Report 31: Expert Witness 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 ( / CC BY-SA 2.0

In previous report, we provided summaries of the hearings with Witness 16, 23 and 24, which were held on 9, 10 and 15 March. In this report we will provide summaries of the hearings with expert witnesses 1 and 2, which were held on 17 March.

Expert Witness 1 – Rouzbeh Parsi

The court day was started by Judge Zander welcoming the expert witness, Rouzbeh Parsi, and informing him that the hearing concerned Iran’s religious system and a statement that the witness had made in 2020. The judge then gave the floor to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Karolina Wieslander started the hearing by asking the witness to first describe his academic background. He responded that he was an historian, with a particular focus on Iran.

He was then asked to describe what type of state Iran was. Parsi responded that it was a system through which an Islamic system had been attempted to be combined with republican system with public elections, and where traditional ideas were combined with new. This was why Iran has a prime minister, a president and a supreme leader. The prime minister symbolizes the new ideas, and so does the idea of calling the state a republic. The supreme leader on the other hand symbolizes the religious and the traditional aspects incorporated in the state.

Parsi explained that after the revolution in 1979, there had been a consolidation phase. During this period, attempts had been made to try to figure out how the new state was going to be governed. After this phase, it was evident that what had been envisioned had not come to fruition. The initial idea was that the power of the supreme leader was going to be limited and just symbolic, a sort of a philosophical king with no real power or influence over politics. What actually happened was that the supreme leader Khomeini started to gradually consolidate power and the constitution was not followed.

As the new system evolved and as a result of mistrust and attempts to increase power, new institutions were established. These new institutions were established beside already existing institutions with similar functions. Examples of this was the revolutionary guard, which was formed because the government did not trust the armed forces. The new regime did not trust those that held positions of power in these existing institutions, so new ones were created and those put in charge of the new institutions were public officials that the regime thought it could trust. Another reason for the establishment of new institutions was that the new regime wanted these to be based on Islam. As such, the state was Islamized step by step.

Another thing that appeared in the new state was so-called committees. In different neighborhoods these so-called committees were established. The function of these committees was to keep watch and control over the state’s citizens. The committees observed what people were doing, how they dressed and if they behaved as proper Muslims. The authority of the committees was not only limited to the streets in the neighborhood, but they were also authorized to go inside the citizen’s homes. The committee could conduct raids to get a better idea of what was going on behind the confines of people’s homes. The committees also contributed to a climate were neighbors informed on each other. The state also took control over the education system, with the purpose of indoctrinating children at an early stage in their lives.

People who had dissenting opinions, to that of the regime, were in the beginning of the 1980’s disciplined in different manners so that they were to abide by the will and whims of the state. They could be sentenced to prison, be whipped, or be executed.

Parsi was then asked about the different groups that had taken part in the revolution. He described that there had been many different groups that had cooperated during the revolution. There were leftist organizations, affiliated with Russia, Albania, and China. These groups had limited support by the people, according to the witness. Then there were liberal groups. These groups represented a system that had western features, and which strived towards establishing a democratic form of governance. The support for these groups were limited as well. Then there were other groups, which had significant support among students. This last category of groups sided with the Islamists during the revolution but would later come in conflict with them.

One group discussed during the hearing was MEK. This group did not differ ideologically much from Khomeini and his followers, according to Parsi. The two sides both wanted to establish a religious state. One difference was that MEK did not come from a theological background while Khomeini did. The cause for the conflict that ensued between the two factions after the revolution was the question of how to divide power and influence. Khomeini had a tolerating attitude towards these other groups during the revolution. They had been, from the viewpoint of Khomeini, necessary to carry out the revolution. However, when the revolution was over, and debate over how the state should be governed started, Khomeini became less tolerant. As a result, many MEK sympathizers were imprisoned.

Parsi was then asked about the war between Iran and Iraq and MEK:s involvement. The witness responded that MEK had been afforded the right to stay in Iraq. As the war between Iran and Iraq dragged on, Saddam Hussein had needed all the help he could get, which was a contributing factor to why he took support from MEK. Parsi further explained that the Iraqis thought that having MEK on their side was positive out of a propaganda perspective. However, the MEK constituted just a small part of the combined Iraqi forces.  According to Parsi, MEK joining the Iraq side unified the Iranians and was used by the regime as a cause to exact revenge and justify the crimes that was committed.

