Russia would do well to remember that war criminals do get caught

Swedish court recently handed down life sentence to former Iranian prosecutor involved in killing of political prisoners

When former Iranian assistant deputy prosecutor Hamid Nouri stepped off an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Stockholm on November 9th, 2019, he thought he was coming to see a woman he considered as his daughter and to join a luxury cruise. But he was in for a surprise. Unbeknown to him, Swedish police had been tipped off in advance about his impending visit by survivors of a prison massacre that occurred in Iran in the summer of 1988.

Upon arrival, Nouri was arrested and detained. His arrest and detention were based on a detailed criminal complaint prepared and submitted by a team of UK and Swedish lawyers on behalf of survivors of the prison massacre. The complainant survivors remembered Hamid Nouri — then using an assumed name Hamid Abassi — when he worked in the notorious Gohardhast Prison outside Tehran in the late 1980s.

The complaint drew extensively from a report of an inquiry conducted by Geoffrey Roberson QC on The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988, commissioned and published by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (“The Boroumand Center”) in 2010.

The Swedish Court was able to conduct the trial on the basis of Universal Jurisdiction — which allows a State to prosecute alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes under international law

The report concluded that egregious violations of international human rights laws had been carried out by the regime in prisons in Iran, including Gohardhast Prison where Nouri worked, in the aftermath of two fatwas by Ayatollah Khomeini, one of which issued in late July 1988 and the second a month later, ordering the killing of all political prisoners “who had not recanted and remained steadfast in their views” — specifically and particularly their allegiance to the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (known as the MEK) and also members of leftist parties.


Having a “ready to use”, legally reasoned, report from the Boroumand Center containing detailed factual and background information enabled the English and Swedish lawyers to quickly draft the complaint when the opportunity of catching one of the perpetrators presented itself.

Nouri was subsequently charged and indicted in 2021. Following an exhaustive trial in the District Court of Stockholm lasting over 92 days, a verdict was delivered last Thursday. Nouri was convicted by the Swedish Court of war crimes and multiple counts of murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment to be followed by expulsion from Sweden and was ordered to pay a total of sk1.2 million (approximately €114,000) in compensation to the victims’ families.

Nouri was found to have provided names to the prosecutors and members of the so called “death committee” operating in the prison, giving his opinion on death sentences, taking prisoners to execution and participate in conducting the executions on one or more occasions.

The Swedish Court was able to conduct the trial on the basis of Universal Jurisdiction — which allows a State to prosecute alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes under international law, such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture even if committed outside its territory.

The Nouri case is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, Nouri is the first Iranian held to account for the 1988 mass killings in which an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners were executed in Iranian prisons. Secondly, Nouri was tried as a representative of a “still sitting” regime. And thirdly, Nouri’s boss at the time of the mass killings, which started 34 years ago this month, was Ebrahim Raisi, the current President of Iran who as part of the so called “committee of death” decided which prisoners lived or died.

‘With this public acknowledgment of the crimes committed and the harm done, the dead may finally stop haunting survivors’

An audio file by former Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Montazeri emerged in 2016 where Montazeri is heard talking about the 1988 Prison killings and telling Raisi and three others involved that “the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands, and they’ll write your names as criminals in history”.

Universal Jurisdiction is not of course exclusive to Sweden. Last week a French court sentenced a Rwandan national living in France to 20 years in prison for his role in the Rwanda genocide. In particular it offers hope to victims of atrocities in places like Syria and several countries, including Germany, Poland and Romania have announced they are opening probes into potential war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine based on Universal Jurisdiction principles.

It has been sought to be exercised in Ireland on at least one occasion. In 2004 I appeared as counsel for a Chinese refugee living in Ireland who tried to have the visiting Deputy Premier of China, Huang Ju, arrested to face charges of conspiracy to commit torture. The Applicant, Ming Zhao, a Falun Gong practitioner who had been granted refugee status in Ireland based on being tortured in prison in China, brought the action under the Criminal Justice (UN Convention on the Prevention of Torture) Act, 2000, which incorporated the UN Convention on Torture into Irish law.

Under this Act, the Irish authorities can prosecute a person accused of torture anywhere in the world as if it had taken place in Ireland.

This was a novel application at the time. The District Justice refused the application on the basis that the Garda were “investigating the matter”. It was never subsequently clear what became of that investigation but Huang Ju was not arrested and he was allowed to leave Ireland. It is to be hoped and expected that the Garda if presented with a detailed complaint on an alleged war criminal found in or arriving in Ireland would move promptly to arrest and detain the person and that the Irish Courts would, if the person were indicted, exercise Universal Jurisdiction as their Swedish and many other counterpart Courts have done.

Roya Boroumand, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the ABC, who attended the Court in Sweden for the verdict summed up the Nouri case’s significance for victims eloquently: “With this public acknowledgment of the crimes committed and the harm done, the dead may finally stop haunting survivors and hopefully they can start their healing process.”

Bill Shipsey is the Chairperson of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran and is a retired Barrister