Trend in Prosecution of Human Rights Abusers Should Extend to Iran’s President
Soon after it was reported that Anwar Raslan, a senior Syrian intelligence officer, was convicted of crimes against humanity by a German court, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a statement celebrating the development and expressing hope that it would “spur forward all efforts to widen the net of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes” carried out during the ongoing Syrian civil war by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet went on to suggest that the implications of Raslan’s verdict could be even farther-reaching. “This conviction has put State authorities on notice,” she said. “No matter where you are or how senior you may be, if you perpetrate torture or other serious human rights violations, you will be held accountable sooner or later, at home or abroad.”
Tehran cannot say it hasn’t been notified.
Since last summer, Swedish authorities have been ensconced in the trial of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prison official who was implicated in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988, most of them activists of the main Iranian opposition movement.
Both trials were litigated under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” an allowance in international law that enables any nation’s judiciary to prosecute a citizen of any other nation who is credibly accused of grave human rights abuses or crimes against humanity. In Raslan’s case, the abuses included dozens of killings and approximately 4,000 instances of Syrian prisoners who were tortured by his military intelligence unit, Branch 251.
Noury’s crimes arguably exceed Raslan’s in sheer scale. It is difficult to say how many deaths he was personally responsible for during the 1988 massacre, but eyewitness testimony makes it clear that he was regularly tasked with leading inmates before the “death commission” that determined their fate, then taking them to the gallows afterward. Furthermore, his broader career as a prison official included contributions to a pattern of systemic abuse that helped set the stage for the massacre and kept its legacy alive after the fact.
Noury is by no means the only person to have filled such a role, and he is far from the highest-profile perpetrator of what has been called Iran’s greatest crime against humanity. His cooperation with the Tehran “death commission” put him in direct contact with Ebrahim Raisi, one of four figures to serve on that body, and arguably the one who showed the greatest commitment to issuing death sentences liberally and implementing them rapidly.
Raisi has remained in good standing within the clerical regime’s power structure ever since, despite growing public awareness of the massacre and the rise of a “justice-seeking movement” led by survivors and the families of the victims. In 2019, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei clearly disregarded public concerns over past human rights abuses when he appointed Raisi to head the nation’s judiciary. In that capacity, the former death commissioner oversaw aspects of the regime’s worst crackdown on dissent in recent years.
Amid a nationwide uprising in November 2019, roughly 1,500 protesters were killed when authorities opened fire on crowds in various cities. For months afterward, Raisi’s judiciary carried out a campaign of systematic torture – encouraging speculation that the stage was being set for mass killings not unlike those that had occurred three decades earlier. The Iranian people naturally pushed back when Raisi was promoted as the likely replacement to outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, but this did not stop the regime from rewarding his history of human rights abuses by handing him the nation’s second-highest office.
Raisi was formally inaugurated in August 2021, and since then the rate of executions has increased sharply in the country already renowned for the highest per-capita rate of capital punishment in the world. The regime’s critics have characterized that increase as part of an effort to intimidate the public and to expand upon the effects of more direct crackdowns on dissent. Large-scale clashes between authorities and the Iranian people took place in three different regions in February, July, and November of last year, signaling an uptick in public outrage against the regime. This trend is certain to continue.
Though Raisi’s rise in the Islamic Republic’s power structure has come to symbolize the impunity enjoyed by powerful figures in Iran and other rogue states, the immunity from consequence such individuals have enjoyed is clearly facing challenges with the conviction of Anwar Raslan and the pending conviction of Hamid Noury. But until the international community sets its sights higher with the application of universal jurisdiction, rogue states will have little incentive to scale back their human rights abuses.
Raisi’s ascension to the presidency underscores the importance of Michelle Bachelet’s interpretation of the Raslan verdict. Moreover, it highlights the need for additional measures – from coordinated sanctions to more significant diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime – with which the international community can hold those responsible for unspeakable crimes against humanity accountable, even when the individuals to be tried hold the highest positions of authority in their own countries.