Report 30: Witness hearings pt. 8

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

In our previous report, we provided summaries of the complementary statement of facts by plaintiff counsel Kenneth Lewis and the defense, and complementary hearings with the defendant by the plaintiff counsels and the defense, which were held on 8 and 9 March. In this report we will provide summaries of the hearings with witnesses 16, 23 and 24, which were held on 9, 10 and 15 March.

Witness 16

The witness had previously appeared in court for an earlier hearing on 27 January, but the trial day had been concluded before the defense counsels had managed to ask all their questions and thus, the hearing continued 9 March. The witness participated by link from another country and the judge started by welcoming the witness back and then gave the floor to the defense.

Defense attorney Thomas Söderqvist started by summarizing what the witness had said regarding a particular question during the last hearing. According to the defense counsel, the witness had said that he had lived in the same neighborhood as the defendant before he was arrested. The defense asked the witness whether he had returned to this same neighborhood when released in the month of Bahman 1367 (1989). He responded that he had not. He was asked if he knew if the defendant had stilled lived in the area. He responded that he did not know but that he had been told by someone that he did not.

The witness was further asked about a statement he had made during the earlier hearing. He had then talked about being interrogated at the Dadyar office in Evin prison in 1365 (1986/1987). During this interrogation he had been blindfolded and the defendant had allegedly been present. The witness had said that he believed that efforts were made to confuse him so that he would not recognize the defendant. However, the witness said that he was not fooled. The defense wanted to know if the witness had recognized the defendant by the sound of his voice when he was blindfolded. The witness responded that he knew that it was Abbasi because of the questions that were being asked.

The witness had also claimed that parts of his family had been arrested in connection with a visit at Evin prison and that he was sure this was Abbasi’s doing. He was asked when in time he believed this had happened. He said that it was after the time he had been at the Dadyar office.

He was also asked about the prison leadership in Gohardasht prison and specifically the position of Naserian. He responded that the defense had asked him the same question last time and that he did not know what position he had held, but that he knew that Naserian had been a high-ranking individual in the prison. The judge noted that the same question had been asked the last time and the same response had been given by the witness. The hearing was then concluded.

Witness 23

The hearing with Witness 23 was conducted on 10 March via video link since the witness was in another country. The court day was started by Judge Zander who informed the witness that the hearing concerned a report that the witness had been commissioned to write, namely: “The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988”. The judge then turned the floor over to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Hanna Lemoine started by asking the witness to describe his professional background. He is a senior trial lawyer and head of the distinguished law firm Doughty Street Chambers. He has served as appeals judge at the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone and has been appointed as one of three distinguished jurist members of the United Nations Internal Justice Council. He has further authored 20 books.

The prosecutor moved on to ask the witness about the work and research that had led up to the report that he authored for the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation. He was questioned about who he had interviewed and how the interviews had been conducted, and whether interpreters had been used. He was also asked about the material he used for the report. The witness responded that he had been contacted by Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation and tasked with conducting research about Iran. He had conducted 40 interviews in 2009 and interpreters from the foundation had been present at some of these occasions. The interviews had been conducted face to face, with one exception. The material used for the report was from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation’s library and he did not know who had translated the literature to English.

The prosecutor then asked questions regarding the content of the report. According to the witness, there was no doubt that executions had been carried out and that there had been two waves of executions. The witness claimed that the fatwa/hokm was authentic and that its existence had been confirmed by information found in Ayatollah Montazeri’s diary. He believed that there was some evidence of a second fatwa/hokm, which specifically concerned the execution of sympathizers of leftist organizations.

The witness explained how executions had been carried out in Evin and Gohardasht. Prisoners were called in for questioning, taken to a hall and hanged. The bodies were then loaded on to refrigerated trucks and transported to a cemetery where they were buried at night in the cover of darkness. About 3 800 persons were executed in this manner according to the witness.

According to the witness, there had been an international armed conflict between Iran and Iraq and an non-international armed conflict between Iran and the MEK. However, the witness underlined that he had not researched whether Operation Eternal Light should be considered an operation conducted autonomously by the MEK or as a part of the international armed conflict between Iran and Iraq. He noted that a cease fire agreement between the two countries had been signed prior to the launch of the operation and that the operation would have constituted a breach of the agreement if Iraq had participated in it. In his opinion, the armed conflict between Iran and Iraq had come to a halt with the cease fire agreement in July. The prosecution underlined that the cease fire agreement was not to enter into force until 20 August and asked whether that would change the witness’ opinion. The witness responded that the cease fire agreement had been accepted by the two states and by the UN and that it had meant the end of the brutal war. The witness further explained that civilians enjoyed protection under the Geneva Conventions in non-international armed conflicts as well.

