June 17, 2024 | Flash Brief

In Prisoner Swap, Sweden Releases Iranian Official Convicted of War Crimes

June 17, 2024 | Flash Brief

In Prisoner Swap, Sweden Releases Iranian Official Convicted of War Crimes

Latest Developments

Sweden released a former Iranian judiciary official on June 15 convicted of crimes against humanity in exchange for two innocent Swedish citizens imprisoned by Tehran. Stockholm freed Hamid Nouri, who received a life sentence from a Swedish court in 2022 for his role in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of dissidents in Iran. Tehran, in turn, released Johan Floderus, a Swedish national and European Union diplomat arrested in 2022, and Saeed Azizi, a Swedish-Iranian dual national incarcerated in 2023. However, the exchange did not result in the release of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian dual national currently on death row whom Tehran imprisoned in 2016 on spurious charges.

“Iran has made these Swedes pawns in a cynical negotiation game with the aim of getting the Iranian citizen Hamid Nouri released from Sweden,” said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. “It has been clear all along that this operation would require difficult decisions; now the government has made those decisions.”

Expert Analysis

“While the welcoming back to Sweden of two hostages from Iran is good news, that’s where the good news stops. Not only did the agreement leave behind a Swedish citizen in Iran, but by releasing Hamid Noury, who is a convicted murderer, justice and the application of universal jurisdiction against rights violators have been set back. The move is also a self-inflicted wound of epic proportions by Europe. It signals to Tehran that no matter how many indictments it faces, the Islamic Republic can get around lofty rhetoric, diplomatic pressure, and even indictments through more hostage-taking and side deals. This only increases the regime’s appetite for hostage diplomacy.” — Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow

“We can only celebrate the release of Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi, who faced terrible ordeals at the hands of Iran’s brutal judiciary. Yet the swap may only solidify Tehran’s view that the West lacks the will to confront the full range of the Islamic Republic’s aggression both within Iran and throughout the Middle East. We can now expect that an emboldened Iran will feel free to continue challenging Western interests and values without consequence.” — Tzvi Kahn, FDD Research Fellow and Senior Editor

“Sweden’s decision was predictable and in line with Europe’s previous exchanges with the regime. Such deals will only encourage Tehran to use hostage-taking more frequently and egregiously as a key component of its foreign policy toolbox. To add salt to the wound, Sweden was unable to secure the release of all its innocent hostages in exchange for a high-profile convicted war criminal.” — Saeed Ghasseminejad, FDD Senior Iran and Financial Economics Advisor

The 1988 Massacre

In 1988, Nouri served as an assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Iran’s Gohardasht prison. At this jail and multiple others, the regime executed as many as 5,000 political prisoners. The judiciary brought detainees before a four-member panel known as a Death Commission, which decided who would live and who would die. The commission would conduct interviews of prisoners — often just a few minutes long — aimed at determining their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Questions could include: “What is your political affiliation?” “Do you pray?” “Are you willing to clear minefields for the Islamic Republic?” The wrong answer meant death. The late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May, served on one of the commissions.

The executions were usually carried out by hanging or by firing squad and typically took place the same day as the interrogations. The commissions allowed neither lawyers nor appeals. Burials occurred in unmarked mass graves. The regime waited months before notifying the relatives of the victims, refused to tell them the locations of the bodies, and told them not to mourn in public. The victims included women and children as young as 13.

Swedish prosecutors “presented evidence that [Nouri] selected prisoners to be placed before an execution commission, led them through the so-called death corridor and provided information to the committee about the prisoners,” The New York Times reported in 2022. “He escorted prisoners to the gallows and even on occasion participated in the executions, prosecutors said.

Universal Jurisdiction

Arrested at a Stockholm airport in 2019 when he visited Sweden as a tourist, Nouri faced prosecution under Sweden’s principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits a national court to try a person on grave charges such as war crimes regardless of where they occurred. The case constituted the first time a perpetrator of the 1988 massacre faced prosecution in another country. “I urge other States to take on similar investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations in Iran using principles of universal jurisdiction,” said Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, after the 2022 verdict. “There is a serious accountability gap for past and present gross violations of human rights law, and national courts in other States play a fundamental role in filling that gap.”

U.S. Boycotts UN Session Honoring Iran’s Late President,” FDD Flash Brief

Executions Surge in Iran as Protests Persist,” FDD Flash Brief

Iran’s Abduction of EU Diplomat Adds to Troubling Trend of Hostage Taking,” FDD Flash Brief


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