Sweden and Iran exchange prisoners in a revolutionary exchange

Iran and Sweden exchanged prisoners on Saturday, breaking an impasse that brought relief to families but also raised concern over Sweden's decision to release the first Iranian official convicted of crimes against humanity.

Iran has released Johan Floderus, 33, a European Union diplomat and Swedish citizen, arrested in April 2022 in Tehran, as well as Saeed Azizi, a dual citizen arrested in 2023, the Swedish prime minister said.

“It is with pleasure that I can announce that Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi are now on a plane back to Sweden and will soon be reunited with their families,” Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on social media.

Mr. Floderus had been accused of espionage and corruption, and Mr. Azizi of “assembly and collusion against national security,” charges which both have consistently denied and which human rights advocates have called trumped-up.

In exchange, Sweden released Hamid Nouri, an Iranian judiciary official who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Swedish court for torture, war crimes and the mass execution of 5,000 dissidents in 1988 who were sent to the gallows without trial .

The exchange was coordinated with Oman's help, according to a statement published by Oman's state news agency. Prisoners from both sides were taken there before traveling to their home countries.

Upon landing in Tehran on Saturday, Mr. Nouri was greeted on the tarmac by several officials, a cleric and a wreath of flowers, state television showed. After some brief remarks on the case, he suddenly raised his voice, saying that he had a message for terrorists, opposition dissidents and Israel.

“I am Hamid Nouri, I am in Iran, I am with my family,” he shouted. “Where are you, despicable people? You said that not even God can free Hamid Nouri, and you see that he did.

Iran has regularly exchanged prisoners with other countries, exchanging dual citizens or foreigners for Iranians held in prisons for committing crimes in those countries. But Nouri's case is notable as it was the first time an Iranian official had been convicted abroad for crimes committed inside Iran.

His conviction was also hailed at the time as a landmark legal case of cross-border justice in which war criminals can be arrested and sentenced outside their own borders based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Human rights lawyers said his case paved the way for charges against officials from countries including Syria, Sudan and Russia accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

News of the exchange was welcomed by the Swedes' families, as well as senior officials who follow the cases closely.

“I am happy with the news that our Swedish colleague Johan Floderus and his compatriot Saeed Azizi have been released from unjustified Iranian custody,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

But the exchange, particularly Sweden's release of Nouri, also sparked anger and concern that it rewarded Iran for its systematic arrest of foreign citizens on trumped-up charges, usually of espionage or other political crimes, to the order to extort concessions from Western countries.

“This was an affront to justice,” said Gissou Nia, president of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut. “There has been a standing call for countries that have universal jurisdiction to open investigations into Iranian officials, including over the women-led protests.” She was referring to the mass protests of 2022, which began with the death of a young woman in the custody of the morality police after she was accused of violating the mandatory hijab rule.

Ms Nia added: “It is horrible for victims of heinous crimes in general,” adding that it was also a disincentive for other countries to undertake complex and often expensive cases under universal jurisdiction.

On Saturday, family members, both of those victims and of dozens of others from around the world who remain in Iranian custody, were also outraged by the exchange, with many taking to social media to express their frustrations. Many of those still imprisoned, including Ahmadreza Djalali, a scientist on death row on dark charges of espionage and helping Israel murder nuclear scientists, are Swedish citizens. Mr Djalali has denied the allegations against him.

Mr. Djalili's wife, Vida Mehrannia, said in a telephone interview that she was shocked when she heard about the exchange from the media this morning and devastated that her husband had been left behind.

“The Swedish government has abandoned my husband,” she said. “If you are going to release a murderer with the blood of 5,000 people on his hands, you must demand the release of all Swedish citizens and all European citizens.” She said her husband called her today from prison saying he had heard the news from Iranian media and was disheartened that Sweden had left him behind.

Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker, spent six years in prison in Iran on trumped-up political charges, underlined the complexity of such exchanges.

“I'm really happy for Johan and his family, and also for Saeed,” she said. “They didn't deserve any of this. But I'm upset for Ahmadreza and everyone else left behind. Nothing in hostage diplomacy is fair.”

Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker who was in prison in Tehran for some time with Floderus before being released last year in another prisoner swap, said this was a dark moment that he himself knew all too well .

“When hostages are freed, there is always a mixture of joy and pain,” he said. “When some are freed, it means others are not. We know that families still waiting for their loved ones are experiencing a very bittersweet moment today.”

The prisoner exchange will not even help the thousands of Iranians who are unjustly and often brutally detained by the government.

For Iran, bringing Nouri back from Sweden is a major coup.

Nouri was a judicial officer at Gohardasht prison near Tehran, where 5,000 people were executed during the 1988 purge. He prepared the list of names for a so-called death committee composed of three officials, which included the future president, Ebrahim Raisi. He then escorted the blindfolded prisoners from their cells to the sentencing committee room, and then to the gallows.

He was lured to Sweden in 2019 by his former son-in-law in coordination with international law experts and the victims' families. He was arrested after landing in Stockholm under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction and subsequently found guilty of war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Swedish court in 2022 and at the time of his release he was appealing against his sentence.

Christina Andersoncontributed a report from Stockholm. Viviana Nereim contributed to the reporting.

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