One of the accused in the assassination of Massoud Molavi Vardanjani, an Iranian ex-intelligence officer turned regime critic killed in Istanbul in November 2019, has been temporarily released pending trial by the Turkish authorities. A court in the capital has agreed to release Siavash Abazari Shalamzari and postponed the trial for three more months, until March 2022. Meanwhile the lawyer for co-defendant Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh, formerly the registrar of the Iranian Consulate General, has demanded his client be released citing diplomatic immunity, which ought not to apply in this case.
After Naserzadeh was taken into custody in February 2021, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh insisted: “No employee of the Iranian consulate has been arrested”. At the same time, Shahriar Heydari, the deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee, had said MPs would investigate the situation of Naserzadeh, who he described as a “diplomat”.
According to Turkish media, the court has not yet made a decision on what to do about Naserzadeh. The 43-year-old is charged with aiding and abetting the escape of Ali Esfanjani, a suspected agent who had befriended Vardanjani in Istanbul, then walked him to the scene of his shooting. Naserzadeh is accused of helping Esfanjani escape by falsifying travel documents at the consulate.
On September 24 this year, five defendants in the case, namely Mohammad Reza Razavi, Amin Parvazi, Sina Forouhar, Houtan Khezerlou and Birol Ozdemir, were released from custody subject to a travel ban. In all, five Turkish citizens and 11 Iranians citizens are expected to stand trial in connection with Molavi’s murder. Ten of the defendants have now been released on bail and four remain in prison.
A Nest of Regime Agents in Turkey
Before his release on bail, Shalamzari told the authorities that a fake travel document had been prepared by the Iranian Consulate General in Istanbul for Esfanjani’s escape. He also confirmed Naserzadeh had played a key role in the forgery.
Before Molavi’s murder, Esfanjani is understood to have met with the prime suspect, Abdulvabap Koçak, who was referred to in court documents as a “gardener” for crime boss Naji Sharii Zindashti. The latter, the head of a drug cartel, was also allegedly involved in the abduction of Habib Chaab in Istanbul and his driver and bodyguard were named by Turkish newspapers as having had a hand in the April 2017 murder of TV producer Saeed Karimian. Two years ago Zindashti was sentenced to life in prison for an array of serious crimes including drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder. But he was released after just six months.
Turkish journalists have also published allegations on Iranian state backing of the killing. Obai Shahbandar, a reporter for the international section of Turkish state television, TRT, wrote on his Twitter page on Sunday, February 14, 2021: "We have received credible information that Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the Minister of Communications and Technology of Iran and a former member of the Ministry of Intelligence, directly threatened recently Massoud Molavi, shortly before he was killed."
Since his defection to Turkey Molavi had run a dissident Telegram channel, The Black Box, which published detailed stories about corruption in the Islamic Republic. His was one of a renewed wave of kidnappings and assassinations carried out on behalf of the Islamic Republic in the last half-decade. In September Turkish police arrested eight people in the city of Van in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap a former military officer.