Iranian killer returns home amid French row over release

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An Iranian assassin arrived back in Tehran late Tuesday after leaving a French prison, amid a row over whether his release was tied to that of a French academic freed by Iran three days earlier.

He was greeted upon his arrival by two senior officials, the Fars news agency reported.

"I must say that I have truly left hell behind me and I am happy to have found paradise again," he said, the official IRNA agency reported.

Giving the victory sign, he promised he would speak out about his years in prison.

Ali Vakili Rad served 16 years for stabbing and strangling to death the deposed Shah's last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, at the victim's home outside Paris in 1991.

After the French interior minister signed an order to deport Vakili Rad, a court granted him parole on Tuesday and, a few hours later, he boarded an Iran Air flight from Paris' Orly airport to Tehran.

Vakili Rad was released just days after Iran sent French academic and alleged spy Clotilde Reiss home, triggering claims from French opposition politicians that Paris had agreed to a quid pro quo with Tehran.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner insisted there had been no such deal between Paris and Tehran ahead of Reiss' return home on Sunday after a 10-month ordeal.

Vakili Rad's lawyer also dismissed the claims.

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

But an Iranian rights activist representing Bakhtiar's family accused France of "negotiating with a terrorist state" and agreeing to release the perpetrator of a brutal killing.

"They used an anaesthetic on him to make sure he wouldn't scream and then cut open his veins to bleed him dry," said Karim Lahidji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights, of Bakhtiar's murder.

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

Vakili Rad was convicted in 1994 of murdering 76-year-old Bakhtiar at his home on August 6, 1991. He became eligible for parole last year.

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

Opposition Socialists 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 France's DGSE foreign intelligence agency further stirred controversy when he claimed that, while Reiss did not formally work as a spy, 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 promoting a book on his years in intelligence.

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

© 2010 AFP

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