Parsi explained that Khomeini had been unhappy with the ceasefire that had been brokered between Iran and Iraq but had realized that there was no other way forward. During this period, Saddam Hussein had fell for the temptation to conduct a power demonstration by attempting to invade Iran. The reason, according to Parsi, was to attempt to achieve a better negotiating position with Iran through the use of military force. However, the operation was a failure. Parsi further explained that MEK had in fact fought on the side of Iraq throughout these events.

The prosecutor then turned to ask about the fatwa/hokm issued by Khomeini. Parsi was asked what conclusions he drew from the close connection in time between Operation Eternal Light and the fatwa/hokm issued by Khomeini. Parsi explained that he does not believe that the operation was the underlining cause for the fatwa/hokm being issued, but that it might have triggered it. The witness thought that the will to carry out the executions was already there, and the preparations had already been made. So, the operation had not been a determining factor for the cause of events that then followed. The true aim behind the executions was to quell any lasting opposition after the revolution against the new regime.

The prosecutor then asked Parsi about an alleged second fatwa/hokm that specially targeted different leftist groups. Parsi responded that such a fatwa/hokm had in fact existed but that proof of the existence of the second fatwa was to be found in the literature and from testimony from different witness rather than in an actual text. When asked why the fatwa/hokm was targeting (leftist) prisoners specifically, Parsi explained that he understood the purpose of the fatwa/hokm as an attempt to learn who still opposed the new regime. The prisoners were the last people that remained from the revolution and who were not on the winning team. By executing them, the regime could finalize the revolution once and for all.

Parsi further went on to explain that executions were taking place already earlier during the 1980’s and that executions as such were not a new phenomenon. What made the 1988 mass-executions stand out, he said, was that those who were executed had already been sentenced and that the executions were being conducted on a larger scale and across the entire country.  

Parsi continued to explain that, for a long time, the regime has chosen to deny the existence of the mass-executions. After information about the events has gradually become more public and known, officials have started to change their policy of how to position themselves with regard to the mass-executions. Today the regime admits that these acts were committed but claim that they took place within the confines of the law. Parsi said that he believed that the reason why they choose to keep the executions secret in the first place was that it was evident that they had flagrantly breached their own laws.  

When the prosecution finished their line of questioning the floor was handed over to plaintiff counsel Kenneth Lewis. The counsel asked Parsi questions regarding what he had written about MEK, and the conflict between Iran and Iraq and MEK:s involvement. The counsel stated that he had found it remarkable that Parsi had not mentioned that there had existed a peace offer from Iraq and that MEK had found this offer reasonable and therefore accepted it. Parsi responded that it was difficult to understand the motives behind such an offer and that he was not aware that MEK had accepted the offer.

The counsel asked Parsi about his previous statements about MEK:s capabilities in Iraq. Counsel Lewis asked about the size of the MEK forces and about a statement, allegedly made by Parsi, that these forces were to some part made up by elderly people. The witness responded that it was difficult to determine the size of the force since it depended on how one counted. The gatherings of MEK sympathizers on the Iraq side of the border was to be seen as a small community and there was a mixture between fighters and civilians, according to the witness, which therefore made it difficult to determine the exact number.

The counsel then made a statement where he criticized the way that Parsi had described the history of the discussed events and specifically stated that he found it unprofessional for a historian. The judge intervened and told Parsi that he did not have to respond to this kind of statement and that the counsel was claiming things and should instead focus on asking questions. The counsel also asked if it was correct that Parsi had a negative opinion about MEK. The judge intervened again and stated that the witness did not have to answer this question either. The counsel insisted with his question which triggered a firm reprimand from the judge who clarified to the counsel that he should follow the directives he was given by the court. The counsel then finished his line of questioning. The other plaintiff counsels in the courtroom did not have any questions to ask the witness, so the floor was turned over to the defense.

When the defense stated that they wanted to continue with a similar line of questioning as asked by counsel Lewis, the plaintiff counsel gave a remark that indicated defiance against the reprimand he had just received, which triggered further a reprimand from the judge.

The defense did not ask many questions to Parsi but did ask about the fact that Parsi had described MEK as a cult and therefore asked him to clarify what he meant by this. Parsi responded that judging from how defectors described the leader of the organization, it was evident that the leader had strong control over the organization and that it was a cult. The defense also asked a final question regarding Massoud Rajavi, the leadership of the organization, upon which Parsi responded that it was uncertain if Massoud Rajavi still was the leader of the organization, since no one had seen him for a long period of time.

The hearing was then finalized, and the judge stated that the court would reassemble after lunch for the hearing with Expert Witness 2.

