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Justice in Stockholm

Thirty-four years after the massacre of political prisoners in Iran, the conviction of Hamid Noury in Sweden has been a victory for accountability and for the truth.

· 19 min read
Justice in Stockholm
Supporters of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran Organization protest outside Stockholm’s district court on the first day of the trial against Hamid Noury. Getty.

I. The tale of the dead

In January 2023, the Svea Court of Appeal in Stockholm, Sweden, began hearing the appeal of an exceptional case—one dealing with crimes against humanity. For the first time, a participant in Iran’s 1988 massacre of political prisoners, during which nearly 4,000 inmates were hanged within a few weeks, was facing justice. The case is based on universal jurisdiction, a provision in the international law that recognizes certain crimes to be so serious that the duty to prosecute them transcends national borders. The appellant, Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prison official, had been sentenced to life in prison by the Stockholm district court in July 2022 at the conclusion of a two-year trial at which 26 witnesses, 12 experts, and 35 accusers had testified. With this appeal and a new cadre of defense attorneys, Noury hopes to reverse that decision.

The trial was already an historic event even before September 2022. But in light of the protests that have swept through Iran in the months since, its significance is even greater. Iranians are demanding an end to theocracy and expressing a deep yearning for justice and the rule of law. Whether or not the protestors succeed in upending the regime, something has already, and irreversibly, changed. The nation is envisioning a different future, which cannot come unless there is a path to national reconciliation that includes accountability for all those who have committed—or who continue to commit—human rights violations. The Swedish trial is an unprecedented development, and one that Iranians hope to emulate when the regime falls. Should Noury’s appeal fail, it will be a boon to the protestors who wish to see an end to the regime’s impunity.

To understand the case, we must revisit the events that led to the massacre at its center. 1988 had been an ominous year in Iran. The war with Iraq had entered its eighth and final year and Iran’s economy had been crippled by Western sanctions. The conflict’s fallout was exacerbated by plunging oil prices, the per capita revenue of which had plummeted to half of what it had been before the 1979 revolution. Hundreds of thousands of educated Iranian professionals had fled the country resulting in a massive “brain drain,” while others were languishing in prisons or had already been executed. An even greater number had been internally displaced, and the casualties were continuing to mount.

These grave developments weighed heaviest on Ayatollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader and the founder of the Islamic Republic, who had vowed that that the war with Iraq would “first free Baghdad and then go on to free Jerusalem.” For the dour man who had not even cracked a smile on the day he returned from his 15-year exile, the failure to achieve either of these aims by the time the war finally drew to a close in August 1988 had wrought nothing but rage. When he accepted the UN-brokered peace in July, he bitterly compared it to “drinking a cup of poison.”

He first contemplated executing the top generals of his own Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom he blamed for the defeat, but was met with resistance. A few days later, another opportunity for vengeful bloodletting arose. His chief political opposition, the People’s Mujahedin (MKO), a group based in and supported by Iraq at the time, conducted a major offensive against Iran. With nearly 5,000 heavily armed fighters, they succeeded in making major gains and advancing into several cities for a few days only for the insurgency to be quashed by Iran’s military.

If his acceptance of the UN peace deal had tarnished the Ayatollah’s image as an uncompromising leader, ruthless retaliation against the MKO offered the chance to restore that reputation. Several months before he issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Khomeini issued another against the MKO, in which he ordered the murder of all the group’s sympathizers then held in custody. No consideration would be given to where, when, or why they had been arrested or to the sentences they had already served. Anyone who had not renounced the group was to be killed in every prison nationwide, including those awaiting release.

The slaughter began in Tehran. Hamid Noury had taken a job in the correctional system a few years earlier and had risen through the ranks at Gohardasht prison. His official title was “daad-yaar,” assistant to the deputy prosecutor, but in practice, he was just a glorified orderly, duly brutal to prisoners and obedient to superiors. Noury took his orders from an ad hoc committee—known as the Death Panel by the prisoners—made up of a Sharia judge, an intelligence-ministry official, a prosecutor, and the prosecutor’s deputy Ebrahim Raisi, who was also the current president of the Islamic Republic in the summer of 1988.

