Iranian war criminal and Swedish diplomat prisoner swap criticised by rights groups

Hamid Nouri steps off the plane in Tehran
Hamid Nouri, a former prison guard who was sentenced in Sweden to life imprisonment for the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, steps off the plane as he returns to Tehran

An Iranian war criminal has been exchanged for a Swedish diplomat in a prisoner swap that has triggered a backlash among rights groups.

Sweden handed back Hamid Nouri to the Iranian regime on Saturday in return for its EU representative Johan Floderus and a Swedish citizen, Saeed Azizi.

Rights groups condemned the move as serving to embolden Iran to use foreigners as political bargaining chips.

Hamid Nouri was involved in Iran’s 1988 massacre, when up to an estimated 30,000 political prisoners, most of which from the opposition party, were killed in a series of mass executions. He was arrested on holiday in Sweden and convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mr Floderus was arrested in Iran in 2022 and charged with spying for Israel. In December, Ulf Kristersson, Sweden’s prime minister, demanded his release, saying Mr Floderus had been “entirely arbitrarily detained.”

Mr Azizi, a dual Swedish-Iranian national, was arrested in Iran in November 2023, on what Sweden called “wrongful grounds.”

Johan Floderus and Ulf Kristersson, Sweden's prime minister
Johan Floderus, an EU representative, right, talks with Ulf Kristersson, Sweden's prime minister, after he is released from Iran - TOM SAMEULSSON/AP

The prisoner swap was mediated by Oman, Sweden’s country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Commenting on the swap, a coalition of opposition groups in Iran said the release of Nouri “only emboldens the mullahs’ regime, its torturers and executioners to continue their genocide and crimes against humanity.”

The Secretariat of the National Council of Resistance of Iran went on to say: “[I]t will embolden the religious fascism to step up terrorism, hostage-taking, and blackmail.”

Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI’s Executive Director of The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), echoed the criticism.

“Bilateral deals that countries make with the Islamic Republic to free foreign and dual nationals who were illegally abducted and imprisoned by Iran for use as bargaining chips send a clear message to Tehran: take our citizens and then name your price, we’ll pay.”

He said the deal “rewards the Islamic Republic for its hostage-taking and encourages Iran to continue its lucrative hostage trade”.

The swap follows the release of five US-Iranian citizens last year in exchange for the release of $6 billion in frozen funds held in South Korea.

Saeed Azizi
Saeed Azizi, a Swedish citizen, is welcomed home after he was released from imprisonment in Iran - TOM SAMUELSSON/SHUTTERSTOCK

Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, blamed its longtime enemy Israel and the MEK opposition group for Nouri’s arrest in Sweden.

“[He] had been trapped due to a plot hatched by the Zionist regime [Israel] with the MKO terrorist group”.

It is unknown exactly how many diplomatic prisoners are still held in Iran. Earlier this month it was revealed that Nasrin Roshan, a British-Iranian citizen has been detained in Iran since November after being arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport while travelling home to Britain.

She has been given a three-year sentence for charges including participation in anti-government protests abroad.

In March 2022, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released after six years in prison in Iran, arrested on spy charges while visiting family in Iran. She was forced to sign a false confession before allowing her to fly home to Britain.