The witness was further asked to describe Operation Eternal Light and the MEK:s involvement. He did not consider that MEK:s involvement was the determining motivating factor for the Iranian regime to initiated the mass executions, as there was evidence to show that the executions were being planned before the operation. The witness explained, however, that the preparations were likely being made while waiting for a good opportunity to enforce the executions and that Operation Eternal Light had provided that opportunity. 

The prosecution moved on to ask whether the witness classified the mass-executions in 1988 as international crimes. The witness responded that he considered the crimes as crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. He further explained that the killing of prisoners is a war crime, but when the killing of prisoners is systematic and widespread, it may also constitute crimes against humanity. As such, there is an overlap between the two crimes. Upon direct question from the prosecution about whether he did indeed consider the 1988 mass-execution of MEK-sympathizers as a war crime, the witness responded that the executions constituted genocide since they had been committed due to the religious beliefs of the prisoners. He further explained that there was no nexus between the executions and an international armed conflict, as a cease fire had entered into force at the time of the executions. The main reason for the executions, the witness claimed, was that the regime wanted to get rid of its opposition.

The prosecution further referred to page 94 in the report that the witness has authored, where the witness has stated that common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and article 75 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention constitute customary law and are applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts and that breaches of these provisions may lead to individual criminal responsibility. The prosecution asked the witness to further elaborate on this, upon which the witness responded that both those who have ordered the crimes and those who have executed the crimes may be held criminally responsible.  

After the prosecution ended their line of questioning the floor was turned over to the plaintiff counsels. The privately appointed plaintiff counsel Kenneth Lewis asked the witness whether Article 75 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva convention had become international customary law by 1988. The witness responded by referring to his report, in which it states that article 75 did indeed reflect the position that customary international law had reached by 1988.

The floor was then handed over to the defense, for further questioning. Defense counsel Daniel Marcus initiated his hearing with the witness by asking which persons from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation that he had cooperated with when writing the report. The witness responded that he could only remember a few and that a few more could have been involved in the work behind the report but that they did not play any significant role. He was asked if he had hired any interpreters of his own, upon which he answered that he had not and that he had relied on two persons from the foundation for interpretation.

The defense further asked if he could give a number of how many of the interviews that he had conducted himself of the total amount of conducted interviews. He responded that he did not remember but stated that he was responsible for the content of the report and its conclusions.

When the defense ended its hearing with the witness, Judge Zander thanked the witness for his testimony and concluded the trial day.

Witness 24

The hearing with the witness, which took place on 15 March, was initiated by Judge Zander who welcomed the witness to the court and informed him of his duties as a witness, before handing the floor to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson started by asking the witness why, where and when he had been imprisoned in Iran during the 1360’s. The witness responded that he had been arrested in the beginning of the month of Ordibehesht in 1364 (1985) for being member of the leftist organization Fadaian-Khalq and was sentenced to ten years in prison. After being transferred between prisons, he arrived to Gohardasht prison in the month of Bahman 1366 (1988). On arrival at Gohardasht prison the prisoners were forced to strip off their clothes and walk, naked and blindfolded, through a human tunnel made up by guards who assaulted them as they passed. In late autumn/winter 1367 (1989), after the mass-executions, he was transferred back to Evin prison, and was released in the month of Esfand 1367 (1989).

The witness recounted a few observations he had made during the time of the mass-executions in Gohardasht prison. On Friday 7 of Mordad 1367 (1988), the witness had heard the Friday prayer on the radio. The Friday prayer was held by Rafsanjani, who said that there had been an attack by the MEK. The speech was hateful, and the witness recalls how he could hear the attendees at the Friday prayer yell slogans that called for the death of all “prisoner monafeqin” (“monafeqin” in this context referring to the MEK). The day after, all contacts with the outside world were cut. The right to listen to radio and read the newspaper was canceled.

In the beginning of the month of Shahrivar 1367 (1988), a committee arrived at the prison. On the 8 of Shahrivar, the witness was informed that some prisoners in the section across from his had been taken to the committee and that some had been executed. The information was transferred between sections by the use of morse code.

