- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

The twin brother of an Iranian dissident fatally shot at his Bethesda home in 1980 says he does not believe claims made by the creator of the movie "Kandahar" that he did not know one of his stars before filmmaking began a year ago.
M.R. Tabatabai, 71, president of the Iran Freedom Foundation in Bethesda, charged yesterday in a report in The Washington Times that an actor identified in the credits as Hassan Tantai is, in fact, Daoud Salahuddin, a fugitive wanted on first-degree murder charges for the slaying of Mr. Tabatabai's identical twin, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, 21 years ago.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Tabatabai accused Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wrote and directed "Kandahar," of complicity with the Iranian government in concealing Hassan Tantai's true identity.
"There is no way [Mr. Makhmalbaf] wouldn't have known this guy, under what we know about the system in Iran," said Mr. Tabatabai, whose organization promotes an end to the fundamentalist theocracy in power in his native land.
"Anyone producing a movie that is filmed in Iran is controlled by the government," said Mr. Tabatabai.
He held that the Islamic republic's security officials would have to approve casting and would be certain to recognize a long-sought fugitive such as Salahuddin. Mr. Makhmalkbaf would have to be aware of that, as well, he said.
Elahe Hicks, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, confirms that no film can be shown in Iran unless it is approved by the state film board. "Kandahar" has been shown in Iran.
But Robin Lim, president of Avatar Films, distributor of "Kandahar," points out that Mr. Makhmalkbaf, "has a lot of enemies in Iran," because of his reputation as a reformer in the film industry.
Mr. Lim says the renowned filmmaker insists he first met Hassan Tantai in a village in Iran near the Afghanistan border, where much of "Kandahar" was shot.
According to Mr. Lim, Mr. Tantai then was working as a doctor, handing out pills, vitamins and food to the poor in neighboring villages.
Yesterday, Mr. Lim and other officials of the New York-based Avatar Films were busy fielding calls from media organizations, seeking statements and information about the mystery of whether Hassan Tantai and Daoud Salahuddin are the same person. According to Mr. Lim, no one knows for sure.
Yesterday, Visions Cinema/Bistro Lounge in the District made arrangements with Avatar to show "Kandahar" starting Jan. 11 and continuing indefinitely.
Connie Poole, spokeswoman for the two-screen theater, said the questions over Mr. Tantai's background were a factor in the decision.
"The kind of incredible interest [generated by this publicity] increases the need for the film to be seen," she said.
Local law enforcement was intrigued by the similarities between the two men both 51-year-old black American Muslim converts with glasses, light complexions and no distinguishing marks on their faces.
"He seemingly is the same person," Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said yesterday.
Mr. Gansler called Mr. Salahuddin's appearance in the film a "shocking affront to the victim's family" but said it offers no practical help in closing the 21-year-old case.
"There's no new information," he said. "He's a terrorist, an assassin and a fugitive and he is living in Iran where he always has."
Montgomery County police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said police plan to seek out Mr. Tabatabai to discuss the case further but no such discussions have yet taken place.
"As of this morning, there had not been contact," she said yesterday. "Obviously, we would like to bring this to closure. This case is over 20 years old, but it is open."
She said police have no immediate plans to obtain a videotape of the film, saying that would be up to investigators. "We don't know if that will be necessary or not," she said.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence's terrorism subcommittee, said, "We fully support the president's war on terrorism, and we want to root out terrorism in any country. We'll follow the president's lead, wherever he goes."
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment. But the department has received overtures in the past from confessed assassin fugitive Daoud Salahuddin.
In March 1994, Salahuddin sent Attorney General Janet Reno a lengthy letter, asking her to drop charges against him, in exchange for information he could provide about his work in Islamic nations that have harbored him since 1980. The list includes Iran, Lebanon and Libya.
But Salahuddin left no doubt his usefulness as a snitch would be limited.
"Let me be clear from the outset that this modality does not entail endangering or compromising the integrity of the Islamic Republican of Iran," the fugitive said.
In the letter, Salahuddin told Miss Reno he had "worked directly or indirectly for some facet of the Islamic Republic system for at least 10 of the 14 years" in which he had been at large at that time.
Salahuddin also bragged of his uniqueness, therefore arguing against suggestions that the similarities between himself and Mr. Tantai are merely coincidental.
"I doubt that any other American has a similar track record in this country [of Iran] let it suffice to say that I am no stranger here," Salahuddin said in the missive.
In addition, William Alston, a Salahuddin friend who also converted to Islam and is serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer, refers to him in the "20/20" program as "Hassan Daoud."
That name contains elements of Daoud Salahuddin, Hassan Tantai and Hassan Abdul Rahman, a name under which Salahuddin worked as a journalist in Iran.
In a May interview with an Iranian film critic, Mr. Tantai says Islam appealed to him in part because "in the racial context of African-American life, a religion that allows you to respond in kind to physical aggression did have powerful resonance for me."
The "Kandahar" actor adds: "Christianity of course advises that you turn the other cheek. Certainly, when I realized that there was a religion and there was a deity who under specific conditions commands you to act militantly, that did make more sense to me than Christianity."
Betsy Pisik and Matthew Cella contributed to this report.


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