Report 27: Witness hearings pt. 7

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 previous report, we provided a summary of hearings with witnesses 18 and 19 which were held on 15 and 18 February. In this report we will provide summaries of hearings with witnesses 20, 21 and 22, which were held on 21 and 23 February.

Witness 20

Judge Zander started the trial day on 21 February by welcoming the witness and informing him of his duties as a witness. Then the judge turned the floor over to the prosecution to start the hearing.

Prosecutor Hanna Lemoine commenced by noting that she would refer to two reports during the hearing, as the witness had been interviewed and made statements about his experiences from Gohardasht prison in these reports. The first report was “Findings of the Truth Commission”, which was published through the Iran Tribunal (mentioned previously in report 4). The second report was “The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran 1988”, which was written by Geoffrey Robertson and published for the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. The prosecutor further added that she wanted to expand the thematic scope of the hearing by also including events that the witness had experienced in Tehran after being released. This was approved by the court.

The prosecutor commenced the questioning by asking the witness when, where and why he had been incarcerated. The witness explained that he had been arrested in the 1360’s because, he was a member of the organization MEK and worked with the organization’s press at the time of his arrest. After his arrest, he was moved between different prisons. In 1361 (1982/1983) he was moved to Gohardasht prison, where he stayed until the month of Dey 1362 (1984) when he was moved to Ghezel Hezar prison. He was kept in Ghezel Hezar until the autumn of 1365 (1986) when he was moved back to Gohardasht prison, where he stayed until he was released in the month of Azar 1368 (1989).

He received a 10-year prison sentence in 1361 (1982/1983).  The court hearing was over in a matter of minutes, and he was blindfolded throughout the hearing. He was prosecuted due to his affiliation with an organization which opposed the state and for taking part in meetings and for publishing and distributing newspapers on behalf of the organization. The witness further explained that the government had attempted to arrest his brother, who was wanted for similar reasons as himself, and that the government was hoping to reach the brother by arresting him.  

When asked about the prison leadership, the witness explained that it consisted of prison director Mortazavi and his assistant Lashkari. There was also a dadyar-office where individuals by the name of Arab, Naserian and Abbasi held rank.

The witness recounted how he and other prisoners had been punished for attempting to exercise in the prison yard. The witness and the other prisoners were taken to a corridor where the guards were lined up in the formation of a “human tunnel”. When the prisoners moved through the “tunnel” they were beaten by the guards. Afterwards, they were taken to a cell that was called the “gas chamber.” It had gotten that name because no fresh air was allowed into the cell, which made it difficult to breath. The prisoners were subjected to this type of treatment twice in the summer of summer of 1366 (1987/1988).  Abbasi and Lashkari were present during these occasions and took part in the beatings on at least one occasion.

The witness had several personal encounters with Abbasi in 1367 (1988/1989), both before and after the mass executions. According to the witness, Abbasi often visited his prison section and between Mordad and Shahrivar, 1367 (1988), he had probably visited the section 2-3 times a week.

In the beginning of the month of Mordad, the witness observed that prisoners who usually worked in different parts of the prison did not go to work. The witness had observed how these prisoners had asked a guard why they no longer were allowed to work, and they were told that they would not work for a period. The guard had also told the prisoners that they would be questioned and that they were expected to give positive answers. During the same time period, the prisoners in the witness’ section were informed by those distributing food that executions were being carried out. The witness further recounted how one night, in the month of Mordad, the other hall in his section was visited by Naserian, Lashkari and Abbasi who took five to six prisoners with them. During this period, the witness was once taken to an office where Lashkari was and asked different questions. The witness had answered the questions as he believed was expected of him and was sent back to his section. The day after, prisoners in the other hall in his section were taken to be questioned. About half of those prisoners, 40 persons, did not return and the witness concluded that they must have been executed since he never saw them again. The surviving prisoners from that hall were taken to the witness’ hall later in the month of Mordad. A few months later, the witness once again encountered Abbasi. In the month of Mehr, he approached the witness as he was talking to his fellow prisoners. The witness had used a figure of speech which Abbasi did not appreciate, which had led him to tell the witness that he did not know how to behave properly.

