“The second-deadliest terrorist attack in modern history”
The Rex cinema in a poor district of Iran called Abadan was a popular venue in the last days of the Shah. On a hot summer’s day in 1978 Muslim militants set it ablaze, killing 422 patrons. They had gathered to watch a controversial anti-government film called Gavaznha (The Deer), starring Behrouz Vossoughi.
Police noticed smoke emanating from the cinema, which was on the upper storey of an office block. They radioed for help and were told not to let anyone leave the cinema until reinforcements arrived. They believed that they were preventing a small-time arsonist from escaping and did not realize the plan was to burn the whole building, so they padlocked the main door.
By the time additional men arrived the building was engulfed. The fire brigade arrived twenty minutes after the start of the conflagration. Investigators thought that the Freon gas from the air-conditioning system had caused people to pass out before the fire reached them. One writer described the blaze as “the second-deadliest terrorist attack in modern history”.
Sunday 20 August 1978
Initially, it was believed that the secret service of Mohammad Reza Shah Sazeman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat e Keshvar (Savak) had been behind the fire to discredit radical Islamist revolutionaries who had attacked and burned cinemas in earlier protests. The cinema had been showing an anti-government film so it was a perfect opportunity to send a message to dissidents, it was alleged. The Shah replaced the prime minister with Jafar Sharif-Emami but he was deposed on 16 January 1979 and went into exile.
The fundamentalists moved quickly to consolidate their position. On 21 February 1979 Captain Monir Taheri, a member of the Shah’s army, was arrested at Mianeh and accused of being involved in the fire. There was no evidence to link the captain to the blaze but, nonetheless, he was found guilty and executed by firing squad two days later. It was later revealed that four Shiite revolutionaries loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini started the fire.
Public disquiet forced the authorities to open a trial and the Revolutionary Tribunal oversaw 17 court sessions that involved the trial of 26 individuals from 25 August until 4 September 1980. Five people, including the lone surviving arsonist Hossein Takializadeh (the others had died in the blaze), were put to death in public.