Report 1: Historic Trial on 1988 Mass-Executions in Iran begins in Stockholm District Court

Gohardasht prison in Iran. One of the prisons where many persons were executed in the summer of 1988. Photo: Gohardasht Prison / Ensie & Matthias (flickr.com) / CC BY-SA 2.0

On 9 November 2019, an Iranian national Hamid was arrested by local authorities upon arrival in Sweden at Arlanda airport on the outskirts of Stockholm due to his suspected involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran during the so called dark summer of 1988.

The arrest was prompted by a report filed with Swedish authorities by a UK based law firm on behalf of exiled Iranian human rights lawyer Kaveh Moussavi on 4 November. The report included extensive documentation on the alleged crimes of the defendant as well as several witness statements. The arrest and subsequent prosecution of the defendant is the result of decades of effort by Iranian activists and human rights organisations, working tirelessly to shed light on the dark summer of 1988 and to secure evidence against those responsible.

The defendant has been in detention since his arrest in 2019. After a comprehensive investigation, prosecution was brought against the defendant on 27 July 2021. The defendant stands accused of war crimes, for his alleged role in the execution and torture of prisoners associated with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) between 30 July and 16 August 1988 at the Gohardasht prison in Iran, and of murder, for his alleged role in the execution of prisoners associated with other political organisations in opposition of the regime in Iran between 27 August and 6 September 1988 at Gohardasht. 

The case against the defendant rests on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which enables Swedish authorities to investigate and prosecute war crimes and other crimes of certain gravity even if the crimes were not committed on Swedish territory and by or against one of its nationals. 

The unprecedented and historic trial begins today in Stockholm District Court and is scheduled to end in mid-April 2022. Civil Rights Defenders will be following the proceedings closely and provide regular reports from the courtroom throughout the entirety of the trial. This first report will focus on the historic background of the case, the scope of the indictment and a few practical issues concerning the trial. 

Background

In 1979, decades of political turmoil in Iran culminated in a revolution which led to the then presiding monarchy being overthrown and the formation of an Islamic republic, with Ayatollah Khomeini installed as its Supreme Leader.  

One of many groups which initially supported the revolution that brought Khomeini to power was the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an organisation with a disputed ideological base often described as a combination of Islam and Marxism – although the group itself has refuted being influenced by the latter. 

MEK and several other political organisations which had supported the revolution were eventually deemed ideologically incompatible with the theocratic state Iran had become through the leadership of the Islamic republic.  

Considering the MEK and several other political organisations as potential rivals, the regime began arresting and subsequently executing members of, and persons otherwise affiliated with, such groups en masse throughout the 1980’s. Many more were exiled and sought refuge in countries across the world.  

The MEK retaliated repeatedly and were responsible for the assassinations of many senior government officials in the early post-revolutionary era. In 1986, the exiled leadership of MEK were expelled from France and the group instead established itself in Iraq. It then sided with Iraq in the ongoing war against Iran (1980 – 1988), partaking in several attacks on Iranian armed forces, including an attempt to invade Iran on 25 July 1988 (in what has become known as operation “Eternal Light”). 

At the tail-end of July, prisons across Iran went into something akin to a lockdown with family visits being cancelled and inmates being cut off from any connection with the outside world. Thousands of prisoners associated with the MEK, most of whom had been imprisoned for years, and sentenced merely for participating in protests or being in possession of political propaganda, were suddenly executed without further charges or additional trials. 

The deadly operation was shrouded in secrecy but has later been revealed to have been set in motion after a fatwa or hokm, with scholars still debating the nature of the order, was issued by Supreme Leader Khomeini on 28 July 1988. The process that followed Khomeini’s order was swift and the manner of execution brutal. Inmates were put before a delegation from the state consisting of a religious judge, a public prosecutor and an intelligence chief, and were asked about their affiliation with the MEK.   

Any hint of remaining loyalties meant certain death and these delegations have rightly become known as death commissions. Inmates were hung in smaller groups or put in front of firing squads. Bodies were drenched in disinfectant, transported in refrigerated trucks and were buried at night in unmarked mass graves. Families were handed any possessions only months later, while being refused information on where their loved ones were buried and being ordered to abstain from mourning them in public. 

The massacre may have begun with inmates affiliated with the MEK, but did not end there. A second wave of executions began in late August.  Prisoners affiliated with other political organisations opposing the regime such as Tudeh, Fadaiyan Khalq, Rahe Karegar and Peykar were also questioned by death committees and many affiliated with such groups were murdered as well.    

In 2018 Amnesty International cited a minimum estimate of around 5,000 victims. An accurate death toll has been impossible to determine, but the numbers could very likely be higher. At the time around and directly after the massacre, as reports on the operation began appearing in Western media and with concern and criticism expressed from the international human rights community, Iran issued blanket denials. Domestically however, certain, at times contradictory, statements were made, which all sought to downplay and justify the executions. With truth on the massacre slowly coming to light, and demands for justice beginning to intensify, the official stance from Iran has evolved into a disinformation campaign which, according to Amnesty International, seeks to “demonize the victims and divert attention from the unjust proceedings that led to their executions”. Many of those who served on the so-called death commissions in 1988 have risen to prominence in the years since. One of them is the recently elected president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi. While the merciless massacre that was the black summer of 1988 has led to widespread condemnation and criticism of Iran, not one single individual has been brought to justice. Until now.  

