In a unique court case in Stockholm, a member of the Iranian regime is being accused of war crimes, with incumbent president Ebrahim Raisi singled out by plaintiffs – including some from Canada – for thousands of summary executions.
The case concerns the mass executions in prisons of supporters of the leftist-Islamic opposition group People’s Mujahedin and other critics of Iran’s regime in 1988.
The executions were ordered in a secret fatwa (religious decree) by then-leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in retaliation for an offensive the Mujahedin launched toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Swedish prosecutors, using the concept of universal jurisdiction, argue that the executions constituted a war crime, since they were motivated by armed conflict.
The accused, 60-year-old Hamid Noury, is a former prison employee and assistant to the deputy prosecutor. He is alleged to have taken part in brief trials in front of a “death committee” in Gohardasht prison west of the capital Tehran, where those convicted were hanged. Mr. Noury’s superior, the deputy prosecutor, was Ebrahim Raisi – Iran’s president since 2021.
“Lies, all lies!,” Mr. Noury said at the trial, which is expected to finish on May 3 after nine months of hearings at the Stockholm District Court.
Mr. Noury said he worked in a different prison and was on parental leave during the execution campaign. He also claims another prison employee in Gohardasht shared the same nickname, “Abbasi.”
Mr. Noury’s defence team did not respond to The Globe’s request for comments.
The trial would not be possible without the trap laid for Mr. Noury by his Swedish-Iranian son-in-law Heresh Sadegh Ayoubi and one of the plaintiffs and most important witnesses in the case, Iraj Mesdaghi.
Mr. Mesdaghi, a Swedish citizen, spent many years in prison and collected evidence against his tormentors. Together with Mr. Mesdaghi, the son-in-law lured the former prison official to Sweden with promises of the opportunity to meet beautiful women and drink alcohol (which is prohibited in his home country). Instead, he was arrested by Swedish police as he got off the plane.
There are more than 50 plaintiffs and witnesses from 11 countries in Europe, North America and Australia at the trial, and many said they recognized Mr. Noury as one of the prison officials. The system and the committee members behind the mass executions were also revealed in testimonies, including Mr. Raisi.
“He is more guilty than Hamid Noury. Raisi was one of those who signed the verdicts and made the decisions, so there is no doubt that he is responsible for the executions,” said Said Mahmoudi, a Swedish-Iranian professor of international law at Stockholm University. “The way I see it, the trial is against the Islamic regime in Iran, and that’s probably on purpose.”
Hassan Golzari, one of four plaintiffs participating from Canada, identified Mr. Raisi in court. Mr. Golzari testified that Mr. Raisi had handed him a prison sentence for distributing leaflets and selling magazines. Mr. Raisi was also one of the members of the death committee in Gohardasht, Mr. Golzari said.
Mr. Golzari said he, and about 20 others, were called to the courtroom and told to sign a document certifying that the Islamic regime was legitimate and denouncing the Mujahedin. At first, Mr. Golzari refused, but then became suspicious and changed his mind. Without knowing it at the time, this saved his life. When the prisoners left the room with the death committee, those who had refused to sign were taken to the gallows.
The 59-year-old Canadian-Iranian also testified that Mr. Noury and other prison guards beat him and other inmates with cables, and sometimes put them in an airtight room where they would faint from asphyxiation.
The accused appeared to confirm Ebrahim Raisi’s past occupation to the Swedish court. When a prosecutor asked him to name prison managers, Mr. Noury replied: “You may want me to, but they may not want me to. I would like to say their names because these are people the regime is proud of. But I have respect for them. So I’ll just say their initials. One of them, for example, had the initials E and R.”
The trial signifies the first time that the alleged war crimes have been tried in court. Previously the crimes were tried only in symbolic tribunals set up by Iranians in exile. When national courts address war crimes, they complement the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Iran does not recognize, Prof. Mahmoudi said.
“How they [the Iranian leaders] themselves view what they have done is also remarkable in many ways,” he said.
After being elected president in June, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was asked at a press conference how he viewed demands that he be investigated for crimes against humanity for the 1988 executions. Mr. Raisi responded: “If a legal expert, a judge or a prosecutor has defended the rights of people and the security of the society, he must be lauded and encouraged for preserving the security of people against assaults and threats.”
The Iranian government has not responded to The Globe’s requests for comment.
Prof. Mahmoudi says he believes that Tehran considers the trial political.
“The rulers of Iran can do whatever they want with its judiciary. They can order any judge to do anything at any second, so they think it’s like that in other countries too,” he said.
Chief prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson said in an interview that she opposes such an interpretation. “I am a Swedish prosecutor. We don’t deal with politics, we deal with the law.”
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