Sweden has released a convicted Iranian war criminal, involved in the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran in 1988, in a swap deal with Tehran. Hamid Nouri was released in place of Johan Floderus, a Swedish diplomat, and dual national Saeed Azizi.

Nouri, who was serving a life sentence, has returned to Tehran while both Floderus and Azizi arrived back in Stockholm late on Saturday evening. Iranian state TV showed him limping off a plane at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran and embracing his family. “I am Hamid Nouri. I am in Iran,” he said. “God makes me free.”

The swap deal was said to have been mediated by Oman.

While Iran detained Floderus two years ago after accusing him of spying, Azizi was arrested last November and sentenced to five years in prison. Azizi was found guilty of “assembly and collusion against national security”.

Hamid Nouri

Nouri was arrested in Stockholm in 2019 and was tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction while he was visiting as a tourist. According to Swedish prosecutors, Nouri committed war crimes and murder in 1988 when he was assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht prison in Karaj.

In 1988, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iraqi-backed leftist opposition group, attacked Iran during the Iran and Iraq War. The MEK was also known as the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI).

To quell the dissent, Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an order to execute all prisoners who were loyal to or sympathised with PMOI. Though Iran never acknowledged the incident, western media reports said secret tribunals aka death committees were formed to probe and sentence to death thousands of inmates. Iran’s former President Ebrahim Raisi, who recently died in a helicopter crash, was said to be one of the four judges who sat on the tribunals.

According to human rights groups, the tribunal hanged over 2,800 and 5,000 men and women who were sympathetic to the group before burying them in unmarked mass graves. This came to be known as Iran’s 1988 mass executions.

The Swedish prosecutors argued that Nouri participated in the executions at Gohardasht prison, “intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners who sympathised with the Mujahedin and, additionally, subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment”.

He was also convicted of murdering inmates who sympathised with various other left-wing groups and were regarded as apostates. Many of former prisoners of Gohardasht testified against Nouri during the trial, stating that he was personally involved in the torture of inmates; and that they saw him taking condemned people to the gallows, according to the BBC.

In 2022, the Stockholm District Court sentenced Nouri to life in prison.

Bargaining chips?

Swedish citizen Johan Floderus (R) is greeted by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson upon his arrival at Arlanda airport near Stockholm | AFP

The West has often accused Iran of a strategy wherein it uses people with ties abroad as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said diplomat Johan Floderus and a second Swedish citizen, Saeed Azizi, had been facing a “hell on earth”.

“Iran has made these Swedes pawns in a cynical negotiation game with the aim of getting the Iranian citizen Hamid Nouri released from Sweden,” Mr Kristersson said on Saturday. “It has been clear all along that this operation would require difficult decisions – now the government has made those decisions.”