In August, the former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury officially went on trial in Stockholm. The proceedings are not expected to conclude until April, by which time the court will have heard from dozens of former Iranian political prisoners who witnessed Noury’s actions at Gohardasht Prison both before and during a massacre of political prisoners that has claimed 30,000 lives nationwide during the summer of 1988.
Noury was arrested in 2019 after arriving in Sweden for a planned visit. The underlying warrant was issued on the basis of a principle known as universal jurisdiction, which allows for any nation to unilaterally enforce serious violations of international law, even when the crime in question took place far beyond its borders.
The regime has long attempted to justify the massacre through reference to Operation Eternal Light, an offensive carried out by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) forces with the aim of rallying domestic opposition to the Iranian regime. However, as many witnesses in the Noury case and many other former political prisoners have explained, there were clear signs of a pending massacre months before the operation. Indeed, the underlying fatwa from the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, did not mention any particular operation but instead labeled the MEK, in and of itself, as being comprised of people guilty of “enmity against God.”
“When they brought us to Gohardasht, a new period began which eventually led to the 1988 massacre,” Reza Falahi a former political prisoner and MEK supporter testified on Tuesday during Noury’s trial. “They gradually deprived us of all facilities and imposed more restrictions, including assemblies, group sports, and objects that we had created ourselves. The quality and quantity of food degraded. They took away all televisions from the wards. It was clear that they were planning something,” he added.
Khomeini’s fatwa had declared that it would be “naïve to show mercy” to prisoners, and subsequent explanatory letters contained such orders as, “Annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately.” In conferences coinciding with the start of the Noury trial and the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi as the Iranian regime’s new president, multiple legal scholars pointed to this sort of language as evidence that the 1988 massacre constitutes an act of genocide aimed at destroying entire communities of faith that oppose the mullahs’ theocratic fundamentalism.
Geoffrey Robertson, a British human rights barrister, underlined that the Genocide Convention obligates ratifying states to take action wherever violations are believed to have occurred. Thus Raisi should be prosecuted since played one of the most prominent roles in the entire massacre as a member of the Tehran “death commission” that oversaw the implementation of Khomeini’s fatwa in Evin and Gohardasht Prisons.
Members of the Iranian community and the MEK supporters in Sweden gathered outside each of more than 30 sessions in that trial so far calling for justice and prosecution of criminals such as Raisi. The Iranian Resistance also held a conference in Stockholm in September to coincide with the airing of a speech by Raisi at the United Nations General Assembly. The event served to condemn the apparent international embrace of an administration that is closely associated with terrorism and crimes against humanity and to give an additional outlet for the testimony of former political prisoners, including those who had already spoken at Noury’s trial.
The contents of that testimony, both inside and outside of court have been shocking. Among them are stories of multiple siblings or even entire families being systematically killed at the behest of the death commissions, and stories of survivors being intimidated into silence whenever they sought to speak out about the killings, holding memorials for their loved ones, or inquire about their final resting places.
In Gohardasht, where Noury had his jurisdiction, multiple survivors estimated that only about 150 individuals remained in September 1988, out of an initial population of thousands.
On Tuesday, when the prosecutor asked Fallahi what happened to the prisoners he saw in the death corridor before going to the death commission, he said, “I never saw any of those prisoners again. They were all executed during the massacre. I contacted many of the families and they told me that they had been informed that they were executed. They were instructed not to hold any ceremony for their loved ones.”
Many of the 30,000 victims were buried in secret mass graves as part of the regime’s broad effort to obscure the details and the scale of the massacre.
The current estimate of the overall death toll is a conservative one, is based on eyewitness accounts only from those facilities where a handful of political prisoners remained at the end. In other facilities, entire wards were emptied and the former inmates were promptly transported to mass graves. Therefore, the precise details have yet to be determined, and in some cases, they may never be determined because Tehran’s efforts to obscure its worst crime have never halted.
On various occasions in recent years, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have highlighted the regime’s practice of ordering construction projects on the site of the mass graves, so as to make future investigations more difficult. Statements to this effect underline the urgency of forming a United Nations commission of inquiry aimed at developing a complete picture of the 1988 massacre and demanding accountability from its perpetrators.
To date, Hamid Noury is the only official involved in that massacre to face any consequences for it anywhere in the world.
The UN General Assembly once failed to follow up in any meaningful way after referencing an upsurge in politically motivated executions in its December 1988 resolution on Iran’s human rights. The resulting sense of impunity among Iranian officials presumably helped fuel the decision to install one of the massacre’s leading perpetrators to the office of president, even after he had just participated in the crackdown on political dissent in November 2019 which killed 1,500 more peaceful protesters.
Noury’s conviction and sentencing represent a long-overdue challenge to that impunity, but it is certainly not adequate on its own. Whether through a UN Security Council resolution or through the unilateral application of the principle of universal jurisdiction, the international community must resolve to go after regime officials such as Raisi, so as to make it clear that human rights abuses and crimes against humanity will no longer be tolerated.
In absence of this resolution, Tehran will have little incentive to expand upon the November 2019 crackdown under Raisi’s leadership or to take steps that move the regime closer to reviving the legacy of its single worst crime against humanity.