The witness then went on to describe how he was brought before the committee. At one point, the door to his prison section had opened and in came Lashkari, Naserian, Abbasi and some guards. The prisoners were brought, blindfolded, to the ground floor of the prison, where they were made to wait. Prisoners were sent in and out of a connecting room where the committee was situated. Coming out, prisoners were either sent to the left or the right. The witness later learned that those who were sent to the left were taken to the amphitheater to be executed.

When the witness was brought into the room himself, he encountered three persons seated at a table. In front of the table was an empty chair, on which the witness sat down on. Facing the witness was Nayyeri, Pourmohammadi and Eshraghi, and standing by the door was Naserian.

Nayyeri started to ask the witness different questions. The main question was whether he was Muslim and if he consented to do his prayers. He had responded that he did not want to answer. He was then asked if his parents were Muslims and he responded that they were faithful Muslims. He was then asked again if he would consent to do his prayers and he responded that he would not, upon which Nayyeri ordered that the witness was to be taken out of the room. When Naserian was ready to take the witness out, Eshraghi had told him to wait and stated that the prisoner was Muslim. He had started to reason with the witness and said that since the witness parents were faithful Muslims, he must be as well. He then said that the witness would consent to do his prayers and that Naserian could take him out. The witness believed that Eshraghi tried to change the verdict of the committee, but he does not know why he did so.

The witness was then brought to a place where he was whipped with a cable because he refused to do his prayers.  The witness believes that it was Naserian who performed the whipping. After the first round of whipping, the prisoners were taken to a room where the guards had formed up. The prisoners were told to move while they were assaulted by the guards. After that, the prisoners were whipped a second time. The mood was hysteric and Naserian yelled that if they refused to do their prayers, they would to be executed as their friends. They were then assaulted by the guards again. The witness was whipped 20 times.

After the whipping, the prisoners were taken to another section. On the way there, an elderly prisoner who had trouble walking had his cane kicked from underneath him by a guard, which caused him to fall. While the witness tried to help the old man to his feet, he was also assaulted.

Of the 76 persons from the witness’ prison section, 34 were missing after seeing the death committee.

The prosecutor asked about an alleged discrepancy in the witness’ testimony to the Swedish police and his statement made in court. He had told the Swedish police that Abbasi had been a prison guard who came with food and did similar tasks, and that it was later that he became assistant “dadyar”. The witness responded that he had told the police that other prisoners had told him that Abbasi had started as a prison guard.  However, he himself believed that Abbasi was a “dadyar” or deputy “dadyar” around the 9 of Shahrivar.

The witness was asked to describe the appearance of the defendant during his time in Gohardasht prison, upon which the witness described his hairstyle, hair color, facial hair, age, weight and height. He was asked to look at the defendant and say if it was the same individual that he had known as “Abbasi” from his time in prison. The witness responded that from the moment the defendant stepped through the courtroom door, he had been certain that it was the same person.

The judge then gave the floor to the plaintiff counsels. The witness was asked if he recognized different names from his time in prison. Some names he did not know or had just heard of. The one person that he was familiar with was a person who had been executed.

The questioning of the witness was then turned over to the defense. Defense attorney Daniel Marcus noted that the witness had been arrested in the month of Ordibehesht 1364 (1985) and released in Esfand 1367 (1989), after receiving a 10-year prison sentence, which meant that he had been released 6 years and 2 months earlier than he was supposed to. The witness had further said in court that he had been taken to Gohardasht prison in Bahman 1366 (1988). According to the defense, however, he had told the Swedish police that he had been taken to Gohardasht prison in the end of 1365 (1986). He responded that it had been a long time since these events and that he must have remembered it wrong when talking to the police.

The witness was further asked whether he had been in touch with other former prisoners, which he had. He is part of a group of former prisoners who had made publications and held lectures about these events and their experiences. He was then asked if he had contributed to a specific book, which he said that he had. The defense also questioned the witness about an alleged discrepancy in his testimony with the Swedish police about Abbasi’s role in prison. It concerned the same matter as raised by the prosecution. The defense stated that they had gotten the impression from the witness’ hearing with the Swedish police that he had meant that Abbasi had at the time been a guard. The witness responded that he did not know what had gone wrong in his hearing with the police, however, what he had meant was as he had testified during the court hearing. He was also asked to describe the room in which the so-called death committee had been situated in and he described it as he had earlier.

When the defense finished their line of questioning, the judge thanked the witness for giving testimony and ended the trial day.

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of the witness hearing with Expert Witness 1 and Expert Witness 2, which were held on 17 March.

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