The committee travelled Iran visiting the nation’s prisons and reviewing each inmate’s file. Noury would walk the prisoners from their cells through a hallway—which they called the “Corridor of Death”—to stand before the panel of four to hear their “judgment.” This was usually decided within a matter of minutes. From there, Noury sometimes walked them back to their cell; more often, he escorted them to their execution. When a full day of hangings had gone without a hitch, he would visit the prisoners’ common room to distribute sweets. Once they realized that he was celebrating the deaths of their friends, they refused to accept them.

Within a few weeks, an estimated 4,000 prisoners, most of whom were MKO members, had been executed. But as the killing machine was already operating swiftly, the committee decided to hang other political opponents in custody, too, including unrepentant communists. They circulated a questionnaire among these “infidels,” asking them if they believed in Allah, the Prophet Muhammed, the Quran, and if they prayed five times a day. A “no” in response to any of these questions was enough to send the respondent to the gallows. That summer, families who went to prison to pick up their loved ones returned home with only a plastic bag containing a few belongings. Most never received the remains of their dead—the majority of the victims had already been buried in mass graves under cover of darkness. Families were not even allowed to hold funerals because the regime feared that public awareness of the executions would cause rioting.

The 1988 massacre was an evil so egregious that it changed the course of Iran’s future. When Ayatollah Montazeri, the cleric expected to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader, heard of it, he summoned the committee. Furious, Montazeri ordered that the four men immediately discontinue the executions. A recording of the meeting leaked after Montazeri’s death reveals his outrage and horror. Admonishing them, he warned that they would be remembered as sinners by future generations. For this objection to the Supreme Leader’s fatwa, he was soon removed from his position of successorship to Ayatollah Khomeini. Montazeri was first marginalized and ultimately placed under house arrest until his death in 2009. Ayatollah Khamenei, a cleric in the mold of Khomeini himself, became Iran’s next Supreme Leader instead.

II. A gumshoe survivor’s pursuit of the unthinkable

Thirty-four years later and thousands of miles farther from where these terrible crimes had occurred, the district court in Stockholm finally held one perpetrator accountable. But the trial would never have come to pass without the efforts of a single former prisoner named Iraj Mesdaghi. Mesdaghi is a former MKO member who had miraculously escaped the noose in 1988. When he completed his 10-year sentence in 1991, he immediately fled Iran with his wife and son to seek asylum in Sweden. Thereafter, he doggedly recorded his memories of those brutal years. He wrote several books recounting the experience, and took pains to pay homage to the victims and identify the perpetrators, among them a guard who had used the name “Hamid Abbassi.”

In Sweden, when Mesdaghi was not writing, he was doing the work of a private detective. He pored over the writings of his cellmates and began to piece together what each could remember. The identities of the “Death Panel” members were no secret to the prisoners. But Mesdaghi and other former prisoners wished to identify their assistants, many of whom had used aliases. During an interview with a Persian-language television show, Mesdaghi described the appearance and character of his former prison guard in detail. As it happened, Hamid Noury’s son-in-law, who also lived in Stockholm and was in the throes of a highly contentious divorce with Noury’s daughter, had tuned in that day. He heard Mesdaghi’s account, and suspected that Mesdaghi was describing his father-in-law. That night, he emailed the former prisoner and suggested that they meet.

At the meeting, the son-in-law showed Mesdaghi a photograph, in which Mesdaghi immediately identified the guard he had known as “Hamid Abbassi.” The two men began to plot a scheme to lure Noury to Sweden. The plan was simple: The son-in-law would call Noury, express remorse, and ask his father-in-law to visit Stockholm so that he could make a final attempt to reconcile with his estranged in-laws, family, and ex-wife. As a sweetener, he offered Noury an all-expenses-paid week-long cruise off the coast of Spain, complete with booze and girls. Noury accepted.

