STOCKHOLM — In a landmark decision, a Swedish court on Thursday sentenced an Iranian to life in prison for his role in a notorious campaign of mass executions and torture by the Iranian government against political opponents in 1988 .
Stockholm District Court judges ruled that 61-year-old Hamid Noury, as an assistant deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht prison near Tehran, played an active role in the summary trial and execution of a “large number” of prisoners sentenced to death by a committee visiting the prison.
These proceedings violated basic fair trial requirements, including UN-set provisions by which Iran was bound in 1988, the Stockholm court found.
“The defendant … notably rounded up prisoners and brought them to the committee, as well as escorted prisoners to the execution site,” District Court Judge Tomas Zander told reporters. “The circumstances were such that the defendant must be considered a perpetrator.”
Noury is the first person to be convicted of crimes related to the 1988 executions.
Following the court’s announcement, cheers could be heard from a crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were holding pictures of relatives they believe were killed in the 1988 purge.
“It’s a historic day…a day of justice,” Laleh Bazargan, a plaintiff in the case against Noury, told Swedish national broadcaster SVT.
But while the mood outside the Stockholm court was largely jubilant, concerns are already growing about the effect the verdict could have on the already frosty relations between Sweden and Iran.
Iran is holding Swedish-Iranian researcher Ahmadreza Djalali on charges of espionage and has threatened to execute him, and experts believe Noury’s conviction could make it more difficult to secure Djalali’s release.
Maja Åberg, Amnesty International’s Stockholm-based political adviser, noted reports from Iranian news agencies last year suggesting that if Noury was found guilty, Djalali would be executed.
“I’m very worried, it’s very serious,” Åberg told SVT.
The cases of Noury and Djalali also seem likely to play a role in negotiations over possible prisoner swaps elsewhere in Europe.
Earlier this month, Belgian lawmakers discussed a change in legislation that could make it easier to deport a convicted Iranian terrorist to Iran, possibly paving the way for the release of a Belgian citizen or Jalali held by Iran.
Iranian authorities have condemned Noury’s trial since it began in August last year, saying it was politically motivated.
The case has been particularly sensitive in Tehran because the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, is said to have been a key figure in the 1988 purge as a member of the committee deciding which prisoners should be killed and which should be spared.
International organizations have long urged Iran to address this murky chapter in its past, something Raisi and the government in Tehran have largely resisted.
Asked about his role in last year’s killings, Raisi said he had “advocated for human rights” in every position he held.
For his part, Noury dismissed the charges against him based on mistaken identity.
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” he told police after his arrest. “You make a mistake, there’s been a misunderstanding, you have the wrong person.”
A dark story
The 1988 purge has its roots in the early days of Iran’s Islamic regime, which seized power in a 1979 revolution led by cleric Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the years following the revolution, a power struggle raged between the new regime and an opposition group called the People’s Mojahedin.
Khomeini’s attitude towards the group hardened after he sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq wars of the 1980s, and in 1988 Khomeini ordered the trial of the group’s members detained in Gohardasht and other prisons.
Human rights groups say these trials have led to thousands of summary executions.
On Thursday, the court in Stockholm ruled that Noury’s actions in 1988 constituted violations of international law and murder.
A life sentence in Sweden usually means a minimum of 20 to 25 years in prison, but it can be extended. If eventually released, Noury will be sent back to Iran.
It was not immediately clear whether he planned to appeal.
Noury, who had evaded justice for decades, was arrested at an airport near Stockholm during a visit to Sweden in 2019.
Sweden brought charges against him under the legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, which allows one state to try cases of alleged serious crime in another.
Outside of court, relatives of purge victims said they were grateful to Sweden for bringing the case.
“It means so much to me,” the complainant said Bazargan, who said his brother was executed in 1988. “After 33 years, we never thought we would see this day.”