Joint Statement: Rights group appalled by Sweden’s release of convicted war criminal Hamid Nouri

12:00 - 25 June 2024

Iran’s blatant strategy of hostage diplomacy continues to yield benefits, encouraging more kidnappings and unjust imprisonments.

While we are relieved to see Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi reunited with their families, where they rightfully belong, we, the undersigned, are deeply disheartened by the profound dismay of the victims of Hamed Nouri, who was unexpectedly, released from prison on 15 June 2024, just months after the Swedish Supreme Court upheld his conviction. 

Nouri, a former assistant prosecutor, was convicted in 2022 for his involvement in the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in Iran. He was serving a life sentence for war crimes and murder  in Sweden until he was released in exchange for two of three Swedish nationals kidnapped by Iran in the last decade, including Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi who were abducted in April 2022 and November 2023, respectively, and held under dubious charges. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian expert in disaster medicine, who has been described by a U.N. panel as being arbitrarily detained by Tehran since his arrest in 2016 and has been sentenced to death by Iranian authorities, was not released.

Nouri’s release, despite his heinous crimes, has engendered disbelief among the families of those who perished in the 1988 massacre. It delivers a devastating blow to all those seeking closure. 

His release has also sparked outrage from rights monitors who argue that this decision effectively reinforces Iran’s belief that holding foreign nationals as bargaining chips is a viable and effective tactic to gain political, diplomatic or economic concessions, and that such a move effectively endangers the lives of foreign nationals everywhere.  By acquiescing to Iran’s demands, governments embolden authoritarian regimes to continue their hostile tactics, knowing their demands will likely be met. This has created  a perilous cycle, where hostage-taking becomes a preferred method for regimes to exert pressure and achieve their aims.  

This move undermines the credibility of international agreements and contributes to normalizing negotiations with perpetrators of severe human rights abuses by demonstrating that commitments can be easily and unilaterally disregarded. Government hostage-taking is unequivocally illegal under international law. Such acts violate fundamental human rights principles enshrined in various international treaties and conventions. 

Nouri’s release diminishes the perceived strength of diplomatic processes to protect human rights, signaling that such efforts may not lead to meaningful outcomes.  Moreover, it weakens global initiatives to combat human rights abuses and uphold the rule of law, fostering an environment where violations are less likely to be effectively challenged or addressed. The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission has noted that, given the absence of “effective remedies within the country, legal avenues outside the country at the domestic and international levels constitute the only available options for accountability.” If even these pathways can be undermined by Iran’s hostage-taking tactics, what remains for justice for Iranians? 

Consequently, the decision to release Nouri is a profound setback for international justice and accountability in Iran. Hamid Nouri’s conviction by Swedish courts represented a historical and critical instance of justice for thousands of  Iranians that suffered during the dark period over which Nouri and others presided. The trial, conviction, and sentencing served as a testament to the victims’ and their families’ right to truth and justice. It marked the first concrete demonstration of the potential impact of universal jurisdiction for justice in Iran, showcasing how nations can challenge Iran’s attempts at impunity, regardless of where the crimes were committed. This landmark case set a precedent for future international efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and reaffirmed the principle that justice can transcend borders. It underscored the importance of a united global front in the fight against impunity and reinforced the belief that even the most powerful offenders could be brought to justice.

Hamid Nouri’s return to Iran does not erase his conviction for war crimes and murder. This conviction stands as a historical record. However, his release sends a troubling message: individuals who commit heinous crimes can evade justice through political maneuvering. Such a message undermines trust in international human rights and legal systems, potentially deterring survivors and victims’ families from seeking justice, fearing their suffering may become collateral in geopolitical negotiations.

Numerous other countries are grappling with similar challenges, striving to uphold principles of international justice while protecting their citizens. If responses to Iran’s hostage-taking tactics are not accompanied by decisive actions to prevent perpetrators from escaping justice, it will continue to intimidate countries committed to upholding universal jurisdiction. Governments and other stakeholders must pursue justice and accountability to ensure international justice prevails. This sends a clear message that human rights violations will not be tolerated, which is vital to maintaining the integrity of global justice systems and supporting the victims and their families in their fight for truth and resolution.

This situation highlights the pressing need for a coherent international strategy to combat the use of hostage diplomacy. We, therefore, call on states to reaffirm their commitment to justice and accountability and propose the following recommendations:

Continue to increase efforts to pursue justice and accountability against perpetrators of crimes under international law: This includes intensifying their efforts to create a robust legal framework that enables national courts to prosecute perpetrators of crimes under international law through universal jurisdiction. This legal mechanism is crucial for ensuring that those responsible for heinous acts such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity do not find refuge in impunity regardless of where they committed their crimes. 

Legislative reforms: Governments should prioritize enacting or amending national legislation to incorporate provisions that facilitate the prosecution of international crimes. This includes defining the scope of universal jurisdiction, setting out procedural guidelines, and eliminating statutes of limitations for such crimes.

Training and capacity building: Legal professionals, including judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials, must receive specialized training on international humanitarian law and universal jurisdiction. This ensures they are well-equipped to handle complex international crimes cases.

International cooperation: States should actively strengthen and expand bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements with other nations to facilitate suspect extradition, evidence sharing, and joint investigations. Consistent and coordinated international efforts are essential for the successful prosecution of perpetrators.

Address transnational repression in multilateral fora: Governments must prioritize raising awareness about transnational repression and address this urgent issue in multilateral forums. Transnational repression involves states targeting individuals beyond their borders through tactics such as surveillance, harassment, and even kidnapping. Iran is a prominent practitioner of this tactic, which undermines global human rights standards and endangers the safety and freedom of individuals worldwide.

Call it by its name and openly condemn Iran’s policy of hostage-diplomacy: We urge the international community to publicly denounce Iran’s hostage-taking tactics in all forums. 

Develop collaborative anti-hostage-taking strategies: Create a formal coalition of like-minded nations dedicated to combating hostage-taking diplomacy. This coalition should establish mutual agreements, protocols, and a clear mandate guiding its actions against state-sponsored hostage-taking. It should also include awareness campaigns to inform citizens in jurisdictions worldwide of the risks of traveling to Iran.