Supporters of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran protest outside Stockholm's district court on the first day of the trial of Hamid Noury, in Stockholm, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. AP
A former Iranian prison official handed out death sentences as part of a 1988 purge of political dissidents, Swedish prosecutors said on the first day of a landmark case likely to stoke tensions in the Islamic republic.
Hamid Noury, 60, appeared relaxed in light-coloured clothing in Stockholm District Court and listened through a translator as prosecutors read out a litany of charges including "murder" and "war crimes", dating from between July 30 and August 16, 1988 when Noury was allegedly assistant to the deputy prosecutor of Gohardasht prison in Karaj, near Tehran.
Prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson accused Noury of "intentionally taking the life of a very large number of prisoners sympathetic to or belonging to the People's Mujahedin" (MEK) as well as others considered opponents of the "theocratic Iranian state".
Human rights groups have estimated that 5,000 prisoners were killed across Iran, allegedly under the orders of supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini in reprisal for attacks carried out by the MEK at the end of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
While not accused of directly carrying out any of the killings, Nouri's participation included handing down death sentences, bringing prisoners to the execution chamber and helping prosecutors gather prisoners' names, the prosecution said.
Nouri's defence counsel Daniel Marcus pledged to refute all charges during the three-day trial, and denied Nouri even worked at the prison.
Also in court were lawyers for the group of over 30 civil complainants who helped bring the case, including victims and their families.
Among those following the case was Lawdan Bazargan, 52, whose brother was executed while in prison for belonging to a left-wing group in 1987, and whose sister will testify in the trial.
"When we tried to reclaim his body they told us 'An apostate does not have a body'" Bazargan told AFP, having travelled to Sweden from her home in the US for the trial.
A verdict in the three-day case, the first of its kind, is expected in April 2022.
'Death commission' accusations
MEK supporters were among several hundred protesters who gathered outside the court carrying photos of the dead and demanding justice for the killings.
The case is particularly sensitive in Iran, where campaigners accuse current government figures of having a role in the deaths, most notably newly inaugurated president Ebrahim Raisi.
The former head of Iran's judiciary was accused by Amnesty International in 2018 of being a member of a "death commission" which was behind the secret executions.
Questioned in 2018 and 2020, Raisi denied involvement but paid "tribute" to Ayatollah Khomeini's "order" to carry out the purge.
Khomeini died in 1989.
In early May, more than 150 personalities, including Nobel Prize winners, former heads of state and former UN officials, called for an international investigation into the executions.
Lured to Sweden
Sweden's principle of universal jurisdiction means that its courts can try a person on serious charges such as murder or war crimes regardless of where the alleged offences took place.
Nouri was arrested at Stockholm airport in November 2019 following the efforts of justice campaigner and former political prisoner Iraj Mesdaghi.
After compiling an evidence dossier of "several thousand pages" on Noury, Mesdaghi set about luring the former prison official to the Nordic country -- where he has family members -- with the promise of a luxury cruise. Noury was arrested as he stepped onto Swedish soil.
"This is the first time that one of the persecutors has been held accountable in another country," Mesdaghi told AFP.