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Iranian dissident's case throws light on a key defection

The ex-diplomat says he was held in Turkey over his role in helping a Tehran official flee.

March 29, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — A diplomatic standoff over the fate of an Iranian dissident temporarily detained this week at a Turkish airport has revealed new clues about the defection of a high-ranking Iranian military official in late 2006 and exposed lingering tensions between Ankara and Tehran over the incident.

The dissident, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, was held for nearly 18 hours over Thursday and Friday in a cell inside Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport amid a tug-of-war over whether he would be sent back to Germany, where he lives, or deported to Iran, human rights activists and Western officials said.

He was finally placed on an airplane to Berlin on Friday afternoon, his lawyer said.

In a series of phone calls from his cell, Ebrahimi said Iranian officials wanted him to answer for his role in the defection of Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, a former Iranian deputy defense minister and Revolutionary Guard commander who disappeared during a trip to Turkey.

Ebrahimi said Asgari now lives in the United States, where he is believed to have provided intelligence about Iran's military capabilities and operations.

Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a U.S. ally but maintains strong diplomatic and economic ties to Iran, which has been locked in a conflict with Washington since its Islamic Revolution in 1979.

A U.S. official reached Friday in Ankara said American diplomats were aware of Ebrahimi's detention and had followed developments in the case. German consular officials were also in contact on the matter with Turkish authorities, a German diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Ebrahimi, 32, arrived in Istanbul from Germany on Thursday night to meet relatives coming from Iran for a holiday. Ebrahimi said he was taken from the passport counter, searched and physically abused by Turkish authorities and confronted with his involvement in the Asgari defection. He said he was threatened with deportation to Iran.

"A police officer came and said, 'Every time you come here, you do political work and create problems for us with Iran,' " said Ebrahimi, who was allowed to keep his cellphone while he was held.

Ebrahimi said a man claiming to be an Iranian official demanded to be allowed to take him back to Iran, which Ebrahimi had fled after being released from prison in 2003.

Asgari is believed to be the highest-ranking Iranian official to defect to the West. Analysts say he served as an intelligence official in Lebanon during the 1990s and became deputy defense minister under then-President Mohammad Khatami.

After a business trip to Syria in 2006, Asgari left for Turkey, and then dropped out of sight. "Because of the intelligence he had he was very much in danger," Ebrahimi said. "He had very precious intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program."

Ebrahimi said he coordinated with international organizations and U.S. officials to help Asgari leave Turkey for the West in late 2006. The two met in Nicosia, Cyprus, immediately after Asgari left Turkey, he said.

"I did nothing illegal," Ebrahimi said. "I helped him. We didn't get him out illegally."

Reports in Western media suggest that Asgari has proved a gold mine for intelligence services seeking information about Iran's nuclear program and support for militant Islamic groups throughout the Middle East.

Iranian authorities and Asgari's relatives blamed Turkey and Iranian opposition groups for the defection.

Istanbul lawyer Nasrine Hosseinzadeh, who oversaw Ebrahimi's case at the airport, said Turkey and Iran had an agreement requiring each to hand over wanted political criminals. But international law requires that deportees be returned to the country where their flight originated.

"The law is very clear," Hosseinzadeh said in a phone interview from the airport. "I don't think they will allow him into Turkey, but they can't send him to Iran."

Like Asgari, Ebrahimi turned against Iran's Shiite Muslim clerical government. He was once a government enforcer and an attache at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.

In a videotaped statement, he described connections between political leaders and pro-government militias in the violent crushing of student protests in 1999. He was arrested and imprisoned for several years in Tehran's Evin prison, including 18 months in an infamous solitary confinement ward for political dissidents. Since fleeing Iran, he has worked as a journalist and blogger.--

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