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On Trial in Sweden, Former Iranian Official Still Embodies Culture of Impunity

Supporters of the Iranian Resistance hold rally in Stockholm

This week, the former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury began presenting his defense in a Swedish court, as part of a trial that began in August following his indictment for war crimes and mass murder. Noury was arrested in 2019 on the basis of universal jurisdiction, which allows for any country’s judiciary to prosecute serious violations of international law. He stands accused of participating in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988, and more than 20 survivors of that massacre have provided testimony about his systematic abuse of prisoners and his role in leading them to the “death corridor” where detainees were interrogated over their political affiliations and then promptly hanged.

In the wake of a massive outpouring of evidence against him, Noury’s defense appeared desperate and ineffectual. It ranged from claiming that he was on leave at the time of the massacre to denying that such a massacre ever took place. At one point, Noury even said, “There is no prison called Gohardasht,” in reference to the facility where witnesses recalled suffering abuse at his hands. It is difficult to imagine his prospects for acquittal or light punishment improving as a result of his denial of plain reality, but at this point, one might imagine that Noury has no hope of avoiding prison and is more focused on saving face for the Iranian regime.

This is reflected in the fact that Noury used his time in court to heap praise upon that regime and its officials. He condemned one witness for accurately describing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force who was killed in a 2020 US airstrike, as a criminal. And he attempted to reinforce the illusion of a democratic process in the Islamic Republic by referring to Ebrahim Raisi as its “popular president.” In fact, Raisi was “elected” president in June after all other viable candidates were excluded from the ballot, and the vast majority of the electorate boycotted the vote in protest.

Notably, that boycott was motivated not just by the lack of choice in the June election, or in elections in general, but also by the particularly onerous background of the presumptive victor in that race. In praising Raisi at trial, Noury was praising a fellow perpetrator of the 1988 massacre, namely one of four officials who sat on the “death commission” that oversaw executions at Gohardasht and Evin Prisons.

Several witnesses in Noury’s trial also recalled interactions with Raisi and described him as being especially committed to the broadest possible implementation of then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa regarding organized opposition to the theocratic regime. That edict singled out the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and declared that all supporters were guilty of “enmity against God” and thus subject to the death penalty. Khomeini followed up on the fatwa by ordering authorities to “annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately,” and legal scholars have lately seized upon such language to suggest that the 1988 massacre may be classified as genocide against faith communities that posed a challenge to the regime’s theocratic fundamentalism.

In July, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson spoke at a conference organized by the National Council of Resistance in order to discuss Raisi’s pending inauguration and the appropriate international response. Robertson emphasized that the Genocide Convention obligates all ratifying nations to take action in situations where such a crime against humanity is taking place or is found to have gone unpunished in the past. Other speakers noted that Hamid Noury’s indictment was a test case for universal jurisdiction as applied to the 1988 massacre, and they concluded that there would be no legal obstacle to arresting Raisi based on the same principle, were he to travel to any Western nation in his role as president.

Unfortunately, no government has yet signaled that it intends to pursue broader accountability for the massacre. But considering that Raisi has declined opportunities to attend the UN General Assembly and the COP26 conference in Glasgow, it appears as though the regime’s confidence in its own impunity may be waning. Indeed, Raisi’s decision to avoid the United Kingdom may have been influenced by the fact that certain lawmakers issued formal calls for his arrest and submitted a dossier on the 1988 massacre to English and Scottish authorities.

Those lawmakers expressed hope that local investigations into that issue would set the stage for a commission of inquiry at the United Nations. The NCRI has long advocated for that measure, and it has been joined in recent years by Amnesty International and several UN special rapporteurs. Each of them has acknowledged that the commission of inquiry became more imperative in the wake of Raisi’s appointment to the presidency, something that Amnesty referred to as a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”

As much as that impunity is now being challenged by Noury’s prosecution, it is important to remember that after 33 years, he is the only person to face any legal ramifications for participation in the Iranian regime’s greatest crime against humanity. What’s more, his defiant commentary before the Swedish court betrays the fact that Tehran still has more reason to expect conciliation than accountability from Western governments. It will take more aggressive prosecution, at a much higher level, to convince the regime that the world will no longer turn a blind eye to its crimes and human rights abuses.