Explainer: Sweden releases Iranian Prison Official Involved In Extrajudicial Executions Amid Prisoner Swap Features
Kevin Nha, Voice of America, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Explainer: Sweden releases Iranian Prison Official Involved In Extrajudicial Executions Amid Prisoner Swap

In a historic turn of events, an international diplomacy maneuver resulted in a rare prisoner swap that saw both Sweden and Iran gain the freedom of notable detainees. The exchange raised brows on the global stage due to the release of Iranian prison official Hamid Nouri, who was found guilty in a Swedish Court of being a key figure in the 1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners, where between 5000 to 30,000 Iranians were massacred.

Sweden’s unexpected decision to release Nouri attests to the high stakes and meticulous negotiations behind the scenes. Details surrounding the negotiation dynamics remain shrouded in discretion, but the Gulf state of Oman emerged as a significant mediator, according to Oman’s state news agency.

Kazem Gharibabadi, head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, announced the imminent return of Nouri on social media platform X:

I am pleased to inform the dear people of Iran that Mr. Hamid Nouri, who has been in illegal detention in Sweden since 2018, is free and will return to the country in a few hours. This success is due to the efforts of my colleagues in the Judiciary, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially my brother Martyr Dr. Amir Abdullahian.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson took to social media to share the news of Swedish national Johan Floderus and dual Swedish-Iranian national; Saeed Azizi’s imminent return to Sweden from Iranian detention. Kristersson confirmed, “Today, they will land on Swedish soil and be reunited with their families and loved ones. Welcome home!” He emphasized that the Swedish government had “worked intensively” to secure their freedom.

However, Nouri’s release, facilitated as part of a deal to secure the freedom of Swedish nationals detained in Iran, has sparked outrage.

In a statement shared with JURIST, Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) strongly condemned the release of Hamid Noury and demanded justice for victims of Iran’s 1988 massacre.  JVMI argued that Noury’s release disregards the immense suffering endured by his victims and emboldens Iranian authorities by suggesting they can act with impunity. The organization called the decision a “shameful precedent” that “undermines international efforts to hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable in Iran and elsewhere.”

Director of JVMI, Mohammed Hanif Jazayeri said Noury received “a hero’s welcome” upon his return to Iran saying:

“Mass murderer Hamid Noury receives a hero’s welcome by the regime in Iran. Sweden’s shameful decision to free a convicted perpetrator of the [1988 Massacre] as part of a deal with Iran undermines the rule of law. It will encourage more impunity & blackmail by Iran.”

Background of the 1988 Massacre

The 1988 massacre in Iran resulted in the deaths of 30,000 political prisoners following a fatwa issued by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The primary targets were members of the opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Special “Death Commissions” across Iran conducted the executions, targeting prisoners who refused to renounce their beliefs. This brutal campaign also saw the execution of members from other leftist groups in a subsequent wave, with victims being buried in secret mass graves. The atrocities have gone largely unaccounted for, and many of the perpetrators hold high-ranking positions in the Iranian judiciary or government to this day.

The families of the 1988 massacre victims have implored the international community to take immediate steps to hold Iranian authorities accountable and ensure justice for the atrocities committed.

The Swedish charges against Hamid Nouri

In 2019, utilizing the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, Swedish prosecutors charged Nouri with involvement in the massacre as a prison guard after Nouri entered the country. Sweden’s Stockholm District Court found Noury guilty of murder and crimes against international law tied to the 1988 extrajudicial executions in 2022. Noury received a life sentence. On March 6, 2024, the Swedish Supreme Court upheld Nouri’s conviction and sentence.

Who are the two Swedes released as part of the swap?

Nouri’s imprisonment has been a point of contention for the Iranian government, which deemed the verdict illegal and cruel, expressing intentions to secure his release. Tensions further escalated when an Iranian court brought grave charges against Johan Floderus, a Swedish EU employee arrested in 2022, accusing him of espionage and “corruption on earth,” which carries the death penalty. The arrest was speculated to be a pressure tactic to secure Nouri’s release.

Floderus, a Swedish diplomat working with the EU’s External Action Service, was apprehended at Tehran airport in April 2022. His ordeal began under the pretext of espionage allegations made by Iranian authorities, a typical response amid heightened political sensitivities.

Similarly, Saeed Azizi, navigating the duality of his Iranian-Swedish identity, fell into the hands of Iranian security in November 2022 upon his arrival from Sweden.

Saeid Azizi’s lawyer, Reza Shafakhah, revealed that the prisoner exchange deal was conducted without his or the Azizi family’s prior knowledge. “This exchange was done without my knowledge as a lawyer and without the client’s family’s knowledge,” Shafakhah stated on Saturday. Shafakhah further disclosed that Azizi was released from prison last night and subsequently flew to Sweden.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell reacted to the Swedes’ release on X, and said, “We rejoice at the news of the liberation of EU colleague & citizen Johan Floderus and his compatriot Saeed Azizi. We thank Swedish & Omani authorities.”

Echoes in international relations

This exchange could potentially symbolize a cautious thaw in the frosty relationship between Tehran and Stockholm. The gesture of goodwill on both sides may usher in a new phase of diplomatic engagement. However, the ramifications of releasing Nouri, an individual associated with such a dark period in Iranian history, could reverberate through both domestic and international spheres.

The prisoner exchange could become controversial due to the nature of Nouri’s convictions and Iran’s practice of arresting foreigners to use them as de facto hostages. Critics argue that such swaps might undermine international legal standards by effectively rewarding countries that detain foreigners on dubious grounds. The return of Nouri, in particular, raises ethical questions about the implications of negotiating with governments accused of severe human rights violations.

A broader context of tense diplomacy

In recent years, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have detained numerous dual nationals and foreigners, predominantly on accusations of espionage and security threats. Human rights organizations have criticized Iran for these arrests, suggesting they are strategically used to leverage concessions from other nations.

The United States last year released around $6 billion in Iran’s frozen funds to secure the release of five dual nationals arrested on trumped-up charges and held in Iran. That arrangement raised strong public criticism about rewarding hostage-taking.

The takeaway

For now, the focus remains on the palpable relief experienced by the families of Floderus and Azizi, who stand poised to embrace their returnees. As for Nouri, his journey back to Iran, projected to culminate on June 15, adds another layer to his controversial narrative, one that will undoubtedly continue to stir heated debates among human rights advocates and political analysts alike.

The release and exchange underscore the delicate dance of diplomacy where humanitarian concerns intersect with strategic interests. As Hamid Nouri prepares to step onto Iranian soil once again, and as Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi reunite with their families, the world witnesses an interplay of relief, contention, and the timeless complexities of international diplomacy.