In the summer of 1988, thousands of political prisoners were secretly executed in Iran following a fatwa by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
More than three decades later, for the first time, an Iranian national has been jailed for his suspected role in the estimated execution of at least 5,000 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), students, and leftist political parties and groups.
Identified as Hamid Noury, he was arrested on November 9 as he arrived at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to visit relatives, Swedish media reported.
On November 13, a court in Stockholm ordered that he be held in custody for four weeks pending a prosecutor’s decision on whether to press charges.
Noury’s accusers have said he played an “active” role in the killings, while his lawyer has said his client insists he is innocent.
The arrest has shone a spotlight on one of the darkest chapters in the 40-year history of the Islamic republic — and is one that state officials have rarely acknowledged.
The executions began on July 19, 1988 — during the last days of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — after Khomeini declared that “apostates” and those who had taken up arms against the Islamic republic were “waging war against God” and should be sentenced to death. Some estimates of those executed run into the tens of thousands.
Khomeini issued his fatwa shortly after Iraq-based MKO members — supported by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — made a last-ditch incursion into Iran that was repulsed by the Iranian military.
Scores of MKO members were killed on the battlefield, while others were executed in prisons.
Prisoners were hanged following extremely brief interrogation sessions by a small group of state officials, dubbed by prisoners as “death commissions.”
Those officials would question the captives — including many who had already been sentenced to prison — about their religious and political beliefs. The prisoners were also pressed about their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the Islamic republic and ordered to denounce their comrades.
Those who gave unsatisfactory responses were executed shortly thereafter and buried in secret.
The 58-year-old Noury is accused of having served as a deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht prison on the outskirts of Karaj, some 20 kilometers west of the capital, Tehran. Several hundred prisoners are believed to have been executed at Karaj.
Former prisoners have said Noury was then known under his alias, Hamid Abbasi. They say he worked closely with the death commissions that sent prisoners to be executed.
They packed us into a room. He opened the door and appeared with a walkie-talkie in his hand — he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days — [and] he screamed violently and selected 10 people, including me.”
Iraj Mesdaghi, an activist based in Sweden who survived the mass executions and who is reported to have played a major role in Noury’s arrest, said he had seen him “many times” in prison.
“I know him from when I was a prisoner in Gohardasht prison near Tehran in 1988; he was an active member of the death commission,” Mesdaghi told Swedish media.
Mesdaghi, who has written extensively about the executions, said in another interview that the man known as Abbasi had threatened him and other prisoners with personally taking part in their hangings.
“[Prison authorities] would place prisoners on a stage, on chairs [with a noose around their necks]. Then they would kick prisoners in the stomach to force them to fall off the stage [and be hanged],” Mesdaghi said. “Therefore, [Abbasi] would tell us that he would ‘kick prisoners for the last time.'”
Mesdaghi said Abbasi was among the officials who played a central role in the executions, which included current judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi and former Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi.
Mehdi Aslani, another survivor of the mass executions, told RFE/RL that he met Abbasi in Gohardasht and later in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Aslani, who lives in Germany, said he still has vivid memories of how Abbasi handpicked prisoners that would be sent to be questioned by the death commissions.
“They packed us into a room. He opened the door and appeared with a walkie-talkie in his hand — he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days — [and] he screamed violently and selected 10 people, including me.”
Aslani said that by virtue of choosing the people who would appear in front of the death commissions, Abbasi played an instrumental role in the executions.
“They took us downstairs next to a room where the death commission was based and told us to sit on the floor,” he recalled, adding that the prisoners were taken one after another inside the room.
Months later, Aslani said he saw Abbasi again in Evin prison after he had been transferred there from Gohardasht.
“I remember he asked me a few questions, including whether upon release I would agree to cooperate on intelligence matters,” he said.
Aslani believes Abbasi and Noury are the same person.
“He has gained some weight, he has lost some of his hair, [but] it’s the same face that I saw [in 1988],” Aslani said, adding that “my memory may be faulty but there are dozens of other survivors who can testify so we can shine some light on the dark tunnel of the prisons in the 1980s, particularly the secrecy surrounding the mass executions of 1988.”
Noury’s lawyer has said his client is innocent.
“They have arrested the wrong man,” Lars Hultgren told public broadcaster SVT on November 13.
Meanwhile, London-based human rights lawyer Kaveh Moussavi, a plaintiff in the case against Noury, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that Noury is facing charges in Sweden that include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture.
Moussavi, who said he’s worked with Mesdaghi and others to build a case against Noury, expressed confidence in the man’s role in the mass executions.
“I’ve shown his photo to several [former prisoners] who said without a doubt that he’s Hamid Abbasi.”