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Hamid Nouri: Iran's 1988 Prison Massacre 'A Fantasy'

November 30, 2021
11 min read
Ex-official Hamid Nouri was arrested in Sweden in November 2019 in connection with Iran's 1988 prison massacre
Ex-official Hamid Nouri was arrested in Sweden in November 2019 in connection with Iran's 1988 prison massacre
Nouri's trial on charges of war crimes and murder opened in August 2021 but his defense only began last week
Nouri's trial on charges of war crimes and murder opened in August 2021 but his defense only began last week
Nouri claimed he worked at Evin Prison, not Gohardasht, and that the killings were a 'fabrication' by opponents of the Islamic Republic
Nouri claimed he worked at Evin Prison, not Gohardasht, and that the killings were a 'fabrication' by opponents of the Islamic Republic

The criminal trial of Hamid Nouri, an Iranian ex-prison official accused of war crimes and murder in connection with Iran’s 1988 prison massacre, opened in Sweden this August. Over more than 40 sessions to date the court has heard evidence from tens of witnesses, including former political prisoners, about the systematic killings that took place in Iranian detention centers that summer on the orders of then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

Nouri is accused of having taken detainees for slaughter at Gohardasht Prison in Karaj, where a four-strong “death panel” ordered the killings of hundreds – potentially thousands – of detainees that summer. One of the panel members, current President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi, has acknowledged his role in the killings and suggested it was a praiseworthy action.

Last week, for the first time since hearings began, Nouri himself took the stand to testify in his defense. Now 60 years old, he was arrested in Sweden in November 2019 and has been held in custody ever since. The ex-official made a variety of startling – sometimes contradictory – claims about what happened that bloody summer, but stuck to two core lines of argument: that no state-sponsored massacre had taken place, and that he was not at work at the time.

You can read our previous coverage of Hamid Nouri’s trial at Stockholm District Court here.


Day 1: Deny, Deny, Deny

The first argument put forward by Hamid Nouri in his own defense was that the 1988 prison massacre in Iran was “a fantasy, illusion and emptiness, fake and undocumented".

Speaking for the first time in Hall 37 of Stockholm District Court last week, Nouri claimed the events described had been “scripted” by the Islamic Republic’s detractors. He told the court he was not a representative of the Islamic Republic, but that evidently God had chosen him to answer to “lies and slander” against Tehran going back 33 years.

Nouri’s attorneys had previously stated that the case against him was one of mistaken identity. When he took the stand, Nouri confirmed that he had indeed been a prison operative, and was also known as Hamid Abbasi at the time. But contradicting the eyewitness testimonies of former inmates, Nouri held he had only ever worked in Evin Prison, not Gohardasht, from 1982 to 1993 and no executions had taken place that summer.

From 1995 to early 1988, Nouri said, he had worked in the prison’s accounting department under Hassan Zare Dehnavi: a well-known prosecutor at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court and deputy security director of Tehran Prosecutor’s Office, who died of Covid-19 in summer 2021. From then until 1991, Nouri said, he worked under the direction of Mohammad Moghiseh, known as Judge Naserian.

Naserian is known to have been a key member of the four-strong Tehran ‘death panel’ that signed off on the killings in 1988, alongside Ebrahim Raisi. Nouri, however, flatly denied that such an event had taken place.

The defendant described both the government of the Islamic Republic and its judiciary as “holy”. He told the court he was upset that former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, current President Ebrahim Raisi, former IRGC commander Ghasem Soleimani and notorious Evin Prison warden Asadollah Lajevardi had been “insulted” earlier in the trial.

Nouri also related aspects of his own pre-1988 biography to the court. He had, he said, fought in the Iran-Iraq war and his own brother had been killed in battle in 1985. On returning home, he said, he was employed by the Tehran Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office and began working as a guard on a teaching ward.

It was there he got his nickname, he said. “I very much like Hazrat Abbas [a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, who was killed at the Battle of Karbala], and so I told them to call me Abbas. My job was to take prisoners to the bathroom and for breaks, to send them to the medical center and the court, and to interrogate the prisoners, some of whom are present in this court."

