RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
After completing a five-year sentence in 1987, Mehrzad Dashtbani was summoned to the "freedom room," an in-house court at Iran's Gohardasht Prison that decided if an inmate could be freed.
But instead of securing his release papers from the facility located outside the capital, Tehran, Dashtbani's visit earned him a personal beating from a prison official known only as Hamid Abbasi.
When Dashtbani refused to comply with demands that he sign forms renouncing his affiliation with a Marxist organization and stating his commitment to Iran's Islamic regime, he said, Abbasi became enraged.
"He threw his arms around my neck and circled around, saying: 'Who said you should be released? You are a villain. I will kill you myself!'" Dashtbani recalled last month in testifying that he was left bloodied by his attacker.
"You better pray that you get out of here alive,'" Dashtbani said Abbasi told him as it became clear his sentence would be extended. "There is no difference between 15 years and forever. Do not think that you have evaded us and survived."
Dashtbani can be considered one of the lucky ones. He remained in prison but survived the purge of "politicals" like him the following year -- by some accounts as many as 30,000 -- and lived to put real names to the faces he saw carry it out before a foreign court.
Scores of survivors and victims' family members have given testimony in an ongoing trial in Stockholm's District Court that marks the first time a member of the Iranian regime has formally faced criminal charges relating to the mass killings ordered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.
Abbasi's real name, Dashtbani and others have testified, was Hamid Nouri, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and alleged judge's assistant who was arrested in 2019 after arriving in Sweden for vacation.
Nouri was essentially a henchman, they have told the court, whose job was to help determine which prisoners would enter the "corridor of death." For those chosen, it was the last stop before a hearing before one of the three-member "execution committees" set up by Khomeini to carry out his 1988 fatwa that prisoners found guilty of “mohareb,” or waging war against God, be eliminated.
Nouri, who has been charged with international war crimes and human rights abuses relating to the murders of more than 100 people, has denied the allegations against him. Facing his accusers in court over six days in November, Nouri cast himself as a small fish -- an employee of the Tehran Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office who was stationed at a different prison from 1982-1993 and was on leave when the 1988 killings took place.
But since the trial started in August, multiple witnesses have testified that Nouri was a decision-maker who was in fact the deputy to the prison's lead prosecutor, Mohammad Moghiseh, known in Iran as the "hanging judge."
"I saw him [Nouri] for the first time in the spring of 1987 at Gohardasht Prison," former prisoner Nasrollah Marandi testified in September, adding that his position made him "responsible for whatever crimes they were committing against prisoners."
By the time the trial ends in April, more than 100 survivors and family members of victims are expected to go on record, with some making direct ties not only to Nouri's involvement in the massacre, but members of the Iranian clerical establishment's inner sanctum -- including current President Ebrahim Raisi.
'Enemies Of God'
Khomeini's fatwa initially targeted members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an armed leftist group regarded by some as a cult that for years was considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Britain. The MKO participated in the Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, but it was soon branded as a threat by the new clerical establishment.
Openly advocating for Khomeini’s overthrow, the MKO launched an armed conflict against the Islamic regime in 1981, carrying out numerous attacks against Iranian targets from exile in neighboring Iraq. But a failed invasion deep into Iranian territory in July 1988 -- just days after a cease-fire halted the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War -- sealed its fate in the eyes of the supreme leader.
Through his fatwa, Khomeini paved the way for the immediate execution of Iranian prisoners deemed loyal to the MKO, many of whom had been rounded up for even the slightest perceived affiliation. The fatwa eventually encompassed all left-wing opponents of the regime, including communists, Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninists, and others.
The rights watchdog Amnesty International has estimated that 4,500 people were executed, while the MKO places the number at around 30,000. Many of the victims were buried in secret.
The Stockholm proceedings are focused on Nouri's alleged “gross crimes of international law and murders committed in Karaj,” the city some 20 kilometers west of Tehran where Gohardasht Prison is located.
