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TIMMERMAN: A dubious death in Dubai

Emirate police and U.S. officials tight-lipped over Iranian expat’s ‘suicide’

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 2, 2011

It has all the hallmarks of the perfect crime. On the surface, it appeared to be a suicide. The body was arranged peacefully on the floor, with no signs of struggle, a white sheet pulled up to the neck. The right arm was wrapped around a large pillow; the left, exposed, showed a few cuts below the elbow. It was as if he had been laid out neatly in a coffin.

But this picture of a peaceful death by an overdose of anti-depressants was a bit too perfect, a bit too staged. And this was no ordinary victim.

Tom Jay Anderson, 35, was a U.S. citizen. But Anderson led a double life under another name: Ahmad Rezai. The eldest son of the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, he was a man hunted by Iran's security forces, who considered him a traitor.

The more I dug into the circumstances of Ahmad's death, the more I agreed with his family in Tehran, who told the Iranian media they found his death "suspicious." I also became increasingly convinced that the Dubai authorities, taking their cue from the Department of State, ignored every shred of evidence that pointed to foul play.

Why? Because the Obama administration is still hoping to negotiate its way out of a nuclear confrontation with the mullahs in Tehran. On the heels of the failed terror plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, accusing Tehran of murdering a U.S. citizen probably would put an end to the diplomatic game. As for Dubai, Tehran is a dangerous neighbor it doesn't want to provoke unnecessarily.

The first surprise: The State Department hadn't made the slightest effort to contact Ahmad's ex-wife and their 7-year-old daughter in California even though under U.S. law they are the next of kin and must sign off on the disposal of the body. When I called them, they were taken totally by surprise. I had the unpleasant task of being the first to inform them of their loss.

Sure, it was a Sunday (Nov. 13) but for the U.S. Consulate in Dubai, it was the start of the workweek. Instead of trying to find the next of kin who appeared in his passport file, the consulate was negotiating with the Iranian family to release the remains so he could be buried in Tehran.

Next surprise, which I learned only after arriving in Dubai to investigate the death: The U.S Consulate never called in the FBI, which is standard procedure when a U.S. citizen dies overseas in what could be a homicide or an act of terrorism.

Suicide was convenient. It was quiet. It kept the media away. And, increasingly, I am convinced it is not true.

I knew Ahmad well. He learned English in my basement by watching Jackie Chan movies when he first defected to this country more than a decade ago, so I had a personal stake in finding out what had happened. His ex-wife asked me to help her find the truth and executed a power-of-attorney document so I could act on her behalf with the U.S. and Emirati authorities.

Throughout my investigation, the Dubai authorities behaved as I would expect U.S. officials to behave toward U.S. citizens, while my own government's executive branch treated me and Ahmad's widow with disdain, subterfuge and outright deception. (Kudos to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, California Democrat, who assigned a skilled and thoughtful caseworker to work with me.)

Here are some of the many things I learned:

c The Dubai medical practitioner who carried out the autopsy concluded that Ahmad died of an overdose of the anti-depressant Seroquel, which he was taking under medical supervision for anxiety attacks. But when I checked with medical authorities back in the United States, they told me that the amount found in his blood was well within the prescribed dosage.

c The police found his prescription bottle in the room, and it was not empty. A suicide would have emptied the bottle, not measured out a dose.

c The three parallel cuts on Ahmad's left arm appeared ritualistic, a signature almost. From the very small amount of blood found next the body, they appear to have been made after he died. So far, the police have not mentioned finding the knife used to make the cuts.

c Ahmad told his family shortly before his death that he was being followed and that he didn't feel safe in Dubai. He changed apartments one month earlier because of those suspicions, moving into the Gloria Hotel, which he said had better security.

c He checked into the Gloria on Oct. 13 and paid a full year's lease in advance. That certainly is not the behavior of a suicide.

c The police report includes no video surveillance footage from the hotel on the pretext there were no cameras on the 18th floor, where Ahmad lived. However, my own visit to the scene found two cameras in his hallway, including one right next to his door, and four more by the elevators and in a parallel corridor.

Most damning of all was the discovery that an ethnic Russian had checked into a room down the hall from Ahmad just hours before his body was discovered by the hotel cleaning staff. A Russian by the same name is wanted by Interpol for a political assassination.

Under one scenario I discussed with the police, someone could have injected Ahmad with a fatal cocktail of drugs that would give the appearance of suicide. That person could have been staying at the hotel, as happened when alleged Mossad killers assassinated a Hamas arms dealer in another Dubai hotel last year.

I spoke with the deputy director general of the Dubai Police Criminal Investigative Division as well as the director of Dubai's Forensic Science and Criminology Department, among many others. They insisted that their investigation was thorough and carried out to "international standards" by professionals trained in the United States and Britain in the latest forensic techniques (although the medical examiner, himself, was Egyptian-educated).

Why was it, then, that the police never sought to interview the ethnic Russian who was the only person on the entire floor who had checked in after Ahmad's arrival on Oct. 13 and before his death, with the exception of an Indian couple who had come as guest workers and were interviewed by police?

Why did they have no video surveillance footage in one of the most closely watched societies in the world?

Why did they never question the cleaning staff? And why did the U.S. Consulate stand aside without even calling the legal attache in Abu Dhabi?

I don't have answers to those questions. But as of now, neither the Dubai police nor the State Department has even asked them, and that is the most troubling of all.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of "Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown With Iran" (Crown Forum, 2005) and president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.

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