Two years after his release from prison, in the month of Azar 1369 (1990), the witness was stuck in traffic in Tehran when he saw Abbasi stand by the street. The witness had recognized him and called on him by calling out the name Abbasi. The defendant then responded by walking over to the witness’ car and by taking a seat in the backseat of the car. He stayed in the car for a few minutes and then got out again. The witness was asked by the prosecution why he believed the defendant had acted in this manner. He responded that he believed that it was because the defendant wanted to see who was calling him by his alias that he had used in prison.

When asked to describe Abbasi, the witness described his physical features, his clothing and his gait. The prosecution further asked him whether he had been presented with any pictures of the defendant. The witness explained that he had, in October 2019, and that the picture had been sent to him by Plaintiff 1. He had been asked by Plaintiff 1 if he recognized the person and he had answered that he did. It was Abbasi, but a bit older.

Prior to the arrest of the defendant, the witness had been informed by Plaintiff 1 that the defendant was going to travel and that actions were being taken to try and get him arrested. The witness was thus summoned to a meeting in Plaintiff 29’s house in October 2019, where he was interviewed by Witness 21 about his experiences from his time in prison. When asked about who else was present in the house, the witness named Witness 20, 21, Plaintiff 1 and 29.

When asked about the setting for the interview by Witness 21, the witness explained that it had taken place in a secluded part of the house and that the other persons had been in another part of the house during his interview. When the witness needed help translating certain terms, he had asked Witness 20 for help.

The witness was further asked about whether he had contributed to Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran’s report “The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran 1988”. He responded that he had and that it had been through personal interviews. When asked about where and when he had been interviewed for the report, he explained that the interview had taken place in the office of Geoffrey Robertson, the author of the report, in June 2009. He had also contributed in a similar manner to the Iran tribunal’s report “Findings of the Truth Commission”, by being interviewed in the summer of 2012 and by providing written testimony. Him and the other tribunal witnesses had gathered once in London and once in the Hague.

During the plaintiff counsels’ hearing with the witness, plaintiff counsel Göran Hjalmarsson asked about Abbasi’s role during the mass-executions. The witness explained that Abbasi had been a “dadyar” and that he had direct contact with the prisoners. Plaintiff counsel Bengt Hesselberg further asked him about an alleged discrepancy between statements made during his hearing with the Swedish police and his hearing with the prosecution in court. During the police hearing, the witness had said that he was uncertain whether Abbasi had taken part in the assaults when he and his fellow prisoners were beaten in the “human tunnel” of guards, while he had said during the court hearing that Abbasi had in fact taken part in the assault during the first occasion. The witness withstood his statement in court, that Abbasi had taken part in the assault during the first occasion.

The questioning by the defense was initiated by defense counsel Daniel Marcus, who explained that he would focus his questioning around the two reports that the witness had contributed to and to his role in the complaint against the defendant prior to his arrest. As such, the defense counsel asked about the meeting that took place in Plaintiff 29’s house prior to the arrest of the defendant. The witness explained that the initial interviews with him had been conducted during his stay in the house and that he had been interviewed by Witness 21. He further explained that he had attended another meeting about the complaint against the defendant on another occasion after the defendant had been arrested and that the focus of that meeting was for Witness 21 to interview Plaintiff 29.

During the hearing, the defense showed the witness several pictures of the defendant which had been filed together with the complaint against the defendant in 2019. According to the defense, it was stated in the complaint that all witnesses who had joined the complaint, including witness 20, had seen those pictures and had been able to identify the defendant. The defense asked the witness whether he had seen those pictures prior to the complaint being filed, upon which the witness responded that he had seen some of them and that he had seen other photos of the defendant as well.

The defense further pointed to the fact that the witness had referred to the defendant by the wrong name during a police hearing. According to the witness, this was due to stress and him having trouble sleeping the night before the hearing. He underlined that if the transcripts of his hearing were studied as a whole, it would be evident that he had referred to the defendant as “Abbasi” and that he had obviously used the other name by mistake. He further pointed out that he had contacted the police himself the day after the meeting to correct his mistake.  

When asked by the defense whether he had ever spoken publicly about his experiences from prison, apart from his contribution to the two reports, and whether he had mentioned the defendant during those occasions, the witness said that he had spoken about his experiences but that he had not mentioned the defendant.  

