Over 100 Murders: The Iranian Standing Trial for War Crimes in Sweden

Hamid Nouri is charged with being involved in over 100 murders and war crimes during the bloody Iranian massacre of July 1988. In a unique legal case, Stockholm District Court may sentence him to life in prison

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/2022-06-21/ty-article-magazine/.premium/over-100-murders-the-iranian-standing-trial-for-war-crimes-in-sweden/00000181-853d-ddb4-a3ab-d5fd84520000

STOCKHOLM – At the time, Manoochehr Eshaghi didn’t really understand why he was taken out of the line. Leaving Tehran’s Evin Prison courtroom, after a collective legal proceeding lasting only a few minutes, he and the others in his group were blindfolded and ordered to walk toward a bus, each holding the shoulder of the man in front. When the bus dropped them off, Eshaghi was told to wait by a wall. From under the blindfold, he could see the others. Joined by prisoners from other buses arriving on the scene, they were divided into groups of four. These were their last moments, and Eshaghi, the lone survivor, can’t forget them.

They stood with their backs to their executioners. A few words were said to announce the verdict and some of them shouted out last words. Then came the shots. “Nobody begged or showed any weakness,” Eshaghi says some 40 years on, in an interview in a Stockholm café not far from his home. “Some shouted ‘Long live freedom!’ Others shouted ‘Death to Khomeini!’ After a first round of shots, the commander checked the bodies and shot them again in the head. I just sat there and cried.”

The apparent reason Eshaghi was spared was because he had yet to reach puberty. Today, aged 55, he remembers the demonstration that caused his arrest in 1981. He says he was there to support his uncle, who was a supporter of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (aka Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK), a student movement that in those days combined a modernist version of Islam, Marxist influences and opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic clergy.

Eshaghi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, during which time he saw many of his prison mates executed. Sometimes he and others were made to carry the bodies and load them onto trucks. He says prisoners were raped by guards; many, including himself, were tortured and placed in solitary confinement. When he was transferred to another prison – Gohardasht in Karaj, west of Tehran – things only got worse. Violence there was part of the daily routine. One form of torture Eshaghi remembers is being beaten by the guards and then stuffed into a small unventilated room together with other prisoners until they almost suffocated to death. They called it the “gas chamber.”

Eshaghi was at Gohardasht during the summer of 1988, when thousands of political prisoners were executed by hanging. He remembers many of his cellmates being taken to a committee and asked about their political beliefs. Some agreed to show remorse, condemn the Mujahedin movement and ask for mercy. Others refused, not knowing in those early days that rejecting the terms meant being sent to the gallows.

Thirty-four years have passed but Eshaghi hasn’t forgotten his cellmates who were murdered, or the men in charge of the killings. One of them, a deputy to the assistant prosecutor, was a man he knew as Hamid Abbasi. In an unexpected turn of events, Abbasi, whose real name is Hamid Nouri, is now standing trial for the 1988 Gohardasht and Evin killings not far from the Stockholm café where Eshaghi told me his story.

A protester outside Stockholm District Court during the trial of Hamid Nouri last month. David Stavrou

According to the prosecutors, in the space of just a few weeks, Nouri and his colleagues rounded up thousands of prisoners, gave them staged trials and handed down death sentences. Most of them were People’s Mujahedin of Iran supporters, others were members of left-wing movements. It was all done secretly, hastily and deceitfully. At last, Manoochehr Eshaghi, who was asked to testify at the trial, got to face one of his torturers. “I’m 100 percent sure it’s him,” he says, “and he knows exactly who I am too. Me and my two brothers, who were also imprisoned in Gohardasht, were targets for him. When I first saw him in court, I was frightened. But then I calmed down. When I testified, it felt good. Finally, he had to answer questions and take responsibility.”

Nouri, who is 61, is charged with more than 100 murders and war crimes. The verdict will be announced on July 14 and, if convicted on both charges, he may spend the rest of his life in a Swedish prison.

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The trial in Stockholm District Court began last August, almost two years after Nouri was dramatically detained at Stockholm’s international airport. According to the prosecution, back in 1988 Nouri was one of those who took the prisoners to the so-called death committee and then to the execution chambers. He was also involved in the torture, the hangings and the secret burial of the victims, they say.

Nouri projected an air of confidence during the trial. He was always well-dressed and looked elegant when his handcuffs were removed and he took his place at the defendant’s table. His behavior during the proceedings was eye-catching: he exchanged intense looks with witnesses and members of the public attending the court sessions. He occasionally mumbled a few words or expressed his opinion using body language. He followed every word (translated into Persian for him from Swedish, and vice versa), read the material presented to the court and exchanged remarks with the judge, lawyers and law enforcement officers.

On the days when he presented his side of the story, it sometimes felt like he was lecturing the court with a mix of self-praise, political theories and theatrics. He claimed he wasn’t a violent man, never hurt anyone and that everybody loves him. He also praised Iran and its regime, which has to face the “terrible lies” it’s accused of and made harsh allegations against the Mujahedin movement, which he refused to call by name – referring to it instead as “the little group” that “murdered thousands of Iranians in a way that makes ISIS look like innocent children.”

