Part of this piece was adopted from the author’s blog.
Like most Iranians, I was both excited and worried about the November 9, 2019 arrest of Hamid Noury, a deputy prosecutor during the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran, at an airport in Stockholm.
I was excited that one of the perpetrators of the mass execution would finally face justice, but worried over whether European governments would actually punish him, unlike others before.
During Iran’s 1979 revolution, my brother Bijan was a college student in London. He returned home to help rebuild his country but was arrested in July 1982 at the age of 23. His indictment charged him with membership in a leftist party, distributing pamphlets, and donating money to a leftist party. Two years later, in 1984, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Then, six years later in the summer of 1988, he was executed without warning. The prison authorities told my father that Bijan was killed because he had “forsaken his Islamic faith” and was an “apostate.” They refused to give us his body or show us his grave because the Islamic Republic of Iran believed “an apostate doesn’t deserve to have a grave.”
On August 10, 2021, I attended the first day of Noury’s trial at Stockholm District Court. My twin sister, Laleh Bazargan, a plaintiff in the case, was sitting in the courtroom. I was downstairs in Room 6, where reporters and family members could watch the trial remotely. I avoided the courtroom because I was afraid that I might see Noury. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to face him, let alone sure of how I would feel. I couldn’t bring myself to look into the eyes of “evil” without anger or even a sense of vengeance.
Noury’s children called the arrest of their father an example of enforced disappearance. In 1982, my brother left to visit a friend and never came back. Every day, my parents went to the police departments, prisons, hospitals, morgues, and cemeteries trying to find any information about the whereabouts of my missing brother.
After months of fruitless searching, my mother had a minor stroke. She was quite healthy and only forty-seven years old, but she was crumbling under the pressure of worry and not knowing where her son was. Finally, after four months, Evin Prison admitted that Bijan was there and allowed my mother to visit.
In July 1988, prisoners’ visits were suddenly interrupted. Authorities told prisoners’ families that the meeting halls were being repaired, but after a few weeks a rumor circulated those prisoners, who were members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), a Marxist-Islamic Party that engaged in armed struggle against the Islamic Republic, were being executed. Soon, several families a day received news that their children had been executed.
Those who didn’t receive news visited the prison daily but were told to go home. We later learned that, after the massacre of MEK members in July and August of 1988, the Islamic Republic also hanged Marxist prisoners and buried their bodies in unmarked mass graves.
Regime officials prohibited families from holding ceremonies, but the families ignored them and held gatherings in their homes. My parents started going to the funerals of my brother’s friends, attending dozens of memorials. While these friends’ mothers told my parents that they would have been informed if Bijan had been executed, my mother didn’t see how he could be alive if all his friends had been killed.
After six months, in December 1988, we received the news of Bijan’s execution. Although my mother thought she had prepared herself, she realized that one could never prepare themselves for such news. The loss of her beloved son burdened her heart until her death, and nothing healed that deep wound. My parents died without fulfilling their wishes of knowing Bijan’s burial place and seeing justice. Thirty-four years after their deaths, Bijan and his friends are still “forcibly disappeared” without a burial location. When Noury was arrested all the newspapers wrote about it the same day it happened. His location was never a mystery. How can Noury’s family say he was “forcibly disappeared”?
Noury’s wife talked about her feelings and how worried she was for her husband. When my father heard the news of Bijan’s execution and returned home with a small sack of his supposed belongings, he wrote a poem for Bijan and recited it at all his memorial ceremonies and following anniversaries.
My father wasn’t a poet and only wrote poetry twice in his life: once when I was arrested for distributing anti-war pamphlets in my school to protest the Iran-Iraq War, and once for Bijan’s death. My heart ached and sank every time he stood up at Bijan’s ceremonies with the paper in his trembling hands to read the poem in his sobbing voice. The closer he got to the last lines, the louder his voice echoed in the room. He did his best to control his sobs and finish his poem. Does Noury’s family know the pain of losing a beloved son?
Noury’s family complained that they didn’t have enough visitations with him. Yet, in a discussion on Clubhouse—a social media app popular among Iranians—they acknowledged this was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors not in the Swedish government’s control. In contrast, Bijan, like hundreds of others, was allowed family visitations only once or twice a month, and that was a restriction entirely within the Islamic Republic’s control. Siblings under thirty-years-old could only visit once a year. This meant that I saw Bijan only four times during his imprisonment—and only through the double-glazed window partitions of the meeting room in Gohardasht Prison, talking through a phone for ten minutes per visit. We only had time to greet each other.