Some of his former colleagues warned him not to go to Europe, but Noury dismissed their concerns. Nevertheless, he took the precaution of deleting the most sensitive names and contacts from his cellphone before he flew to Stockholm in November 2019. But Mesdaghi had a team of attorneys on hand, ready to initiate legal proceedings. No sooner had Noury stepped off the plane than the Swedish armed forces handcuffed him. Reviewing the events of that evening weeks later, he ruefully remarked, “I’d come for a cruise but landed in custody instead.”

Two-and-a-half years later, during the 86th session of the district court, Hamid Noury sat before a panel of judges waiting for the proceedings to begin. Appearing wan, he craned his neck to monitor the comings and goings of the spectators. At first glance, he looked no more menacing than a greedy squirrel eyeing a choice acorn. His clothing added to his innocuous aura. A white button-up shirt was stretched over an ivory turtleneck and tucked into a pair of dress pants from under which the hem of his green long johns showed, as if no amount of tidiness could hide the mess beneath.

Noury sat at a desk to the right of his two defense attorneys and directly opposite the prosecutors, his back turned to the judges. This ostentatious display of irreverence was presumably intended to impress his former bosses, who he evidently hoped would take note of his loyalty and reward him by doing what they could to negotiate his release. A copy of the Quran and a pile of prison diaries written by his accusers lay at each of his elbows. From time to time, he would consult one of the texts, look something up, change his glasses, and jot down a note. His behavior resembled that of a researcher rather than a defendant charged with heinous crimes against humanity. Occasionally, he turned his attention to the gallery, waiting for his family to take their usual seats in the back row—his wife and daughter arrived in Dior-print scarves (Death to the West! Long live haute couture!) along with his son, and the siblings’ respective spouses.

In the first two rows sat the plaintiffs’ attorneys, experts, and other witnesses. In the third row was the cadre of Persian-Swedish-English interpreters, though in that courtroom, interpretation had its limits. Noury was referred to as the former “assistant to the deputy prosecutor.” But what is an “assistant,” or a “deputy,” or a “prosecutor” in a Sharia-based judiciary? Such terms implied a facade of equivalence between two incomparable systems: one that places the law above all else, and another that places one man, the Supreme Leader, above the law.

Yet in some ways, Noury’s victims had indeed come to Stockholm in search of equivalence, albeit of a different kind. Those who had lived as ghosts since they left prison were now expecting to be seen as equal individuals in the eyes of this Western court. They had never known what it was like to live under the rule of law, but for the very first time, they were sitting beside their Swedish attorneys, feigning the look of people who knew what it was like to be in a real courtroom and to be treated with the dignity a citizen deserves.

Interpretation had a second limitation, for much of what was exchanged in the courtroom was unspoken and/or untranslatable—gestures, whispers, and movements. There was the amusing discomfort of the defendant, for instance—the prison guard turned prisoner—upon entering and leaving the courtroom. The official of the regime that had turned women into second-class citizens was ushered in and uncuffed by two young females, a humiliation that must have seemed like a punishment even before his sentencing. He also gave signals that only the former prisoners understood. As we waited for the trial to get underway, Noury raised his foot toward the aging court painter and mouthed an instruction in Persian to draw his shoe accurately. The painter had been an inmate under Noury’s watch. Only the former prisoners in the court understood that this insolent gesture was intended to remind the painter that Noury was still the one in charge.

Everyone had come to the trial in search of something different. For some, the court was an arena of civility. Nowhere else would these former victims sit beside their perpetrators’ family members without grabbing at each other’s throats. Never had the former tormentor been present in the same room while his inmates sat in unstained, ironed shirts, and coiffed hair, not howling or bleeding. For the refugee spectators who were aspiring to become naturalized Swedes, it was a civics class that none else could teach. Others had come in search of catharsis. With so many victims in the room speaking of the trauma they had experienced—at times trembling and speechless, at times overcome by tears—the trial was, in fact, an exercise in judicial therapy.