It was as if Nouri was certain he’d soon be back home and wanted to avoid being seen as a man who turned his back on his previous ideals and comrades. At times, it seemed as if Nouri’s testimony had very little to do with a coherent legal defense or the advice of his Swedish lawyers. He claimed that although he used the alias Hamid Abbasi and worked at Evin Prison, he was not the only Hamid Abbasi there and he wasn’t employed at Gohardasht at all.

He also claimed that because his wife had just given birth, he was on leave on the dates when the supposed executions took place – but according to him there were no mass executions at all. Even so, the Swedish court, the plaintiff’s lawyers and prosecutors put an enormous amount of work and resources into this unique trial, which is based on the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows for crimes that are deemed a threat to the whole of humanity to be prosecuted by national courts regardless of where they were committed.

The trial even relocated to Albania for a few weeks in November, in order to hear from witnesses who are still Mujahedin supporters and are based there. But it wasn’t the tireless work of Swedish authorities that first brought Nouri to Sweden on November 9, 2019. Rather, it was the determination of one man: a former Iranian Mujahedin supporter called Iraj Mesdaghi.

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Mesdaghi is another survivor of the 1988 massacre who lives in Sweden. He was born in Tehran and educated in the United States. Although he is today a harsh critic of the Mujahedin movement, he was a supporter back in 1981 when he started a 10-year prison sentence, during which he was subjected to violence and torture.

In 2019, decades after arriving in Sweden, Mesdaghi received information that one of his torturers – the man he knew as Hamid Abbasi – was traveling to Stockholm for a private visit. It turned out that one of his stepdaughters used to be married to a Swede and was involved in a custody dispute over their 2-year-old child. When Mesdaghi heard of this, he put a complex international legal plot into action.

“With the help of one of Nouri’s Swedish acquaintances, who secretly assisted me, I got Nouri tickets for a cruise and booked hotels for him in order to tempt him to start his trip in Stockholm, meet the family here and then go on vacation,” he recounts in an interview outside the courtroom.

Iraj Mesdaghi

“After making these arrangements, I traveled to London and met with British lawyers and legal advisers to start preparing the case. Later, they contacted a Swedish lawyer, who got in touch with the Swedish prosecutor.” Mesdaghi was initially concerned about the Swedish government being reluctant to get involved. “I know the European system,” he says. “There’s a difference between foreign affairs, intelligence services and the justice system. Everyone does their job. Intelligence services are concerned about keeping the country safe, they don’t care about justice. But I created the scenario and I knew we could get him here.”

The plan worked. Nouri was arrested upon arrival in Stockholm and charges were filed against him. When the trial finally began some 21 months later, it was only natural that Mesdaghi would be the first witness. He told the court about how he was taken from his cell in Gohardasht and stood in line, blindfolded, with other prisoners awaiting trial. When the procedure began, he was not officially warned that the next few minutes could seal his fate. However, he understood that his answers could send him straight to the executioners who were waiting on the other side of what would be known as the “death corridor.”

Mesdaghi was therefore willing to promise that he would not carry out political activities upon his release. In the following days, he met the committee again, signed various written statements, was tortured by prison guards and witnessed many of his fellow inmates being taken to their deaths as his own fate was hanging in the balance. After his eventual release and escape from Iran in 1994, Mesdaghi wrote extensively about the events leading up to the summer of 1988. He claims there was a power struggle within the Iranian political elite as the Iran-Iraq War was coming to an end, Khomeini’s health was deteriorating and the question of political prisoners was dividing his assumed successors.

Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the designated successor, was opposed to the massacre, while other senior officials such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei were supporters. Mesdaghi experienced the results of this geopolitical drama in solitary confinement, when he heard the guards speaking of a fatwa soon to be issued by the supreme leader. Toward the end of July 1988, it was obvious something was going on: prison visits were canceled, prisoners were being moved between wings, and access to newspapers and television was denied.

The fatwa, which was issued on July 28, sanctioned the execution of political prisoners who were still loyal to the Mujahedin. Later, Khomeini allegedly issued a second fatwa targeting left-wing prisoners. Mesdaghi explains that when Montazeri objected to the massacre, he was removed from his senior positions by Khomeini, who also set up the so-called death commissions. In the Tehran area, the commission that arrived at Gohardasht on July 30 included Sharia Judge Hossein Ali Nayyeri and Tehran prosecutor Gen. Morteza Eshraghi. When Mesdaghi faced the committee on August 6, he recognized the two as well as the man who he knew as Naserian – now known as Mohammad Moghiseh, a judge in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Naserian’s deputy was Hamid Abbasi, who Mesdaghi recognizes as Hamid Nouri. The committee included several others who would become extremely important figures. One was Mostafa Pourmohammadi, an intelligence official who later served as a minister under presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rohani. The other would become even more significant. His name was Ebrahim Raisi.

