Sweden seeks justice for victims of Iran 1988 prison massacres

Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and executions welcomed the arrest as an “important first step towards justice for the 1988 massacre.”
Sunday 24/11/2019
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollha Ali Khamenei delivers his speech to the crowd during the 30th death anniversary of former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in his shrine, June 4, 2019. (DPA)
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollha Ali Khamenei delivers his speech to the crowd during the 30th death anniversary of former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in his shrine, June 4, 2019. (DPA)

The detention in Sweden of an Iranian for suspected involvement in Iran’s 1988 prison massacres is the latest attempt to apply universal jurisdiction.

The man, identified by London’s Sunday Times as Hamid Nouri, 58, was arrested at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, apparently arriving to visit relatives, and was to remain in custody until December 11 when prosecutors will decide whether to indict him.

Universal jurisdiction allows states or international organisations to pursue criminal cases wherever the alleged crime took place.

While the principle is traced to Roman law, modern examples include the 1945-49 Nuremburg trials of Nazis and the failed 2001-03 prosecution in Belgium of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over the 1982 massacres in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps.

In October, Germany charged two Syrian asylum seekers, alleged to be security officers who had tortured and raped prisoners. European human rights lawyers are taking testimonies from refugees in preparing possible legal action against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iran’s 1988 prisoner executions came after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed a ceasefire ending the 8-year war with Iraq.

Witness accounts filtered out and were assessed by Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian in his 1999 book, “Tortured Confessions,” and in reports by Amnesty International and British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. Further evidence appeared in the 2000 memoirs of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, whom Khomeini had ousted as deputy leader partly because he queried about the executions.

The killings followed a decree from Khomeini establishing a Tehran commission headed by Tehran prosecutor Morteza Eshraghi, Judge Hossein Ali Nayeri and an Intelligence Ministry representative, often deputy minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi. Similar commissions operated in the provinces, other than Esfahan, where Montazeri’s followers held sway. Abrahamian suggested the Tehran commission included 16.

Khomeini’s decree required executing prisoners “steadfast in their support for the monafeqin (‘hypocrites’),” referring to the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), a violent opposition group allied with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. There was a second wave of executions of leftists — mainly the Moscow-aligned Tudeh Party — who offered critical support to the Islamic Republic.

Various figures exist. The MEK claimed 30,000 members died, while Abrahamian cited overall death tolls from 2,500-6,000. Montazeri estimated 2,800-3,800. Robertson sceptically cites Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then parliamentary speaker, in February 1989 claiming “less than 1,000.”

Abrahamian rejected claims from some Iranian leaders that the executions responded to an MEK offensive launched from Iraq because that had already failed. The secrecy around the affair, he argued, rules out the killings being part of a wider reign of terror. Abrahamian concluded rather that Khomeini’s “creative genius” sought to separate within the regime the “weak willed” from revolutionary radicals.

Of those directly involved, Pour-Mohammadi was recently Justice minister (2013-17) under Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Ebrahim Raeisi, now chief justice and considered front-runner to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, was then Tehran deputy prosecutor.

Where might the arrested man fit in? McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan, who has worked on the case, claimed that Nouri was “an enthusiastic inquisitor” who sent “people to their death… and tortured some of them.” Nouri was allegedly an assistant prosecutor connected to two jails, Tehran’s Evin and Gohardasht in Karaj, where many executions took place.

A Swedish prosecutor said the indictment concerns July 28-August 31, 1988, when the authorities executed MEK members and before the execution of leftists. The MEK’s National Council of Resistance of Iran, based in Albania after expulsion from Iraq, recently introduced at the European Parliament a booklet “Crime Against Humanity” naming more than 5,000 members as victims.

What happens next is unclear. Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and executions, who is also investigating the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, welcomed the arrest as an “important first step towards justice for the 1988 massacre.”

Abrahamian, emeritus professor at the City University New York, said legal action abroad might have little effect in Iran.

“The 1988 massacres are too much of a taboo even for reformers to raise,” he explained. “Montazeri brought up the technical violation of the sharia for the execution of the mujahideen. He avoided the issue of executing ‘apostates’ [a reference to leftists]. I doubt if European countries would want to raise an issue from 1988. This may remain a topic mainly for historians.”

However, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University, suggested the Nouri case would be closely watched in Iran, where Amnesty International says more than 100 people have died in recent protests against rising petrol prices.

“Since there are many former [Iranian] political prisoners in Europe I don’t think there will be much difficulty making a strong case,” said Boroujerdi. “The lawyer is using this arrest to warn officials who are killing protesters now that you can no longer hide behind the excuse of ‘just doing my job’ and that your day of reckoning may come, too.”

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