For some spectators, like a newly-arrived immigrant from Iran who had been an attorney representing political prisoners until a few months earlier, this was the first truly lawful trial he had ever witnessed. At least one reporter—the son of a political prisoner who had been hanged during the 1988 massacre—was there to piece his own family’s past together from the court’s findings. For the court’s Swedish-born Iranian bailiff, Ali, the trial was an education in a history that could have been his had his parents not flown 3,000 miles from home, once upon a time. (Having elevated polite assertiveness to an art form, he seemed fond of the attendees, but with the reluctance of someone fond of an alcoholic uncle.) But all the Iranians who entered the courtroom knew that they were wading into a thick current of grief and fury that flowed through the rows like blazing lava.

Only the Swedes were simply there to do their jobs. They were fully aware of the gravity of the proceedings. This was, after all, the first trial of its kind for their nation, too. Sweden had become a signatory to international jurisdiction only a few years earlier, and this was among the first of such cases to be tried. They knew they were creating a blueprint for future trials of this kind, and took the necessary time and care at every step. That kind of diligence—not to mention the difficulties involved in locating, contacting, and interviewing experts and witnesses amid COVID restrictions, many of whom lived in different countries and spoke different languages—caused many delays and prolonged the trial.

III. Republic of lies

There were many astonishing aspects to the Hamid Noury trial: The discovery of how a few tenacious survivors—Iraj Mesdaghi, chief among them—had monitored their former tormentors for years until they had lured Noury to Sweden; the passion with which the Swedish attorneys and prosecutors committed themselves to the cause of a few foreigners when the national distaste for them was at a peak; the miraculous progress the trial ultimately made despite all the stonewalling by Tehran. Still, nothing was as remarkable as the discrepancy at the heart of the trial’s central narrative.

On the witness stand, Noury’s accusers spoke of him as a ruthless torturer and a cold-blooded killer. But when Noury’s turn came to testify, he painted a fairytale. Some accusers were overcome by fear and grief when their eyes met his. Noury, on the other hand, professed love for them. He had been “wild about his job,” he declared, and the inmates had been like family to him then and even now. And just like all family squabbles, he contended, this case was merely “a misunderstanding that was best to sort out among themselves in Iran,” where they were bound to “make peace then hug and kiss.”

When asked if torture had been a practice in his prison, Noury vehemently objected. Iran’s prisons, he insisted, were reformatories. No political prisoners were incarcerated there, only criminals whom Noury and colleagues were committed to setting on the right path, a task they accomplished by modeling exemplary behavior. He offered this example: “If they needed to use the bathroom, we put blindfolds on them, took them, and brought them back. When they re-entered the cell, we greeted them by saying, ‘Hello! Welcome! Please come in, sweetheart!’” Since his former victims had testified that their feet were at times so severely lashed that they could not walk or stand up straight, the prosecutors asked if Noury had ever seen them in pain or unable to walk. He shook his head.

During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Adolf Eichmann admitted that the crimes of which he stood accused had indeed occurred, but that he had no choice but to obey the orders of his superiors. During his trial at The Hague between 2002 and his death in 2006, Slobodan Milošević mostly left his accusers’ accounts unchallenged but claimed he had no direct knowledge of the evil others had done in his name. During his trials by the Iraqi Special Tribunal in 2005 and 2006, Saddam Hussein defended his actions as necessary to punish those who were plotting against him. During his trial by a German court in 2021–22, the former Syrian colonel and member of the Syrian Intelligence Directorate, Anwar Raslan, admitted that torture was routine in Syrian prisons but that he had no part in it. (Bashar Assad was still in power, but Raslan had cut ties with his past by emigrating to Germany.) During all these trials, the truth of the atrocities was not disputed, only why or how they had been committed and the complicity of the accused. Hamid Noury, however, was an anomaly. By presenting the court with his rosy falsehoods, he upended the truth.

Most war crimes trials convene after the perpetrators have been ousted from power. Noury’s trial, on the other hand, took place when the perpetrators were still very much in power, and his supporters attempted to invoke that power in absentia. With great bravado, Noury’s family members walked in and out of the courtroom bearing images of the Supreme Leader and the slain General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone in January 2020. Aiming their cellphones at their compatriots in the hallways, they jeered that their recordings were going to be sent to “people in high places.” When one of the translators, a rotund, avuncular man, walked out of the courtroom, Noury’s son pointed to his belly and asked, “Are you pregnant?”, a remark which caused the normally congenial man to erupt in anger.

