This moment could either mark a terrible escalation in the Iranian regime’s hostage diplomacy strategy – one that seriously endangers the life of any innocent foreigner traveling to Iran. Or it could create clarity that the free world must finally come together to stop the serial crime of state hostage-taking.
For years, the biggest difference between hostages kidnapped by non-state actors and those arrested and held through a government’s judicial system was the likely fate of the hostages. Those kidnapped by terrorists were more likely to have been killed by their captors, while those held by states were more likely to be released under negotiated agreements.
However, those calculations could change dramatically if the Islamic Republic follows through on its threats to execute Ahmad Reza Djalali, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016.
Djalali, a doctor specializing in disaster medicine and a naturalized Swedish citizen, was arrested while visiting family in Iran. He was exposed to long periods of solitary confinement and said he was forced under torture to make false confessions to crimes for which there was no evidence he committed.
Ultimately, he was subjected to a show trial presided over by Abolghassem Salavati, known as the “death judge” for his prolific use of the death penalty. Salavati was also the judge in my trial.
Meanwhile in Sweden, a jury is deliberating on the fate of Nouri, an Iranian national arrested on war crimes charges for alleged involvement in the systematic massacre of thousands of local dissidents. In 1988, untold numbers of Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic were arrested and many were hanged.
Ebrahim Raisi, the current President of Iran, was a assistant prosecutor then part of the so-called “Death Commission,” a group made up mostly of clergy who ordered extrajudicial executions. Nouri was a prison officer which allegedly led many of the dissidents down the “corridor of death,” which was the last stop before the commission.
Nouri was arrested in 2019 after his arrest arrival in Sweden and is tried under universal jurisdiction, allowing governments to prosecute foreign nationals for war crimes and other crimes against humanity, regardless of where those crimes were committed.
Predictably, given what could come to light and what these revelations could mean for Raisi, the Iranian government is doing everything it can to prevent the verdict from being delivered. The Iranian Foreign Ministry subpoenaed Sweden’s Ambassador to Tehran to appeal the trial.
Shortly afterwards the Swedish government has issued a travel warning to its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Iran. It is unclear whether this was due to renewed threats to Djalali’s life or the obvious one Arrest of another Swedish citizen, a tourist visiting Iran. Little is known about this case, but its timing suspiciously coincided with Iran’s attempts to free Nouri.
The kind of absurd false equivalence that the Iranian regime is trying to create between Nouri and Djalali is one of the reasons why the US Department of Justice has opposed the prisoner swap of criminals convicted in fair and transparent courts for those sentenced in who have been convicted by obviously unjust courts. However, the execution of a foreigner would set an alarming precedent – one that those tracking the issue have feared for some time. As I’ve written many times, if democratic governments don’t work together to find ways to prevent state hostage situations, there will be more cases like this – and more countries could face Sweden’s current dilemma. Let’s not forget that Iran’s long history of hostage-taking has inspired many imitators around the world.
When I was in the same prison that Djalali is now in, my captors regularly tried to justify my detention by saying that I was going to face a trial. I took every opportunity to remind them that the only difference between what they were doing to me and what Islamic State and other terrorist organizations are doing to their hostages was that they hadn’t killed me yet. If Djalali’s case is any indication, even this distinction may soon disappear.
Peer into the life of a family whose husband and father are being held hostage in Iran. Post Opinions’ new short film depicts the ordeal to free him: