- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler of Montgomery County says he is certain an actor playing a lead role in the Iranian film "Kandahar," which opens today in Washington, is David Belfield, an American sought in the 1980 Bethesda slaying of an Iranian dissident.
"It's crystal clear that the actor listed in the credits as Hassan Tantai and the assassin, terrorist and fugitive David Belfield are one and the same," Mr. Gansler said yesterday in an interview.
Belfield, also known by a Muslim name, Daoud Salahuddin, is charged in a warrant with first-degree murder for the July 22, 1980, shooting death of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, then 49, on the doorsteps of the victim's Bethesda home.
Mr. Tabatabai served as press counselor at the Iranian Embassy before Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was deposed and became an outspoken critic of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran.
Belfield, a former Howard University student, assassinated Mr. Tabatabai on the orders of the Khomeini regime and immediately fled to Iran. He confessed to the slaying in a 1996 interview on ABC's "20/20" and in other television and newspaper interviews in 1995 and 1996.
In an article published Dec. 20 in The Washington Times, M.R. Tabatabai, 71, the slain diplomat's identical twin, said he had "no doubt" that Mr. Tantai and Belfield are the same man.
Besides having a striking physical resemblance, both are 51-year-old black Americans with Christian backgrounds who fled the United States in 1980 and entered Iran. Both worked as journalists in Tehran, had an interest in medicine and fought alongside the Afghanistan's mujahideen in their struggle to defeat Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the screenwriter and director of "Kandahar," said in a statement he neither knows nor cares whether Mr. Tantai killed someone in this country 21 years ago.
"I never ask those in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow them after I finish shooting my films," he said.
Even so, he said through an intermediary, he recognized that "this guy obviously had a past." Robin Lim, president of Avatar Films, the distributor of "Kandahar," said no one knows where Mr. Tantai is now, although people associated with the film suspect he is somewhere in Iran.
Mr. Gansler declined to disclose all sources of information that he says "confirmed" that Mr. Tantai is David Belfield. He said he does not have any sources in Iran.
But he acknowledged that he was convinced after watching a video of Belfield's "20/20" appearance and then comparing his tone and mannerisms to Mr. Tantai's in a copy of "Kandahar," which he obtained.
"The most obvious factor is viewing the movie and the video. … When Hassan Tantai takes off his beard in 'Kandahar,' it's crystal clear he's David Belfield," the prosecutor said.
Mr. Gansler also said he has confirmed that Belfield is now using the name Hassan Tantai rather than Daoud Salahuddin. But it was not clear how he had arrived at that information. Asked to explain, he said only that the name Hassan Tantai was listed in the credits at the end of the movie.
"He doesn't seem to be someone who's trying to run away from his past," Mr. Gansler said of Belfield.
Mr. Gansler said confirmation that Mr. Tantai is Belfield will not advance efforts by the FBI and Montgomery County police to capture the long-sought assassin.
Because diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran were severed the year before Belfield arrived there, he said, there has been no possibility of extraditing him.
"Nothing can be done. We knew he was in Iran. He's still in Iran. … Obviously, this is an affront to the victim's family," Mr. Gansler said.
However, Mr. Tabatabai, president of the Iranian Freedom Foundation in Bethesda, remains convinced the Bush administration could pressure Iran to turn over Belfield if it wants to do so.
"I think it's high time the U.S. government does that. We've mobilized all our resources to get to the bottom of international terrorism. This would be the ideal time to demand the return of this man. … This must be done," said Mr. Tabatabai, whose group seeks the return of a secular government in Iran that fosters human rights.
"I feel officials in the Islamic government know where this guy is" and that American officials "can get this guy back here, if they want to," he said yesterday.
"In its war on terrorism, how can the United States not do something about one of its own terrorists, its own citizen?" he added.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Sierra said, "Regarding these types of situations, we don't say anything. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're not doing anything."
Mohammed Hossein Nosrat, press secretary at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, said yesterday he has heard nothing about a possible connection between Hassan Tantai and Daoud Salahuddin since The Washington Times first inquired two weeks ago.
But he said he has spoken to someone who is a "very good friend" of Mr. Makhmalbaf and works closely with him in filmmaking.
"He said they really didn't know the background of this gentleman," Mr. Nosrat said.
He also strongly denied published accusations by Mr. Tabatabai that Iranian officials would have to know the background of actors in films made in that country.
However, Mr. Gansler countered that Iranian officials "certainly now have to know [Hassan Tantai] is a terrorist, a fugitive, and an assassin." Consequently, he said, "At this point, they are knowingly harboring a terrorist."
As for whether the United States might be able to persuade Iran to extradite Belfield, if he is still in that country, Mr. Nosrat said, "Given the relations that exist between the two countries, I don't know how those kinds of communications would take place."


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