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Some 800 portraits of victims have been displayed by representatives in France of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, on the Esplanade des Invalides, in Paris, on Oct. 29, 2019, to commemorate the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

An arrest thousands of kilometres away in Sweden is reverberating through the Iranian diaspora in Canada and giving hope to families who have waited 31 years to find out what happened to their relatives in Iran’s worst mass murder in modern history.

Last week, the Swedish Prosecution Authority announced the arrest of an Iranian man suspected of committing crimes against humanity and murder in July and August of 1988. He is being held in custody until Dec. 11, when prosecutors will have to decide whether to indict him.

As Iran was rocked again by internal unrest this weekend, with mass protests against the regime breaking out across the country, victims from a crackdown of political opponents more than three decades ago are getting their first glance at justice.

Lawyers for the civilian complainant allege that the suspect, identified as Hamid Nouri, was an assistant prosecutor in Iran’s extrajudicial tribunals, known as the death commissions, which sentenced approximately 5,000 political dissidents to death based solely on their political or religious beliefs.

It was a “religious inquisition,” said McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan, one of the lawyers for survivor and memoirist Iraj Mesdaghi, who alerted Swedish prosecutors.

“He was an enthusiastic inquisitor and in addition to sending people to their deaths he tortured some of them," Prof. Akhavan said of Mr. Nouri.

The accused’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment but, according to the Associated Press, lawyer Lars Hultgren told Sweden’s TT News Agency that his client denies the charges, adding, “They have taken the wrong guy.”

Representatives for the Iranian government also did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2013, Canada became the first country to recognize the killings as crimes against humanity, but until now none of the perpetrators has faced justice, which means families have little to no information about their relatives’ deaths or burials.

“It’s a very open wound for us,” Jafar Behkish said in an interview.

Two of his brothers and a brother-in-law were killed in the 1988 massacre. Mr. Behkish, who moved to Canada in 2002, said he wants to know exactly when they were killed and who ordered the killings. Not knowing has affected his family’s life “completely.”

Growing up in Iran, he was one of nine children. Five of them were killed at the hands of the regime in the first decade after the 1979 revolution.

“They killed them because they didn’t believe in Islam,“ Mr. Behkish said of his brothers.

For years the Iranian regime denied the mass murder, but after a grassroots fact-finding tribunal collected the details of the crimes in 2012, Tehran went from denial to defending them, Prof. Akhavan said. However, even with that admission, the little information the victims’ families have is from survivors, not from the government.

“One of the main characteristics of this massacre was total silence,” Mr. Behkish said.

Amnesty International calls the regime’s refusal to disclose how the victims died and where they are buried a continuing crime against humanity, and a breach of the “absolute prohibition of torture and other ill treatment by cruel practices."

The lack of closure has haunted Nina Toobaei’s family and left them unable to move on. For 17 years, she said, her parents waited for their son to come home. Only after reading Mr. Mesdaghi’s memoirs of the death commissions did they realize he would not return.

Ms. Toobaei, who also moved to Canada, said her brother survived the extrajudicial trials only to disappear three years later. The government has never disclosed what happened to him, but the last confirmed sighting of her brother is described in Mr. Mesdaghi’s memoirs, in prison.

“There is no closure for us,” Ms. Toobaei said through tears.

Mr. Nouri’s arrest has captured the attention of the international community. Philip Grant, the executive director of TRIAL International, which works to fight impunity for war crimes, said the case shows “the arm of justice can sometimes be long, even if belated.”

Because crimes such as the 1988 massacres don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, Mr. Grant said there is a “huge impunity gap” that the universal jurisdiction principle, which Sweden is using in this case, can bridge.

The uncertainty surrounding Mr. Nouri’s case has Mr. Behkish tempering his expectations, but he said he hopes it will lead to accountability and information.

Ms. Toobaei said she hopes Mr. Nouri will decide to talk “instead of denying and lying.”

Former Canadian justice minister and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who co-sponsored Canada’s resolution on the killings with the late NDP MP Paul Dewar, said Canada’s role today should be to continue to “sound the alarm” and help establish an international tribunal on the crimes.

“Not only is it not over, not only were they never brought to justice then, but they’re continuing to commit the crimes today," Mr. Cotler said. “It’s an astonishing impunity.”

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