Nouri claimed he had resigned from his full-time prison job in 1991 due to the low salary, but went back to work there for two days a week in 1993 and 1994. Then, he said, he started up his own business: one that proved so successful, he was going home every night “with a Samsonite bag full of money”.

In the afternoon, the 60-year-old moved to criticizing the manner of his arrest at Stockholm Airport on November 9, 2019. He said the tip-off about his planned visit from Iran had been given to star witness Iraj Mesdaghi by an in-law of a “respectable” and religious family he had long-standing ties with.

Nouri further claimed that Mesdaghi, a former political prisoner who witnessed the killings at Gohardasht first-hand, was a member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) who had conspired with “the Communists” to compile a list of people slaughtered in 1988.

Nouri also said it was “unfair” that Swedish police detained him. He listed the names of all 14 police officers involved, and thanked them for their service. Then he complained about the fact that defendants in Sweden are not allowed to answer immediately to allegations heard during the prosecution. “I responded in the Iranian style,” he said of his previous courtroom outbursts. “They didn’t explain to me that for three months I’d have to remain silent and not speak. They didn’t follow their own, Swedish judicial procedures."

The ex-prison official then said he had re-lived memories of Iran’s prisons during his two years in captivity. He had read all of Iraj Mesdaghi’s books, he said, and knew them by heart, as well as those of former political prisoners Mahmoud Royaei, Hossein Farsi, Mahmoud Khalili and Mehri Hajinejad.

Nouri’s attorneys also announced at the first defense hearing that their client would submit a request for release before cross-examination.

Day 2: Khomeini’s Fatwa ‘Didn’t Exist’

In the 43rd hearing of his criminal trial, Hamid Nouri praised the memory of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first Supreme Leader. In the first 90 minutes of the second defense hearing, Nouri insisted that the now-infamous 1988 fatwa from Khomeini that sanctioned the killings of MEK members was a “fake”.

In fact, he claimed, this fatwa had been forged by high-ranking Islamic Revolution-era cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Once Khomeini’s deputy and seen as his natural successor, Montazeri fell out of favor shortly after he criticized the 1988 massacre at a private meeting that summer. Nouri called Montazeri “the secret face of the MEK”, claiming the real reason for his sidelining was simply that “Khomeni got tired of him”.

Eyewitnesses and plaintiffs in Hamid Nouri's case testified that in late summer 1988, the systematic killings overseen by the Tehran “death panel” came about by order of Ruhollah Khomeini. They claimed that Nouri’s role as prosecutor’s assistant was to take the condemned prisoners to be hanged and shot by firing squad at Gohardasht. He also beat them, they alleged, and several claimed he had seemed to take pleasure in his role in summer 1988, handing out sweets in the execution queue.

Hamid Nouri railed against these charges in his second defense hearing. The prisoners, he said, had been “like family” to him; he had “loved” them. He also claimed that in the immediate post-war period there had been practically no political prisoners in Iran anyway.

Nouri then made an altogether stranger pronouncement: he claimed that he couldn’t mention the Mojahedin or Gohardasht Prison by name in the courtroom, because if he did so, he could be arrested on returning to Iran for citing “forged names”.

Asked by prosecutors why, in 1988, prisoners were being blindfolded in the common areas if no executions were taking place, Nouri said their gaze was believed at the time to be “unclean”. “I am devout,” he said. “When they go outside the ward, they shouldn’t see the interrogators, the prosecutors, or the buildings; this was the decision of the authorities at that time. It’s not my fault."

Later in the day, Nouri openly derided the testimonies of several plaintiffs in the case. He also mocked the grieving families of Iranians killed in 1988. Several of those present had said that after their loved ones were killed, they were presented only with a cloth sack containing some of the prisoner’s belongings, and no body, or information about where they were buried.

“The names of a series of brothers and sisters have been mentioned,” Nouri said. “They say their brothers and sisters have been killed. They bring scarves, photos and sacks. Somebody here brings a sack. He says he carried it for 16 days in the mountains to get here. He doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Is it drugs? I mean, whoever brings along a sack, do you just accept it?”

