At the opening of the criminal trial of Hamid Nouri in Sweden last week, the names of several Iranian journalists who were killed in Iran’s 1988 prison massacre were read out to the court. Prosecutors based this on a document provided to Stockholm District Court by global organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
On the second day of the trial, Reza Moini, the current head of RSF’s Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan desk, appeared as an expert witness within a few short yards of the defendant: a former official at Gohardasht Prison, where hundreds if not thousands of political prisoners were killed in a few short months that summer.
Moini lost family members during that bloody decade in Iran, for which almost none of the perpetrators – up to and including current President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi – have faced any form of justice. At the end of the first week of hearings in a trial for war crimes and murder scheduled to run until April 22, he told IranWire’s Aida Ghajar about his reasons for taking part, his hopes for the outcome – and his thoughts on forgiveness.
In its latest statement, RSF said it had worked with the Swedish prosecutor's office to bring the case against Hamid Nouri with regard to the executions of journalists. What information do you have about the journalists killed in the 1988 massacre?
Three years ago at a press conference, we announced we had obtained some of the Iranian judiciary’s data on prisoners of the Islamic Republic going back 30 years; that is, from 1979 to 2009. Over these 30 years, more than 860 journalists had been arrested, tortured or executed.
A number of them were killed in the 1980s, such as Saeed Soltanpour, who was killed in 1981, or Rahman Hatefi, who was either executed or tortured to death in 1983. Our total number of prisoners was 1.7 million, and we had to verify which of them were journalists. Meanwhile, 65,000 political prisoners were detained in Tehran alone. We also had to find out which of these activists were active in the media.
How did you verify the numbers?
First we matched the data with lists held by national and international organizations on imprisoned journalists, including past statements by Reporters Without Borders. The next step was to reconcile it with the UN’s published data. Observers and experts, as well as members of the Judiciary Data Monitoring Committee and victims of the massacre, also confirmed its accuracy.
Since the beginning of the  Revolution, we have been asking all active political groups to provide us with lists of executed media activists and to indicate which outlets they were involved with. The only one that could provide us with a complete list was [opposition group] the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization [MKO]. So RSF followed up on a case-by-case basis: finding documents or contacting individuals.
Based on our investigations, we believe that media freedom was curtailed from the first day after the Islamic Revolution. Thousands of big-circulation newspapers and publications were banned. Political organizations had their own organs, most of which were independent of government, from the Tudeh Party newspaper People's Letter to the Kar [Labor] newspaper of the Fedaian-e Khalq Organization. Some opposed the government, some supported it. These publications all had managing directors, editors, and journalists, some of whom had been imprisoned, tortured, and executed.
Do you have any accurate statistics on how many of these journalists were imprisoned, tortured and executed in the 1980s?
More than 100 journalists and media were among those killed in the 1980s.
Did their interrogations in the 1980s mention the fact that they were journalists?
Some of the victims testified about what happened to them after their release, and some families knew about the cases against their loved ones. Of course, this wasn’t a real court, in the sense that it wasn’t in line with international law. The accusation against those journalists published in official Iranian media was "propaganda for atheism."
“Atheism” here meant that the defendant could be regarded as an "apostate" in the Islamic Republic. What they called "anti-revolutionary" then also denoted this. The charge that’s levelled at journalists [in Iran] today, "propaganda against the regime”, is the equivalent of what was meant by “atheist” in those days.
Were any journalists missing from your list?
Yes. Pirouz Davani was a reporter and the owner of [magazine publisher] Pirouz Publishing House. He had formerly been a political prisoner and supporter of the Tudeh Party, who had played an important role in documenting and telling the truth about the 1980s.
He had published the wills of those killed in the 1980s, and was repeatedly summoned and interrogated. During the chain murders in 1998, he left his home, planning to go to his sister’s house. Later, the official newspapers Kar and Kargar reported that he had been killed. But his body was never found.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei [the new head of Iran’s judiciary] is one of the accused in this case. In his trial, Akbar Ganji said the order to kill Pirouz Davani disappear had been issued by Mohseni-Ejei. Davani is regarded as having been "disappeared."
Returning to the obstacles faced by RSF. Do you believe that a political activist can be a journalist?