The trial day came to an end before the defense had rounded up its’ hearing with the witness. The hearing thus continued the morning of 23 February. The defense now focused its questioning on the assaults that the witness claimed that the defendant had participated in, where the guards had formed a “human tunnel” and beaten the witness and his fellow prisoners. The witness claimed that he had said in court and during his hearing with the police that the defendant had been present during both assaults but that he had only participated in the assault on one occasion. The defense, however, claimed that the witness had said otherwise during the police hearing. At this point, the prosecution intervened and said that the witness had in fact made the same statement during the police hearing, which prompted a protest from the defendant which asked the court to maintain the order in the courtroom. Judge Zander responded by explaining that the prosecution had the right to correct inaccurate statements.

Witness 21        

The trial day on 23 February continued with the hearing of Witness 20, who participated by video link from a court room in another country. After a brief welcome from Judge Zander, the floor was handed over to the prosecution. Prosecutor Karolina Wieslander initiated the hearing by asking the witness to describe his background and involvement in the case. The witness has an academic background in law and has focused his career on seeking accountability for grave violations of international law. He had met Plaintiff 1 at a symposium in 2011 and had kept in touch. In October 2019 he was asked by Plaintiff 1 if he could assist in arresting an individual who had been involved in the 1988 mass-executions. He had responded that he would look closer at the case.

Upon the response from the witness, the defendant suddenly burst out that the witness was uttering insults against the Islamic Republic and in turn uttered curses against the witness’ parents. Judge Zander responded that he had not heard any insults and scolded the defendant for interrupting the witness. The judge, quite agitated, warned the defendant that he would have to leave the court room and follow the proceedings from a separate room if he continued engaging in similar behavior. The defendant continued to protest, but eventually calmed down.

After some confusion over what was happening in the court room in Stockholm, the witness continued to explain that he had been informed by Plaintiff 1 that the defendant was coming to Europe and that he was either going to Italy or Sweden. They had to act fast, and the witness had 24 hours after the phone call with Plaintiff 1 to conduct a legal analysis and to conclude what possibilities there were to have the suspect arrested. He thus studied Swedish and Italian domestic law and considered the crimes that the suspect could potentially be indicted for. He considered whether the crimes should be classified as war crimes, torture, crimes against humanity or genocide. If the crimes were to be considered as war crimes, he concluded that a crucial legal question would be whether the acts had been committed within the context of an armed conflict. He had told Plaintiff 1 that they would need at least three witnesses who had personal experiences from the alleged crimes committed by the defendant. He then assembled a team, which Witness 21 was a part of, and eventually held a meeting in the house of Plaintiff 29 together with three other witnesses.

The witness explained that interviews with the witnesses took place in Plaintiff 29’s house, and that the interviews with each witness were conducted separately. While one witness was being interviewed, other witnesses would be in other parts of the house. The questions that were asked of the witnesses were: why they had been incarcerated, how they had been treated and about their own encounters with the defendant. They were also showed a picture of the defendant, in order to identify him. The witness explained that, after the witness interviews had been concluded, he felt satisfied that there was enough evidence to arrest the defendant upon his arrival in Sweden.

The witness further explained that he had contacted the War Crimes Commission of the Swedish police and Swedish prosecutors about the case and congratulated them for their efforts. He recounted how they had been very easy to collaborate with and that it stood in sharp contrast to other state authorities that the witness had approached to try and hold people accountable for the horrible crimes that were committed in Iran. The judge then interrupted the witness and told him that he should keep his answers relevant to the questions asked. When the witness said that he wanted his gratitude towards the Swedish prosecution to be on the record he was again interrupted by the judge who raised his voice and told the witness not to continue with the same remarks that he just been reprimanded for.

The witness was then asked by the prosecution whether he had made any public statements in media about the case. He responded that he had, but only after the defendant’s name had been made public by the court. The type of statements that he had made in media was that it was a historic case and that, for the first time, justice had a chance to prevail after these crimes had been committed. He had also forwarded a picture of the defendant’s visa to the media, and he had also used the defendants name when making his appearances.

Defense attorney Thomas Söderqvist initiated the defense’s hearing with the witness by asking the witness about the initial interviews that had been conducted with the witnesses in Plaintiff 29’s house. The witness explained that they had met in the house on multiple occasions and the interviews with each witness had been conducted separately. However, the house was too small for the witnesses to stay in separate rooms. Regardless, they had made sure that it was not possible for the others to overhear the interviews as they were being conducted. They had also made sure that witnesses who were to be interviewed did not discuss evidence amongst themselves while waiting for their turn to be interviewed.