It was clear that the Nourys—the imprisoned and the free—did not see themselves merely as individuals, but as vainglorious emissaries of Tehran. Much of the defendant’s overblown and fanciful testimony was no doubt intended to curry favor with his absent bosses—it is unlikely that he would have been so sycophantic were the regime out of power. Still, even with the pressures he and his family must have felt from Tehran, Hamid Noury did not have to offer such gratuitous lies. The fact that he did reveals a great deal about Noury and—more importantly—about the fall and rise of political leadership in Iran over the last 50 years.

Most revolutions have an underlying character, and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was characterized by deceit. Every group, regardless of their deep ideological rifts—from the most conservative religious zealots to the radical communists working to overthrow the last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—were unanimous in their adherence to one central idea. Lying was no longer immoral, and it might even be noble if it somehow weakened the Shah. And so, the road to 1979 was paved with deception. Nothing was off-limits.

When a beloved author of children’s books accidentally drowned in a river in the 1960s, several leading intellectuals implicated the Shah’s intelligence service in his death to inflame public anger. When arson destroyed a movie theater in Abadan in 1978, claiming the lives of nearly 500 people, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini identified the Shah as the culprit, even though the nation later learned that it was Khomeini himself who had ordered the fire. Throughout the 1970s, the Iranian opposition in diaspora cited Amnesty International as an unimpeachable source of data on executed and imprisoned activists under the Shah. Years later, when a new generation began to look into the actual numbers, the hundreds of thousands shrank to a few hundred. It turned out that members of the diaspora had plied the Amnesty researchers with the inflated numbers they then recited.

But in the end, the religious conservatives and the radical communists were all out-deceived by a far craftier liar who owed his ascendance to their falsehoods. In 1978, when Western journalists interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini in the suburbs of Paris, he cast himself in the image of a Gandhi-like liberator. Were the Shah to fall, he said, his dearest wish was to resume his religious studies at a seminary in Qom, the center of Iranian Shiism. He also promised to allow freedom of speech, a free press, political parties, and reassured his audience that he would safeguard the rights of women. In Iran, two years later, when reporters asked him why he had reneged on his early promises, he simply smirked before the cameras and said, “I lied.”

To prove its omnipotence, the new regime did not parade tanks through the cities or send jets to circle the sky. Power, they believed, was not best displayed as a show of force, but by breaking the human spirit. In the early 1980s, Iran became an exemplar of the distinction Hannah Arendt drew between traditional and modern political lies in her 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics.” The difference between the two, she argued, was the difference between hiding and destroying. Nothing seems modern about Iran’s clerics except the way they destroy through lies. They tortured anyone who refused to obey them and then paraded that disfigured spirit and made it repeat whatever they told it to say. It did not matter if the speaker believed the lie. Conviction was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the lies were told. The more absurd the lie, the mightier the appearance of those who had extracted it, and the greater the fear they instilled in the hearts of everyone else.

Within three years of his rise to power, the Ayatollah ordered the arrest of the leadership of all opposition parties, including the Tudeh, Iran’s communist party. Among those detained were men who had survived over 20 years in the Shah’s prisons without ever surrendering their beliefs. Now, after only a few weeks in custody, they appeared on national television night after night recanting their pasts, telling the public that they had been misguided and that they had misguided others in return. Ideological idols who had been anointed by celebrated Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, and who had spent years writing and preaching about the communist utopia, now sat in a wretched queue in a bare studio under the glare of floodlights and averred that Islam offered the only path to salvation. Hardly anyone watching believed these alleged converts were telling the truth. But truth was not the point. Blind submission was, and that often included repeating what both the confessor and the spectator knew to be lies. What mattered was for the nation to see that the new regime could make anyone say whatever they wished them to say.

