On Thursday, a German court convicted the senior Syrian intelligence official Anwar Raslan on charges including 27 counts of murder stemming from his actions as part of the Syrian regime’s brutal detention system. Raslan was implicated in numerous instances of sexual assault and the torture of more than 4,000 people at a Damascus prison operated by the military intelligence unit, Branch 251. His conviction was quickly welcomed by countless survivors of government crackdowns during the carnage in Syria, as well as by international human rights advocates such as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Bachelet explicitly urged other states to follow Germany’s lead in applying the principle of universal jurisdiction in order to hold powerful figures accountable for human rights violations carried out in Syria and in other places where the domestic application of justice is unlikely. “Today’s verdict should serve to spur forward all efforts to widen the net of accountability,” she said in a statement on Thursday. That statement went on to say, “This conviction has put State authorities on notice – no matter where you are or how senior you may be, if you perpetrate torture or other serious human rights violations, you will be held accountable sooner or later, at home or abroad.”
The principle of universal jurisdiction allows for the judicial authority in virtually any nation to detain persons on their soil who are accused of serious violations of human rights, even if those crimes took place somewhere else entirely. Syrian victims of the Assad regime had previously expressed hope that Raslan and others would be subjected to trial before the International Criminal Court, but universal jurisdiction provides an alternative pathway to accountability in cases where truly international prosecution is rendered unlikely by the need for a prior resolution by the United Nations Security Council.
Because the five permanent members of that body each wield veto power over proposed resolutions, it is inherently difficult to initiate prosecution at the ICC against figures who have significant connections to one or more of those states. This same complicating factor has been observed with regard to similar efforts at securing accountability for accused human rights abusers in other countries, such Iran.
Many critics of the Iranian regime have specifically promoted universal jurisdiction as a means of securing such accountability. Among them are activists associated with Iran’s main democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI has hosted a number of rallies and conferences in recent months to demand justice for the victims of a massacre of political prisoners that took place more than 30 years ago.
An estimated 30,000 political prisoners, mostly MEK members, were systematically executed in the summer of 1988 following implementation of a fatwa by then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini which declared that organized opposition to the regime was an instance of “enmity against God,” and thus punishable by death. The 1988 massacre has always been a subject of activism for the NCRI and other human rights defenders, but it acquired even greater prominence last year when Ebrahim Raisi, a leading figure in the “death commissions” that oversaw that massacre, was appointed as the new president of the Iranian regime.
The recent NCRI rallies have expressly urged the United Nations to launch a formal investigation into the 1988 massacre, with an eye toward setting the stage for prosecution of known perpetrators, including the current president. Meanwhile, pressure on individual UN member states has seemingly kept Raisi from travelling to Europe, for fear of being arrested on the basis of universal jurisdiction.
If this were to happen, it would only be the second instance of a participant in the 1988 massacre facing genuine legal consequences. If it were to happen while Raisi remains in office, it would be the first instance of such action being taken against a sitting Iranian official. The previous arrest was carried out by Swedish authorities in 2019, after the former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury arrived in the Scandinavian country for a visit. Noury was indicted for war crimes and mass murder only last year, and his trial is still ongoing. It is expected to conclude in April.
Human rights activists and Iranian dissidents have expressed a great deal of optimism about the Noury case and its potential to spark a broader trend of accountability for perpetrators of the 1988 massacre, other Iranian crimes against humanity, and other crimes against humanity in general. The conviction of Anwar Raslan will no doubt contribute to that optimism.
“This is a clear example of how national courts can and should fill accountability gaps for such crimes wherever they were committed, through fair and independent investigations and trials carried out in line with international human rights laws and standards,” Bachelet said in Thursday’s statement.
To that observation about Raslan’s case, it might be added that the Noury case underscores national courts’ ability to “fill accountability gaps” not just wherever a crime against humanity was committed, but also whenever. There is, of course, no statute of limitations on such a crime, and there can be no expectation that the victims or their families will fall silent even if decades have gone by since a massacre or other large-scale human rights violation took place. If the international community is prepared to take action against recent abuses in Syria, it should not be much more difficult to do the same with long-ago abuses in Iran.