Iranian officials ordered killing of dissident in Istanbul - Reuters

Two intelligence officers at Iran's consulate in Turkey ordered and coordinated the killing of an Iranian dissident in Istanbul last November, said Reuters on Friday citing two senior Turkish officials.

Masoud Molavi Vardanjani was shot dead on an Istanbul street on Nov. 14, 2019. The suspected gunman and several other suspects, including Turks and Iranians detained in the weeks following the killing, told authorities they had acted on orders from two intelligence officers at the Iranian consulate, the first official told Reuters.

"It was reflected in the testimonies of the arrested suspects that these two Iranians, carrying diplomatic passports, had given the order for the assassination," he said.

A second Turkish official told Reuters that evidence - including the suspects' statements - suggested that “Iranian nationals played a serious role in both instigating and coordinating" the killing.

A police report into the killing, published two weeks ago, said Vardanjani had an "unusual profile" as he had worked in cyber security at Iran's defence ministry but had become a vocal critic of the Iranian authorities.

According to the report, Vardanjani had posted a message on social media criticising Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards three months before he was shot dead.

"I will root out the corrupt mafia commanders," the post reportedly said. "Pray that they don't kill me before I do this." 

However, Reuters could not independently confirm the media post or Vardanjani's position at the Iranian defence ministry. 

Two Iranian security sources told Reuters that Vardanjani had defied a warning from the Revolutionary Guards not to cooperate with Turkish firms on drone projects. They said he had also approached the United States and European states to work for them, although Reuters could not independently corroborate this.

The police report said that a joint investigation by Istanbul police and Turkish intelligence reviewed more than 320 hours of footage, searched 49 premises, and spoke to 185 people.

The police report names Ali Esfanjani as the leader of the team that carried out Vardanjani's killing. The Turkish officials said Esfanjani had befriended Vardanjani after he arrived in Istanbul from Tehran in June 2018, passed information on him to the Iranian intelligence, and later met the gunman to discuss the operation to kill Vardanjani.

Three days after the killing, Esfanjani was taken across the border from Turkey into Iran by an Iranian smuggler, the first Turkish official said. He showed Reuters the copy of a bus ticket Esfanjani had allegedly used under a fake name to get to Turkey's eastern border region of Ağrı.

No one at the Iranian embassy and consulate in Turkey responded to requests by Reuters to comment on the case. A spokeswoman for the Istanbul police told Reuters that the investigation was continuing and declined to comment further.

Both of the Turkish officials said Turkey would soon deliver a formal response to Iran over Vardanjani's killing. 

The accusation is likely to strain ties between Turkey and Iran.

The second Turkish official compared Vardanjani's death to the October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate.

https://news.trust.org/item/20200327201312-k2k1h/