In Coppet, A Crime Against Humanity

The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which played a major role in the opposition to the Shah’s regime, was subjected to a brutal repression organized by the new mullahs’ regime shortly after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Under the aegis of Ayatollah Khomeini, the suppression of all political opposition and all minority religious currents was rapidly organized and resulted in a wave of imprisonments, acts of torture and executions targeting opponents, culminating in June 1981 with the summary execution of thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest against the new regime.

The new National Council of Resistance of Iran, founded in 1981 to confront Khomeini’s regime at home and abroad, also faced cruel and systematic repression, culminating in 1988 with the mass execution of anyone suspected of association with the opposition. The exact number of victims, either disappeared or buried in mass graves, is unknown but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. To this day, the brutal repression of any opposition to the regime continues.

These unpunished atrocities have recently attracted renewed attention from humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, which recognize that crimes against humanity are being committed. Similarly, the slow wheels of international criminal justice are starting to turn. Thus, the Swedish criminal authorities, exercising universal jurisdiction, are preparing to try Hamid Noury for the execution of political prisoners in the Gordasht prison in 1988. The trial will attract all the more attention because Ebrahim Raissi, recently appointed president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has played a leading role in the death sentences of political opponents, with the only legal basis being a fatwa issued by Khomeini calling for the death of “enemies of Islam”.

While the Iranian regime perpetrated the massacre of political prisoners on its own soil, this murderous effort continued abroad, where the leading figures of the opposition had taken refuge. There were more than 200 attacks committed abroad by agents of the regime between 1980 and 1999.

Among these attacks, one of the most resounding took place in Switzerland, in Coppet: on April  24 1990, Kazem Rajavi, an important figure in the Iranian resistance and brother of its leader, Massoud Rajavi, was shot dead by a thirteen-man commando. The investigation conducted by the Vaud authorities will identify the perpetrators of the crime, but also demonstrate the involvement of the highest Iranian leaders. Until 2020, the former Minister of Intelligence, Ali Fallahijan, was the target of an arrest warrant issued by the Vaudois justice system.

After thirty years, the public prosecutor’s office of Vaud announced that he wanted to give up: the statute of limitations had been reached for the crime of murder. It is however simplistic to understand the death of Kazem Rajavi as an isolated murder. History shows that the assassination in Coppet is only one of countless acts of murder perpetrated with the aim of eradicating political opposition and exterminating opponents. This crime was committed in the immediate aftermath of the 1988 massacre.

A murder committed as part of a systematic attack against civilians constitutes a crime against humanity. A murder that is part of a plan to destroy a religious group or – according to the definition adopted in Switzerland – a political group, constitutes an act of genocide. Crimes against humanity and genocide are not subject to the statute of limitations under Swiss law, in accordance with Switzerland’s international obligations and in the name of the unwavering suppression of the most serious crimes. “The statute of limitations for this type of crime (…) would allow the accused to evade justice even though the acts in question are extremely serious. The state whose legislation allows such an absurdity would be considered by the rest of the world as a safe haven for such criminals,” wrote the Federal Council in 2008.

The legal conclusion is obvious: a crime against humanity, a genocidal act was committed in Coppet, on Swiss soil, and it is the responsibility of the Swiss authorities to pursue it relentlessly. The prosecution of these offences is the responsibility of the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office. This authority, which is not known for its pro-active approach to international criminal justice, initially refused to take the case in hand; after being ordered to do so by the Federal Criminal Court, it indicated that the ‘retroactive’ prosecution of genocide and crimes against humanity committed before 2000, respectively 2011 – the dates on which these offences were included in the Swiss Criminal Code – would be impossible. In our view, this decision is not compatible with Switzerland’s international obligations and is now under review by the Federal Criminal Court.

The fight against impunity, which in Switzerland sometimes requires overcoming the reluctance of the authorities in charge of it, is not limited to the prosecution of acts committed in distant lands: the shadow of “crimes of crimes” sometimes reaches Coppet.

The article is a translation of “A Coppet, un crime contre l’humanité” originally posted on Le Temps on July 13, 2021.

This article was part of the special Op Ed section on Le Temps dedicated to international justice, with Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima, serving as guest editor.

Image credit: Keystone/Laurent Gillieron

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