For such a meeting to even take place, my family had to go to the city of Karaj, which neighbored the capital Tehran, early in the morning and wait hours for our turn in a dusty parking lot in the blistering heat or freezing cold. Officials always checked with the prisoner’s interrogator before allowing them visitors, and the interrogator would forbid it if they wanted to punish or pressure the prisoner. Frowning, bearded guards with guns were stationed in the halls and they insulted and taunted families like ours at every opportunity. After hours of delay, we would be taken to a hall where the prisoners were waiting behind windows.
When families found their prisoner, they would go into the cabin, pick up the phone, and talk to them. All the conversations were monitored and, whenever the guards didn’t like what was being said, they would disconnect the phone. Several guards paced behind the prisoners and their families to monitor even our gestures. My father used a hearing aid, so he couldn’t hear anything on the rickety, old phone. He would just stand behind the window and stare at Bijan, deprived of hearing his voice.
Once, Bijan had a cold. Noticing his pale and sickly face, my father realized he wasn’t feeling well and raised his arms with clenched hands—a sign of resistance. When the guard noticed, he immediately grabbed the phone from Bijan and then punched and kicked him as my parents watched in horror. Another guard took my parents to the security room, where they interrogated my father for several hours to know why he had raised his fists. He was forced to sign a pledge not to make any hand gestures anymore. How dare Noury’s family complain about visitations when they get to see him in person, whenever they want, and without fear of reprisal?
Justice in the court
Hamid Noury’s son criticized the partiality of the Swedish court because he felt it gave too much time to the plaintiffs and not enough time to his father. During the 1988 massacre, prisoners were summoned in front of a group later dubbed the “Death Committee” and were asked a few questions about their political beliefs and faith. They were then immediately sent to the gallows to be hanged. Neither my brother nor any of his fellow prisoners were granted access to a lawyer. They never saw the evidence used against them. During their ten-minute trials, they were blindfolded and didn’t have the right to defend themselves. They were never even handed their sentence in writing. Aren’t Noury’s family ashamed of this comparison?
Noury had two lawyers and access to all court documents. Hamid Noury’s lawyers had the right to visit him and strategize for his defense. They had a chance to invite their own experts to testify and the right to question all the plaintiffs and expert witnesses. During the trial, Noury had seven full days to defend himself and answer the prosecutors’ and plaintiff’s lawyers questions. However, he wasted most of it defending the brutal regime he was working for, bragging about his intelligence, courage, and looks, and lying about his relationship with the prisoners. During his testimony, he went on incoherent and unrelated rants about his friendship with people in high places in the clerical establishment, while openly acknowledging that giving that testimony was against his lawyers’ wishes. Now, Noury’s son questions the legitimacy and fairness of the Swedish court system?
On the last day of the court, the judge allowed Noury to give his final remarks. Noury used the time to flatter and praise the judge, to thank the prosecution for their professionalism, and to thank the lawyers. Noury said that he loves everyone and indirectly threatened the court by saying that he hoped his verdict “does not create trouble in the relations between Iran and Sweden.” He used an Iranian expression loosely translated as “let’s forget and forgive.” But I can never forget nor forgive.
An eye for an eye?
The Islamic Republic’s judicial system is based on the rule of “an eye for an eye.” I always hated this doctrine and believe in Gandhi’s words that “an eye for an eye makes a nation blind.” But participating in Noury’s trial and following it up close makes me wonder: what should the punishment for people like Noury be?
Noury had thirty-four years to think about what he had done, how wrong it was, and how much his actions hurt others, but there isn’t even a drop of remorse or compassion in his or his family’s words and actions. The life sentence Noury received won’t even be equal to an epsilon of the pain we endured in the past three decades.
It’s been thirty-four years since Bijan was executed and I still haven’t gotten used to his absence. The grief of losing a loved one never leaves you. The bitterness of premature and unjust death remains forever. Nothing can fill the void of his absence. Thus, the survivors and the families of the victims are working to reveal the injustice of what happened and to disgrace the perpetrators so that they don’t repeat their crimes again with another generation.
I’m trying hard to enjoy our victory and celebrate the sentencing Noury received. But the question remains, what did Bijan, and thousands of others do to deserve a death by noose? Noury didn’t add any information to our knowledge about the atrocities committed in the summer of 1988. We must know what factors and reasons led to these war crimes to prevent such incidents in the future. Only the truth can heal Iran and the Iranian people’s collective pain and protect future generations from the danger of such crimes.
Lawdan Bazargan is a former political prisoner, human rights activist, and family member of one of the victims of the 1988 prison massacre in Iran. A graduate of the California State University Fullerton, she has written extensively about the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran, movement-building, mothers and family members who lost their children, and justice seeking and grief.
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