In general, a journalist cannot and should not be a political activist. But in countries like Iran, where there is no independent media, some activists do also work as reporters. Even during the reformist era, when influential newspapers were still being published, a non-government supporter could not get a publishing license
Look at all the publications in the history of the Islamic Republic. Not a single independent journalist can be found among them. In the first few years after the Islamic Revolution, the political parties’ newspapers helped to reveal parts of the truth: for instance, if there were another strike at the Iran-Khodro factory today, it could have been reported on by Peykar, Mojahed or Kar. Kayhan could have published some information on the killings in Kurdistan. Other countries have similar examples: for instance, during the 1973 coup in Chile, the MIR Party, the Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats became the only available outlets.
On the first day of Hamid Nouri's trial, the Swedish prosecutor's office stated that some of the victims were journalists. Has all the information you submitted been accepted?
Hamid Nouri's case ought to shed light on and help decipher a part of Iran's dark, hidden history. In political systems like the Islamic Republic, it is never publicly stated that a journalist has been arrested or executed because of his or her profession.
Some of the journalists killed in the 1980s were in charge of the newspapers’ rural desks. Kar-e Jonub, a publication in Khuzestan, reported on working conditions from 1979 to 1981, including the first major steel strike, which was not covered by the official media. The editor was imprisoned and executed in 1988.
We seek to prove that during the 1980s, and especially in the massacre of 1988, many were killed because of disseminating information.
In the first statement we issued about Hamid Nouri, we called him guilty of a "crime against humanity". It’s now up to the Swedish prosecutor and the laws of that country to determine how they prove the crimes in which Nouri was involved.
We’re not talking about propaganda here; we’re following the law. Some of the cases we presented were related to killings in Evin Prison. These weren’t accepted by the prosecutor because the charges against Nouri relate to his role at Gohardasht Prison. In any criminal case, the location of the murder is pivotal.
You spoke at Hamid Nouri’s trial as an expert from RSF. Was it not a conflict of interest that you are also a family member of 1988 victims?
The issue of whether the head of the Iran desk at RSF could appear as both expert and victim was discussed by lawyers within our organization. I say we are both witnesses and plaintiffs, and our lawyers approved it. I was one of the researchers who worked on the 1980s for years, but I hadn’t drafted any of RSF’s announcements on them. There was no prohibition, but I thought it was a job for someone else.
It’s the victim's right to be recognized. But you’re not naming them for personal reasons.
Yes, one of the main reasons for making a claim is to be recognized, and we’ve always tried to draw out the truth. If I wanted to give names, I’d say that in this courtroom, Hamid Nouri needs to admit that Kasra Akbari Kordistani was one of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Gohardasht Prison.
Kasra was one of my relatives’ son-in-laws, who worked both as a political activist with the Fadaiyan and as the head of Kar newspaper’s regional pages. Later, he wrote for Tudeh Party publications. Kasra was one of the first Iranian translators to be held political prisoner under the Shah's regime. Yes, he must be recognized, and I can categorically state that he was executed for his “atheistic” ideas, now called "propaganda". In the words of Ruhollah Zam, ‘They call it atheism, we call it polyphony and pluralism.’
News about the plight of the working poor, a catastrophe we are still witnessing today, was widely discussed at that time. Ayatollah Khomeini used to say: "We eliminated the khans [landowners]”. But his entourage brought the khans back to power. Kasra reported the real situation in a newspaper that had a large circulation and was still sold in kiosks in the first few months after the revolution. It then became a national weekly.
The Fedaian was arguably the largest leftist organization in the Middle East at that time, one that could gather up to 500,000 people in [Tehran’s] Azadi Square. Its publication sold up to 200,000 copies. Later, when it split, Kasra joined the majority faction and later the Tudeh Party. These newspapers were legal at the time. They were not free pamphlets; they came at a cost. Supporters were selling newspapers on the street. That is why more than 120 of them were also killed on the streets.
The street killings you just mentioned haven’t been talked about much. Politicians don’t mention them. Why not?
Let me be clear. Gentlemen like [veteran reformist politician] Mostafa Tajzadeh say that the Mojahedin [MKO] took up arms in the 1980s, and so they were forced to suppress them. As an observer and witness, I can tell you where that cycle of violence first came from. I never agreed with the [armed] operations of the MEK and other organizations, neither before nor after the revolution. But the truth must be told. The cycle of violence began after nearly 200 people were killed in various cities in Iran.
