Following the publication of Amnesty International’s latest report on torture, cruelty, sexual assault and arbitrary executions in Iran, Amnesty’s Secretary-General Agnés Callamard called on states “to initiate criminal investigations in their own countries against suspected perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction, with a view to issuing international arrest warrants.” The opportunity to do this will arise on Wednesday 13 December when the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, dubbed ‘The Butcher of Tehran’ for his personal role as an executioner during the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, will visit Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the UN Global Refugee Forum 2023.

The Refugee Forum is held every four years, with the aim of helping to resolve some of the pressures placed on host countries by large influxes of refugees. It is a depressing irony that the UN has invited Raisi to this conference, given his background as a warmongering murderer, whose regime has fanned the flames of conflict in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, financing, arming and training Hezbollah and Hamas, and causing the very refugee crisis that the UN Refugee Forum now seeks to resolve.

The invitation to Raisi follows hot on the heels of the UN’s appointment of Iranian Ambassador Ali Bahreini as chair of the UN Human Rights Council Social Forum, in a move that made a mockery of the universal declaration of human rights and international conventions, given that Iran is the leading violator of these principles. Appointing Bahreini to this prominent role, at the same time as the UN’s special rapporteur on Iran - Javaid Rehman, has called on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to launch an international fact-finding mission to investigate the brutal and systematic violation of human rights in Iran, is an utter disgrace. Taken in tandem with the invitation to Raisi to come to Geneva, the reputation of the UN is surely now in tatters.

When Raisi announced his intention to attend the COP26 Environmental Summit in Glasgow in 2021, a formal request was sent to the chief officer in command of Police Scotland, to mount a criminal investigation under universal jurisdiction, into accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity. Universal jurisdiction allows a state to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crime was committed and regardless of the accused’s nationality, country or residence. Prosecutions under universal jurisdiction are always for the most serious crimes. A 111-page dossier was submitted to the Scottish police chief, signed by five direct victims or relatives of victims who suffered torture, human rights abuse and in many cases extra-judicial execution, at the hands of or under the command of Ebrahim Raisi, during the notorious 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader at that time, issued a fatwa, ordering the execution of all supporters of the opposition People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI). Special death commissions were created to implement the order, As a public prosecutor, Ebrahim Raisi played a key role in the death commissions. 

In a covering letter to Scotland’s police chief, the plaintiffs stated that they, or their relatives or cellmates, were “subjected to the crime of torture and extra-judicial executions on a large scale”. In their testimonies, they described how in the summer of 1988, they were taken to Gohardasht Prison, where, in a two or three-minute hearing, they were confronted by Raisi, in his role as a public prosecutor and asked if they continued to support the PMOI. If they answered “Yes” they and hundreds of others were lined up in a corridor, sometimes for hours, then taken in groups into an execution chamber where they were forced to watch other prisoners being hanged, before being executed themselves. One survived to provide testimony because he had fainted at the sight of his fellow prisoners being hanged. 

Raisi is on the US sanctions list for serial human rights violations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for his indictment for human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Agnès Callamard has called for Raisi to be investigated for crimes against humanity and for his involvement in murder, enforced disappearance and torture. Following the call for Raisi’s arrest in Scotland, he quickly changed his plans and announced that he would not attend the COP26 Summit in Glasgow.

It is essential now that the Swiss police seek the prosecution of Ebrahim Raisi under universal jurisdiction. There must be no impunity for mass murderers like this man. The UN Secretary-General - António Guterres, has previously issued a damning report on the grave human rights violations that have occurred in Iran in which he expressed his concern over impunity from past violations such as the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Now is his chance to restore the tarnished reputation of the UN. By endorsing Raisi’s indictment for crimes against humanity and genocide, Guterres will send the clearest possible message that the UN will hold perpetrators to account. Their crimes will not be forgotten or forgiven. The civilized world will now have their eyes on Geneva and the UN next week.