ISSN 2330-717X

It’s Time For States To Use Universal Jurisdiction To Prosecute Top Perpetrators Of Iran’s 1988 Massacre – OpEd

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Sweden made history with the Stockholm District Court’s recent landmark judgement against a former Iranian prison guard involved in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners.

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After more than nine months and 92 sessions, the court found Hamid Noury guilty of “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” marking the first time an Iranian official was convicted for the 1988 mass extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances of political prisoners. Noury was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The victims’ families have long sought justice.

The successful prosecution was made possible through Sweden’s use of the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows states to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crime was committed, and regardless of the accused’s nationality.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet hailed the “historic conviction,” adding in her tweet: “States should use universal jurisdiction to bridge accountability gap for serious crimes & ensure truth+justice.”

As Deputy Assistant Prosecutor of Gohardasht Prison in 1988, Hamid Noury was a junior figure in the massacre. Meanwhile, senior Iranian officials involved at the time, including current President Ebrahim Raisi, who was then a member of the Tehran Death Commission that sent thousands of political prisoners to death, continue to evade responsibility.

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This month marks the 34th anniversary of the 1988 massacre, which took place in the summer of 1988 based on a fatwa by then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His religious order targeted members of the main opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI or MEK). 

Three-member panels known as ‘Death Commissions’ were formed in dozens of prisons across Iran sending political prisoners who refused to denounce the MEK to execution.

Based on the accounts of survivors and former officials, as many as 30,000 political prisoners were executed in the months that followed. Approximately 90 percent of the victims were affiliated to the MEK. The rest were mainly members of leftist or Communist groups. Most of the victims were buried in secret mass graves. 

To this day, those who carried out the brutal carnage continue to enjoy impunity. 

Last month, Hossein-Ali Nayyeri, the current Head of Iran’s Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges and former Head of the Tehran Death Commission, broke his silence and defiantly defended the 1988 massacre with total impunity.

Asked about the 1988 mass executions, Nayyeri retorted“In such critical circumstances, what were we to do? We had to hand down verdicts decisively. … In such circumstances, we cannot run the country by offering them hugs and kisses!”

Since being founded in 2016, London-based NGO Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre (JVMI) has confirmed the identities of nearly 100 ‘Death Commission’ members. Many still hold top positions in Iran’s judiciary or government. They include Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi.

For more than three decades the UN has dragged its feet in holding the perpetrators to account, thereby fuelling a culture of impunity in Iran.

Up until the 14 July 2022 judgement by the Swedish court, justice had never been served. Now by exercising universal jurisdiction, Sweden’s courts have shown the world it is possible to counter the impunity that prevails in Iran.

Iran, meanwhile, is using its notorious tactic of ‘hostage diplomacy’ to force Sweden to release Noury.

Days earlier, Belgium succumbed to Iranian pressure and agreed to a treaty that would see it free an Iranian diplomat currently imprisoned for trying to bomb an international convention in Paris in return for one of its citizens that Tehran has unlawfully detained for months. Now, following the Swedish court decision, the Vice President of Iran’s Judiciary warned Sweden: “Iran will NOT sit idly by and has several options on the table to respond.”

“The clock is ticking for Sweden to rectify its behavior,” Kazem Gharibabadi said in his ominous threat.

Simultaneously, Iran’s state-run Kayhan daily, which reflects the positions of Iran’s Supreme Leader, said in an editorial that Iran should respond to the judgement by arresting European citizens, including those from Sweden.

It didn’t take long for the authorities to go down that road. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry on Saturday announced that it had arrested a Swedish citizen on “espionage” charges, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Rather than succumb to Iranian bullying, Sweden should now double down on the Noury verdict by opening criminal files for the more senior perpetrators of the 1988 massacre using the principle of universal jurisdiction. Ebrahim Raisi and other Death Committee members must be held accountable.

In January, some 470 current and former UN officials, human rights and legal experts, and international NGOs and academic institutions wrote a collective letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling for an international inquiry into the 1988 massacre. The letter urged the Council to challenge the impunity enjoyed by Iranian officials by mandating an international investigation into the 1988 mass executions and enforced disappearances.

While a UN inquiry into the 1988 massacre is long overdue, the Swedish court judgement should serve as a guiding precedent to other UN Member States. They too must take a stance against Iran’s impunity and hostage diplomacy and help ensure justice by exercising universal jurisdiction and opening criminal investigations against senior perpetrators of the 1988 massacre.

Hanif Jazayeri is Secretary of London-based NGO Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) and a news editor. His Twitter handle is @HanifJazayeri.

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