Report 7: Plaintiff Hearings pt. 1

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

In our last four reports, we have given an overview of the opening presentations from the prosecution, defense, and victim counsels respectively. Since the opening presentations have been concluded, the proceedings have moved on to hearings with plaintiffs.

The first hearing with a plaintiff began on August 23rd and spanned over four days. It was then followed by testimonies from other plaintiffs. A total of six plaintiffs have been heard so far and we have been able to attend the hearings of four. In this report, we will outline the main points of the testimonies from four of the plaintiffs, with an emphasis on the hearing with the first plaintiff. We will hereinafter be referring to him as Plaintiff 1 and the other plaintiffs will be similarly referred based on the order in which they have given testimony in court.

The first plaintiff to be heard before the court, Plaintiff 1, is one who could be considered a key witness in the case. The plaintiff has spent much of his life documenting his own and his co-prisoners experiences from detention in Iran. He is familiar with many of the other plaintiffs and many of the persons who the prosecution claim has been executed. He has published several books which detail his experiences in prison and which have been used by the prosecution as evidence against the defendant. The plaintiff has also been involved with the Iran Tribunal and has contributed with information to several reports about the 1988 mass executions, out of which some have been used as evidence in the proceedings.

The hearing with plaintiff 1 largely focused on his experiences and observations from the Gohardasht and Evin prisons, the reason for his imprisonment, and his work on documenting his experiences. His victim counsel, the court appointed lawyer Göran Hjalmarsson, described that Plaintiff 1 was arrested in 1981, at the age of 21, for sympathizing with the MEK and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served time in three different prisons – Ghezel Hesar, Evin and Gohardasht – and was released in 1991.  He was imprisoned at Gohardasht during two different stints, the first one being in the fall of 1982. The counsel claims that when Plaintiff 1 was moved to Gohardasht for a second time in the fall of 1986, the defendant was working in the prison and that Plaintiff 1 came into contact with the defendant on several occasions – including the period during which the mass executions took place. Plaintiff 1 stood before the so-called death committee at Gohardasht on no less than four occasions and was brought to the so-called death corridor six times in total.  After the mass executions had taken place, the plaintiff was moved to Evin and again came into contact with the defendant.

After the presentation from his victim counsel, the chairman of the court, judge Thomas Zander, allowed the prosecution to proceed with the hearing. The prosecution’s questions revolved around Plaintiff 1’s general experience in Gohardasht as well as specific events during the period of the mass executions, and details on his contact with other plaintiffs or the defendant as described in his hearings with Swedish police and in the many books he has written. The mood in the court room was tense at times, with the defendant seated a short distance from Plaintiff 1 and on occasion staring intensely at him as he gave testimony. Judge Zander also reprimanded the plaintiff on several occasions for veering away from the content of the questions in his answers. The judge further made it clear to the prosecution that he expected them to maintain closer ‘control’ of the hearing.

The Role of the Defendant

Plaintiff 1 claims he first encountered the defendant at Gohardasht in the year prior (in accordance with the Iranian calendar) to the mass executions in 1988, when guards severely beat him and several other prisoners. The plaintiff claims that the beating occurred under the supervision of the prison management, which included the defendant. Plaintiff 1 claims that the defendant was working under instruction of the dadyar. Several other plaintiffs simply referred the defendant as a dadyar. According to the prosecution, the term dadyar means assistant prosecutor or the prosecution authority’s representative in prison. Regardless of terminology however, all plaintiffs heard so far have claimed that the defendant was part of prison management and worked as an assistant to the dadyar or under the instructions of a higher-ranking dadyar.

Plaintiff 1 described how he had seen or come into contact with the defendant on several occasions when the mass executions took place at Gohardasht and how the defendant had played an integral part in the operation. Among the situations he recalled included the defendant picking out and reading the names of prisoners who were due to see the so-called death committee while he and other prisoners were waiting in the main corridor of the prison, which has become known as the death corridor, and how the defendant had walked in and out of the room that the death committee were seated in to testify against prisoners. He also recalled how, on one of the last days executions took place, many of those working in the prison came across as being tired, but that he could not see any such signs of tiredness in the defendant and instead described him as particularly active that day.

In a later hearing, plaintiff 5, described how the defendant, along with others, came to his section of the prison on the day before the mass executions begun and told the prisoners to enter a particular room. In a later hearing, Plaintiff 5, described how the defendant, along with others, came to his section of the prison on the day before the mass executions begun and told the prisoners to enter a particular room. After they entered, guards rummaged through their belongings, supposedly looking for items that might indicate if an inmate still sympathized with the MEK.

Sightings of and interactions with the defendant have formed a central part of the testimonies, with each plaintiff recalling different encounters with the defendant. The defense, on the other hand, has sought to cast doubts on both the supposed role of the person whom the prosecution and plaintiffs claim to be the defendant. The defense also questions the ability of the plaintiffs, who were consistently blindfolded as they left their sections in the prison, to make clear observations inside prison and their ability to accurately recall events that took place 33 years ago.

