The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.

 

Saeed Karimian, founder and CEO of the Persian-language satellite and online TV network Gem TV, was assassinated on Saturday, April 29 in Istanbul’s northeastern Maslak neighborhood at 8:15pm local time. His assassination has led to a wave of rumors, speculations and unanswered questions — not least because the Islamic Republic has been openly hostile toward his network.

Karimian, who was 45, was driving when a jeep blocked his car and two masked assailants opened fire, killing him instantly and fatally injuring his Kuwaiti business partner Muhammad Motta’eb Shalahi, who later died at the hospital. According to Turkish news agencies, the attackers fired 30 bullets, 27of which hit Karimian. The three others hit Shalahi. 

The assailants then escaped from the scene, driving to the western part of Istanbul and setting the jeep on fire before disappearing into the night. The murder scene is quite a distance from the location where the jeep was set alight and abandoned. Taking into account the volume of traffic in this area of Istanbul, it must have taken the assailants around an hour and a half to make the journey across the city.

This was one of the few times that Saeed Karimian did not have a bodyguard with him. He was driving the car, which was unusual for him. The timing of the attack and the way it was conducted suggest that the assailants knew the area well and were able to escape the notice of the police through careful planning. The murder is especially bizarre since over the last few days numerous security measures have been put in place in central Istanbul in preparation for Monday’s May Day parade.

According to Gem’s website, the Gem Group has 20 main channels — 17 Persian, one Kurdish, and one Arabic — “and other active subsidiary companies targeting the Persian, Kurdish and most recently, the Azeri, Arabic and English speaking markets.” The network broadcasts dubbed western entertainment for Persian-speaking audiences in Iran in particular, and also produces its own movies and TV series.

The Islamic Republic has repeatedly denounced Gem TV as “un-Islamic” and has labeled it a threat to national security. Owning a satellite dish and watching satellite TV in Iran is illegal, no matter what the content. In 2016, a Revolutionary Court sentenced Karimian, in absentia, to six years in prison for “propaganda against the regime” and “activities against national security.”

The main office of Gem TV in Istanbul, managed by Karimian’s sister Saeedeh, is close to the scene of the crime. Outside Istanbul, Gem TV has also offices in the Turkish city of Antalya, and in Dubai, Malaysia, England and the United State. Over the last two years Saeed Karimian had spent most of his time in Istanbul and his family, who used to live in London, had just recently moved to the city.

An informed source reports that Karimian cut back on his visits to Dubai and Malaysia due to financial disputes and court cases. Over the last year, he has been involved in a major financial court case in Istanbul, which has led to speculation that Karimian’s assassination might be business or gang-related, not political.

Turkish police have started investigations, and on Saturday morning, they cordoned off Gem TV’s office in Istanbul, potentially seriously disrupting the production of its daily news programming. But Gem TV said it would not broadcast for a period of three days as a sign of respect and mourning for Karimian. As the network has many offices, programming and production of its TV series will likely be managed outside Istanbul.  

Karimian’s sister Saeedeh and his brother Mehdi, both of whom live in Istanbul, have so far not given a statement about their brother’s assassination.

Reactions in Iran have been varied. What is certain is that the Revolutionary Court can now close its case against Karimian. Hardliner media published several reports repeating the accusation that Karimian had been working with the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), a political group committed to overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Karimian had denied such accusations. They also printed an electronically altered picture of Karimian, showing him next to the organization’s leader Maryam Rajavi. Other news sources accused him of sexually assaulting his staff

There were also reports that Gem TV was in financial difficulty. Reformist newspaper Shargh said that Karimian had links with “dangerous investors,” who helped fund operations. But the paper also said that Karimian had not necessarily poured all their investments into the channel, and that he had possibly siphoned off some of the money to benefit his personal financial pursuits. 

After initially remaining silent about the murder, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters on April 30 that the incident was "being pursued via diplomatic channels," adding that the government had asked Turkish officials to keep it informed of all developments in their investigation. 

There has been no credible report of Tehran’s possible involvement, and the Turkish investigation has not uncovered any evidence that would support the theory that Iran was involved. 

 

 

Shahrzad Baghaei, Citizen journalist, Izmir, Turkey

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