Alleged Killer's Star Turn Stirs Anger

ByJosh Gerstein

B E T H E S D A, Md., Dec. 29, 2001 -- The new Iranian film Kandahar is winning raves from critics for its tale of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, but one of the film's stars has a pretty interesting story of his own: American prosecutors say he's a fugitive and a murderer.

The movie's credits identify him as Hassan Tantai, but authorities say he is actually David Belfield, an American under indictment for two decades for the murder of a former Iranian diplomat in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

"We are very comfortable that the man who appears in this film is indeed David Belfield," said Doug Gansler, state attorney for Montgomery County, Md. "He's an assassin and he's a terrorist."

Belfield's alleged crime took place on July 22, 1980, at the Bethesda, Md., home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former spokeman for the Iranian Embassy who became an outspoken critic of the new fundamentalist regime in Iran.

Prosecutors say Belfield borrowed a postal truck and disguised himself as a mailman. After claiming to have a "special delivery" for Tabatabai, Belfield shot him three times at close range.

Within minutes, the ex-diplomat was dead. Law enforcement officials say Belfield, a one-time Howard University student who had recently converted to Islam, fled through Canada and Switzerland to Iran. He has apparently lived in Iran ever since.

Stunning Admission

In 1995, ABCNEWS Correspondent Tom Jarriel interviewed Belfield in Turkey. In the interview, which aired on 20/20, Belfield confessed to the crime and expressed no remorse.

"Oh, I know I'd hit him," Belfield said of Tabatabai. "But God has created something called shock. He was in it. He didn't feel anything."

Belfield said the killing was justified to combat Tabatabai's efforts to oust the then-new regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"All governments kill traitors and all governments, if they can, kill people who are making strong attempts to overthrow them," Belfield said.

Belfield, who adopted the Muslim name Daoud Salhuddin after converting, said backers of the Khomeini government gave him about $4,000 to carry out the killing.

He also said he has never had qualms about what he did on that rainy summer morning in 1980.

"With respect to that particular incident, no, I never lost any sleep about that," he added.

In a rambling 1994 letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, Belfield proposed various terms for his surrender. He wanted former President Jimmy Carter to testify at his trial. Belfield also insisted that he be allowed to remain free in the U.S. while awaiting trial.

"Even while awaiting possible execution, I would have to retain freedom of movement while, at the same time, waiving any right of appeal," Belfield wrote. Authorities ignored his proposal.

Gansler, the prosecutor, says he doesn't believe that the law would permit the death penalty in Belfield's case, but that obtaining a conviction on the decades-old murder charge would not be difficult. "His confession, which is taped and very well preserved, would still be available for a trial," he said.

A Brother’s Anger

Tabatabai's twin brother, who has spent years urging U.S. officials to chase down Belfield, is outraged the man has apparently made the leap from wanted posters to the silver screen.

"It is horrifying," 71-year-old Mohammed Tabatabai said in an interview. "Considering that our nation now is mobilized to counter international terrorism … a fugitive for 21 years coming back to the United States glamorized as a movie star is, the least to say, is unsettling."

Tabatabai said the film shouldn't be shown in the United States or Iran and that those who buy tickets to it are financing Belfield's "misadventures."

"Not seeing this movie is not any major cultural loss for anybody. It should be stopped as far as I'm concerned. I'm sorry to say I don't have any power to enforce it but I think it should not be seen by simple-minded children," he said. "They would think that terrorism pays."

Director’s Denial

Avatar Films, the company distributing Kandahar in the U.S., issued a statement from the film's director, Mohsen Makhmabalaf, denying any knowledge of his actor's alleged history.

"I have always chosen my actors from crowded streets and barren deserts. I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film," Makhmabalaf said.

While the actors in the film are amateurs, the film has been well received by many reviewers. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss called it the No. 1 movie of the year. It won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The film's U.S. premiere was in New York City earlier this month. It's scheduled to open at several dozen theaters across the country over the next few weeks.

The chances that Belfield, who still seems to be living in Iran, will stand trial anytime soon appear slim. While relations between Iran and the United States have warmed a bit in recent years, there are still no official diplomatic ties between the countries. Even if an extradition treaty was signed, it is unlikely that the present Iranian government would turn over a man accused of a politically motivated killing carried out on behalf of the Khomeini regime.

Tabatabai said he wants American officials to make extradition of Belfield a condition for re-establishing diplomatic recognition of Iran. "I want this man to come to justice, not to be killed. I pray to almighty God to keep him alive to come back here and stand trial in the United States. That's what I want. That's the justice that I want."

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