People protest in front of a wall of photos of victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran during an exhibition at the Palais des Nations in front of the United Nations European Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2017. File Photo by Martial Trezzini/EPA-EFE
Feb. 7 (UPI) -- A relatively unknown former Iranian prosecutor is being tried in Stockholm, Sweden, in a landmark case over the deaths of thousands of political prisoners 34 years ago. But survivors of the massacre say it is the entire regime that's on trial.
Hamid Noury was arrested Nov. 11, 2019, upon touching down at Stockholm Arlanda Airport on probable cause of committing crimes in Iran against international law, gross crime and murder.
In the indictment preceding the trial that began in August, Swedish prosecutors accused the 60-year-old man of acting as deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison in the city of Karaj, north of Tehran, where he aided in "mass executions" of political prisoners from July 30 to Sept. 6, 1988.
The trial is expected to run until April.
Noury, who rejects the charges, is also accused of torturing prisoners and subjecting them to inhumane conditions of "severe death anxiety," according to the indictment.
Survivors of the massacre say Noury was working under those who would make their way through the regime's ranks and now lead the country -- including President Ebrahim Raisi.
"If you look, you will see that all those people who took part in that crime, and they were active at that time, they now hold key posts in the Iranian government," Mahmoud Royaie, a former political prisoner who survived the massacre, told UPI.
During the summer of 1988, the regime culled political prisoners in at least 32 cities nationwide, with the bodies discarded in unmarked mass graves, according to a 2020 letter sent by United Nations human rights experts to the Iranian government.
The executions were conducted under a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by the nation's then-spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, in July 1988, ordering the extermination of the controversial People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, known by the initials MEK. The order was expanded later that summer to include other political dissident prisoners.
Iranian activists have identified nearly 5,000 political prisoners who were executed that summer by the state, but the MEK estimates that the real death toll could be as high as 30,000.
Noury is the first person to be tried in connection with the massacre.
Royaie, 58, a member of the MEK, told UPI via a translator from the group's headquarters in Albania that he was witness to Noury's crimes.
"He had a role in the murder of hundreds of my closest friends," he said.
Noury's charging document states Royaie -- who was arrested Aug. 30, 1981, and sentenced to 10 years for being a sympathizer of the MEK -- can testify that Noury, who went by the name Hamid Abbasi at the prison, called the names of several MEK prisoners to be executed on Aug. 3, 1988.
Witnesses have said Noury took prisoners from their cells to a hall they called the death corridor, read out the names of those to be brought before the death commission to which he provided written and oral information about the prisoners to decide their fate. He would then escort the doomed prisoners to the hall where they would be executed.
Both MEK survivors of Gohardasht Prison who spoke with UPI said those accused of being members or sympathizers of the MEK were ordered by the commission to publicly renounce their support for the organization. Some of those who did were permitted to finish their sentences and were eventually released. Those who did not were killed.
"They ... described themselves as the amnesty commission, the commission that is to pardon prisoners. We labeled that place the death commission," Royaie said. "And these names have remained since then, because that was not a court, it had no resemblance of a court ... They gathered in that room on the order of Khomeini in order to identify and hunt down people who remain committed to the principles of the People's Mujahedin."
The two men said they survived the massacre because they were not as "brave" as those who did not.
"I wasn't as brave as they were because I finally write that I condemn the Monafeqin," Reza Fallahi, an MEK member now based in Britain, told UPI, referring to his organization by a pejorative term meaning "hypocrites," used to slander the organization by the Iranian regime. "They never wrote this, so they were executed because they were brave, and I was a coward. Honestly, ... many people say so 'you were lucky,' but I know, no, I was not."
UPI contacted the Iranian Embassy in Stockholm and the foreign ministry in Tehran for comment on this story. They have not responded.
Seeking regime change
Since its founding by leftist students in 1965, the MEK has sought regime change -- first that of the Western-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and then that of Khomeini.
Through the 1970s, the organization was involved in terrorists attacks in Iran that the State Department said resulted in the deaths of U.S. citizens, and which the United States would cite as cause to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization from 1997 to 2012. The organization denies responsibility for the U.S. deaths and says the designation was political.
