By Carol Prunhuber
I met Dr. Sharafkandi in 1985 at the PDKI daftar (Bureau) in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was there with a French TV crew to do a documentary on the PDKI’s struggle in Iran. At that time, he was responsible for radio broadcast. As Sharafkandi accompanied us to the hill where the station was located, he explained with great pride how the station was organized – and how it allowed the PDKI to communicate not only within the region, but also with the outside world.
My first impression of him was that he was a gentle and soft spoken man who preferred to be in the background. His French was very good and he expressed himself with clarity and precision. After the visit to the radio, we had lunch with him and the peshmergas.
While having tea that afternoon, I began to take photos of him. After I had finished, he kindly said to me to please not publish nor make those photos public. “My family is in Iran,” he added. To this day, there are very few photos of this public figure who was in actuality, a very private man. Perhaps for this reason he asked me not to publicize them. For at that time he was the second person in command of the PDKI. When I returned to Paris, I had the photos developed and then sent them to him with the negatives.
He was a man of few words, and those he used were full of strength and conviction. With his admonition, I became acutely aware of the tragedy of the Kurds within the Islamic Republic. They were enemies of the state and the PDKI and the Kurdish leaders were targets.
I never saw Sharafkandi again but I did ask Dr. Bernard Granjon in 1991 to interview him in Kurdistan for the book I was writing about Dr. Ghassemlou.
In this interview, Sharafkandi shared his memories of Ghassemlou. They met for the first time in Paris. Ghassemlou went to see him and gave him documents that explained the principles of the KDP (Iran). When Sharafkandi asked for time to study them, Ghassemlou answered that this wasn’t necessary if he was in agreement with their main thrust. Once inside the party, they could discuss the details. As a result of this discussion, Sharafkandi immediately became affiliated with the party.
They became friends and spent a lot of time together in Paris. In 1976 Sharafkandi returned to Tehran. The two men maintained regular and direct contact between their respective cities through codes and underground communication.
When the unrest in Iran began showing signs that political change was possible, Ghassemlou summoned Sharafkandi to Paris to study the situation. Ghassemlou felt Iran was entering a revolutionary stage and that all the members and leaders of the party should return. Ghassemlou himself wanted to return, but Sharafakandi was concerned about Ghassemlou’s personal safety. He told Ghassemlou that all the other party members could return, but Ghassemlou could not.
Without letting anyone know, Ghassemlou and other friends did come back. Sharafkandi, who was a professor at the University of Tehran and not suspected by the Savak, found out through some friends that Ghassemlou was back in Kurdistan.
[pullquote]According to Dr. Michel Bonnot, Ghassemlou was the politician, the strategist, and the diplomat. But the firmness and the party’s organization lay with Sharafkandi.[/pullquote]
“The Savak was very active,” Sharafkandi recalled. “I traveled to Mahabad, brought Dr. Ghassemlou to Tehran, and hid him in my house. Nobody knew where he was. The Savak was looking for him in Mahabad. He was safe with me.” This was a stance that Sharafkandi often held towards Ghassemlou; he took precautions for the safety of his colleague even if Ghassemlou took no such measures himself.
Unbeknownst to them at that time, Sharafkandi and Ghassemlou were to share not only a common fate in working for the Kurdish cause, but also in giving up their lives for their people. They were a team. Even though they were good friends, Sharafkandi explained, they had strong discussions at every meeting. But afterward they forgot politics.”
According to Dr. Michel Bonnot, Ghassemlou was the politician, the strategist, and the diplomat. But the firmness and the party’s organization lay with Sharafkandi. “When the Kurdish front disintegrated under constant pressure from the government troops, I preferred that Saeed keep me informed because Ghassemlou always tried to calm me down. Saeed was direct; Ghassemlou had the political gifts and clout,” Bonnot explained.
There were also differences between both men. One of the differences involved Ghassemlou attending the meetings with the Iranian emissaries. After the first round of meetings, Sharafkandi was not at all happy. He considered that protocol-wise the Iranian envoys that came were nowhere near the same level as Ghassemlou. The Iranians were a government employee and a Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards Commandars). They were not politicians. Sharafkandi felt that the Secretary General of the PDKI should not speak and meet again with people of this level. Yet Ghassemlou did so without informing the party.
Ghassemlou’s death was very hard for Sharafkandi. He simply could not understand why Ghassemlou had gone to these meetings without taking necessary precautions. Sharafkandi constantly referred to this fact, even a few days before his own murder. He became almost obsessed about the minimal security with which Ghassemlou had surrounded himself. What a cruel twist of fate that this Kurdish leader who so clearly saw the effects of Ghassemlou’s shortsightedness was unable to sense the foreshadowing of his own death!
