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Family of Slain Prime Minister Files Suit Against Iranian Government

Courts: Shah's official was assassinated in Paris in 1991. Relatives now living in California are invoking terrorism law.

August 08, 2001|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of a former Iranian prime minister who was assassinated in 1991 while exiled in France has filed a $165-million damage suit in Los Angeles against the Islamic Republic of Iran, accusing that government of ordering his murder.

The federal court complaint was brought by the widow, son and stepdaughter of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the late Shah's last prime minister before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

All three are U.S. citizens currently living in California. Their lawyer, Michael P. Guta of Oakland, declined Tuesday to reveal their exact whereabouts, citing worries about their safety.

"As you can tell from our complaint, we have legitimate security concerns," Guta said.

The lawsuit accuses the Iranian government and its intelligence service of murdering more than 100 opposition leaders and critics around the world, including two in the United States.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 15, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Shahpour Bakhtiar--An Aug. 8 story about a lawsuit stemming from the assassination of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar incorrectly described a fatwa as a death sentence. Fatwas are religious decrees by senior Islamic clerics. They can be issued to carry out a wide range of actions.

It is the latest in a string of damage suits against Iran since a 1996 U.S. law made it possible for private citizens to sue nations considered as sponsors of terrorism.

Bakhtiar was stabbed to death along with a secretary on Aug. 6, 1991, inside his heavily guarded home in a Paris suburb. Unsuspecting French police guarding the house let in the assassins, one of whom had been a regular visitor and business associate of Bakhtiar.

Two days elapsed before the crime was discovered. Bakhtiar, 76, was stabbed 15 times with a kitchen knife and his throat was slit.

In 1994, French authorities arrested three suspects. One, a nephew of the late Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was convicted of having supplied forged French visas for the killers. A second suspect was also convicted and the third was acquitted.

Although Tehran denied any involvement, a French magistrate in charge of the case concluded that Iranian government officials had organized Bakhtiar's assassination.

In 1980, the Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwah, or death sentence, on Bakhtiar. Later that year, five hit men tried to kill him. A French police officer and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with the would-be assassins.

As founder of the National Movement of the Iranian Resistance, Bakhtiar repeatedly denounced Khomeini and his political heirs. In 1989, he called Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president, "shady, corrupt and unbalanced." The same year, he criticized as "shameful" Khomeini's edict condemning writer Salman Rushdie to death over his novel "The Satanic Verses."

The Los Angeles lawsuit was brought by Bakhtiar's widow, Shahintaj, his son, Goudard, and his stepdaughter, Manijeh Assad, under a U.S. law that allows victims of state-sponsored terrorism to sue foreign governments in federal courts. Iran is on the State Department's list of nations that support terrorist activities.

At the time of Bakhtiar's slaying in France, his wife and children were living in the U.S., apparently for their own safety.

The family's lawsuit is one of more than 20 that have been filed in federal courts around the country against the Iranian government, which has no formal diplomatic relations with the U.S.

Last December, a federal judge in Washington returned a $331-million judgment against Iran in a damage suit brought by the brother of another murdered opposition figure, Cyrus Elahi, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Two Iranian intelligence operatives were convicted of killing Elahi outside his Paris apartment in 1990.

Marianne R. Merritt, a member of an Alexandria, Va., law firm that represented Elahi's brother, said the Iranian government did not contest the suit. "That's been their response to most, if not all, of these cases," she said.

Over the past five years, the courts have awarded more than $1 billion to victims of terrorism or their families, according to the State Department. But collecting has proved difficult. The U.S. has seized billions of dollars in Iranian assets, but they have been tied up in international legal proceedings.

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