Iranian officials ‘face arrest’ travelling abroad as trial nears for 1988 massacre

UK-based lawyer's evidence leads to warrants for 17 officials linked to the killings

London supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran remember the victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in the country. Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media
London supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran remember the victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in the country. Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media

A British-based campaigner who helped detain an Iranian lawyer allegedly involved in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners has provided international prosecutors with evidence for the arrest of nearly 20 regime officials.

The secret list is believed to include Ebrahim Raisi, potential successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and head of the Iranian judiciary, who has been identified as a key figure in the killings in Iranian prisons after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988.

The first man seized on the list, Hamid Nouri, 61, has been held in custody in Sweden for 17 months for his alleged role in “death committees” that organised the killings of opposition and left-wing figures.

He was arrested in 2019 after a dossier compiled by a group including Iraj Mesdaghi, a former political prisoner, and UK-based lawyer Kaveh Moussavi was presented to the Swedish authorities. They learnt that Mr Nouri was planning to travel to Sweden to resolve a family dispute.

Mr Moussavi told The National he has lobbied prosecutors inside and outside of Europe to arrest 17 other current and former officials said to be implicated in crimes covering more than 40 years from 1978.

“There are 17 other international arrest warrants under seal,” said Mr Moussavi. “That’s at least 17 people worried, thinking they might be on the list.”

The human rights lawyer, who declined to identify the countries or suspects for fear of tipping them off, said they included a government minister, former prison guards, members of the Iranian judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Mr Raisi was identified in a 142-page report by human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson in 2011 for alleged involvement in the prison killings. Mr Robertson was commissioned by the US-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Centre, which has compiled evidence and witness statements of survivors.

Lawyers, including Mr Moussavi, lobbied German prosecutors for the arrest and prosecution of Gholamreza Mansouri, a former judge who fled Iran last year after he was accused of corruption.

Mr Mansouri arrived in Germany before heading to Romania, where he was arrested and released after questioning. He died shortly afterwards after falling six stories from the window of a Romanian hotel in a suspected suicide.

Forensic workers arrive to collect evidence from a Bucharest hotel after former judge Gholamreza Mansouri fell six stories after being pursued by Iran for corruption and rights groups for jailing journalists. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)
Forensic workers arrive to collect evidence from a Bucharest hotel after former judge Gholamreza Mansouri fell six stories after being pursued by Iran for corruption and rights groups for jailing journalists. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

Campaign group Reporters without Borders also sought the arrest of Mr Mansouri before he died. The judge was accused of working hand-in-glove with the IRGC to detain and torture scores of journalists.

Mr Moussavi claimed that a third suspect was planning to fly to Denmark this year but authorities found out about his possible arrest and the official got off the aircraft minutes before it took off.

Mr Nouri was arrested after he landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport in November 2019 and was held under the concept of universal jurisdiction, where crimes against humanity can be prosecuted no matter when or where they were committed.

A specialist war crimes unit of the Swedish police and the country’s public prosecutor is investigating while Mr Nouri continues to be held on remand, said Rebecca Mooney, a British lawyer working on the case. The public prosecutor said a date for a trial was not yet finalised.

Days after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini signed a death warrant for thousands of prison inmates linked to opposition.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini voting in 1988 parliamentary elections. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini voting in 1988 parliamentary elections. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Within weeks, up to 5,000 had been killed, Mr Robertson's 2011 report said. A second wave of killings of left-wing critics of the regime followed.

“This case [Nouri] is the first case of universal jurisdiction against the Iranian regime, which I hope will open the floodgates,” Mr Moussavi said. “I know it has sent shivers down the spines of these people.”

Activists claim Mr Nouri was sent to be a prosecutor at Gohardasht prison, Karaj, where political prisoners were sentenced to death after going before the so-called death committee.

He is accused by campaigners of involvement in torture, including whipping people on the soles of their feet, and extorting money from relatives of inmates in return for converting death sentences into long jail terms, Mr Moussavi said.

Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. AFP
Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. AFP

He is also accused of handing out sweets and cakes to inmates who survived a round of executions in a ploy to build psychological pressure on those who remained.

Mr Nouri’s lawyer in Sweden told reporters in 2019 that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. He did not respond to a request for comment.

A Swedish lawyer working on the case said formal charges could be revealed next month. Mr Mesdaghi – who spent a decade inside three prisons from the 1980s – said he expects to give evidence in June.

He has spent years of researching crimes and tracking the movements of the alleged perpetrators.

“I was a prisoner at Gohardasht prison. During the massacre, Nouri was the representative of the prosecution in that prison,” Mr Mesdaghi said. He said he also saw him later in Evin jail in Tehran. “I had a lot of contacts with him – we know each other well,” he said.

Mr Mesdaghi said that he had been blindfolded on death row but was able to see through the material to witness crimes against humanity.

Iraj Mesdaghi. Wikimedia Commons
Iraj Mesdaghi. Wikimedia Commons

“The crime was happening in Iran so we couldn’t prosecute this over there. But now I’m a Swedish citizen, my second country, and they are going to do that. I’m very proud,” he said.

ABC said it was thrilled at the prospect of a trial after years of work charting torture cases. It commissioned the Robertson report, which concluded that Iran felt emboldened to flout international laws because the United Nations failed to hold it accountable for the killings.

“We have been working like ants for 20-odd years to document, one-by-one, the cases,” the group’s executive director Roya Boroumand said. “We have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people about what happened in Iran and been able to provide background to the prosecution.

“Revolutionaries were young and therefore many are still alive.”

The 1988 massacres

Little more than a week after Khomeini drank the “cup of poison” and agreed a UN-backed ceasefire in the war with Iraq, he sought vengeance on the opposition who sided with Saddam Hussein.

He ordered the death sentence of all Mujahideen-e-Khalq prisoners in the country’s jails. The group backed the overthrow of the Shah but then became the implacable foe of the regime after hundreds of its members were killed at a 1981 rally against the regime.

Three-man death committees identified thousands of dissidents in its prisons and ordered the deaths of those who failed in their tests of loyalty to the regime.

Those selected were blindfolded and “ordered to join a conga-line that led straight to the gallows”, Mr Robertson said in his 2011 report.

“They were hung from cranes, four at a time, or in groups of six from ropes hanging from the front of the stage in an assembly hall; some were taken to army barracks at night, directed to make their wills and then shot by firing squad.”

Their bodies were doused with disinfectant and buried at night in secret mass graves. Their families only learnt of their fate months later, when they were handed a plastic bag of their meagre possessions.

Maryam Rajavi, of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, called upon the UN to bring those responsible to justice for killing political prisoners in 1988. Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Maryam Rajavi, of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, called upon the UN to bring those responsible to justice for killing political prisoners in 1988. Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

By mid-August, up to 5,000 people had been killed, Mr Robertson found. After a 10-day lull, the slaughter continued, with left-wing and Marxist supporters killed for apostasy.

Human rights groups highlighted the horrors but the international community failed to act, as it hoped that Iran would moderate its policies after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The first arrest connected came 31 years after the killings.

Of the horrors perpetrated since the end of the Second World War, the killing of thousands of prisoners in Iranian jails in 1988 ranks among the worst, Mr Robertson found.

“Comparisons are odious, especially between atrocities, but the Iranian prison slaughter strikes me as the worst of all,” he wrote in his final report.

“In the annals of post-war horrors, the killings compare with the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in terms of the vulnerability of the victims, and they exceed it when measured by the cold-blooded calculations made at the very pinnacle of state power”.

Updated: April 14, 2021 03:08 PM

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