France releases Iranian assassin amid deal controversy

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A French court on Tuesday freed an Iranian agent jailed for the murder of an exiled prime minister as controversy raged over whether the decision was tied to Iran's release of a young French academic.

Ali Vakili Rad had completed a life sentence for stabbing and strangling to death the shah's last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, at his home outside Paris in August 1991. He became eligible for parole last year.

A Paris sentencing court ruled in favour of parole for Vakili Rad, the Paris prosecutor's office said, one day after the French interior minister signed a deportation order for the Iranian national.

Vakili Rad was expected to fly to Tehran later in the day, his lawyer Sorin Margulis said.

The lawyer insisted the decision was not part of a secret deal with Tehran to secure the release of 24-year-old Clotilde Reiss, who was tried in Tehran on spying charges.

"This must not be seen as an exchange," Margulis told reporters. "The Reiss affair did nothing but complicate and delay my client's release."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year linked Reiss's release to the fate of Iranians held in French jails, but France has firmly denied that a swap had been agreed.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner insisted that there had been no "pay-off" and no "horse-trading" between Paris and Tehran ahead of Reiss' return home on Sunday at the end of a 10-month ordeal.

Vakili Rad was convicted in 1994 of murdering 76-year-old Bakhtiar at his home on August 6, 1991. He served his jail term in Poissy, west of Paris.

The last prime minister under shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Bakhtiar fled to France in 1980 after the Iranian Revolution and his home in Suresnes, west of Paris, had been under round-the-clock police surveillance.

Vakili Rad and an accomplice were allowed inside the villa by an aide to Bakhtiar, who was murdered along with his secretary Fouroush Katibeh.

Arrested in Switzerland, he was extradited to face trial in France but the other two accomplices escaped.

"He will go back to his country, rebuild his life and work in a travel agency," said the lawyer.

Opposition Socialists however suggested that France had secured Reiss' release in exchange for sending Vakili Rad home along with a second man, engineer Majid Kakavand, who was wanted in the United States for trial.

Last week, a Paris court rejected a US extradition request for Kakavand, who was accused of buying electronic components and exporting them illegally to be used by Tehran's military.

The Iranian engineer, who had been arrested in March 2009 at the request of Washington, flew home to Iran last Friday.

"To say that nothing had been offered in return" for Reiss' release amounts to "taking us for fools," said Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon.

Reiss, a fluent Farsi speaker and Iran specialist, was arrested on July 1 as she was preparing to fly home after a six-month study and teaching stint in the city of Isfahan.

She was accused of taking and emailing photos of protests that erupted after the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in June, and handing material to a diplomat at the French embassy in Tehran.

A former senior official at the DGSE foreign intelligence agency further stirred controversy when he claimed that while Reiss did not work for French spy agencies, she had passed on useful information.

"She is not a spy. She was a contact for our representative in Tehran," said Pierre Siramy, who is releasing a book on his years in French intelligence.

The foreign and defence ministries denied the claim, calling it "pure fantasy."

© 2010 AFP

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