War Crimes Trial Overshadows Iran’s Inauguration

A Swedish war crimes trial, beginning August 10th, may reveal further details regarding Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s role in the mass executions of 1988. Hamid Noury – former assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison – was charged with “war crimes and murder” last week for the killings of more than 100 political prisoners at the end of the Iraq-Iran war. Swedish public prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson said that the execution of armed opponents in 1988 was in violation of the Geneva convention and that Noury’s complicity in the killings counted as murder under Sweden’s penal code, as those killings were not directly related to an armed conflict.

“The accused [Noury] is suspected of participating in these mass executions and, as such, of intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners … and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering deemed to be torture and inhuman treatment,” the Swedish charge sheet states.

Raisi, the newly inaugurated, ultraconservative president, was one of four judges appointed to a secret committee established to interrogate prisoners in 1988. He has repeatedly rejected any responsibility for the execution of approximately 5,000 prisoners from armed, leftist opposition groups. Raisi claims that the mass executions were justified by a religious ruling from the nation’s late supreme ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini.

According to Amnesty International, the killings took place without warning. Preceding the executions, Iran’s prisons suspended all family visits, televisions and radios were removed from the wards, and mail delivery was halted. Then, one by one, prisoners were taken for interrogation in special summary “re-trials.” The prisoners were divided into two interrogation groups: the first was asked about political affiliation, while the second was asked about religious faith. In either case, a wrong answer led to a death sentence.

“Many thought they were going to be pardoned and released – as most were about to complete their sentences. Instead, they were executed,” Amnesty International reports.

Although it is estimated that between 4,500 and 5,000 men and women were murdered during the wave of executions in Iranian prisons in the summer of 1988, the executions’ secrecy means that the true death toll is still unknown. Many relatives of the deceased were never informed, either of the killings or where their loved ones had been buried. Two years later, Amnesty International filed a report deeming the executions a premeditated and coordinated procedure authorized by the highest rankings of government and called for a formal investigation of Raisi’s role.

Raisi has been a polarizing figure throughout his political history. Recognized in the Shia tradition as a descendent of the prophet Muhammad, Raisi began attending a seminary in the holy city of Qom at the age of 15. During his studies, he participated in protests in favor of the Islamic Revolution led by Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He then served as a prosecutor under the mentorship of Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi has long been lauded as Khamenei’s possible successor.

When Raisi announced his candidacy for the 2021 presidential election, he claimed he had “come as an independent to the stage to make changes in the executive management of the country and to fight poverty, corruption, humiliation, and discrimination.” His inauguration on August 5th consolidated conservative power over the country’s politics. Now, all branches of power are controlled by anti-western hardliners loyal to Khamenei.

“In the presence of the holy Koran and before the nation, I swear to the omnipotent God to safeguard the official religion of the country and the Islamic Republic as well as the country’s constitution,” Raisi said during the inauguration ceremony, which was broadcasted live to state television.

Although Raisi won a sweeping victory, earning 62% of the votes cast, the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a record low voter turnout. Less than 49% of Iranian voters turned in their ballot.

The B.B.C. reports that many Iranians also boycotted the polls, or failed to vote, due to apathy or disillusionment. Furthermore, many theorize that Khamenei had a hand in orchestrating Raisi’s victory by barring opposition from competing.

The Swedish international trial and further investigation into Raisi’s involvement in the 1988 massacre could prevent Raisi from using the presidency to further repress Iran. Noury’s case was brought to prosecutor Lindhoff Carleson under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to judge defendants in serious crimes regardless of where they were committed. The same principle could apply to Raisi if details of his involvement are revealed in Noury’s trial.

Because Iran’s 2021 election was clearly neither free nor fair and because Raisi has demonstrated a pattern of human rights violations leading to a sanction from the U.S. in 2019, his role in the 1988 executions must be thoroughly investigated. Should evidence of his involvement surface, he too must be tried under the principles of universal jurisdiction, regardless of his station.

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