Ministry of Intelligence, and entered into a case-by-case cooperation with the ministry. I cooperated with them in some matters. I served in the prison organization during my military service, and from there I met several security figures. My current case is due to the involvement of the security agencies. They do not have the strength to beat Mehrdad, so I am paying the ransom. The accusation of arms smuggling is also false. I ordered the purchase of weapons on the orders of the Ministry of Intelligence, but now they have filed a case against me on that basis.”
A financial crimes convict who spent some time in the same cell as Khosro Barati, in the Greater Tehran prison, said of Barati that “He is seriously addicted and very restless. I do not know the truth, but he says he has a guilty conscience because of his past. He says he had killed several people by the orders of the same institution that is building a case against him. He had moved and concealed several bodies, and could not kill several people whom he had been ordered to kill.” The end of Khosro Barat’s story is still unclear. But someone like him has much to say that millions want to hear – if he ever wants or is able to speak in the future.