As the violent crackdown on recent protests in Iran has demonstrated, the leaders of the Islamic Republic continue to target, vilify and persecute the citizens of their country. Iranian policy against dissent has always been to stifle and censor any opinion and expression that Iran's political and religious elite believes goes against the values and ideology of the Islamic Republic. It’s a policy that has been enforced repeatedly by Iranian authorities, from the Supreme Leader down to local officials, using the full force of the country’s military, police units, ministry agents and Revolutionary Guards-linked militias.
One of Iran’s most violent crackdowns on dissent and one of its most horrific crimes against its people was the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners. For years, the families of those who were murdered, human rights campaigners and lawyers, and even well-known figures within the Islamic Republic (now branded as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the state) have done their best to ensure the world did not forget that thousands of people were unjustly killed for their political beliefs, and to hold those responsible to account.
Finally, on November 13, Swedish authorities jailed Hamid Nouri, a pseudonym for Hamid Abbasi, who sat on Ayatollah Khomeini’s “death panel” and was an assistant prosecutor for the Gohardasht Prison (also known as Rajaei Shahr), where the prisoners were kept before being executed. After over 30 years, it appears as though justice could soon be done, setting a precedent for other historical crimes to be brought to justice.
Just a few days earlier, on November 11, Gambia, supported by a team of American, Canadian and British lawyers, filed a case at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, formally accusing Myanmar of acts of genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. This followed a 2018 United Nations mission that concluded that Myanmar’s military should be prosecuted for war crimes, as well as appeals from the Canadian parliament to put the accusation of genocide to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Then, on November 14, it was announced that the International Criminal Court (ICC) would investigate the atrocities against the Rohingya minority.
So what do recent moves to hold countries accountable for atrocities and gross violations against citizens mean for Iran and for people waiting for justice for their loved ones?
IranWire talked to McGill professor Payam Akhavan, senior counsel in both the ICJ and the ICC cases against Myanmar. Because the ICJ case will be heard by the court in the Hague on December 10, he was not able to talk specifically about the case, but he told IranWire he will be arguing for an "urgent request for protective measures.” IranWire asked him about the case against Myanmar, Iran’s persecution of minority religious groups and political prisoners, and the links between the two countries’ shocking crimes.
As an international lawyer, what’s your view of the news that Gambia, backed by lawyers from the UK, the US and Canada, has filed a case against Myanmar, accusing it of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which Myanmar is a signatory? Will Myanmar be held accountable for the murder and displacement of thousands of Rohingyas in 2017?
Myanmar is not a signatory to the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) so the only basis for jurisdiction are crimes committed on the territory of Bangladesh. This includes the crime against humanity of deportation which commences on the territory of Myanmar but is completed once forcibly displaced persons cross the international boundary into Bangladesh. By contrast, Myanmar is a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention such that all acts of genocide committed on its territory fall under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICC deals with individual criminal liability whereas the ICJ deals with state responsibility. So for instance, the ICC could issue arrest warrants, whereas the ICJ could issue a judgment on reparation for the victims. They are different judicial means for accountability.
Iran, both under the Shah and during its four decades as an Islamic Republic, has a long history of persecuting the Baha’is of Iran. Since the Islamic revolution, this has included executions, long prison terms, and a policy of barring Baha’is from pursuing further education. As a Baha’i yourself, what impact does this week’s announcement have on you? What impact will it have on the Iranian Baha’i community, both inside and outside the country?
The persecution of the Baha'is in Iran, especially the executions in the 1980s, has affected me deeply, and motivated my desire to pursue a career in human rights. The Baha'is were victims of Islamic extremism, and the Rohingya Muslims are victims of Buddhist extremism. The identity of the victims doesn't matter because human rights are universal. I know the feeling of helplessness, when there is no redress against flagrant injustice, so it gives me great satisfaction when there is an opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable. With each precedent of justice, the world becomes a better place, and the prospect of putting Iranian leaders responsible for crimes against humanity becomes more likely. It is remarkable that just as we filed the genocide case before the ICJ in The Hague, one of the perpetrators of the 1988 mass-executions in Iran was arrested in Sweden. It was a good week for human rights!