The Identity of the Defendant

The person working in Gohardasht and who the prosecution claim is the defendant, went by a different surname during his time in prison. According to the prosecution, Plaintiff 1, who has published several books on his experiences as a prisoner, revealed the true identity of the defendant in a book published 2006. After questioning it was made clear that the first edition of the book was published in 2004 and contained the same information. When plaintiff 1 was asked by the prosecution how he came to know the true identity of the person he had encountered as part of the prison management in Gohardasht, he told a story of how one of his fellow prisoners had been beaten by the defendant and a group of guards, and how during the beating the defendant’s identity card had fallen to the ground, enabling his fellow prisoner to catch a glimpse. This took place in the summer after the mass executions and around the time that Iran’s then supreme leader Khomeini passed away. The plaintiff further disclosed that he was not told the part of the story which included the revelation of the defendant’s name while imprisoned but was rather told some years later. When asked about the specific timeframe he was unable to remember but concluded it was prior to writing the book published in 2004.

Plaintiff 6, who gave testimony last week, revealed that the prisoner who had caught a glimpse of the perpetrator’s identity card was in fact his brother and that he himself was there when his brother was taken away ahead of the beating. However, he also disclosed that he was only told the part about the perpetrator’s identity by his brother when the defendant had already been arrested in the fall of 2019, although his brother then claimed to have told him the story previously.

All plaintiffs who have given testimony so far have claimed to recognize the defendant as the person working as an assistant to the dadyar or as a lower-ranking dadyar in Gohardasht during the period of the mass executions.

The structure of Gohardasht

A particular point of contention in the case relates to how Gohardasht is constructed, where the death committee were situated inside the prison, where sections of the prison were located and other details on how the prison was designed. With neither the prosecution or the defense having been granted access to the prison and given any information on it from official sources in Iran, the court must rely solely on the testimony of plaintiffs and witnesses on the structure and design of the prison. With so many plaintiffs giving testimony, details will perhaps inevitably vary, and the defense has spent considerable time pointing out inconsistencies in and between the different testimonies on this particular subject.

As previously mentioned, Plaintiff 1 has published several books on his experiences as a prisoner and has in at least one of his books included drawings on how Gohardasht was constructed. These drawings were shown in court during both his testimony and during the testimony of others. Plaintiff 1 explained how these were designed by an acquaintance of his around 2005 and that they are based on his memory and on notes taken by himself. Plaintiff 5 eloquently compared the structure of the prison to a centipede, with the hall where prisoners were executed being the head, the main corridor (often referred to as the death corridor) being the body, the sections where prisoners were kept being the legs, and the entrance being the tail.

Several plaintiffs also explained how discrepancies in their descriptions of Gohardasht can be explained by various factors, such as the amount of time that has passed since their time in prison, that their focus has been on remembering details which they felt were essential, that they were often blindfolded in prison, and that the prison management made a habit of switching the names of the sections they inhabited frequently.

In a somewhat odd episode, the defendant, who claims to have never worked at Gohardasht, seemed to point with his finger at a particular point in a drawing of the prison as it was being shown in court, as if to indicate the location of an entrance a plaintiff was referring to in his statement. It is of course plausible to think that the defendant may have been aware of the location regardless or that he pointed at it for an entirely different reason.

Spread of Information

Another major point of contention is to what extent the stories told by plaintiffs have been influenced by stories from others and from the news that spread after the defendant was arrested. In their questioning of the plaintiffs, the defense frequently referenced  the statements made to Swedish police (and in the case of Plaintiff 1, in his books), and how details in these statements differed from the testimony given in court. It is fair to say that there have been a number of such inconsistencies – the question is what the reasons for the differing versions are. The defense uses the inconsistencies in the statements to argue that a plaintiff has not in fact witnessed the particular event that they have described in court but they have rather  read or been told about  the event afterwards. As previously mentioned, all plaintiffs whom have been hard so far refute this notion and have offered alternative explanations for their any inconsistencies or omissions in their statements.

The Trauma of Awaiting Death

The plaintiffs who have given testimony so far have all been asked to describe how they felt as they became aware that they might be facing death and that their fellow prisoners, whom they in many cases shared close bonds with, were being executed, as well as what went through their head as they waited in the death corridor and when they stood before the death committee. This has often become the most emotional part of their testimonies. With the better part of questioning focused on the dates of certain events, the structure of the prison or other such details, the severity of the situation in which the plaintiffs found themselves is sometimes overlooked. But as the plaintiffs recall their emotional and mental state at the time, the emotional toll of the experience becomes abundantly clear.

Plaintiff 1 described how he tried to keep spirits up as he and a group of other prisoners were waiting in the death corridor, cracking jokes, and keeping a brave face. Plaintiff 3 described how he had vowed before facing the committee that he would not let it dishonor him and plaintiff 6 explained how, as he stood before the death committee, he was completely convinced that he was going to be executed. Plaintiff 5 began shaking as the question was asked and broke down in tears as he told the court – here roughly translated to English from the translation from Farsi to Swedish – that “all of us were so close to each other, I have not been able to live a day since, I haven’t lived for 33 years, time passes but I don’t feel like I’m alive”.

Next report

In our next report, we will continue to describe the main themes of the testimonies given by the plaintiffs who are due to be heard this week.

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