Over the past two weeks, the former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury testified in his own defense at five sessions in a Stockholm court. Noury stands accused of war crimes and mass murder stemming from his role in the massacre of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. He is being tried by Swedish authorities on the basis of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for serious violations of international law to be prosecuted by any nation, regardless of the victims’ nationality or where those crimes took place.
The vast majority of the 1988 massacre’s victims were members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group. The international community should use the Swedish proceedings as a starting point for broader inquiries and prosecution of other, higher-level participants in the massacre. To date, Noury is the only person to face legal consequences for that massacre.
Other key perpetrators of the 1988 massacre include the regime President Ebrahim Raisi, who was selected in June while the majority of people boycotted the sham elections. The boycott underscores public awareness of the 1988 massacre, which grew substantially from 2016 onward, following the leak of an audio recording in which one government official condemned his colleagues while the mass executions were ongoing.
The boycott and accompanying protests highlight public support for the MEK as well, though few public demonstrations referenced the organization by name. As part of his remarks in Stockholm, Noury indirectly explained why this was. When questioned by the judge about his use of a derogatory term, Monafeqin, or “hypocrites,” for the MEK, the defendant explained that the mere utterance of the group’s proper name was grounds for arrest and prosecution in Iran and that it would “create problems” for Noury if he were to use that name even in the context of his trial on European soil.
At one point, Noury even urged the judge to avoid saying the word “Mojahedin,” as if to suggest that he could be arrested upon return to Iran if he were simply in the room when someone else identified the MEK by name. Such statements demonstrate the depth of the Iranian regime’s fear of the leading voice for a democratic alternative. That fear has no doubt grown in recent years, following multiple nationwide uprisings and other large-scale protests with the MEK playing the leading role in them.
In the last days of 2017, one such uprising emerged from a protest in the city of Mashhad that was initially focused on economic issues. As it spread to well over 100 cities and towns, that uprising took on a much more expansive political message, featuring slogans like “death to the dictator” and calls for regime change. At the height of the uprising in January 2018, Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in which he attempted to discredit the protesters by noting that the MEK had “planned for months” to facilitate the uprising and guide its messaging.
Ultimately, these remarks only served to confirm the extent of MEK’s influence over Iranian society, thus undermining many years of regime propaganda that referred to the MEK as a “cult” and a “grouplet” with little real support inside Iran. Nevertheless, Hamid Noury attempted to revive those talking points in his most recent trial sessions, taking time away from his own defense in order to praise the clerical regime and condemn the democratic opposition.
The hearing in court went so far as to indicate that all of the MEK’s activities in its home country constituted legitimate opposition to a repressive government system. Those activities persist to the present day, led by “Resistance Units” in cities all across Iran, who played a key role in a dramatic upsurge of public unrest which coincided with the Swedish court hearing Noury’s defense.
The geographically and demographically diverse protests of the past two weeks also coincided with the second anniversary of a nationwide uprising even larger than the one which prompted Khamenei to acknowledge the MEK’s role. Resistance Units marked that anniversary by posting images of persons killed during the November 2019 uprising, along with appeals for the Iranian people to honor their memory by further contributing to a struggle for freedom.
Although Iran’s domestic activists have faced predictably violent repression in the midst of their recent unrest, Noury’s simultaneous comments about the MEK indicate that the regime remains concerned about the prospect of that unrest spreading. Meanwhile, the trial itself stands as a potential model for future efforts by the international community to support Iran’s democratic Resistance movement and pursue the justice that cannot presently be achieved inside Iran.