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Sweden and Iran Exchange Prisoners in a Breakthrough Swap

Iran and Sweden exchanged prisoners on Saturday, breaking a logjam that brought relief to families but also raised concern about Sweden’s decision to release the first-ever Iranian official to be convicted of crimes against humanity.

Iran released Johan Floderus, 33, a European Union diplomat and Swedish national, who was arrested in April 2022 in Tehran, as well as Saeed Azizi, a dual national 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 home to Sweden, and will soon be reunited with their families,” the prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, said on social media.

Mr. Floderus had been charged with espionage and corruption, and Mr. Azizi with “assembly and collusion against national security,” charges they have both consistently denied and that human rights advocates have called fabricated.

In exchange, Sweden released Hamid Nouri, an Iranian judiciary official who had been sentenced to life in 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 swap was coordinated with the help of Oman, according to a statement published by the Omani state news agency. The prisoners on both sides were taken there before traveling on to their home countries.

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

“I am Hamid Nouri, I am in Iran, I’m with my family,” he shouted. “Where are you despicable people? You said even God cannot release Hamid Nouri, and see he did.”

Iran has regularly exchanged prisoners with other countries, swapping dual nationals or foreigners for Iranians held in prisons for committing crimes in those countries. But Mr. Nouri’s case was notable in that 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 trans-border justice in which war criminals can be arrested and convicted 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 places like Syria, Sudan and Russia who were accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The news of the exchange was welcomed by the families of the Swedes, as well as senior officials closely following the cases.

“Delighted at the news that our Swedish colleague Johan Floderus and his compatriot Saeed Azizi have been released from unjustified Iranian custody,” said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

But the swap, particularly the release by Sweden of Mr. Nouri, also triggered anger and concern over rewarding Iran for its systematic arrest of foreign nationals on fabricated allegations, usually of espionage or other political crimes, in order to extract concessions from Western countries.

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

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

On Saturday, family members, both of those victims and of the 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. Several of those still imprisoned, including Ahmadreza Djalali, a scientist on death row on murky charges of spying and aiding Israel in assassinating nuclear scientists, are Swedish citizens. Mr. Djalali has denied the charges against him.

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

“The Swedish government 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 from prison today saying he had heard the news in the Iranian news media and was demoralized 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 false political charges, underscored the complexities of such swaps.

“I am really delighted for Johan and his family, and also Saeed,” he said. “They didn’t deserve any of this. But I am distraught for Ahmadreza and all the others left behind. Nothing about hostage diplomacy is fair.”

Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian humanitarian worker who was in prison in Tehran for some time with Mr. Floderus before he was released last year in another prisoner exchange, said this was a somber moment he knew all too well himself.

“When hostages are freed, there is always a mix of joy and pain,” he said. “When some get freed, it means others don’t. We know that families still awaiting their loved ones are experiencing today a very bittersweet moment.”

The prisoner swap also won’t help the thousands of Iranians who are unjustly and often brutally detained by the government.

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

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

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

Christina Andersoncontributed reporting from Stockholm. Vivian Nereim contributed reporting.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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