Mojgan Asadian was killed in front of my eyes in Khorramabad, our home city. I saw the killer. There were student demonstrations, and she was shot in the brain. Mojgan Asadian was a 16-year-old student and the killer was a member of the Revolutionary Guards.
I’ll give you another example. Azim Moradi, a Hezbollahi member of the government’s Islamic Republic Party and a Revolutionary Guard, killed my colleague Bahram Kordestani in broad daylight. The day before, he’d shot at both of us with the intention of killing us.
Bahram was a supporter of the Mojahedin, and on the way back from vocational school, he was shot in front of several witnesses. Moradi didn’t go to prison for a day. The day after the murder, he warned me in front of my school not to hold a funeral for Bahram.
At Bahram's funeral in Khorramabad’s Khezr Cemetery, students were attacked and beaten up by the same members of the IRGC and Hezbollahi thugs – and members of the Islamic Republic Party, who were then among the most corrupt people in the city.
In 1981 the Mojahedin entered a militant phase. Sohrab Nasiri Moghaddam, a classmate of mine, who was so well-dressed and calm, and considered even football to be violent, took up arms and killed Azim Moradi. Sohrab was arrested and executed. His sister, Saba, joined the Mojahedin on his request and took part in Operation Forough Javidan [the MEK’s 1988 armed incursion into Iran from Iraq], and she was wounded, tortured and later executed.
If the IRGC’s Azim Moradi been tried for the murder he had committed, over which they silenced the witnesses, would such a sequence of events have occurred? It was not just Moradi who made people unsafe on the streets. The head of the vocational school where Bahram Kordestani and I studied, Abdol Reza Ghiasian, was a key official in the Islamic Republic Party and involved in the assassinations of many activists. He brought in the Hezbollahi thugs to beat the students.
This was the cycle of violence. If the freedoms gained by the Iranian people [in 1979] had only been preserved...
How long had these freedoms lasted?
The first four months. From March 1979, when the Kurdish and then the Turkmen rebellions began – which had nothing to do with the Fedaian or opponents of the state – working class issues came to the fore. It should be said that the first war crimes were not in 1981. The first mass execution took place in September 1979 in Kurdistan, on the orders of [Chief Justice Sadegh] Khalkhali.
The totalitarian character of the Islamic Republic Party cannot be denied. [1980s reformist prime minister] Mir Hossein Mousavi was the editor of Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper and no-one was more supportive of Khomeini than he. Totalitarian rule meant they didn’t have mercy, even on themselves.
Returning to your documents in Hamid Nouri's trial. You said you provided these to the UN. Besides the section related to journalists, what else did they cover?
According to our documents, eight UN working groups could play an active role in this case: for instance, those on women, arbitrary detention and minorities. Baha’is are generally forgotten but for the first time, we presented a document showing that in Tehran alone, more than 5,000 Baha'is had been imprisoned on the written charge of belonging to the "deviant Baha'i cult".
We could show 600 imprisoned children in the 1980s: children who were either born in prison or taken there with their families. I saw with my own eyes a nine-year-old child imprisoned in Room Two, Ward One of Evin Prison. It was October 1982. One of the MEK’s safe houses had been attacked, the child's father escaped, his brother was killed, and his mother was jailed. We have provided the names of those who were executed in the 1980s while under the age of 18.
At Nouri's trial, I heard many people happily observe that the prosecutors were women, the judges were women, and the police officer who handcuffed Nouri was a woman, and this would have been humiliating for him. Do you have the same assessment?
I’ve have said many times that the only place where the rights of men and women were equally respected in the Islamic Republic was in prison and during tazir [sentencing at the judge’s discretion].
The women were torn to pieces just as much as the men. Undoubtedly, there were sexual assaults on boys as well. I witnessed a case myself. But it was less than that of the women. Menstruation was a pretext for further torture and harassment.
Hamid Nouri is a symbol of the death panels, and a symbol of the Islamic Republic, now in a Swedish court. Today in Iran, people are dying every day from Covid-19, but the Islamic Republic’s problem is with the hijab and women's clothing.