Expert Witness 2 – Jan Hjärpe

The hearing was started by Judge Zander who welcomed the expert witness, Jan Hjärpe, to the court. Jan Hjärpe had been called to testify about Iran’s historic and religious background, the state’s political system and to answer questions about the fatwa/hokm that had been issued by Khomeini, and the mass executions that took place. The judge then turned the floor over to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Karolina Wieslander commenced by asking Hjärpe about his academic background. He answered that he was a retired professor in Islamic studies and had worked with similar issues for the past 60 years, with a particular interest for religious language in law and Shari legal systems.

Hjärpe was then asked to describe the role of religion, the role of those with religious training and the role of the supreme leader in the Iranian system. He explained that the new constitution that had been enacted when the Islamic republic of Iran was declared in 1979 was still active. In the preamble it was stated that the governance of the state was to be Islamic, and that the supreme leader was Khomeini. There had been those that had questioned the authority of Khomeini at the time. According to tradition, the political power was to be off-limits for those with religious background, which was a tradition that Khomeini did not follow. Khomeini took on absolute power and the fatwa/hokm that he later issued received absolute authority as well.

The prosecution then asked Hjärpe questions regarding the fatwa/hokm that Khomeini had allegedly issued. Hjärpe explained that there was, to the best of his knowledge, no debate, or any differing opinions, regarding whether Khomeini actually had issued the fatwa/hokm. While he cannot guarantee that the fatwa/hokm is real, he believs that it is since it has been enforced. The consequence of the fatwa/hokm was, according to Hjärpe, that a large number of people were executed.

Hjärpe was then asked what specifically differed a fatwa from a hokm. According to Hjärpe, fatwa should be regarded as an answer to a particular asked question, while a hokm was like a court verdict which could later be overturned. A fatwa has stronger implications than a hokm. Hjärpe explained that what Khomeini had issued was a fatwa and that it had absolute authority.

Then the prosecution asked Hjärpe about the connection between Operation Eternal Light and the fatwa and MEK:s involvement in the operation. Hjärpe stated that there had been cooperation between Iraq and MEK, since MEK had bases on the Iraq side of the border. Hjärpe further claimed that there had been a connection between the operation and the executions, and that the fatwa was focused in particular on MEK prisoners because MEK was a clear ideological enemy. The prosecutor asked Hjärpe if he was aware of any second fatwa being issued, upon which he responded that he was not aware of any such second fatwa.

The prosecutor asked how the (first) fatwa had been conveyed to the people. As a general rule, Hjärpe explained, a fatwa used to be published in a type of newspaper. The witness did not recall seeing this particular fatwa being published in such a manner. However, since he himself had learned about its existence, he figured that it must have been published at some point in time.

Once the prosecution finalized its line of questioning, judge Zander asked Hjärpe a few questions. The judge wanted to know in more detail how a fatwa used to be published. The witness responded that there was a specific newspaper in which they used to be published. However, a fatwa could also be implemented directly without any publication. The witness was then further asked by the prosecutor when he had been made aware of the existence of the fatwa. He responded that he did not remember, but that he used to keep a journal over different events that toke place in the region and that he had made a marking in his journal in 1988 about the discussed events. However, he had not noted from which source he had received this particular information. Still, he believed that it was from a media source.  

The floor was then turned over to plaintiff counsel Lewis. The counsel questioned Hjärpe’s claim that the difference between a fatwa and a hokm was that a fatwa should be considered as an answer to a specific question and a hokm a court order. The counsel claimed that he could not see that any question had been asked or answered in the fatwa issued by Khomeini.  Hjärpe responded that the question stated and answered in the fatwa was: What should be done with MEK sympathizers?

The counsel asked if the fatwa could be considered as an order to the courts to carry out the executions of anyone who stayed committed to their beliefs. Hjärpe explained that this was in fact the case, or at least that was the result of the fatwa.

The counsel further asked whether the fatwa was issued on religious or political grounds. Hjärpe responded that it was impossible to determine, since Khomeini regarded religious and political matters the same way.

Plaintiff counsel Ghita Hadding also asked about how a fatwa used to be published or made public. Most common, according to Hjärpe, was that a fatwa was directly addressed to those who had asked the specific question that needed to be answered but that a fatwa could also be simply declared vocally.

When the plaintiff counsels ended their questioning, the hearing was turned over to the defense. The defense did not have any questions and the judge therefore thanked the witness for coming and the trial day was ended.

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of the hearing with Witness 25 and Witness 26, which were held on 22 and 23 March.

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