Today the question we can ask ourselves is why did Sharafkandi not take the necessary precautions to protect himself? Did he not understand that he could also be a target? How could he go to the Mykonos Restaurant, to a public place for a political meeting that was known to many? And yes, this meeting was known to many as we learned thanks to the trial known as The Mykonos Case.
The fact that Sharafkandi’s murder trial happened was in itself extraordinary. Of the many political assassinations perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran in Europe and other countries, this was the only one that ended with an actual investigation, prosecution and trial.
According to Karim Lahijidi, president of the League of Defense of Human Rights in Iran, many Iranian political dissidents were assassinated in Vienna, Paris, Switzerland, Cyprus, and Turkey. Those that ordered the majority of these political murders had total immunity in Iran; and those who executed them often held diplomatic passports and were allowed to return to their countries.
Since then we have learned that assassinations of political dissidents within Iran and abroad were ordered directly by Khomeini. After his death in 1989, the Special Affairs Committee (Komitey-e Omour-e Vizheh) was established to make decisions on matters of state. One of the issues was the suppression and elimination of political opposition to the Islamic Republic. This Committee appointed Hojjatoleslam Ali Fallahian, then Iran’s Minister of Intelligence to oversee the systematic elimination of PDKI’s leadership.
Once the news spread that Sharafkandi and his colleagues would arrive in Berlin on September 14, 1992 to participate in the Congress of the Socialist International, the plot was put into motion.
On September 17, 1992 Sharafkandi was killed, as were Fatah Abdoli, Homayoun Ardalan, and Nouri Dekhordi. The murder was carried out by personnel from the Special Affairs Committee of the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence and by freelance Iranian and Hezbollah operators.
The German police arrested five of the eight suspected perpetrators, the ringleader, a senior member of the Iranian Intelligence service, and four veteran Lebanese of the Hezbollah and Amal militia. The others escaped back to Iran and one man to Lebanon.
Once the five suspects were detained Helmut Kohl’s government expected that would be the end of the story: ‘Four dead, five suspects, that should be enough,’ the state prosecutors were told. But Bruno Jost, German Federal Prosecutor went ahead with the investigation and German intelligence agencies had to open up their classified files.
While the U.S. State Department sought to isolate the Islamic Republic and urged Europe to “choke off trade with Iran,” Germany favored engagement in concordance with the European Union’s policy of “critical dialogue” or constructive engagement. Yet Germany offered very little criticism of the Islamic Republic. As a U.S. official said, “We think that this critical dialogue should be more critical and a lot less dialogue.”
Bonn was Tehran’s No. 1 trading partner. In fact, Germany’s relations with Iran were marked by a discreet tolerance of the activities of the Iranian intelligence in German soil and a multi-billion dollar trade and investment relationship. According to Der Spiegel the German intelligence liaison connection with Iran could be traced back to 1991 and included the training of Iranian intelligence operatives in Germany.
A few weeks prior to the beginning of the trial on October 28, 1993, Ali Fallahian was invited to Bonn for private meetings with Germany’s senior intelligence official who was the Germany’s main liaison with Iran. The government tried to keep the meeting a secret, but Fallahian called a press conference and it went public.
Fallahian’s visit caused uproar among German opposition politicians and human rights groups. Social Democrats were particularly offended, since the Kurds targeted had been attending the Socialist International meeting in Berlin as guests of the German Social Democratic Party.
The German press raised embarrassing revelations about the degree to which Iran had used German territory and exploited the German government’s discreet toleration. A June 1993 report by the federal agency that monitors extremist activity in Germany said that the Mykonos murder had actually been planned in the Iranian embassy in Bonn.
The German government was bent on blocking the investigation. According to Time Magazine, a police officer testified that a top aide of Chancellor Helmut Kohl ordered a key report to be removed from the evidence file. This testimony deepened suspicions of Iran’s pressure on the German government.
Regardless of the government’s pressure to stop the investigation Bruno Jost went ahead and on May 17, 1993 he announced the indictment of the five suspects.
The trial which opened on October 28, 1993 in the Berlin Court of Appeal lasted three and a half years. Witnesses received anonymous death threats and warnings about car accidents involving their children.
An anonymous “Witness C” appeared during the trial. He was later identified as Abolhassan Mesbahi, former senior official of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, who had defected in 1996. Mesbahi gave detailed testimony on the modus operandi of the Iranian operatives and the mechanics of the assassination plot.