On November 14, the International Criminal Court approved a call for atrocities against the Rohingyas to be officially investigated. Do you believe this will bring justice to the Rohingyas? What message will it send to the leaders of other countries accused of brutal discrimination of ethnic or religious groups? Will Iran’s leaders take notice, and if so, what actions will the country take to ensure it does not face possible similar accusations for what it has done to the Baha’is, as well as to other religious and ethnic minorities in the country?
The ICC can issue arrest warrants against Myanmar's leadership, and even if as a non-signatory Myanmar is not obligated to surrender them, it will place it in a very difficult situation. Myanmar has already recognized that this has greatly damaged the reputation of the country, and legitimacy is very important on the global stage. Because the Rohingya are Muslims, Iran has supported calls for accountability, just as it persecutes its own religious minorities. The ICC has no jurisdiction over Iran, but Iranian leaders can be arrested in other countries, just as it happened in Sweden recently, or they could one day face justice before courts in a democratic Iran. Every instance of accountability in the world strengthens the movement for justice, and I suspect that the Rohingya precedent will have an impact on Iran in the coming months as millions watch the court proceedings and become accustomed to the idea that nobody is above the law.
You have served on criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, as well as working extensively on cases dealing with human rights violations in other countries. Are there commonalities between what is taking place in the ICC with regard to Myanmar today and some of the cases you have worked on? Are the crimes similar, and what are the similarities and differences when it comes to the perpetrators?
There are definite similarities between "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda, and what is happening today in Myanmar. The Rohingya are being targeted for systematic and extreme violence solely because of their identity. There is a clear intention to destroy the group and to eradicate it from Rakhine State. The dehumanization of victims through virulent hate propaganda is a common feature to all these atrocities. It is said that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words.
You have been an outspoken critic of the Iranian government’s human rights abuses. Iran is a signatory to a number of international conventions, and human rights organizations have argued that it has violated a number of them. What type of case could be lodged at the ICC against Iran with regard to these violations? What would be most effective?
Like Syria and Sudan, Iran is not a party to the ICC Statute, exactly because it doesn't want to subject its leadership to criminal jurisdiction at The Hague. Unless Iran becomes a signatory, or unless the UN Security Council refers the case, the only other option is prosecution of Iranian leaders under universal jurisdiction as might happen with Hamid Nouri in Sweden. Otherwise, it is important to expose crimes through documentation, or truth commissions, like the Iran Tribunal, and to await the day when the courts of a democratic Iran will prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity.
What has been the Baha’i community’s response to the arrest of Iranian Hamid Nouri, one of many officials involved in the 1988 executions of political prisoners? Do you think this is the beginning of justice for these victims?
I cannot speak on behalf of the Baha'i community but Hamid Nouri was responsible for sending many political prisoners to their death and it is likely that he also sent Baha'is to be executed. In the coming weeks more and more evidence will be uncovered and of course crimes against the Baha'is are integral to the atrocities that were perpetrated in the 1980s. I am now assisting in shaping the prosecution of that case and what I know is that criminal trials are all about the evidence that is available, so getting witnesses and documents will be crucial.
You’re a Baha’i, a religion whose followers have been persecuted in Iran for decades. How has being a Baha’i affected your approach to the world and your work? And has coming from a persecuted minority reaffirmed your will to seek justice for other minorities around the world?
I think that the experience of religious persecution can lead to greater empathy for similarly situated minorities around the world. But beyond that, the Baha'i teachings on the oneness of humankind and the imperative necessity of justice have also shaped my belief in building global institutions that can uphold international law and dispense justice, and my belief that all human beings have an inherent dignity and a shared responsibility to transcend differences and speak truth to power.