Hamid Nouri took female prisoners to the death panel, and then he hanged them. According to his ideology he shouldn’t even be hearing a woman’s voice. But he heard the voices of the tortured women, when [fellow Gohardasht Prison official] Davood Lashkari struck them in the abdomen with his boots.
Now, a woman is questioning him, and another is translating into his ear. He has to present his hands to a woman to get the cuffs on, and he doesn’t dare say no; he even nods his head, thanking her.
That said, for me the real symbol of the Islamic Republic was [infamously brutal Evin Prison warden] Asadollah Lajevardi. Had he been on the death panel, there wouldn’t have been any survivors at all. I hope one day, Ebrahim Raisi is tried in a court where the prosecutor is a woman like Shirin Ebadi or Mehrangiz Kar.
This is a personal question: for you as an individual, not as an expert from RSF. Who were you representing in this courtroom?
This thought didn’t start for me in the courtroom. It was on the morning of November 10, 2019, when [key witness] Iraj Mesdaghi called me and asked where I was. I was in Germany with my daughter. He said: ‘Sit down; I want to say something.’
I’d met with Iraj in Paris some time ago. He said he was following up on a possible case. That was when I started thinking, maybe I could still have lingering moments of hope and fear. I asked myself, how can I be faithful to both my personal feelings and my professional work? So I asked RSF for its approval. I thought of Kasra Akbari, of Bahram Kordestani.
Throughout the first week of the trial, I told my friends, inmates, and family members that I hoped to see them in better places than this – that is, not just for the trial of someone like Hamid Nouri.
The day I saw Hamid Nouri in court, we looked at each other face-to-face 21 times. I counted. I believe he knew what I was thinking of: the moment he took Kasra's hand and took him to the mosque for execution.
As a witness, I must say that I feel for him if the court convicts him. I hope that after the truth comes out, which will surely go down in history, he’ll be pardoned. My concern is not revenge, it’s clarifying the truth, and I must maintain that distance. I don’t want brother Hamid Nouri not to see his children.
You talk about forgiveness. So what about damages? You mentioned Azim Moradi as an example – ie, if he had been prosecuted and paid a price, there wouldn’t have been a cycle of violence. Don’t you think this is a little idealistic?
This is my disagreement with some of the Iranian plaintiffs. There’ll be no litigation for the individuals; instead, the truth must be revealed. And I think Hamid Nouri will speak. He said on the afternoon of the second day that the sound of chants and slogans [from outside the courtroom] bothered him. Just one day had passed since the trial began, and there had been chants on the first day too.
I looked over at him all the time. Speaking as a witness, Hamid Nouri's case clearly started on the afternoon of the second day. The first day was all about Iran's history. On the second morning, the Geneva Convention was mentioned and his face was still fresh. The conventions and the criminal court weren’t his problem!
But around noon, his behavior changed. That afternoon, every time a name was read aloud pertaining to the death panel, he’d raise his fingers to his eyes, to hide: I don’t want to see, I have to see. He was trying to control his appearance.
So, you believe that the hearings and the confrontation with witnesses will prompt him to tell the truth?
I hope so. The same things that made him feel bad in the afternoon. He didn’t expect his case to be examined so closely, with them putting the map of Gohardasht Prison in front of him, pointing to the distance between the ‘corridor of death’ and the public ward and his room, showing him the amphitheater or the mosque with the ropes hanging down, or displaying his text messages in which he said: "I’m Hamid Abbasi" [his alias in 1988].
The prisoner learns through experience how to resist. Nouri has experience of torture, but he doesn’t know how to resist it. Were I in his place, I’d be telling my family to take all my property under their names so as not to lose it, and I’d cooperate with the prosecutor. At best, I might be released after a few years.
But Nouri was counting on the Islamic Republic for a prisoner exchange. So far, the Islamic Republic hasn’t taken an official position on Nouri. This is undoubtedly his trial, and he is the sole defendant, but all the witnesses have also mentioned the death panel – that is, they’ve mentioned Ebrahim Raisi.
Whatever is established in this court is part of the case against Mr. Raisi and the Islamic Republic. These hearings can be the basis for later litigation. On the second day of the trial, the prosecutor referred to the international criminal tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. I hope the Nouri case will set a judicial precedent for all those who order or commit crimes against humanity in Iran.