During the first 10 years of the revolution, when the Ayatollah was still alive, the regime did this because they believed they were following the teachings of Islam. After that, Islam became primarily a facade, most useful for keeping the West at bay. Religious exceptionalism exempted the regime from universal rules and accountability for their misconduct. The regime banned women from choosing how they could dress, but credulous Westerners allowed themselves to be persuaded that this was a return to longstanding traditions that merited the respect of outsiders. In the name of cultural sensitivity, Italian leaders covered up nude statues to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of a visiting Iranian leader. Europe’s female diplomats and some American broadcasters donned the hijab in the presence of Iranian officials, as if discarding their Western privileges for an hour or two was a mark of transnational tolerance. In these ways and others, well-meaning Westerners have helped to perpetuate the Islamic Republic’s deception.

Inside the country itself, however, the clerics have exercised their rule, devoid of all godliness, with the pitiless brutality of a mafia. When alcohol, which is prohibited by Islam, was banned, members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps bootlegged it to their buyers and then raided their homes to arrest them for possession. The fact that the bootleggers and the Morality Police were one and the same was not lost on anyone, but truth had no place in the public square. If it existed at all, it was a luxury to be enjoyed only inside the home. Outside, everyone was repeating the national script of falsehoods.

Unchallenged lies were repeated for so long that Iranian officials began to intone them to foreign audiences when they travelled abroad. In the calm, fluent English that gullible Westerners mistake for sincerity and erudition, former foreign minister Javad Zarif assured Charlie Rose during a 2015 PBS interview that there were no political prisoners in Iran. Amazingly, Rose did not challenge this claim at all. At Columbia University in 2007, when an audience member asked former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the state’s treatment of Iranian gays, he answered that there were no gays in Iran. On that occasion, the auditorium burst into laughter. That encounter, at least, offered a reminder that, in the absence of torturers and their tools, such lies are mere absurdities.

That Hamid Noury was lured into custody with the false promises of sex, alcohol, and reconciliation is an irony in which the regime’s opponents can be forgiven for taking perverse satisfaction. The kind of deception used by Iran’s clerics to seize power and enforce their hypocritical doctrines had finally been repurposed to entrap one of their own enforcers. The critical difference, of course, is that once he was placed under arrest, Noury was afforded all the rights and protections of the Western judicial system—a system quite unlike the machinery of cruel and arbitrary punishment he had once helped to operate.

IV. An invaluable lesson

While the quest for justice is absolute, its meaning for every victim is protean—each person hopes for something different. For Hamid Noury’s victims, justice was the truth. Thirty-four years had passed. Many of the victims had died. Those who still lived no longer thought of Iran as home. There was no material reparation that could affect their lives after so many years in a land so distant from what they once knew. They came to hear their story told. One summer long ago, thousands of young men and women were hanged for no reason other than to satisfy one man’s thirst for vengeance. Hundreds of others who survived have lived with the memory of the noose.

In the final days of the trial, Iran arrested several Swedish citizens, and pundits speculated that the politicians would circumvent the court and return Hamid Noury to Iran as part of a prisoner exchange. But no matter! The victims were already dancing in the street in front of the courthouse. They had their justice. The truth had been told at long last. And yet, they did get what had once seemed unthinkable. Last summer, after weeks of deliberation, the jury sentenced Noury to life in prison, marking the most momentous event for Iran’s human rights community.

That experience has provided Iranian exiles and dissidents with an invaluable lesson. In their fight for freedom and justice, their greatest allies may not be Western politicians but Western judicial systems. In January 2023, the European Union refused to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp as a terrorist organization, and murmurs about renewing the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic could still be heard in Washington. Meanwhile, the Swedish Supreme Court was hearing the appeal of Hamid Noury, a Belgian court refused to deport a senior Iranian diplomat implicated in a bombing plot in Brussels, and the US Attorney General stood beside the FBI chief as he announced the arrest of four men in the US who had attempted to kill an Iranian dissident.

Even as Western democracies are threatened by the rising appeal of their own authoritarians, their judiciaries seem to be insisting, more than ever, on upholding the rule of law. They do so for the sake of their own democracies, and by extension, for the sake of those who dream of democracy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Noury’s appeal is being heard at the Swedish Supreme Court. It is being heard at the Svea Court of Appeal, Stockholm. Quillette regrets the error.

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