A Swedish court convicted a former Iranian judiciary official on Thursday of war crimes and murder, and sentenced him to life in prison for his role in the mass execution and torture of thousands of prisoners in Iran decades ago.
The official, Hamid Noury, a former assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht prison, west of Tehran, was lured to Sweden in 2019 and was promptly arrested. He was indicted two years later over his role in the deaths of nearly 5,000 prisoners in the summer of 1988, in one of the most brutal crackdowns by the Islamic Republic against its opponents.
The landmark ruling, the first time an Iranian official has been prosecuted by a foreign country for crimes committed inside Iran and convicted, delivered a victory to human rights and Iran opposition groups and families of the victims.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi sat on a three-person committee that interrogated prisoners at the time and ultimately decided who among them would be sent to their deaths.
The trial has was prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows any national court to prosecute atrocities regardless of where are committed. In January a German court sentenced a Syrian intelligence official for crimes against humanity under the same law.
Families of victims and human rights activists gathered outside the courthouse on Thursday and when the verdict was announced they wept, cheered and hugged each other, according people who attended. Some said they had not slept the night before in anticipation of the ruling.
Omid Montazeri, 36-year-old reporter for BBC Persian, was 2 when his father was executed. Standing outside the courthouse when the verdict was announced, he called his mother.
“I cried, she cried. The first word I said to her was ‘forever’ meaning he got life. All the stories we carried and told were finally validated and accepted as truth,” said Mr. Montazeri in a phone interview.
The families held a “justice celebration” party afterward.
“Everyone was in tears, tears of joy. We were looking at each other in disbelief, hugging each other and lots of smiles. This was the Islamic Republic on trial, not just Noury,” said Roya Boroumand, the executive director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on human rights in Iran.
Iran denounced the verdict, labeling it a political ruling, and said it would damage relations with Sweden.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly condemns this political statement that is based on fabricated and baseless charges against the Islamic Republic and our judiciary system,” said Nasser Kanani, the spokesman for the foreign ministry in a statement shortly after the verdict was announced.
The case has heightened tensions between Sweden and Iran, and Iran said in May it would execute a dual national Iranian-Swedish scientist, Ahmadreza Djalali, on murky charges of spying and aiding Israel in assassinating nuclear scientists. Mr. Djalali has denied the allegations.
Judge Tomas Zander said the court in Stockholm found that Mr. Noury had committed “grave violations of international law” in sentencing him to life in prison, though in Sweden that means he will serve a minimum of 18 years. Mr. Noury can appeal the verdict and the sentence, and if and when he is released, he will be expelled from the country.
During the 92 days of the trial, prosecutors sought to prove that Mr. Noury participated in the 1988 killing of sympathizers of the Mujahedeen Khalq, known as the M.E.K., an armed militia that was formerly designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group and fought with Iraq against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. It aims to overthrow the Iranian leadership.
Prosecutors presented evidence that he selected prisoners to be placed before an execution commission, led them through the so-called death corridor and provided information to the committee about the prisoners.
He escorted prisoners to the gallows and even on occasion participated in the executions, prosecutors said.
According to Human Rights Watch, the killings at Gohardasht prison were part of a wider crackdown in which the Iranian authorities, acting on the orders of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, executed as many as 5,000 prisoners in at least 32 cities across the country.
The executions took place shortly after the M.E.K., which was based in Iraq, carried out an operation in Iran that sought to bring down the Iranian government. The operation failed, and was soon followed by the executions, leading to the decision to include war crimes charges many years later against Mr. Noury.
Iraj Mesdaghi, a writer, human rights activist and a survivor of Gohardasht prison now living in Sweden, and Mr. Noury’s former-son-in-law, lured Mr. Noury to Sweden and then alerted Swedish authorities. He was arrested when he arrived at the airport.
Mr. Mesdaghi, 62, who survived 10 years in three prisons because of his ties to the M.E.K., has spent decades gathering evidence and researching the 1988 abuses. He was released in 1991, but one of his cousins was executed.
In 1994, Mr. Mesdaghi fled Iran with his wife, also a surviving political prisoner, and their newborn son. They were granted asylum in Sweden. As a lead witness, Mr. Mesdaghi’s testimony helped prosecutors understand how the prison system worked and looked, a prosecutor, Kristina Lindhoff Carleson, said. He witnessed Mr. Noury’s cruelty firsthand.
“I saw him choose prisoners that were put before the committee,” Mr. Mesdaghi said.
Shadi Sadr, a London-based human rights lawyer, said that the ruling establishes a truth about the crimes that the Iranian authorities have always denied.
“Now a court of law in another country, where human rights and the rule of law prevail, recognizes the fact that the systematic and widespread killing of prisoners took place in Iran,” she said.
The case tested the limits of the universal jurisdiction principle, said Mark Klamberg, an international law professor at Stockholm University and one of the expert witnesses during the trial.
“Sweden and many other countries have been hesitant to arrest people who are there on a short visit,” Mr. Klamberg said. But this verdict, he added, will encourage nations to act when people who are suspected of engaging in criminal conduct enter their territory, making it difficult for people like Mr. Noury to travel.
“This is a big concern for the Iranian government,” he said.