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Condemned by Law: Assassination of Political Dissidents Abroad

The most significant element of a crime against humanity charge is the requirement that an underlying offense be committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack.”239 Criminal acts such as murder must be linked to crimes of a collective nature before individuals may be prosecuted and punished for perpetrating crimes against humanity. However, singular acts may constitute crimes against humanity as long as they occur as part of a wider and systematic campaign of terror and meet other relevant criteria.240 Pursuant to international law, “widespread” may be defined as “massive, frequent, large- scale action, carried out collectively with considerable seriousness and directed against a multiplicity of victims.”241 “Systematic,” on the other hand, may be defined as “thoroughly organized and following a regular pattern on the basis of a common policy involving substantial public or private resources.”242 There is no requirement that the policy be adopted formally as a policy of the state.243

The Iranian regime’s campaign of assassinations and extrajudicial killings ostensibly satisfies all of the elements of murder constituting a crime against humanity pursuant to customary international law.244 The extraterritorial killings may be characterized as both widespread and systematic. Victims of the regime’s state-sponsored killings number more than one hundred and sixty, all of whom were civilians at the time of their deaths. The numbers are considerably larger if the count includes the murder of dissidents and intellectuals inside the country’s borders. There is, in fact, no reason to distinguish between the regime’s extrajudicial killings of dissidents domestically or abroad – each individual killing is part of a thoroughly organized and deliberate policy of state-sponsored terror aimed at stifling political dissenters245 anywhere they are found. To the extent that the perpetrators of these crimes were either agents or ideological proxies of the regime’s intelligence, they acted knowingly and in furtherance of the state’s policy of eradicating political opponents abroad.246 Finally, all of the targeted killings were carefully planned and executed, and resulted in the unlawful deaths of their targets.

Accountability based on individual criminal liability allows for the arrest, conviction and punishment of individuals responsible for violations of fundamental human rights.247 Such accountability may be based on direct involvement in a crime, including the commission, planning, instigation, ordering or aiding and abetting of criminal conduct.248 Individual liability may also be established pursuant to the principle of command responsibility, which assigns liability for the failure of a superior to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or punish subordinates who perpetrated crimes of which the superior had knowledge.249 Application of this international principle of accountability, whether grounded in direct involvement or command responsibility, demonstrates that the Iranian regime, high ranking officials, agents associated with its security and intelligence apparatuses, and proxies willing to commit crimes on the regime’s behalf are all liable for serious and grave violations of international law.

Since 1979, at least twenty officials, agents, or proxies of the Islamic Republic have been tried, convicted and held individually accountable for their involvement in the murders of Iranian dissidents abroad. Many of these individuals were involved with the implementation and execution of the assassinations. Most of the high ranking figures that ordered or instigated the assassinations at the top of the command chain, however, remain at large. Individuals associated with the Islamic Republic’s Special Affairs Committee, Ministry of Intelligence and Revolutionary Guards from 1979 to 1996 should receive special scrutiny based on these agencies’ intimate involvement in the planning and commission of Iran’s campaign of global assassinations.250 Particularly noteworthy is the critical multi-functional role of the Ministry of Intelligence and its Special Operations Council, presented in depth by the IHRDC in its companion reports examining the murders of PDKI leaders Drs. Ghassemlou and Sharafkandi.

[239]Rome Statute art. 7(1), supra note 46. The requirement that the attack be widespread or systematic is a disjunctive one. See id. An “attack” is defined as a course of conduct involving the commission of acts of violence. See Rome Statute, art. 7(2)(a). Attacks can precede, outlast, or continue during the armed conflict, but it need not be a part of it. See The Prosecutor v. Dragolijub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic. Case No. ICTY-96-23 & IT-96-23/1 - A - , Appeals Judgment, para. 420 (Jun. 12, 2002). Furthermore, in the context of a crime against humanity, an attack is not limited to the use of armed force; it also encompasses any mistreatment of the civilian population. See Payam Akhavan, Reconciling Crimes Against Humanity with the Laws of War, 6 J. INT’L CRIM. JUST. 21 (2008).
[240]Prosecutor v. Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic, and Veselin Sljivancanin, Case No. ICTY-95-13-R61, Defence Preliminary Motion, (Apr. 3, 1996); see also Doe v. Saraiva, 348 F.Supp. 2d 1112, 1157 (E.D. Cal. 2004) (holding that the assassination of El Salvadoran archbishop Romero in 1980 was a “crime against humanity” actionable under the Alien Tort Claims Act).
[241]Prosecutor v. Akayesu, Case No. ICTR-96-4-T, para. 579 (Sept. 2, 1998).
[242]Prosecutor v. Tadic para. 648, supra note 229.
[243]Id. at para. 655.
[244]Admittedly, the charge of murder as a crime against humanity has not been often used in cases of selective targeting and assassination of political opponents abroad. That this has not occurred, however, does not provide proof that the assassinations do not satisfy the basic elements of a crime against humanity charge.
[245]Some of these political dissidents were considered opponents of the regime based on their membership in a particular ethnic or religious group. See MURDER AT MYKONOS, supra note 35, at 4-6 (analyzing the assassination of leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI)).
[246]See, for example, the Lebanese agent Naccache’s interview by British journalist Robert Fisk, Two Faces of an Unlikely Assassin; Robert Fisk Talks to a Tehran Hitman who Tells His Story for the First Time, THE INDEPENDENT, Oct. 27, 1991. There is perhaps an argument that not all of the perpetrators acted knowingly and in furtherance of a state policy to eradicate regime opponents.
[247]Rome Statute art. 25, supra note 46.
[248]Id. art. 25(3).
[249]Id. art. 28.
[250]See, for example, the intimate and comprehensive details of the Ministry of Intelligence’s involvement in connection with the assassination of Drs. Ghassemlou and Sharafkandi in NO SAFE HAVEN, supra note 25, at 25-30; MURDER AT MYKONOS, supra note 35, at 12-17. See also NO SAFE HAVEN, supra note 25, at 25-30 for information on the involvement of the current commander of the Quds Force Intelligence Directorate, Guards Corps Brigadier General Mohammad-Jafar Shahroudi.

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Political Killings, Assassinations, Political Freedom