Sweden Imprisons Iranian for 1988 Massacre

In a groundbreaking human rights case, Sweden sentenced Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prosecutor, to life imprisonment for his role in the 1988 prison massacre of an estimated 5,000 dissidents. The verdict, announced on July 14, 2022 after a nine-month trial, was the first time anyone has been prosecuted for the torture and mass murder of opposition members in Iran. 

Hamid Noury
Hamid Noury (VOA)

Swedish law allows prosecution of foreigners for crimes against international law committed beyond its borders. Noury (also spelled Nouri) was arrested when he arrived in Stockholm in 2019. He was charged with crimes against humanity as well as “intentionally killing” a large number of prisoners “who sympathized with various left-wing groups and who were regarded as apostates.”

Noury denied the charges and claimed that he was not present at the execution sites. The Iranian foreign affairs ministry charged that the trial was a “plot” concocted by “terrorists” relying on “fake documentation and witnesses.” But dozens of witnesses and former political prisons testified about Noury’s presence at the massacre in Gohardasht Prison in Karaj, outside Tehran.

Both the trial and subsequent conviction were historic because “for the first time in 43 years, since the inception of the Islamic Republic, an Iranian official has been held accountable for mass atrocities,” tweeted Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “Unlike thousands of political prisoners who were executed without due process based on their religious and political beliefs in Iran in 1988, Hamid was tried in a democratic country through a fair and lengthy judicial process that granted him every avenue to prepare a thorough defense.”

The mass executions in July 1988 followed a fatwa by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the eight-year war with Iran was ending. He decreed that all prisoners steadfast in their support for the opposition and “waging war on God” were “condemned to execution.”

The case garnered international attention again in 2021 when Ebrahim Raisi ran in presidential elections—and won. He had been one of four clerics on the so-called Death Commission, which determined the fate of prisoners, sometimes by a vote, for Tehran. Iranian officials have since supported the slaughter as necessary to defend against an existential threat to the revolution. Raisi has defended his role. “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised,” he said about the massacre at his first press conference as president-elect on June 21, 2021.

The landmark case could have a rippling impact. “The ruling sends a message to the most senior Iranian officials implicated in these crimes that they can’t remain beyond the reach of justice forever,” said Balkees Jarrah, interim international justice director at Human Rights Watch. It also offers “a meaningful moment” for survivors and family members of dissidents who were summarily 34 years ago.

Tensions between Iran and Sweden have increased since the arrest of Ahmadreza Jalali, a physician and disaster relief expert who has dual nationality, in 2016. Born in Tabriz, Jalali left Iran and worked in Italy and Sweden. He returned to Iran after being invited to attend a workshop sponsored by an Iranian university.  He was convicted of collaborating with Iran’s enemies and spying for Israel; he was sentenced to death. Jalali’s conviction has been widely condemned by international human rights groups.

In a letter released after his conviction in 2017, Jalali claimed that he had been arrested for refusing to spy for Iranian intelligence. Iranian state television then aired what appeared to be a forced confession. Iran has rejected Sweden’s appeal not to enforce the death penalty.

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has detained dozens of foreigners who have often become pawns both in the internal political rivalries and in tensions with Western countries. The most famous case was the early takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held for 444 days. As of July 2022, Iran held four Americans as well as several other Europeans, including Jalali.