The Indictment

The prosecution claims that the defendant, while stationed at Gohardasht prison and acting in his role as an assistant to the prosecutor, or in a similar position, aided in the mass execution of prisoners by selecting which inmates would be put before the death commission; by bringing the selected inmates to the so called corridor of death; guarding them while in the corridor; reading aloud the names of prisoners who were to be brought before the committee; escorting prisoners to the committee; sharing information on the prisoners to the committee; reading aloud names of prisoners due to be executed; ordering prisoners to stand in line to the execution site; and himself escorting prisoners to the execution site. 

The prosecution also claims that the defendant, in his role as assistant to the prosecutor, or similar position, in conjunction with other highly ranked officials, exhorted and ordered others to partake in the mass execution of prisoners by assisting him and other officials in the operation. 

This description of his participation in the mass execution of prisoners applies to both the charge of war crimes, with regards to prisoners associated with the MEK, and to the charge of murder, relating to prisoners associated with other political organisations. Although both counts include alleged involvement in unlawful executions, the distinction between war crimes and murder is, in this case, dependent on which organisation a particular victim was associated with at the time and more specifically, whether that organisation was involved in an armed conflict against the regime. This is owing to the fact that an act or omission can only constitute war crimes where it has constituted a breach of the laws of war and where the perpetrator has been bound by those laws. The applicability of the laws of war in turn presupposes the existence of an armed conflict, the knowledge by the perpetrator of an armed conflict and a nexus between the armed conflict and the committed acts. While the prosecution claims that MEK was involved in an armed conflict against Iran, there are no such claims concerning other political organisations whose affiliates the prosecution claims have been murdered in Gohardasht prison in 1988.  

The prosecutor thus argues that the execution of political prisoners associated with the MEK constitutes a breach of article 147 of the Geneva Convention IV in reference to articles 1, 72, 75 and 85 in Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which is applicable in international armed conflicts and of international customary law.  

As a secondary ground, in the event the court finds that the crimes were not committed within the context of the international armed conflict between Iran-Iraq, but that there was an armed conflict of non-international character between the MEK and the Iranian regime, the prosecution invokes a breach of article 3 of the Geneva Convention IV.   

A breach of any of the abovementioned articles in turn constitute a breach of section 6, chapter 22 of the Swedish Criminal Code in its wording before 1 July 1995, which criminalizes war crimes. As an alternative ground, the prosecution has further invoked the crime of murder, in accordance with section 1, chapter 3 of the Swedish Criminal Code.      

In addition to the charges relating to the execution of prisoners, the first count further includes the defendant’s alleged participation in the torture of prisoners associated with the MEK. The prosecution claims that the defendant, in his role and by his acts as described above, subjected prisoners who were selected to appear before the committee, and who were escorted to the execution site but ultimately spared of death, to severe suffering by causing them grave death anxiety, which amounts to torture and inhumane treatment in breach of article 147 of the Geneva Convention IV and section 6, chapter 22 of the Swedish Criminal Code respectively. 

Due to the absence of an armed conflict between the Iranian regime and the political organisations that other victims were associated with, the second count, which concerns the execution of such affiliates, is simply limited to murder in accordance with section 1, chapter 3 of the Swedish Criminal Code in its wording before 1 July 2009.   

The defendant denies all charges.  

Parties To The Case And Witnesses

A total of 29 individuals are listed as injured parties in relation to the charge of war crimes, with 23 of those being former prisoners at Gohardasht associated with the MEK and an additional six the relatives of prisoners associated with MEK that were executed. The prosecution has also listed the names of 110 individuals associated with the MEK who are known to have been executed at Gohardasht in an appendix. 

Seven individuals are listed as injured parties in relation to the charge of murder, all being relatives to prisoners associated with other political organisations in opposition of the regime that were executed at Gohardasht.  The prosecution has also listed the names of 26 individuals associated with such organisations who are known to have been executed at Gohardasht in an appendix. 

In addition to hearing testimony from the injured parties, several former prisoners who were themselves not subjected to torture (and as such are called as witnesses and not included as injured parties) will also be giving statements. The depositions of former prisoners, whether subjected to torture themselves or not, will be particularly crucial to the prosecution in proving the defendant’s identity and the nature of his involvement. The court will also hear from a range of Swedish, Iranian, and international experts on the political situation in Iran at the time, on the mass execution of prisoners in the summer of 1988, on the applicable international law, etc. 

Schedule

The first few days of the trial will be dedicated to the prosecution’s opening presentation of the facts, which will be followed by statements from counsels for the injured parties and from the defendant’s counsel during next week.    

Following these initial presentations from the prosecution and respective counsels, the court will hear testimony from the injured parties between late August and mid-November. A first hearing with the defendant is scheduled for late November. 

Once the defendant’s hearing is concluded, witness statements from former prisoners will follow from early December until mid-February. These witness statements will be followed by hearings with a range of experts between late February and late March, with proceedings scheduled to be concluded by mid-April.  

  •  The facts in the sections about the background to the case build on accounts from credible sources, some of which have been cited by the prosecution in the indictment. Some of these facts may or may not be subject to dispute throughout the trial.

A translated version of this report in Farsi can be found here.