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A Tale of Two Trials By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 02, 2007

The two trials couldn’t be more dissimilar, and it’s not because our legal systems are different.

In federal district court in Washington, D.C., this morning, an Iranian torture victim will be seeking justice against Iranian leaders, whom he alleges were legally responsible for the jailors who hanged him upside down during interrogation sessions and beat him repeatedly on the soles of the feat with an electric cable.

In the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris on February 22, a French court will rule on a complaint filed by the Government of Iran and the government-owned Bank Sepah against three Iranian opposition activists whose assets have been frozen since 1995 after they infiltrated the bank and got the Paris bank manager to defect.

The case in Washington, D.C., names as defendants the former president of Iran, Hojjat-ol eslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the smiling turban many Democrats in Congress are promoting as a leader we can do business with, and Ali Akbar Fallahian Khuzestani, the former head of Iran’s intelligence service.

It has been brought by the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran (MEHR IRAN), a non-profit group in California,
on behalf of torture victim Gholam Nikbin.

While it is too early to know how Judge John Bates will rule in this case, what’s certain is that the U.S. justice system honors the victims of torture and of state-sponsored terrorism.

What’s certain in the French case is the monumental cynicism of the French government of Jacques Chirac, which has cozied up to the mullahs in Tehran and done their bidding ever since Mr. Chirac was first elected in 1995.

In Washington, victims of Iranian terror will get their day in court. In Paris, they will be prosecuted.

At one point, the Iranian regime hired as their lawyer to pursue the opposition activists the daughter of Chirac crony and former Transportation minister, Bernard Pons.

It would be hard to find a more clear-cut case of a political show-trial, which the French have put on as a friendly gesture to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The defendants in Paris are leaders of a non-violent Marxist group, the People’s Fedaii Guerilllas. The Fedaii have a strong track record of activism against the regime. While I find their ideology foolish, they are a legitimate political force inside Iran and have shown their willingness to work in a coalition with other non-violent Iranian political groups to help bring down a murderous regime.

They have also demonstrated extraordinary skill at penetrating the regime’s intelligence and money-laundering networks, and that is why the regime – and the French – are determined to crush them.

In 1998, they briefly seized the Iranian consulate in Geneva (no one was hurt and no weapons were used), and called television news cameras to the scene as they dumped Top Secret documents out the windows.

In other operations, they have acquired internal regime documents that expose the corruption of top officials, including evidence they turned over to the United Nations Security Council in 1996 that revealed secret oil deals between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Saddam Hussein, in violation of the UN oil embargo. This was the beginning of the UN Oil for Food scandal.

One of the documents, which I reproduced in the appendix to Countdown to Crisis, was a bank guarantee from the Union de Banques Arabes et Françaises in Paris, showing that the Revolutionary Guards sold a shipment of Iraqi oil to the Al Shamal Islamic Bank in Sudan, in which Osama bin Laden had an ownership stake.

Not only was Saddam cooperating with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but both of them had a business relationship with Osama Bin Laden in the mid-1990s. (And yes, the CIA missed that one, just as they have missed so much else.)

In 1998, the Fedaii provided the Israeli government with information on five Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah in South Lebanon on orders of the Iranian regime, and were thanked publicly by the father of Yehuda Katz (one of the five).

In 1995, the manager of the Paris branch of Bank Sepah defected to the Fedaii, bringing with him documents that revealed how the Iranian government was using the bank to pay commissions on arms and aircraft deals.

Some of the documents were highly embarrassing for the French government. One set detailed negotiations to purchase RASIT ground-surveillance radar from Thomson-CSF. Others provided details of negotiations for three Airbus A330 airliners.

Information provided by the bank manager indicated that these contracts included large kickbacks paid to Iranian government officials –standard practice for the Iranians. (In December 2006, AFP
reported that French energy giant Total was under investigation by a French court over allegations it paid $80 million in bribes to obtain a $2 billion contract to develop the South Pars gas field in 1997).

The bank manager also revealed that the Iranian regime was using Bank Sepah to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through front companies it controlled in Guernsey and the British Virgin Islands, and to finance purchases from North Korea via a shadowy World Bank of Christ the Saviour Cathedral that was controlled by a naturalized French citizen of Russian origin.

To shut down these tremendously damaging leaks, the Iranian embassy sued in a Paris court, alleging that the bank manager, Hedayat Ashtari Larki, embezzled $12,399,450 from the bank. The French government then agreed to file criminal charges against Ashtari Larki and three Fedaii leaders.

On Nov. 21, 2002, at the request of Bank Sepah, the 12th Chamber of the Tribunal of Grande Instance de Paris handed down a default judgment against the three Fedaii members for fraud. The court ordered them to pay damages and interests, seized their property, and gave them one year suspended sentences.

The French court acknowledged the political nature of the case. “The only certitudes [of the case] stem from a technical evaluation” of banking documents “made in the deposition of Mr. Berte, advisor and second director of the Bank Sepah,” the court stated.

In other words, the French court jailed and seized the property of an Iranian opposition group, solely based on the claims of the Iranian regime.

The Bank Sepah used to operate several branches in the United States, but was effectively shut down several years ago. Just last month, the Treasury Department
identified Bank Sepah as “the financial linchpin of Iran's missile procurement network,” and enacted new regulations aimed at cutting off their access to the international financial system.

The U.S. move came in response to UN Security Council resolution 1737, which called on UN members to ban financial transactions that could assist Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Yet in France, the Chirac government is not only allowing Bank Sepah to continue to operate unfettered. It is helping the bank to crush a legitimate opposition group through the French courts at the same time Chirac is
seeking to sabotage the Iran sanctions.

Memo to French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy: Here is a simple, cost-free gesture you can make that will increase pressure on the regime in Tehran, win friends in Washington and Tel Aviv, while not jeopardizing the national interests of France.

Call your friends at the Ministry of Justice and ask them to quash the Bank Sepah case.

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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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