The MEK also fought alongside the powers that brought Khomeini to the country's helm in 1979, but the pseudo alliance fast dissolved afterward, and the MEK was forced into exile after attempting an armed uprising against the regime, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In 1981, the heads of the organization, having fled to Paris, founded the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK's political arm, to act as an Iranian government in exile.
Then in 1986, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, Paris expelled the MEK leaders in a deal with Tehran for the release of French hostages. The group moved its base to eastern Iraq from where it supported its then leader, Saddam Hussein, in the war of 1981-88 against Iran.
The grounds for Swedish prosecutors to seek war crimes charges against Noury stem from the MEK's involvement in the war. Its armed wing, called the National Liberation Army, attacked Iran from Iraq, including in the days before Khomeini issued the fatwa, ordering "those who are in prison throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for the Monafeqin are waging war on God and are condemned to execution."
Prominent Iranian women's rights activist Mansoureh Behkish is a member of the informal Mothers and Families of Khavaran group that seeks truth and justice for state atrocities committed starting in the 1980s. Of her six family members who were killed by the regime, two of them were executed at Gohardasht Prison during the massacre for being leftists.
Since seizing power in the late 1970s, the regime targeted its political opposition, she said, but the massacre differs in that those executed were not sentenced to death.
She explained that after the Iran-Iraq war ended on Aug. 20, 1988, with a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations, Khomeini used the MEK's unsuccessful incursion into Iran to target not only the strong political MEK but all political prisoners who could present opposition.
The regime wanted to reconstruct the country, she said, "and they knew these activists wouldn't agree."
"They wanted the country don't have any people protest to them," she said.
A second motivation by the regime for the massacre was to send a message to the broader society: Keep quiet and do as we say, she said.
Sweden-based American lawyer Kenneth Lewis told UPI in a recent interview that there is some debate among legal circles whether Noury can be charged with war crimes under what he called a "primitive" Swedish law that was in place during the massacre. Some could interpret the MEK attacking Iran from Iraq not as an international armed conflict, but as a domestic one.
In an effort to prevent Noury from getting off on a technicality, the Swedish prosecution has also charged him with murder for intentionally killing "a large number" of Gohardasht prisoners seen as apostates by the regime for either being members of or sympathizing with various left-wing groups. The indictment states these killings occurred between Aug. 27 and Sept. 6, 1988.
"Swedish domestic legislation does not include crimes against humanity committed before 1 July 2014 and could not be relied on in this indictment as the alleged criminal acts took place before that date," Swedish prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson said in a statement when the charges were announced in late July. "Therefore, the indictment involves crimes against the international law, i.e. war crimes, as well as murder."
In response to the charges, the defense in the case argues that Noury wasn't present at the prison during the massacre, said Lewis, who has worked with the MEK since the late 1990s and is attending the trial, representing four MEK members.
Defense attorneys couldn't be reached for comment.
Lewis said the defense argues that Noury was on an extended vacation ahead of the birth of one of his children when he is accused of participating in the massacre, that he was not the deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht and that the prisoners are confusing him for someone else.
"They're claiming really that to the extent that all these people are pointing him out and saying he was there -- they're lying. And not only that, they've been influenced by each other," he said. "That's their line of defense."
If convicted, Noury could face four years to life in a Swedish prison, but activists and survivors of the massacre say the fact the trial is being held at all is a victory for their cause.
"I would say even if there isn't a conviction, the fact that all of this evidence is being compiled in a court of law in a Western country, it can all be used in a new case against people who are on a higher level," Lewis said.
Regime's highest ranks
Among the evidence is witness testimony that points to the highest ranks of the Iranian regime being present and active in the massacre.
Royaie said that on Aug. 3, 1988, the day he can attest to Noury having called out the names of those to be executed, he was summoned before the quasi-judicial panel at Gohardasht.
"When I sat before the death commission, they took off my blindfold, and I saw five people sitting in front of me," he said.
Those five men were Noury, and the commission's four members: Hossein Ali Nayyeri, Morteza Eshraghi, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi and Raisi.
Since the massacre, all have gone on to hold high-ranking positions in the Iranian government, according to the United States Institute of Peace.
