By Arab News
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami *
After a marathon trial involving more than 90 hearings and 46 witnesses, a Swedish court last week handed a life sentence to a former Iranian judiciary official for his involvement in the mass execution and torture of tens of thousands of prisoners in Iran in the 1980s.
The court’s ruling against Hamid Nouri, a 61-year-old former assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Iran’s Gohardasht Prison, elicited mixed reactions. The Iranian regime has, predictably, strongly condemned the verdict, while human rights organizations and Iranian opposition figures welcomed it as a victory for those who have been or are still being oppressed in Iran.
Hours after the verdict, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani declared Tehran’s condemnation, stating: “The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly condemns this political statement (which is) based on fabricated and baseless accusations against the Islamic Republic and our judiciary system.”
Human rights activists and Iranian opposition figures hailed the verdict, saying that the ruling sets a precedent to try and prosecute other Iranian officials accused of committing crimes. Some have stated that the ruling acts as a litmus test of the principle of universal jurisdiction. Others have suggested that the Swedish verdict will inspire other countries to act against former Iranian officials living in exile.
These reactions are understandable, since the ruling is a milestone, marking the first time that a former Iranian official has been tried for his involvement in the mass executions that primarily targeted members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
While other Iranian officials and operatives have been convicted in Germany, France and, most recently, Belgium for assassinations and terrorism-related plots, none had ever been tried for crimes committed in Iran, according to legal experts. Additionally, the Swedish verdict also came at a time when Ebrahim Raisi, one of the four judges who oversaw the executions upheld by the infamous death commission in 1988, is occupying the presidential office in Iran — and is reportedly being groomed to become the country’s next supreme leader.
The ruling against Nouri was far more than just a court verdict. It showed the victims’ families and reminded the world that justice will ultimately be served against perpetrators of crimes against humanity, however belatedly. It also sent a warning to the Iranian regime that oppressors will one day be subject to justice and will pay the price for their oppression.
The Swedish verdict has also encouraged the victims’ families to hold fast to the belief that, despite the passage of three decades since the crime was committed and despite the Iranian regime’s predictable denial of responsibility, they can still use the principle of universal jurisdiction to sue the perpetrators in courts outside Iran.
While all this undoubtedly indicates a long overdue shift in the right direction from Western powers, some European politicians still seem intent on playing by Iran’s rules, with critics warning that appeasing Iran is more likely to encourage further hostage diplomacy than to dissuade it from this policy.
Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and a number of lawmakers are currently supporting a controversial treaty that will allow the swap of an Iranian diplomat jailed in Belgium over a bomb plot in exchange for a Belgian citizen held by Iran on vague “espionage” charges.
Tehran is keen for this treaty to be ratified so that its Belgian hostage is released in return for 50-year-old Assadollah Assadi, an attache at the Iranian mission in Vienna. Assadi was found guilty of supplying explosives for an intended bomb attack targeting a 2018 Iranian opposition rally in France, which was also attended by five British lawmakers.
While the justice minister has not named the individual taken hostage by Tehran in February, Belgian media have identified him as Olivier Vandecasteele, a 44-year-old former aid worker.
The Belgian treaty, currently in front of parliament for ratification, has been criticized domestically and abroad for undermining the rule of law in the country. In the US, Rep. Randy Weber, a Republican representing Texas, tweeted that he was “shocked to find out that the Belgian government has cut a deal with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and plans to send Iranian terrorists back to Iran to plot more terroristic acts.”
This case notwithstanding, however, Khamenei’s favorite, Raisi, should be more concerned than any other person in Iran about what the future holds. As a senior member of the death committee that oversaw the mass execution of political prisoners, he shares responsibility for sending at least 30,000 innocent people to the gallows without any fair trial.
It is hardly surprising that the Iranian regime has pursued a policy of hostage diplomacy, using dual nationals as leverage. In May of this year, Iran announced plans to execute Iranian-Swedish scientist Ahmad Reza Djalali on charges of spying for Israel and assisting it in killing Iranian nuclear scientists. Djalali had left his home in Sweden in April 2016 to attend a two-week workshop in Iran at the invitation of the University of Tehran. He was arrested a few days after his arrival. Following a typically farcical trial that was heavily criticized by human rights organizations, Djalali was sentenced to death by one of Iran’s so-called revolutionary courts a year later.
There are numerous similar cases involving dual nationals who are suffering the terrible consequences of the Iranian regime’s political games with the West. These include 67-year-old German-Iranian activist Nahid Taghavi, who was arrested in Tehran in October 2020 and charged with “apparently belonging to an illegal organization” and disseminating “anti-regime propaganda.”
The recent verdict against Nouri in Sweden is likely to herald the beginning of a new approach by the Iranian regime. This verdict sends a clear message, warning against any further blackmail and reminding Tehran that the West can initiate countermeasures against it.
More importantly, the Swedish trial, which ironically began on Aug. 10, 2021, a few days after Raisi took office, was seen by many observers as having damaging implications for Iran’s latest hard-line president. The trial provided an ideal opportunity to reveal more of the horrific details of the terrible period of the 1980s, which Raisi has always been keen to conceal.
Before his election, Raisi was placed on a US sanctions list in 2019. However, as head of state, he is nominally granted immunity from prosecution, enabling him to travel abroad for visits and meetings. According to human rights activists, however, the Swedish verdict could break the vicious cycle of impunity granted to Iranian officials accused of human rights abuses.
In conclusion, it seems that Nouri’s sentencing killed two birds with one stone. First, it hit back at Iran’s blackmailing hostage diplomacy and, second, it sends a clear message to Raisi that the age of impunity is drawing to a close and that justice has no expiry date and no geographic limits. We can only hope that other European countries will also act against Iran’s hostage diplomacy.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami