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Iran Special: The Nuclear Scientist, WikiLeaks, and the Executed Kickboxer

Reuters' report on the execution of Majid Jamali Fashi

This is a story of how news is reported and created. It is a story of political manoeuvres, by actors from Iran to Israel to the US, and of propaganda. 

It is a story how, amidst all this, a man --- set up for the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist --- was arrested, sentenced, and executed.

On Tuesday, Majid Jamali Fashi, a 24-year-old kickboxer, was hung in Evin Prison on the charge of killing Masoud Alimohammadi with an explosive in January 2010. Press TV headlined, "Iran Executes Mossad Assassin of Top Nuclear Scientist". The Times of Israel, drawing from an article in The Times of London, put the provocative question, "Did a WikiLeaks document doom Iranian ‘Mossad agent’?"

This is a story of trying to establish the truth and significance between --- and far beyond --- these extremes.

In December 2010, as we were covering the initial releases of the WikiLeaks documents emerged, we posted a story which we thought combined the serious and the outlandish, "The Regime's Ninja Assassins?". The source was a 1 September 2009 despatch from the US Embassy in Azerbaijan, which had spoken with an Iranian "martial arts trainer and coach":

Private martial arts clubs and their managers are under intense pressure to cooperate with Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guard organizations, both in training members and in working as "enforcers" in repression of protests and politically motivated killings....

XXXXXXXXXXXX observed that Iranian internal security forces are highly suspicious of these clubs as potential vehicles for organization and "combat" training of future protesters and regime opponents. Nonetheless, he asserted that their main motivation is seeking to control these clubs is less driven by such fears as by a desire to deploy their trained membership at will for "special tasks." According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, these tasks range from providing martial arts training to Revolutionary Guard members and Basij, assistance in protest repression, intimidation, and crowd control, to political killings. He observed that use of these clubs and their members provides the security forces with "plausible deniability" for dirty undertakings, as well as trained fighters and potential trainers.

XXXXXXXXXXXX said he personally knew one such martial arts master whom he said was used by the Intelligence service to murder at least six different individuals over the course of several months in the Tabriz area. XXXXXXXXXXXX said that the victims included intellectuals and young "pro-democracy activists," adding that his assassin acquaintance was ultimately "suicided" by the authorities (i.e., killed in what was subsequently labeled a suicide).

At that point, we had not heard of Majid Jamali Fashi. But a month later, we learned of his arrest and "confession" on Iranian State TV --- he said he had worked for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to carry out operations, including the killing a year earlier of the nuclear scientist Alimohammadi.

While writing that story, we learned that Jamali Fashi was a kickboxer. And we also learned that in August, about the time of the mysterious conversation at the US Embassy in Baku, he was winning a medal in a competition in Azerbaijan.

There was more. Claims were circulating that Jamali Fashi was one of the "enforcers" mentioned in the WikiLeaks cable, beating up protesters after the disputed Presidential elections. We also were still sifting the competing possibilities over the death of Alimohammadi, including the allegation that a "maverick" group within the Iranian establishment was carrying out killings. A valuable EA correspondent tried to put this all together:

One theory goes back to October-November 2009 when it emerged that these kickboxers were deployed in the streets of Tehran to counter the Green protestors. The idea is that Jamali is being "silenced" by the (rogue?) security forces who enlisted him.

I pressed the correspondent, "Why would he be an embarrassment? Was he going to speak?". He replied, "Well, we don't really know that."

And we never did. We re-posted the January 2011 story when Jamali Fashi was sentenced to death in August, again in a hearing with no public evidence apart from the "confession". Then we learned on Tuesday, in Iranian State media's announcements, of the execution.

That might have been that --- justice served, amid the US-Israel threat, according to the regime; another unjustified casualty of the post-2009 conflict, according to others --- except for the WikiLeaks angle.

The Times of London wanted to establish if Jamali Fashi had been "outed" to the regime, even if the name and some details of the source were hidden, by the WikiLeaks cable we noted in December 2010. During their inquiries, a reporter called me to consider the possibilities. 

