To war criminals with impunity, think again

stockholm“As the Russian military leaves a trail of atrocities in Ukraine, a trial held here this month provides a powerful model for prosecuting war crimes. The Swedish case – involving a former Iranian official accused of participating in the mass murder of political prisoners in the late 1980s – is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. According to this doctrine, the national courts of any State that has adopted this principle can prosecute a person suspected of serious crimes, regardless of where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspect.

The accused, Hamid Nouri, also known as Hamid Abbasi, worked in Iran’s prison system for much of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rule and allegedly oversaw the executions of thousands of regime opponents on his behalf . The trial has begun by August 2021, and at its conclusion on May 4, the tribunal had held 93 sessions and heard 35 plaintiffs, 26 witnesses and 12 expert testimony. If convicted on the war crimes and murder charges, Nouri faces a life sentence. The verdict is expected on July 14.

Supposedly a mining executive at the time of his arrest, Nouri began his career – as most lucrative careers begin in Iran – in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He entered the corps after Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, came to power in 1979. He then fought in the Iran-Iraq war for two years until he joined the prison division of the judiciary in 1984. Four years later, Nouri had reached the top. prison administration level when the Ayatollah issued a national notice fatwa ordering the massacre of political prisoners.

The Ayatollah issued this edict in 1988, the year of his most humiliating defeat: the war he hoped would end with the conquest of Baghdad and then Jerusalem by the Iranian army had instead ended in a truce. with no way out so unacceptable to him that he equates drinking “a cup of poison”. Khomeini was reeling from this setback when his most formidable domestic adversary, the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), carried out a series of offensives into southern Iran from its base in Iraq. Although the group’s military campaign failed, Khomeini’s fatwa was a retaliatory measure aimed at wiping out any possible threat to his regime at this vulnerable time.

The prison killings began in July. To execute the fatwa, the Ayatollah appointed an ad hoc committee composed of a Sharia judge, an official from the Ministry of Intelligence, a prosecutor and his deputy. This deputy was Ebrahim Raisi; today he is President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These clerics would review each prisoner’s records and decide their fate, usually within minutes.

Nouri was the official who allegedly assisted the council, which the prisoners called the “death panel”. One of his duties, according to his accusers, was to lead prisoners through “death row” to the chamber where the panel met. The verdict rendered, Nouri would then have accompanied them to their hanging.

By mid-September 1988, some 3,000 political prisoners had been hanged. Most were MEK members who refused to renounce the group. Several hundred communists, some of whom had served their sentences and were awaiting release, were also hanged because they refused to pray or say they believed in God or Islam.

The killing was so gruesome that it led to a permanent rift between Ayatollah Khomeini and the cleric he named as his successor, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. When Montazeri discovered what was going on in the prisons, he wrote two scathing letters to Khomeini, calling the acts “malicious” and “vengeful”; a third letter to the death panel members themselves called their work “mass murder”. When Montazeri summoned them to warn them that they would “go down in history as criminals”, Khomeini rejected him as his successor. Montazeri refused to remain silent and in 1997, after criticizing the next supreme leader, he was placed under house arrest. He remained in custody until his death in 2009.

Today, human rights organizations called for an investigation into President Raisi’s role as prosecutor in the 1988 prison massacre, but it was Nouri, the official, who inadvertently put himself in legal danger when he traveled to Sweden. For victims of human rights abuses in Iran, his arrest was the culmination of years of effort and represented the most significant victory they have ever experienced.

Several former political prisoners who for years had been writing and recording their memories of that time stubbornly identified and prosecuted their former torturers. Finally, a former prisoner, Iraj Mesdaghi, a naturalized Swedish citizen who became one of the main plaintiffs in the case, helped design a trick to deceive the former jailer in Sweden with the promise of a lavish cruise. When Nouri took the bait, a network of human rights lawyers and Iranian exiles in the UK and Sweden sprang into action to pressure the authorities into issuing a warrant. stop.

As soon as Nouri’s plane landed in Stockholm in November 2019, Swedish police arrested him. In later testimony, a deflated Nouri mentioned that his “cruise ship turned into a solitary confinement cell”.

When I attended the last week of the trial, the Nouri I saw did not seem weak or discouraged. On the contrary, he apparently behaved with the same sadistic arrogance that former prisoners had described. In the courtroom, he often turned his back on the judges and his own lawyers to face his accusers and swear at them. Several witnesses avoided using a water fountain in the courtroom because it brought them close enough to Nouri that he could whisper curses at them.

Members of his family attending the trial marched past the television cameras inside the courthouse, smiling as one pressed a picture of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the late Quds Force commander, General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020. were cooperating with Swedish police or prosecutors and that they hoped that their loyalty would be rewarded.

The Nouris had not miscalculated. At the end of the trial, Tehran grabbed its trademark tool for diplomacy – to arrest and imprison foreign nationals and dual citizens, accuse them of espionage and later use them as leverage in negotiations with foreign powers. The judiciary has announced a date for execution of an Iranian-Swedish doctor, Ahmadreza Djalali, then arrested a Swede touristicin the same way two others European visitors, to put pressure on Sweden to intervene in the Nouri trial.

Rumors of a possible prisoner swap swirled around the court as survivors and witnesses huddled together during the court break. And yet, no fear of the eventual outcome of Iran’s machinations could prevent them from rejoicing over what had already happened with the trial itself. On the final day, MEK members, Iranian royalists and communists – fierce political rivals generally shy away from engaging with each other –dance together in front of the courthouse. A former prisoner told me that he felt he too had died that summer with his comrades, but had carried on all these years to see this day. Another participant, Laleh Bazargan, wearing a necklace with a photo of her brother, who was killed in the massacre, said: “I lived in Sweden for 20 years, but I never felt like I belonged here until this trial.

Whatever the Stockholm court’s verdict, for those like Bazargan, what matters is the message the court has already sent to war criminals: there is no statute of limitations for atrocities they have committed and no international guarantee of refuge. Although the International Criminal Court in The Hague is investigating Russia’s actions in Ukraine, neither country is a party to the ICC. Struggling to establish itself as an effective forum for international justice, the Court has won only four convictions in the two decades of its existence.

The proceedings against Nouri under universal jurisdiction offer a way out of the ICC deadlock. Sweden’s action demonstrates that another kind of liberal and humanitarian interventionism is possible, carried out not through military operations but through the criminal justice systems of democratic societies. This can be a new source of hope for victims of cruel autocratic regimes – if other Western democracies follow Sweden’s lead in refusing to harbor executioners and denying them impunity.

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