Day 3: Prisoners ‘Requested’ Death Panel Interrogations

During his third defense session, Hamid Nouri claimed that the interrogations of prisoners by the Tehran “death panel” in summer 1988 had been “worthless” and “for fun”.

Nouri has been widely accused of ferrying political detainees to the interview room at Gohardasht Prison. According to survivors, prisoners were asked there about their political allegiances – and later on, about their adherence or non-adherence to Islam. Those who gave the “wrong” answer to the four-strong panel were then taken in groups for execution.

In fact, Nouri said, his role had been constrained to “issues related to leave” and other delegated matters. He said he was aware of the interrogations but claimed they had come on the request of the detainees themselves: “Prisoners used this as an excuse to get out of their cells and meet each other in the Hosseiniyeh [mosque]."

Earlier, Nouri had confirmed that he was also known as Hamid Abbasi: the pseudonym used by a guard that took prisoners for interrogation at Gohardasht. But he claimed that he had only worked at Evin Prison. In the third defense session, Nouri claimed that “another” Hamid Abbasi had been present at Gohardasht, who was not him.

Nouri also said Ruhollah Khomeini had announced a general amnesty in 1989, marking the 10th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and had pardoned “most” of the prisoners. He again denied having had any part in executions, saying he was on leave in August 1988 due to the birth of his son.

On the third day, the judge at Stockholm District Court granted a request from Nouri’s lawyers to hold an additional, extraordinary session for his defense. The judge granted the session on the basis of the “many questions” for Nouri that were still outstanding.

Day 4: Some Executions, not a Mass Slaughter

Hamid Nouri’s fourth defense hearing took place in Stockholm on Monday, November 29. In a slight shift from his previous announcements, the defendant conceded that “some” leftist and communist prisoners as well as members of the MEK had indeed been executed in 1988.

Nouri said he believed the reason for these killings was prisoners’ participation in armed operations, not their political views. But he said the Iranian government should be asked directly what the justification was.

In previous sessions, Nouri had refused to confirm his presence at Gohardasht Prison in Karaj at the time of the massacre, insisting he only ever worked at Evin Prison. “I heard stories that executions took place in Iranian prisons," he said on Monday. But he said again that he believed those killed had committed “crimes” against the Iranian people. He also referred to members of the MEK as “monafeqin” or “hypocrites”: a vilifying term coined by Khomeini.

Efforts at documentation down the years indicate that the killings in Iran in summer 1988 involved two discrete phases. The first involved thousands of members of the outlawed MEK, and ran from July 29, the day after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa was issued, to around August 13. Then after the holy month of Muharram, a second round of executions aimed at leftists and communists took place in the same jails.

Asked by the prosecutor what he thought about the latter phase,  Nouri replied: “My point is that the whole story is fabricated. There was no ‘first wave’ and no ‘second wave’."

Prosecutors also asked Nouri about the death certificates of some Iranian detainees from that summer, which had already been presented to the court. Nouri responded by pointing out that the death certificates did not state the cause of death.

So far Nouri, has held that he was not at work during the executions in late summer 1988, because of the birth of his son. Asked by the prosecutor when he had returned to work, he replied: “It was either late September or early October when I returned to work. Evin Prison is a very beautiful place. It is full of trees. I remember the leaves of the trees had fallen. It was a very beautiful scene.”

The trial continues.

Related coverage:

Hamid Nouri Trial Witness: 'I Said Goodbye to Myself'

Ex-Prisoner at Hamid Nouri Trial Recalls Narrow Escape From Death Squads

1988 Massacre Witness: Hamid Nouri 'Handed Out Sweets' in Execution Queue

Hamid Nouri Trial: Amid Gut-Wrenching Testimonies, A Sister's Search for Answers

Hamid Nouri's Trial: Where Is Siamak Toubaei?

Hamid Nouri Trial Opens in Stockholm

'The Nation is a Plaintiff': Scores of Iranians to Testify in Case Against Hamid Nouri

Hamid Nouri to Face Trial for War Crimes in Sweden Over 1988 Massacre of Iranian Prisoners

Iranian Ex-Prisoners Recall 'Courier of Death' Hamid Nouri Ahead of Sweden Trial

Justice at Last? 1988 Massacre Suspect Arrested in Sweden


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