Following the MKO’s failed invasion of Iran in 1988, thousands of prisoners affiliated with the group were executed within days “following Khomeini's order -- an act that can be defined as a war crime," lawyer and activist Abdolkharim Lahiji told RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Paris shortly after the trial began in August. "But as for the [other] leftist groups, this is not relevant, and that's why Nouri is facing two charges: one related to war crimes, and the other relating to being an accomplice to murder."
About 2,500 members of the MKO were moved from Iraq to Albania in 2013. The group was removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations in 2012.
During the trial, the prosecution has attempted to establish where "execution committee" meetings at Gohardasht Prison were held, and who was present.
Eyewitnesses have identified through their testimony those they believe were members of the death squads or helped carry out Khomeini's orders -- including current high-ranking members of the regime.
In addition to Nouri, there is his alleged superior, Moghiseh, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020 and who was known to Gohardasht prisoners by the pseudonym "Naserian." Former Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi has also been implicated, as has former deputy chief Supreme Court justice Hossein-Ali Nayeri, former Justice Minister Mohammad Esmail Shushtari, and former Revolutionary Court prosecutor Morteza Eshraghi.
But the ultraconservative Raisi, who was elected as Iran's president in June, is arguably the biggest name to emerge from the testimony.
Former prisoner Fereydoun Najafi Arya, who testified virtually from Australia in October, said he managed to identify Raisi and other alleged "execution committee" members while being interrogated.
"Nayeri asked me: ‘Will you cooperate with us?' I said, ‘I have done nothing, I was arrested because of my siblings,'" Arya testified. "Then Naserian was ordered to take me…. [He] took me by the neck to force me to stand up and I realized if I didn't say anything, they would execute me. Then I suddenly took off my blindfold and they were shocked -- I saw them all, Raisi and others, and Hamid Nouri was sitting behind them with cases in front of him."
Dashtbani told the Stockholm court that after being transferred from Gohardasht to another notorious penitentiary, Tehran's Evin Prison, he learned of Khomeini's 1988 fatwa. From the bars of his cell, he said, the next day he caught a glimpse of Raisi and two other suspected "execution committee" members enter the prison yard.
"I had seen the photos of these people in the newspapers before," Dashtbani told the court.
Names To Faces
The lawyer Lahiji told Radio Farda that one of the biggest challenges in the case against Nouri is verifying the identities of the accused.
"They must first identify Nouri, and then talk about what they have witnessed him doing," Lahiji said, noting that it was common in the 1980s for judicial officials to use pseudonyms. "For example, [Nouri] is said to have been categorizing the prisoners to bring to the judges to decide their fate. This all must be clarified during the court proceedings."
But while Lahiji says there is little chance that Raisi himself would face charges due to his current immunity from prosecution as president, the world was watching.
"Politically this is an extremely important process because through this process [the] Islamic republic is also being put on trial and Ebrahim Raisi is the president of this republic," Lahiji said. "The way Raisi's credibility will be undermined during this process will stop him from representing the Islamic republic on the international scene."
When court proceedings resume on January 11, witnesses will continue to relive the horror many have kept bottled up for more than 30 years.
Hamid Nozari, a Berlin-based political activist who attended the courtroom proceedings in August, described a chilling scene.
"Survivors and family members experienced a difficult moment today because the prosecutor, based on the witness accounts and memoirs, gave a description of the "death corridor" and the room that prisoners stood in before the "execution committee," Nozari said. "I could see in the faces of many attendees the anguish, and I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said some were shivering."
Attorney Kaveh Mousavi, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, told Radio Farda shortly as the trial began that he was convinced that Nouri will be sentenced to life in prison.
"The only way that this can be a bit reduced," Mousavi said from London, "is if he acts wisely and accepts his crimes." More importantly, the lawyer added, is that Nouri tells where the bodies are.
"Many families contact me and say: "Please ask him where they buried our loved ones."
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