In the end, having reviewed notes, I said that Jamali Fashi was probably not the person who had spoken to the US Embassy --- he was a kickboxer, not a "martial arts coach and trainer". However, I thought there might be a connection between that source and Jamali Fashi, given that the kickboxing team was in Azerbaijan at the same time. And if I made that connection, regime officials --- who paid close attention to WikiLeaks --- could have done the same. 

More importantly, I said, the regime did not need any "proof" of a connection if they wanted to put Jamali Fashi forth as the killer of the nuclear scientist: "[The cable] could have been used as a pretext against him; to set him up as a person who could take the fall for the assassination." 

Reflecting, I wonder if I emphasised enough that the regime, as in many other cases, could have used many bases to point the finger at Jamali Fashi. A rumour had circulated at the time of his arrest that he regretted his role as an "enforcer"; if so, and if he said this to too many people, he could have been seen as a trouble-maker. There may have been another argument which had led someone to denounce him. Or he coud just have been expendable

In any case, The Times posted, in the London edition and in overseas outlets, my comment that WikiLeaks ""could have raised Iranian suspicions" or "alternatively" that it served as a pretext. " In the process, however, WikiLeaks became the headline about Jamali Fashi, "WikiLeaks Cable May Have Led Tehran to Hang Kickboxer for Scientist's Murder".

Other outlets went farther. The Daily Mail of London, which effectively plagiarised the article in The Times, converted the possible into the definite: "WikiLeaks Cable 'Led Iran to Hang Kick-Boxer It Claims Was Israeli Spy Who Assassinated Nuclear Scientist'".

So I decided to go back to the story once more. And what I quickly found was that there was more than one despatch from the US Embassy Baku in summer 2009. Four days before the cable we had seen in December 2010, the Embassy had posted another version of the conversation with the "martial arts coach and trainer".

The significance in this version was that it did not withhold the name of the source or the details about him and his martial arts school. (Given the context of this case, I am not reproducing the cable.) Those additions make clear that Jamali Fashi was not the person who spoke to the Americans. Indeed, given that the source had left Iran in mid-July, with the aim of getting a visa for a foreign country, it is unlikely that he had any connection with the kickboxing team that was in Azerbaijan.

Does the immediate story end there? Probably. Majid Jamali Fashi did not seal his fate by speaking with the US Embassy in Baku in August 2009, only for his words to appear publicly months later. That fate may have influenced by an Iranian official who made guesses about the source in the original WikiLeaks document or who thought that, regardless of the truth, it could be a prop for Jamali Fashi's arrest, trial, and execution. Given the absence of public evidence in this case, we will never know.

But then, at least for me, there is the bigger story, which is similar to that of others in the Islamic Republic. Majid Jamali Fashi lost his life as an act in the continuing political theatre, both for the domestic script and for that of Iran's relations with Israel and the US. When Iranian officials needed to establish that they were doing something about the slayings of the country's scientists, he played his part as the confessing suspect. When they needed to show their continuing strength and determination, amid the pressure of sanctions and US and Israeli rhetoric, the kickboxer was sentenced to die. And when the Islamic Republic needed to show that its version of justice would be done, in the face of the "enemy", he was hung.

Imran Khan, an Al Jazeera English report, writes of his conversation in a Tehran cafe with "Amir" on Tuesday:

I asked him if he thought that Fashi was guilty. 

"Of course. He confessed. And why would Israel not want to kill our scientists? They want to fight with us, to bomb us. So they make these lies and actions to persuade the world we are the enemy."

And this is what struck me the most. No question of the evidence against the man or how it was obtained. Of all the reporting I have seen on Fashi's death in Iran, it goes back to the same thing - that this was all part of a grand plan by Israel to make war on Iran.

After the execution, journalist Fereshteh Ghazi spoke with the wife of Masoud Alimohammadi, the alleged victim of Jamali Fashi. She said the case is still open, with 30 to 40 people arrested.

Alimohammadi's wife said she had refused to go to the execution. She then explained that she could not have granted the pardon, which according to Iranian law the family of the victim can give to the guilty: "They would have executed him anyway."

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