The trend in prosecuting human rights violators should extend to the Iranian President

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Shortly after it was reported that Anwar Raslan, a senior Syrian intelligence officer, had been convicted of crimes against humanity by a German court, the United Nations Human Rights Commission released a statement celebrating the development and expressing the hope that they “will expedite all efforts to broaden the web of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes” committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the ongoing Syrian civil war.

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet further suggested that the implications of Raslan’s verdict could be even more far-reaching. “This conviction has put state authorities on high alert,” she said. “No matter where you are or how old you are, if you commit torture or other serious human rights abuses, sooner or later you will be held accountable at home or abroad.”

Tehran cannot say it was not notified.

Since last summer, Swedish authorities have been embroiled in the trial of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prison officer involved in the summer of 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, most of whom were activists from Iran‘s main opposition movement.

Both trials were conducted under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” a permissibility of international law that allows the judiciary of any nation to prosecute a citizen of another nation who is credibly accused of serious human rights violations or crimes against humanity. In Raslan’s case, the abuses included dozens of murders and some 4,000 cases of Syrian prisoners being tortured by his military intelligence unit, Detachment 251.

Noury’s crimes arguably surpass Raslan’s in sheer magnitude. It’s hard to say how many deaths he was personally responsible for during the 1988 massacre, but testimony reveals that he was regularly tasked with leading inmates before the “death commission,” which decided their fate, and then leading them to bring to the gallows. Additionally, his broader career as a prison officer included contributions to a pattern of systemic abuse that helped set the stage for the massacre and keep his legacy alive after the fact.

Noury ​​is by no means the only person to have played such a role, and he is far from the best-known perpetrator of Iran’s so-called greatest crime against humanity. His collaboration with Tehran’s “Death Commission” brought him into direct contact with Ebrahim Raisi, one of four figures serving on that body and arguably the one who showed the greatest commitment to the liberal handing down and speedy execution of death sentences.

Raisi has since maintained a solid reputation within the clerical regime’s power structure, despite growing public awareness of the massacre and the rise of a “justice movement” led by survivors and the families of the victims. In 2019, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei clearly disregarded public concerns about past human rights abuses when he appointed Raisi to head the country’s judiciary. In this capacity, the former death commissioner oversaw aspects of the regime’s worst crackdown on dissidents in recent years.

A nationwide riot in November 2019 killed around 1,500 protesters when authorities in various cities opened fire on crowds. For months, Raisi’s judiciary conducted a systematic campaign of torture – stimulating speculation that it was setting the stage for mass killings not unlike those seen three decades earlier. The Iranian people naturally backed down when Raisi was promoted to be the likely successor to outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, but that didn’t stop the regime from rewarding its history of human rights abuses by handing him the nation’s second-highest office.

Raisi was officially inaugurated in August 2021, and since then the execution rate has skyrocketed in the country already known for having the highest per capita death penalty rate in the world. The regime’s critics have called the increase part of an effort to intimidate the public and widen the impact of more direct crackdowns on dissenters. In February, July and November last year, large-scale clashes between authorities and the Iranian people erupted in three different regions, indicating a rise in public outrage against the regime. This trend will certainly continue.

Although Raisi’s rise in the Islamic Republic’s power structure has become a symbol of impunity for powerful figures in Iran and other rogue states, the immunity from consequences enjoyed by such figures clearly faces challenges with the sentencing of Anwar Raslan and the imminent sentencing of Hamid Nury. But until the international community ups the ante with the application of universal jurisdiction, rogue states will have little incentive to curb their human rights abuses.

Raisi’s rise to the presidency underscores the importance of Michelle Bachelet’s interpretation of the Raslan verdict. In addition, it underscores the need for additional measures – from coordinated sanctions to greater diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime – to enable the international community to hold those responsible for unspeakable crimes against humanity accountable, even if the individuals who are brought to justice are to hold the highest positions of authority in their own countries.

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