International law put to the test in prisoner exchanges

On June 15th 2024, Sweden announced the exchange of two of its nationals imprisoned in Iran for Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian official sentenced in 2022 by the Swedish courts for his role in mass executions in Iranian prisons in 1988. Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, former foreign minister in 2006 and then deputy secretary general of the UN (2012-2016), shares his thoughts.

International law: exchange of prisoners between Sweden and Iran. Photo: Hamid Nouri speaks to the Iranian press on his return to Tehran.
Hamid Nouri, a former senior prison official in Iran, speaks to the Iranian media in Tehran on 15 June 2024. Sentenced to life imprisonment in Sweden for the execution of numerous prisoners in Iran in 1988, he was exchanged for two Swedish nationals imprisoned in Iran. Photo: © Iran Press / AFP
4 min 11Approximate reading time

JUSTICE INFO: In Sweden, it is above all the relatives of Hamid Nouri's victims - the many opponents who died in mass executions in Iranian prisons in 1988 - who have criticised the Swedish government's decision. They feel deeply betrayed. How do you react to this?

JAN ELIASSON: I can understand them, but you have to realise that Nouri was convicted by a court of law, that the question of his guilt was properly established, with all the evidence presented. Even if he is pardoned, the outcome of the case against him remains. It is also a fact that Nouri, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Sweden, has spent a good deal of time in prison. First remanded in custody, then incarcerated after the verdict, for a total of approximately five years.

Could the Swedish agreement with Iran create problems in terms of the application of international law, in Sweden and elsewhere?

Yes, the dangers I see are twofold. On the one hand, there is a risk that the phenomenon of hostage-taking will spread; on the other, that a more cautious approach to the treatment of crimes against humanity under universal jurisdiction will spread. This must not happen. The establishment of universal jurisdiction for these crimes is a success for international law that we must cherish.

As far as hostage-taking is concerned, we have seen several cases in recent times: that of the American basketball player in Russia [Brittney Griner was exchanged for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, convicted in the United States of war crimes, in December 2022], that of the Swedish prisoners in Iran, and of course the Hamas hostage-taking [on October 7th, 2023, more than 200 Israelis were taken hostage]. I think these acts should be condemned. I have my own idea about this: the United Nations Assembly, or better still the United Nations Security Council, should adopt a resolution of principle stigmatising this kind of action. This would certainly not prevent certain countries from continuing to practice hostage-taking, but it would at least serve to condemn, on an international level, this kind of behaviour that is totally unacceptable.

Have there been similar cases in Sweden in the past?

I don't think so. There would be the case of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was stationed in Budapest during the Second World War and had helped to save thousands of Jews. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviet army when it entered Hungary. At a time when there were suspicions about what had happened to Wallenberg, it had been considered to offer the Soviets a prisoner exchange, but this proposal was rejected by Östen Undén, the foreign minister at the time, who considered it legally unacceptable.

What was your reaction when you heard about the outcome of the Nouri negotiations?

I was pleased that two Swedes were able to come home, but I am also aware that another Swedish prisoner [the Swedish-Iraqi researcher Amhadreza Djalali, sentenced to death by the Iranian courts in 2017] is still in Iranian jails.

In Sweden, many people have precisely reacted to the fact that this exchange does not include Djalali. Doesn't this mean that the government is resigned to accepting the death penalty imposed on him?

Unfortunately, I'm not surprised by the outcome of these negotiations. As Swedish minister of foreign affairs, then as deputy secretary general of the UN and during informal contacts with Iranian leaders, I have had many opportunities to raise his case. I always had the impression of coming up against a brick wall. I was told that the Iranian security services had solid proof that Djalali was spying for Israel. What's more, the fact that he is Swedish was not accepted [Djalali, who lived and worked as a researcher in Sweden, was granted Swedish nationality after being imprisoned by Iran]. So it was treated as an internal Iranian matter that we should not interfere in.

Is the room for manoeuvre of a small country different from that of a great power in such a situation?

Yes, you could ask yourself that question. There are so many things that come into play in a negotiation. In the many negotiations that I have led, I have sometimes had the advantage of representing a small, neutral and therefore respected country, a country with long experience in the field of international diplomacy, which is not insignificant. But it is also clear that the pressure that can be exerted by a major power in this kind of situation can be an advantage.

By pardoning and freeing Nouri, are we not getting rid of the best card we have to play for the release of Djalali?

When we negotiate, it is not only the prisoner who is the asset. Personal contacts, diplomatic skills and other means of pressure also come into play. In this specific case, Sweden called on the cooperation of the Sultanate of Oman. This country, which has good contacts in both camps and which is used to serving as an intermediary in conflicts in the region, has been of great help. The problem is that the negotiators reach a point where they realize that they cannot secure Djalali's release. They are aware that Iran wanted to get Nouri out, but they must also think of those who have been in Iranian jails for quite some time already, two years in the case of the Swedish European Union official, Johan Floderus. They are faced with a choice that proves extremely difficult. Either we succeed in getting two of them out, or we continue to negotiate with uncertain results. Sweden chose to pardon Nouri to free two hostages. Even if it's painful to come to terms with, I probably would have made the same choice.

Do those close to Djalali believe that the Swedish government has abandoned him?

It is clear that the prognosis for his release is not the best, but one can hope that Iran, once it has obtained the release of Nouri, releases Djalali in the desire to create better relations with the outside world [the case of Djalali was taken up by Amnesty and other EU countries] and to demonstrate goodwill, for example on the occasion of a change of president [Iran is to elect a new president on July 5th],. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

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