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The Assassins’ Trail: Unraveling the Mykonos Killings

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace
Roya Hakakian (New York: Grove Press, 2011)

Late one fall evening in 1992, a group of Iranian exiles are gathered in a Berlin restaurant to meet a prominent Kurdish Iranian, Sadegh Sharafkandi, a scientist and politician opposed to the regime in Tehran.

At 10:47 p.m. that September 17th, two masked men burst into the restaurant and fire at the group sitting around a table in the back room, killing Dr. Sharafkandi and two colleagues and wounding several others in a hail of bullets. The restaurant, a nondescript place run by an Iranian who has recently bought it from a Greek and not yet changed the name, is called the Mykonos. The killings will spark a diplomatic crisis and a mood of anxiety for many of the approximately one million Iranians living in exile at the time.

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Roya Hakakian, a poet and memoirist turned investigative reporter who came to the US as a teenager, has put together a meticulous account of the Mykonos assassinations and their consequential political and legal aftermath that is more tangled than a fictional thriller perhaps, but no less gripping.

By the time of the Mykonos event, almost one hundred thousand of the Iranians who had fled the 1979 revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini lived in Germany. The newly unified Berlin was a second home to nearly ten thousand of them in 1992 and also hosted Iran’s biggest embassy in Europe, headquarters for a government intelligence-gathering operation largely focused on the activities of the exiled opposition.

The Mykonos assassinations created headlines around the world. Although other Kurdish separatist groups were initially suspected of being the perpetrators, German news media quickly pointed the finger at agents of Iran acting with intent to wipe out political opponents living abroad. Readers today can be forgiven for having only a faint recall of these events. Europe and the United States in 1992 were preoccupied with other hefty news stories, including the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian militias and the impact of a widening Balkan war. In Germany itself, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an economically painful reunification process still dominated much of the news agenda.

 

Yet the political murders were sensational news at the time. German police quickly arrested suspects. Among them was Kazem Darabi, an Iranian grocer with ties to Iran’s German embassy. The ensuing investigation and the four-year trial that followed the indictments and inquiries into the private lives, hopes, and fears of the Iranian exiles caught up in the shootings are the main source material for Hakakian’s often moving and always painstakingly detailed account of what happened that night at the Mykonos and the momentous repercussions of the event.

Those repercussions spread far beyond the immediate victims. Hakakian describes how the single-minded determination of the German state prosecutor, Bruno Jost, led to an indictment of the head of the Iranian state intelligence service, Ali Fallahian, for ordering the killings. Jost’s prosecution forced Germany to issue a warrant for Fallahian’s arrest, an unprecedented act that created profound tension within the German establishment. The government was made to reevaluate its relations with Iran at a time when Germany had become one of Iran’s most vital trading partners, with billions of dollars in commercial contracts at stake, and when European states were pursuing a policy of active engagement with the Iranian leadership.

Iranian exiles in Berlin, meanwhile, were concerned that internal debate between German ministries about how they should handle this political hot potato would delay or even derail the trial altogether. Here, Hakakian’s narrative takes us inside the mind of one of the men at the restaurant that night, Parviz Dastmalchi, who escaped death by diving under the table as the killers opened fire.

Parviz was a key witness for the police and was privy to crucial details of the investigation. He had learned that the weapons used by the shooters had come directly from Iran (one pistol even traced to a previous killing of an Iranian opposition figure in Austria in 1989), and he leaked this information to a German journalist at a critical point. To ensure media pressure on the German government to act faster, Parviz added a false but explosive detail, declaring that the weapons had originally been supplied to Iran by Germany, when in fact he knew full well that they had been sold to Iran by Spain.

The lie worked, German news media expressed outrage at the alleged connection, and the Justice Ministry was forced to issue denials and speed up the trial process so the public record could be put straight.

So far, so complicated: but Parviz’s desperate lie is a testament to the powerlessness and despair felt by the author’s Iranian subjects in the face of what they saw as a state-sponsored murder by the regime in Tehran, and a slowness or unwillingness to act on the part of the German authorities. The voices of the exiles, their wives and daughters, as Hakakian recounts their feelings through the long years of the trial, are among the most poignant passages in the book.

