‘I still hear his voice’: Former prisoners prepare for ground-breaking Iran massacre trial

President Ebrahim Raisi expected to be identified as part of the network responsible for prison massacres

The Anglo-Iranian community, supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), remember the 30,000 victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran. Parliament Square, London, UK. 4th October 2019 (Photo credit should read Matthew Chattle / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
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The softening-up process started with a beating from the guards in a solitary confinement cell. Then Reza Fallahi was dragged before prosecutors to negotiate for his life – before being thrown back into Iran’s brutal prison system. And he was one of the lucky ones.

Of the 64 political prisoners taken from his section in Gohardasht prison in August 1988, only 12 of them were alive by the end of the week. The rest were strung up on the gallows during the notorious mass killings of an estimated 5,000 prisoners in jails across the country.

The prisoners were ordered to die in a secret fatwa signed by former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini days after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Top of the list were jailed members of the supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) who backed the 1979 revolution but turned against the regime and sided with Iraq during the war.

Now 60 years old and living in the UK, Mr Fallahi cannot manage a full night’s sleep because of the horrors experienced during his 10 years behind bars. But more than 30 years on from the massacre, he finally has a shot at securing a measure of justice.

After a decades-long and frustrating battle by campaigners and former inmates, in Sweden on Tuesday a suspected lowly regime official will become the first man to stand trial for war crimes and more than 100 murders.

Mr Fallahi is named in Swedish court documents as one of about 50 former prisoners, relatives and campaigners who will give evidence against Hamid Nouri, who is accused of being an assistant to a prosecutor during the massacres at Gohardasht, 20 kilometres west of Tehran. Mr Nouri, 60, says it is a case of mistaken identity.

But while Mr Nouri is the only man on trial, after being lured to Sweden in 2019, other senior regime officials, although not present, will face detailed scrutiny during the months of hearings.

They include Ebrahim Raisi, the recently confirmed Iranian president and a former member of the so-called “death committees” that ordered the killings of thousands of opposition and left-wing figures in only a few weeks.

Both men are likely to figure prominently in Mr Fallahi’s day-long evidence to the trial, he told The National. He remembers his caseworker, Mr Nouri, “laughing and very happy” when the names of the 64 were called down to death row at the jail.

He says Mr Nouri – who he knew then by a different name – provided assistance to the four-man death committee at Gohardasht prison, which included a youthful young prosecutor, Ebrahim Raisi, according to Mr Fallahi.

He said Mr Raisi was the youngest member of the committee and had addressed him directly during the hearing.

“He told me: ‘You’re a murderer, you have blood on your hands, you support a terrorist group, you should be punished’,” Mr Fallahi said. “He was very angry. He was one of the people trying his best to get more people killed.”

He believes he survived only because a large group of prisoners had just gone before him and they were all sent to the gallows, the guards returning with their rings and other personal effects.

Mr Fallahi believes the authorities allowed small groups to survive so they could be used for propaganda purposes to rebut suggestions of a massacre. The belongings of those who died were returned to their families after secret burials.

Mr Fallahi was arrested in 1981 during a round-up of opposition activists from the MEK who turned on the clerical regime after hundreds of its members were killed at a rally that year. His crime was to be reading a newspaper supportive of the group.

Another London-based former inmate who is giving evidence, Ahmad Ebrahimi, told The National that the inmates knew something was afoot when television sets were removed, newspapers stopped and family visits cancelled.

He said that he retreated from his support for the opposition, which in its current guise remains a trenchant critic of the regime from outside Iran, after being tipped off by another inmate that disloyal prisoners were being killed.

Mr Nouri was said to have played an active role preparing the names and leading inmates to and from the death committee hearings. Some former inmates said he also played an active role in prison violence and hangings.

Mr Ebrahimi said he was taken down to death row where he was blindfolded in preparation for his own hearing and claims to have spoken to Mr Nouri.

“When I was taken to the death committee I said that I didn’t believe. I was in a position where I would get killed if I did not. And he [Nouri] told me I had to write it – I couldn’t just say it. I had to write it specifically.

“I knew him at that time because it was a critical moment in my life. I knew him from before and I knew his voice. Still now, his voice is in my ears all the time.”

Of the 60 taken from his wing at the prison, just four survived, he said.

Both men served 10 years before they were released from prison in 1991, but had to continue signing on weekly with the authorities so they could keep track of them.

Mr Ebrahimi fled to Britain using a false passport, followed by his wife several years later. Mr Fallahi escaped with the help of smugglers in 2001 and also made his way to Britain. Both men are now British citizens.

The case is likely to make uncomfortable publicity for Iran’s new president.

While country leaders generally have immunity from prosecution while in office, prominent lawyer Geoffrey Robertson who investigated the killings in 2011, predicted that Mr Raisi would not venture outside Iran.

Mr Nouri was charged under the concept of universal jurisdiction, a legal concept that allows for the most serious crimes to be heard by a country regardless of when and where they were committed.

“This extensive investigation resulting in this indictment shows that even though these acts were committed beyond Sweden’s territory and more than three decades ago, they can be subject to legal proceedings in Sweden,” said prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson when announcing the charges last month.

Lawyers have spoken of an increased ambition for international tribunals to prosecute high-profile cases. Omar Al Bashir, the former president of Sudan, became the first serving leader to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in 2009. He has yet to be handed over to the court.

Tehran was also left angry and warning of repercussions after the conviction of an Iranian diplomat in Belgium over a 2018 plot to bomb an opposition rally in France organised by the current MEK organisation.

“I don’t have a personal issue with him [Nouri],” Mr Ebrahimi said. “My most important thing is that the highest of the criminals is now a so-called president. And they have to be brought to justice.

“I believe in the cause of freedom. I’m delighted to be giving evidence because of the way those people were killed and their graves hidden in parts of Iran that nobody knows.”

Updated: August 07, 2021, 12:55 PM