What justice for Iran’s international crimes?
OPINION. Outside the UN General Assembly, Iran has just reiterated that its national Hamid Nouri, former prosecutor and prison officer, was illegally convicted in Sweden this summer. Thanks to universal jurisdiction, international justice is progressing, but, sometimes, politics twists the law, as our reporter stated.
On July 14, 2022, Hamid Nouri, a 61-year-old Iranian citizen, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Swedish court for his involvement in the executions of thousands of political opponents to the regime back in 1988. After 92 days of hearings during which the court heard 72, including 34 plaintiffs, 26 witnesses and 12 experts, the judges reached a unanimous verdict finding Hamid Nouri guilty of murder and war crimes involving the deaths of a 96 people.
The civil society has widely documented mass murders in Iranian prisons that had been ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini from July to September 1988. Reports find that between 2,800 and 5,000 men and women were hanged after secret courts called “death committees” issued summary judgements.
First conviction for the 1988 mass murders
Hamid Nouri is the very first person ever to be convicted of these murders, which makes this verdict a landmark case with major implications. The Iranian Foreign Minister made no mistake, stating immediately after the issuance that it was politically motivated and with no legal basis. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran welcomed this historic verdict in a statement.
According to Swedish Prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson, no fewer than 600 to 700 people were killed in three months in Gohardasht prison alone, northwest of Tehran in Karaj. During the trial in Sweden, former prisoners testified that Hamid Nouri helped select those who were to be put before the “death committees” and was also personally involved in acts of torture. During the trial, Hamid Nouri’s defense argued that he had never worked at Gohardasht prison, but rather at Evin prison in Tehran as an administrator.
An extraordinary legal first
This case is spectacular on many levels, including in the way it formally began.
In order for a court to be seized of an international crime case, there must be a connection with the charged person, such as his/her nationality, or his/her residence in the country where s/he was arrested. The latter scenario was the case of Alieu Kosiah, a Liberian citizen living in Switzerland and who was sentenced for war crimes he committed in Liberia in June 2021 by the Federal Criminal Court (FCC).
However, in Hamid Nouri’s case, the link between Nouri and Sweden was not established by a Swedish nationality or his residence in this country, but rather by the fact that he landed at Stockholm airport in 2019. Hamid Nouri had indeed come to Sweden of his own free will, but he had made this trip after his ex-son-in-law set him up. His ex-son-in-law used to live In Sweden and previously reached out to Iraj Mesdaghi, a political opponent who had taken refuge in Sweden, spent a decade in Iranian prisons, and seen Hamid Nouri in the corridors of Gohardasht prison in 1988.
Upon Hamid Nouri’s arrival on Swedish territory, a complaint had already been filed, which later led to his arrest whe he got off the plane on November 9, 2019 at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.
Swiss judges have also recently contributed to take the law further in the context of the systematic elimination of any opposition by the Iranian authorities. As Counsel Raphaël Jakob recently wrote in Le Temps, the FCC ordered in September 2021 the Public Ministry of the Confederation (MPC) to reopen the investigation into the murder of Iranian opponent Kazem Rajavi in Coppet in 1990, and to qualify this murder as a genocidal act or crime against humanity, rejecting the conservative interpretation defended by the MPC according to which it was a “simple” assassination.
The primacy of national interests
When judges are taking the law further, political considerations may set it back.
Indeed, if the Swedish authorities have not flinched so far facing Iranian pressure, especially with the eventual execution of a dual Swedish-Iranian national, Professor Ahmadreza Djalali, accused of espionage, who could have been “exchanged” for Hamid Nouri, it seems that Belgian parliamentarians have not followed the same approach-
A few days after Hamid Nouri’s conviction, the Belgian parliament ratified a treaty opening the way for prisoner exchanges with Iran. This treaty would allow the exchange of Belgian citizen Olivier Vandecasteele – former director in Iran of a Norwegian humanitarian organization who is languishing in Iranian prisons on espionage charges – for Iranian citizen Assadollah Asadi. Assadollah Asadi is an Iranian diplomat who was sentenced in Belgium in February 2021 to 20 years in prison for attempting to detonate a bomb during a political rally of the Iranian opposition in Villepinte, north of Paris.
However, it seems clear, as it was written following the ratification of this treaty, that exchanging a person convicted of terrorism in a fair trial in Europe for a person who is visibly held hostage by a state that does not care about respect for human rights only paves the way for more arbitrary and unfair arrests of foreigners in Iran, and in other countries.
Once again, hope could come from judges, as the Brussels Court of Appeal temporarily prevented the Belgian state from extraditing Assadollah Asadi to Iran in July 2022.
A case to follow…