The German judicial authorities concluded that the Iranian government was “directly involved” in the Mykonos assassinations and in March 1996, took the unprecedented step of issuing an international arrest warrant for the Iranian Minister of Intelligence, Ali Fallahian. Further warrants were issued for other agents involved in the murder who had escaped.
News of the warrant led to demonstrations and threats in Iran. Protestors burned the flags of the U.S. and Israel in front of the German Embassy in Tehran. Vague threats also appeared in news stories released by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) relating to the arrest warrant.
Tehran was furious for having been fingered for sponsoring terror. Threats of retribution were the customary reaction, and it had worked for them in the past. In 1989 the same scenario had played out following Ghassemlou’s murder In Austria.
Another aspect that had encouraged the Iranian regime to continue its terrorist activities was the impunity it had savored for so many years. The Mykonos hit team left a trail behind the scene of the crime. They had not removed the serial numbers of the weapons’ used in the murder. And these weapons were easily found by the police.
This suggests that the Iranian government wanted the opposition community to know that it was behind the attacks. Many years of successful murders abroad without any reprisal due to the silent complicity of European and other governments encouraged the bullish and violent behavior of the Iranian authorities.
On April 10, 1997, the trial ended with a verdict that proved that “Iran’s’ leadership had ordered the crime.” The leader and one of the men, who fired some of the fatal shots, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Two other men were convicted and also sentenced to prison.
The presiding judge, declared that Iran’s Special Affairs Committee had ordered the murders, and that the masterminds of the crime were the supreme leader, the president at the time, the foreign minister, and the intelligence minister.
The judge said, “The evidence makes it clear that the Iranian rulers not only approve of assassinations abroad and that they honor and reward the assassins, but that they themselves plan these kinds of assassinations against people who, for purely political reasons, become undesirable.”
When Khamenei and Rafsanjani were cited in the Berlin court, Iranian crowds surrounded the German embassy in Tehran in a violent protest.
The German judiciary did not bow down to the Iranian threat; on the contrary its resolute decision to fight terrorism and punish the culprits is an example to the world. Had Europe and the world, spoken against the earlier crimes of political dissidents, Iran’s terror machine may not have grown and developed as it did in the coming years after the revolution.
“The verdict in the Mykonos trial was a victory for every displaced or oppressed Iranian. Through this trial, the German judiciary restored dignity to Iranians by insisting that we were not dispensable beings,” By giving them justice, the German judiciary gave Iranians a taste of what they could never have in their own country,” writes Roya Hakakian, co-foudner of the Iran’s Human Rights Documentation Center.
For the first time in German legal history, a higher court had clearly assigned responsibility to another state in a murder trial. The verdict resulted in the immediate withdrawal of Germany’s ambassador in Tehran. Fourteen European countries also suspended diplomatic relations with Iran, as did New Zealand and Australia. This only lasted one month. Germany also imposed trade restrictions on Iran.
Ultimately these sanctions had beneficial outcomes. According to Iranian-American scholar Ray Takeyh, “Given the value of European commercial trade and diplomatic ties, Iran abandoned the practice of targeting exiles abroad, [Europe] and closed one of the darker chapters in its terrorism portofolio.”
Despite domestic and international protests, two of the men who had received life sentences were released on December 2007 and deported back to their home countries. Their release after 15 years suggested that there was a secret deal between Berlin and Tehran.
Today we are here to honor Dr. Sharafkandi. It’s been 18 years since his passing, and we are gathered to remember the great service he and his colleagues offered their countrymen, and ultimately, the sacrifice of their own lives for the cause they held most dear.
I knew him as the man behind Ghassemlou – who ably took over the mantle of leadership when Ghassemlou died. We remember him – and most importantly, the proceedings following his death had far-reaching consequences for the human right of Kurds and Iranians throughout the globe.
Despite these tragic events, the Kurdish nation continues to endure and prosper as its people move into nations across the globe in a diaspora known to so many Kurds. A new generation of Kurds is growing up and thriving – young people with a keen awareness, a sense of history of their nation with their eyes turned towards the future.
Carol Prunhuber made this presentation on September 19th 2010 in Fairfax, Virginia, United States, on the 18th Anniversary of Dr. Sharafkandi.
Carol Prunhuber is the author of The Passion and Death of Rahman the Kurd: Dreaming Kurdistan (iUniverse, 2009), which has been published in Spanish, Turkish and Kurdish. Through Gamma TV, Prunhuber traveled to Iranian Kurdistan in 1985 to film the struggle of the Kurds in Iran. She currently writes for the Venezuelan journal El Nacional and travels extensively speaking on the Kurdish issue.