The defense then asked whether the meetings in the house had been filmed, which the witness admitted that they had been to some degree. The witness himself had been against the meetings being filmed and had insisted that no recorded material was to be released before a potential trial had been concluded and a final verdict had been reached. The recordings in question were for a documentary and a trailer for the documentary, containing some of the material, which had later been released, despite the promises made to the witness. The witness claimed that the content of the trailer consisted of mere lies about what had really happened, that the trailer had been made for the purpose of profit and that it should never have been published. The witness was then questioned by the defense about the involvement of Plaintiff 1 in the making of the trailer. The witness said that he knew that Plaintiff 1 had appeared in an interview in the trailer but did not know whether he had contributed to the release of the material. The witness was then asked about his own appearances in media in relation to the case, upon which he explained that he had appeared in both radio and television. He had also tweeted about the case. The witness was asked about an appearance in media where he was critical towards Plaintiff 1. He responded that he had felt inclined to comment on the case after Plaintiff 1 had made a media appearance where he wrongfully claimed that the defendant had been lured to travel to Sweden. Plaintiff 1 had further claimed that the arrest of the defendant had been made possible by himself, plaintiff counsel Göran Hjalmarsson and the prosecutors, which the witness meant was not true. He feared that the spread of wrongful information about the circumstances leading up to the arrest of the defendant would result in a mistrial and therefore felt the need to correct the information publicly. The defense then finished their line of questioning, upon which the judge thanked the witness for his testimony and adjourned the court for lunch. The court reassembled in the afternoon for the hearing of Witness 21.

Witness 22        

The court day proceeded with judge Zander welcoming everyone back from lunch and welcoming Witness 21, who participated by video link from a court room in another country.

Prosecutor Karolina Wieslander initiated the prosecution’s hearing with the witness by asking about her professional capacity and how she had contributed to bringing this case before the court. The witness responded that she was a lawyer and she had been a part of Witness 20’s team. This team had collected evidence needed to have the defendant arrested. She had been part of the meetings in Plaintiff 29’s house where the initial witnesses who joined the complaint against the defendant had been interviewed. At this occasion, they conducted a video call with a witness. She and witness 20 questioned the witness about the information that he had about the suspect. After that, she commenced the interviews with the rest of the witnesses who were present in the house. She did not consider the conditions in which the witnesses were being interviewed as ideal, since they could not be conducted in separate rooms. During the interviews, she took a lot of notes which she later complemented with follow-up interviews. She asked the witnesses about the accused individual, who he was, how the witnesses knew him and about their encounters with the defendant.

The prosecution asked the witness whether and at what point the witnesses had seen pictures of the defendant. The witness responded that the witnesses had identified the defendant by photo confrontation and that they had all seen pictures of the defendant when the complaint was filed to the Swedish authorities. However, she could not recall when exactly that the witnesses had seen the photos of the defendant. The witnesses that she had interviewed had been certain of the identity of the individual in those pictures.

After the meeting in plaintiff 29’s house, the witness had taken her notes and created witness statements. She made sure that she did not ad or change anything. She removed some repetitions and made sure that the chronological order made sense. The drafts were then sent to the witnesses involved who had the opportunity to clarify if anything was incorrect. When she had their approval, she handed them, together with other documentation, over to the Swedish police.

Once the prosecution finalized their line of questioning, the judge handed over the floor to the defense. Defense attorney Thomas Söderqvist initiated the hearing by asking the witness about the pictures that the witnesses had been confronted with and asked whether it was possible that they could have seen them beforehand. The witness responded that it was possible that the witnesses had seen the pictures beforehand, but that she could not be certain. The defense claimed that the Swedish police had noted during a police hearing with the witness, that she believed that the witnesses had already seen the pictures when confronted with them. The witness stood by her initial response that she could not know for certain.

The defense further asked whether the witness had attended any further meetings in Plaintiff 29’s house and conducted any further interviews and, if so, whether anyone was recording the events at the time. She responded that she had visited the house at one more occasion and that the documentary filmer had been recording parts of the meeting at the time. However, she had insisted that no video recording was to be done when she was conducting the interviews with the witnesses. The defense then finished their hearing of the witness, upon which the judge thanked the witness for her testimony and concluded the trial day.

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of the complementary statement of facts from the prosecution and a complementary hearing with Plaintiff 1 which took place on 24 February.

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