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In Iran, the president is second only to the supreme religious leader in the chain of command. The fact that Raisi was a key player in the 1988 massacre, and then became Iran’s president in June 2021, makes the Nouri trial even more momentous. One of the prisoners who clearly remembers Raisi is Fereydoun Najafi (62) who now lives in Australia and was one of the witnesses in Nouri’s trial. “When taken to the committee I told Raisi that I didn’t do anything. I said 'I’m not against you, I don’t care about the Mujahedin’. Raisi then told me to go and wait outside, and I was returned to my cell. After that I was transferred back to Evin where I spent three more years”. Unlike other prisoners, Najafi answered the committee members this way, because he already had information about the proceedings and their possible results thanks to two other prisoners who managed to contact him before their executions and explained the situation by morse code. "Other prisoners didn’t know and they just asked to be left alone", says Najafi, "which meant that they are still Mujahidin supporters”.

Najafi, who was arrested because his brother and sister were Mujahedin supporters, was beaten and tortured, sent to Evin and given a harsh sentence of 15 years with no real grounds. He was later transferred to Gohardasht where he spent three years in solitary confinement. When he was called in to face the Death Committee, he was asked a couple of questions. He recognized Eshraghi, Nayyeri, Naserian and Raisi who he said received his file from Hamid Abbasi who he’s now completely sure is Hamid Nouri. “Even if you forget everything”, he says, “you never forget your enemy. This guy is a torturer. I’ll never forget him”.

“The trial of Hamid Nouri is one of the most significant events during the rule of the Islamic regime,” says Mehdi Aslani, another trial witness. He is a writer and activist who is now based in Germany and was a member of the left-wing Fadaiyan-e-Khalq (FKO) in the 1980s. “Up until recently, arrests of Islamic regime operatives were predominantly linked to their activities outside of Iran. Whereas now, for the first time, someone is facing justice outside Iran for involvement in crimes against political prisoners in Iran.”

Mesdaghi (left) and Aslani leaving the Stockholm courtroom. David Stavrou

For Aslani, it’s not just about politics. He says that when he stared Nouri in the eye during the trial, he remembered friends who perished in their youth and shed a tear for the victims of the 1988 “thought inquisition and slaughter of intellect.” “Khomeini’s second fatwa is even more sinister and outrageous than the first one against the Mujahedin,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a U.S.-based historian of modern Iran. “The first fatwa tried to get the prisoners to deny the Mujahedin and rat against their colleagues. The second fatwa is medieval. It’s against apostates, the members of the left-wing groups. They were asked other questions such as did they pray? Or did they believe the Koran is the word of God? According to strict Islamic law, apostates can be executed. This is a case of medieval law in 20th-century Iran.

“There are two different stories here,” he continues. “The first one, the war on political opponents, is brutal but it’s normal in 20th-century politics. The second, the execution of prisoners because they were nonbelievers, is like the [Spanish] Inquisition.” Abrahamian estimates the number of executed members of the Mujahedin at between 2,500 and 7,000, while the number of left-wing activists who were killed was smaller (probably several hundred). The Mujahedin victims may include prisoners of war who were executed after Operation Mersad – an invasion of Iran in July 1988 in which Iraqi forces and Mujahedin fighters cooperated. Whatever the real number, the American-Iranian historian says the regime “wanted to keep a lid on the information and never admitted anything.”

But the massacre didn’t remain a secret. Members of the Iranian diaspora have been talking about it for decades; there are books and reports on it; and international organizations have been demanding justice for years, including Amnesty International. Many of these organizations have been present at the Stockholm trial, which is currently in recess ahead of the verdict next month, and it is clear that although they are united against the Iranian regime and Nouri as its representative, they are sometimes strongly opposed to each other as well. Under the surface, there are many accusations and deep animosity between Mujahedin supporters, former Marxists, human right activists and different Iranian diaspora groups.

Inside Iran, however, the regime seems to be united in a new strategy toward the West. Former presidents “Khatami, Rohani and Rafsanjani were interested in foreign relations and the image of Iran in Western Europe,” Abrahamian says. “Raisi couldn’t care less. I think they’re not worried about the West anymore; they’re isolationists, and they’re counting on Russia and China.

Ervand Abrahamian Photo: Emma Nolan-Abrahamian

A prime example of the way Iran is behaving toward Europe nowadays was offered in May. In what was widely seen as an attempt to affect the Stockholm court, Tehran is threatening to execute Iranian-Swedish doctor Ahmadreza Reza Djalali, who was convicted of espionage in 2017 in what human rights groups regard as a highly dubious trial. The Islamic republic, it seems, is trying to get Nouri back and is certainly not accepting any blame for the 1988 massacre.

Nouri himself continues to deny a massacre ever happened, praises Iran’s leaders and threatens his opponents. In this sense, he can be seen as a warning. If he is the face of the current Iranian regime, negotiations over the new nuclear deal, oil sales and sanctions may be different than in the past. “Concerning the nuclear discussions in Vienna,” historian Abrahamian says, “the premise in the West is that Iran wants an agreement with the world powers, including the United States. But that may not be true now that the right-wing, die-hard extremists are in charge.”

If he is right, Hamid Nouri’s trial may be just the beginning of a whole new chapter in Iran’s relations with the West.