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Turkey arrests Iran consulate diplomat over dissident assassination case

Turkish police in Istanbul, Turkey on 28 December 2020 [Esra Bilgin/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish police in Istanbul, Turkey on 28 December 2020 [Esra Bilgin/Anadolu Agency]

The Turkish government has arrested a staff member of Iran's Consulate in Istanbul over his alleged involvement in the killing of an Iranian dissident in 2019. Claims Iran has denied.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a former intelligence operative for Iran who launched a social media campaign exposing Iranian officials' corruption after moving to Turkey, was shot and killed in a street in Istanbul's northern Sisli district on 14 November 2019.

The assassination was carried out by a Turkish national named Abdulvahap Kocak, but was allegedly orchestrated by an Iranian named Ali Esfanjani who fled to Iran following the incident.

With the case being revived, the consulate staff member Muhammad Reza Naserzadeh is accused of having forged documents for Esfanjani to enable his return to Iran, and was arrested earlier this week after a court order was issued.

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According to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, the investigation was helped by testimony given by Siyavash Abazari Shalamzari, who was also involved in Esfanjani's escape. Shalamzari told investigators that he witnessed Naserzadeh and another man identified as Haci Aga pick up Esfanjani from Tehran airport after his plane landed following the killing.

"Esfanjani had a new ID under the name of Abbas," Shalamzari claimed. "I called Haci to tell him that his name on the ID was wrong. He told me he would contact the consulate and asked me to proceed taking Esfanjani to Iran anyway."

It was therefore allegedly Naserzadeh, the consulate diplomat, who falsified Esfanjani's documents as he worked at the consulate's civic registry department. According to Naserzadeh's testimony, he was not in Turkey at the time of the assassination and could not have possibly forged the documents.

Since the reports emerged of the Turkish authorities' arrest of Naserzadeh, however, Iran denied that any of its consulate staff members or diplomats in Istanbul had been arrested.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh dismissed the claim as "baseless", saying that the Turkish newspaper's report was "based on groundless accusations."

"None of the staff members of the Iranian consulate has been arrested," he added.

This is not the first case in which Iranian dissidents have been targeted in Turkey. In November 2020, Ahvazi activist Habib Chaab was abducted in Istanbul by Iranian agents before being smuggled across the border into Iran where he has been detained.

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