 

Each early chapter is headed by a quote from an Iranian satirist, Hadi Khorsandi, another exile who, it is revealed, was also the target of an assassination plot by Iran. For instance, “Despite what many think, there is freedom of speech in Iran. Only there’s no freedom after speech.” This gallows humor helps convey the relentless stress, punctuated by acute fear, of living under an unforgiving and all-powerful theocracy, a regime that many of these exiles, like Parviz himself (and the author too, in her early years), actually supported when Khomeini was first swept into power. In another twist, the small group of Mykonos survivors and their relatives knew that they had a traitor amongst them; someone had tipped off the killers about the gathering at the restaurant that night.

One hero in this story is Frithjof Kubsch, the German trial judge who presided over two hundred and forty-six sessions in court over four long years in which one hundred and seventy-six witnesses took the stand at a cost of more than $3 million. Throughout this legal marathon, Kubsch was detached and impartial, so determined that justice be done, in fact, that toward the end of the trial he postponed his own treatment for leukemia in order to see the trial to a resolution. He also had a secret to keep from the world as he sat in judgment; his own daughter was married to an Iranian exile.

The length of the trial, though frustrating to all involved, brought its own reward. It allowed time for the prosecution to bring some key witnesses to the stand. They included the former Iranian President Bani Sadr, himself in exile, and, perhaps most critical of all, a former senior Iranian intelligence official, Abdel Ghassem Messbahi, who had also defected. In camera, he offered first-hand evidence of exactly how the killings at the Mykonos were conceived and executed.

Judge Kubsch questioned the witness: “Mr Messbahi, you say that the Committee for Special Operations orders and oversees assassinations. Could you say who they are?” Messbahi responded, “It’s a small group made up of the supreme leader, the president, the foreign minister, the minister of intelligence, and the chief of the Revolutionary Guards.” The meetings, he testified, were “quite a ritual,” convening regularly in the Turquoise Palace, one of the shah’s former residences.

The culmination of Hakakian’s book recounts the end of the trial itself: The judge’s verdict accused Iran’s supreme leader of ordering the Mykonos killings and sentenced two Iranian defendants to twenty-three years’ imprisonment. The author credits the judgment with bringing to an end a state-sponsored program of assassination by Iran that, she contends, was working its way through a list of five hundred political exiles personally approved for elimination by Khomeini himself in 1980. The trial’s verdict, she states, changed relations between Iran and the West forever.

 

After the verdict, the German government withdrew its ambassador to Tehran and severed diplomatic relations with Iran, expelling the Iranian ambassador in Berlin and fourteen of his staff. The rest of the EU states also suspended diplomatic relations for six months.

Hakakian’s own conclusions mirror those of the trial judge. Although the Iranian regime’s denials are also recorded here, along with attempts to get the trial dismissed, the book never leaves in doubt the guilt of the accused. Incredibly, there was no trial transcript made available, but the author relies, she notes in a postscript, on extensive notes made throughout the trial by various participants she interviewed.

Hakakian is also a poet, and her style has an intensity of purpose. The details she marshals and the overlapping points of view she records invite the reader to bear witness to the events described. By the end of the trial we too feel able to judge the evidence that has been presented before us.

In 2007, Germany released and repatriated the Mykonos assassins after only fifteen years in jail. At the time, members of the German media speculated that the release was part of a secret deal with Tehran. One theory was that the convicted assassins were released in exchange for the release by Iran of a German tourist arrested in 2005 for illegally entering Iranian waters on a fishing trip. In some German news accounts, this scenario has been reported as accepted wisdom.

Hakakian notes, in a revealing detail, that when Kazem Darabi, the principal defendant, finally returned to Tehran in 2007, he received a hero’s welcome at the airport. She concludes: “The judgment from Mykonos and Europe’s rally behind it remains the most crippling blow ever delivered to the sinister men who snuffed out lives of the brightest and best of their generation.”

Marcus Wilford is a consultant and former London bureau chief for ABC News. He has written for the New Republic, Forbes, and other publications.

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