To War Criminals Who Believe They Have Impunity, Think Again

The trial in Sweden of an Iranian official accused of facilitating the mass murder of political prisoners is a timely example.

A gavel with a handle shaped like a bomb
Getty; The Atlantic

Stockholm—As the Russian army leaves a trail of atrocity in Ukraine, a trial held here this month offers a powerful template for prosecuting war crimes. The Swedish case—involving a former Iranian official accused of participation in the mass murder of political prisoners in the late 1980s—is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. According to this doctrine, the national courts of any state that has adopted this principle may prosecute someone suspected of grave crimes, no matter where they occurred and irrespective of the nationality of the suspect.

The defendant, Hamid Nouri, also known as Hamid Abbasi, worked in Iran’s prison system for much of the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and allegedly oversaw the executions of thousands of regime opponents in his name. The trial began in August 2021, and at its conclusion, on May 4, the court had held 93 sessions and heard 35 plaintiffs, 26 witnesses, and 12 expert testimonies. If convicted of the charges of war crimes and murder, Nouri faces a possible sentence of life in prison. The verdict is expected on July 14.

Supposedly a mining executive at the time of his arrest, Nouri began his career—as most lucrative careers begin in Iran—in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He entered the corps after Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, rose to power in 1979. He then fought in the Iran-Iraq War for two years until he joined the judiciary’s prison division in 1984. Four years later, Nouri had risen to the top tier of prison officialdom when the ayatollah issued a nationwide fatwa ordering the mass killing of political prisoners.

The ayatollah delivered this edict in 1988, the year of his most humiliating defeat: The war that he’d hoped would end with Iran’s army conquering first Baghdad and then Jerusalem had concluded instead in a no-win truce so unacceptable to him that he likened it to drinking “a cup of poison.” Khomeini was reeling from this reverse when his most formidable domestic opponent, the People’s Mujahedin Organization (MEK), conducted a series of offensives in southern Iran from its base in Iraq. Although the group’s military campaign was unsuccessful, Khomeini’s fatwa was retaliation that aimed to annihilate any possible threat against his rule at that vulnerable hour.

The prison killings began in July. To carry out the fatwa, the ayatollah appointed an ad hoc board made up of a Sharia judge, an intelligence-ministry official, a prosecutor, and his deputy. That deputy was Ebrahim Raisi; today, he is the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These clerics reviewed each prisoner’s files and decided their fate, usually within minutes.

Nouri was the functionary who allegedly assisted the board, which the prisoners called the “death panel.” One of his duties, according to his accusers, was to usher the prisoners down “the corridor of death” to the chamber where the panel convened. The verdict rendered, Nouri reportedly then walked them to their hanging.

By mid-September 1988, some 3,000 political prisoners had been hanged. Most were members of the MEK who refused to renounce the group. Several hundred Communists, some of whom had served their sentences and were waiting to be released, were also hanged, because they refused to pray or say they believed in God or Islam.

The killing spree was so gruesome that it led to a permanent rupture between Ayatollah Khomeini and the cleric whom he had named his successor, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. When Montazeri discovered what was happening in prisons, he wrote two scathing letters to Khomeini, describing the acts as “malicious” and “vengeful”; a third letter addressed to the members of the death panel themselves called their work “mass murder.” When Montazeri summoned them to warn them that they’d “go down in history as criminals,” Khomeini dismissed him as his successor. Montazeri refused to stay silent, and in 1997, after he criticized the next supreme leader, he was placed under house arrest. He remained in detention until his death in 2009.

Today, human-rights organizations have called for an investigation into President Raisi’s role as the prosecutor in the 1988 prison massacre, but it was Nouri, the functionary, who inadvertently placed himself in legal jeopardy when he traveled to Sweden. For the victims of human-rights violations in Iran, his arrest was the culmination of years of effort and represented the most significant victory they’d ever known.

Several former political prisoners who had for years been writing and recording their recollections of that era were doggedly identifying and pursuing their former torturers. Finally, one ex-prisoner, Iraj Mesdaghi, a naturalized Swedish citizen who has become a leading plaintiff in the case, helped devise a scheme to lure the former jailer to Sweden with the promise of a lavish cruise. When Nouri took the bait, a network of human-rights attorneys and Iranian exiles in the United Kingdom and Sweden went into action to lobby the authorities to issue an arrest warrant.

As soon as Nouri’s plane touched down in Stockholm in November 2019, Swedish police officers detained him. During later testimony, a deflated Nouri said that his “cruise ship turned into a solitary cell.”

When I attended the final week of the trial, the Nouri I saw appeared neither feeble nor dejected. Rather, he behaved seemingly with the same sadistic arrogance that former prisoners had described. In the courtroom, he often turned his back on the judges and his own attorneys to face his accusers and mouth obscenities at them. Several witnesses avoided using a water fountain in the courtroom because it brought them near enough to Nouri that he could whisper curses at them.

Members of his family attending the trial paraded before TV cameras inside the courthouse, smiling as one pressed to his chest an image of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the late Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020. Their theatrics were for Iran’s leadership only: to show that they had not forsaken their patrons, or cooperated with the Swedish police or prosecutors, and that they hoped their loyalty would be rewarded.

The Nouris had not miscalculated. As the trial concluded, Tehran reached for its trademark tool for diplomacy—to arrest and imprison foreign nationals and dual citizens, accuse them of espionage, and later use them as leverage in negotiations with foreign powers. The judiciary announced a date for the execution of an Iranian-Swedish physician, Ahmadreza Djalali, then arrested a Swedish tourist, along with two other European visitors, to put pressure on Sweden to intervene in the Nouri trial.

Rumors of a possible prisoner exchange ran through the court as survivors and witnesses huddled during court recesses. And yet, no fear about what the eventual outcome of Iran’s machinations might be could prevent their rejoicing over what had already occurred with the trial itself. On the final day, MEK members, Iranian royalists, and Communists—fierce political rivals usually loath to engage with one another—danced together outside the courthouse. One former prisoner told me he felt that he, too, had died that summer together with his comrades but he had carried on all these years to see this day. Another attendee, Laleh Bazargan, wearing on a necklace a picture of her brother, who was killed in the massacre, said, “I’ve lived in Sweden for 20 years, but I never felt I belonged here until this trial.”

Whatever verdict the Stockholm court delivers, to those like Bazargan what matters is the message the court has already sent to war criminals: There is no statute of limitations on the atrocities they’ve committed and no international guarantee of haven. Although the International Criminal Court at The Hague is investigating Russia’s actions in Ukraine, neither of those countries is a party to the ICC. Struggling to establish itself as an effective forum for international justice, the court has won only four convictions in the two decades of its existence.

The proceedings against Nouri under universal jurisdiction offer a way out of the ICC impasse. Sweden’s action demonstrates that a different kind of liberal and humanitarian interventionism is possible, one conducted not by military operations but through the criminal-justice systems of democratic societies. That can be a new source of hope to the victims of cruel autocratic regimes—if other Western democracies follow Sweden’s lead in refusing to harbor the tormentors and denying them impunity.