Nayyeri served as deputy chief justice of Iran's Supreme Court until 2013 and then became the head of the Disciplinary Court of Judges, a position he holds today.
Eshraghi was a judge on the Supreme Court and is now a member of the Iranian Bar Association.
And Mostafa Pourmohammadi was the minister of the interior from 2005 to 2008 and the minister of justice from 2013 to 2017. His current position is adviser to the head of the judiciary.
None yet, however, have secured a position higher than that of Raisi, who became president in an August election the United States has said was neither free nor fair.
"The DNA of this regime is intertwined with the massacre of 1988," Shashin Gobadi, the Paris-based spokesman for the MEK, told UPI.
Royaie, who has written books about the massacre, said government posts in Iran are filled by the regime based on loyalty, and if one scrutinizes its ranks, one would find the same revolutionary guards and wardens who oversaw prisons during 1988.
"Today's government is members of the 1988 death commission," he said.
He said he saw future ministers observe him being tortured, and that participating in the massacre was how one proves their worth to rise through the regime's ranks.
Ali Khamenei -- the current spiritual leader who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in 1989 and who was president of Iran during the massacre -- brought Raisi to power to instill fear into the public amid the recent and persistent uprisings and protests, Royaie said.
"We are facing a regime which we could describe as a regime of massacre," he said. "And its president, Ebrahim Raisi, is the outcome."
Behkish said his presidency is meant to be an obvious threat to those who may wish to challenge regime rule and demand freedom and justice in Iran.
"They want to show that they can very [easily] kill us," she said.
Members of the MEK have told UPI that this trial may lead to further trials, as the court document states: "Noury is to be regarded as an accomplice as he ... promoted the intentional killing, as well as the torture and the inhuman treatment with counsel and deed."
Iran has never acknowledged the massacre, while making it taboo to discuss it at home. It has refused to provide families with accurate or complete information about the deaths of their loved ones, and has continued to deny the killings while having "trivialized" the number of deaths, claiming many were killed in conflict, the U.N. letter states.
Through the persistence of activists and publicity for the trial, news of it is spreading, Gobadi said, as has the movement for justice, which has been active since weeks after the massacre began.
But Gobadi argues that the massacres continue as those who perpetrated it still run the country.
"This is an ongoing crime against humanity because the very same people, the very same characters who committed this crime against humanity, have been killing and executing Iranian peoples unabatedly," he said.
He pointed to the more than 1,000 people killed by the regime in an attempt to quell mass protests that erupted in November 2019 against a fuel price hike.
Gobadi said the regime has been immune to scrutiny for its crimes, but that impunity may be cracking.
In May, 152 former U.N. officials and international human rights and legal experts wrote to Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, calling for a commission into the massacre.
Following Raisi's election in June, Amnesty International demanded he be investigated for crimes against humanity for involvement with the death commissions.
Activists have cited international protests, Noury's ongoing trial and their pressure on governments as reasons for Raisi not attending the U.N. General Assembly in September, for which he gave his speech remotely, and the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last fall.
"It was obvious that Raisi is very much fearful of attending an international arena, and it is obvious that he knows full well the world has come to know his real nature and his real function as a mass murderer," Gobadi said.
Behkish said ultimately Noury's trial, while a success, is only to confirm whether he participated in the massacre and that too much attention is being given to Raisi's involvement, as the entire regime should be tried and punished -- ideally by an Iranian court.
"All of this government is guilty. Not only Raisi. Raisi is only one person. Hamid Noury is one person. Khomeini is one person," she said. "We wish [in] the future, all of this bring to the trial, the same trial."
She explained that she hopes in the future the trial of the massacre would be the end of "the dictatorship, injustice and discrimination" in Iran.
"But at the moment we can't do this," she told UPI from Ireland, where she has lived since September 2017 and where she was when an Iranian court convicted her in absentia to 7 ½ years in prison for her activism.
Royaie, however, is confident time is running out for the regime. He said there is a new generation of Iranians demanding justice who won't back down.
"People want to know what happened to those 30,000," he said. "This is a flame which is strengthening by the day. I have no doubt it will burn the regime to the ground."