In the 1980s and the 1990s, Iranian operatives carried out a number of brutal assassinations of opponents across Europe and North America. The perpetrators and overseeing officials have escaped justice ever since. And if the public prosecutor for Vaud Province in Switzerland moves forward with his current plans, it seems that the perpetrators will escape justice forever.
The prosecutor announced last week that charges against 14 individuals, involved in the assassination of Dr. Kazem Rajavi, a prominent law professor and democracy activist, will exceed the statute of limitations on June 17, and later changed the date to July 31. If none of the 14 is apprehended before that time, they can never be held accountable for their murderous actions in the country where they were carried out.
This lends credence to allegations that the decision is motivated by political expediency at a time when much of Europe is struggling to compensate for the effects of deteriorating relations between Iran and the United States.
Such unethical political maneuvering would by no means be unprecedented. Two of the 14 conspirators in Kazem Rajavi’s assassination were taken into custody in France in 1992, two years after the ambush was carried out. But despite a pending request for extradition to Switzerland, the French government released the suspects, citing an unspecified rationale related to France’s “national interest.”
For the Iranian people, this was a clear example of justice slipping through their fingers, and a bitter reminder of the Iranian regime’s impunity in matters of human rights and international relations. In this sense, it was also a reversal of the gains that Dr. Rajavi himself had made in the international fight against Tehran’s track record of repression and terrorism.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Dr. Rajavi served as ambassador to the United Nations. As the nature of the newly-established regime became more apparent, he resigned, and became a UN representative for the main opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
Following the regime’s reign of terror in Iran in the 1980s, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a member of the NCRI democratic coalition, quickly came to be recognized as the regime’s archnemesis. It also became the target of the most violent crackdowns on dissent carried out by the clerical regime. Dr. Rajavi’s assassination was among these actions.
The regime also set its sights on domestic members and supporters of the MEK with a series of politically motivated executions. In the summer of 1988 alone, 30,000 political prisoners were interrogated over their affiliations and summarily executed. The vast majority of the victims were MEK supporters.
Dr. Rajavi had worked tirelessly for a decade to expose the regime’s human rights abuses at the UN. Dr. Kazem Rajavi deserves much of the credit for establishing the UN office of special rapporteur on Iran, and also for promoting the first of many resolutions condemning Iran’s abysmal human rights record.
The world’s early sensitivity to his cause was promising, but it has had precious little practical effect over the past 40 years. His killers’ pending escape from justice is only the latest evidence of this. It stands alongside widespread and recurring failures to hold Iranian officials to account for the 1988 massacre, and countless other crimes against humanity.
If Switzerland does declare “case closed” with regard to the murder of Dr. Kazem Rajavi on its soil, then Tehran will surely enjoy renewed confidence that it can perform any number of atrocities and simply wait for the world to forget about them.
That is a dangerous message to send to the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism. It is made more dangerous by the current historical moment, in which escalating domestic crises give the regime more incentive to cling to power through violent crackdowns on dissent.
Last November, people all across Iran participated in a spontaneous uprising against the theocratic dictatorship. Authorities responded with live ammunition and killed an estimated 1,500 people in a few weeks. Such obvious crimes against humanity cannot be subject to statutes of limitation. Neither, for that matter, can assassinations of the individuals who sought to expose such crimes.
The Swiss government and the entire international community must commit to bringing Iran’s human rights abusers to justice, lest the regime becomes emboldened to carry out more atrocities. They can begin by renewing arrest warrants for Dr. Kazem Rajavi’s killers and making it clear that their actions will not be forgotten by the world’s human rights defenders, no matter how much time passes.