Dr Ghassemlou: 20 years after the assassination in Vienna

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Sissy Danninger
  • 10/07/2009 00:00:00

A tale about the power of cowardice and the weakness of media power

Thursday, July 13th, 1989, had been full of sunshine in Vienna, and the evening was warm and cosy. We had a barbecue in the garden with half a dozen guests, journalists like me.

Suddenly, at about 10 P.M. or a little earlier, the telephone rang. A leading officer at the ministry of the interior and good acquaintance was calling: “Gassemlou was murdered in Vienna about two hours ago”, he said. Had I not known the caller I would not have trusted my ears. The party was instantly over. Everybody left in shock.

The night was long in spite, and the telephone busy. I informed some Kurdish friends who did not yet know the horrible news, and some who knew it told me the names of the two men killed along with Abdulrahman Ghassemlou – Abdullah Ghaderi Azar, his European representative, and Fadil Rasul, a native Iraqi Kurd and Austrian citizen.

It took me until after midnight to fully convince the official Austrian news agency and my former colleagues there of the fact that this had clearly been an outrageous political murder. They had considered it a crime amongst drug dealers at first.

The following days more information became public and was widely presented (not only) in our Austrian media. Police had received the first alarm shortly before 19.30 and had arrived at the scene in Linke Bahngasse in the 3rd district of Vienna within minutes. Reinforcement by members of state police and the special anti-terrorism unit followed without delay – and the first two alarmed Kurds turned up in the bloodstained apartment.

Here the head of the special unit, Oswald Kessler, was overheard saying: “We’ve got dead Kurds and surviving Iranians. The matter is clear. The rest will be politics.” His assessment should prove tragically accurate.

Although never confirmed political interference on the part of the Iranian embassy and from the highest ranks of the Austrian government doubtlessly started during this very night. Otherwise there would be no explanation at all for the completely irrational procedures of the authorities in the days and months to come. Had it in fact been a crime amongst drug dealers or something similar, all the survivors would have been arrested on the spot, faced a proper investigation and put on trial. But this case was totally different.

The police in Linke Bahngasse immediately upon their arrival had encountered one of the false Iranian partners in the pretended negotiations with the Kurds about autonomy in Iran, Amir Mansour Bozorgian. He was looking after his colleague Mohammed Jafari Sahraroudi who had been hurt in his arm and jaw by a shot – and took over an envelope and money from the injured. Seemingly showing concern as a “bodyguard” about his “friends” upstairs he accompanied the policemen to the apartment.

But he gave inconsistent information about what had happened and was arrested. He should not be detained for long, anyway. He was handed over to the extraterritorial Iranian embassy the next day and apparently hid there for months.

Sahraroudi, presenting himself as a victim, was immediately taken to hospital care. During his stay there massive doubts came up concerning his role. At least 16 shots had been fired from two pistols in the apartment without missing any of the Kurdish victims, but Sahrarudi had been hit by just one bullet. Most probably he had received a grazing shot by a stray bullet. Also testimonies given by him and by Bozorgian contradicted each other.

In spite of clearly being a suspect rather than a victim by then Sahraroudi was released from hospital, met by an Iranian delegation and escorted to the airport by Austrian police for his return to Tehran just nine days later, on Saturday, July 22nd.

A third man involved had just left a red motorbike near the crime scene. The man identified as Haji Mustafavi or Adjuadi evidently had made a successful escape before the first policeman arrived at the scene.

More than a week after the crime no warrants of arrest had been issued, still. This seemed inconceivable not just to the media. Newspapers, radio and TV reported extensively and highly critically about the non-activities of the police and the judiciary regarding efficient investigation and prosecution of the two suspects still available.

During those days not just published opinion, but I daresay even public opinion, advocated civil courage and efficient measures by the Austrian authorities and the government to clarify this perfidious political assassination and to bring the Iranian suspects to justice.

Those responsible unfortunately did not show anything at least somewhat close to civil courage. Their priorities were economic interests in Iran, state reason and thus inevitably cowardice. In this attitude official Austria showed lasting consistency.

The autopsy was done quickly, and the burial could be prepared. So Ghassemlou's widow came to Vienna on Wednesday, July 19th, to take her slaughtered husband’s body back to Paris for the funeral. He had been murdered on the 40th day exactly after the death of Khomeini, who had spoken a fatwa not only against Salman Rushdie, but against Ghassemlou as well. The media covered this tragic return to Paris in a coffin widely and sympathetically again.

Yet, the quickness of the autopsy was heavily contrasted by the time needed for the written documentation. These forensic and ballistic reports were not finished until November 1989.

On November 28th, 1989 after the belayed completion of the reports three international warrants were finally issued in Austria. Surprisingly or not at this time it had finally become clear Bozorgian was no longer on the premises of the Iranian embassy. To the growing annoyance of the embassy Austrian police had guarded the place since July. In November at last the guards were reduced – and thanks to Bozorgian’s disappearance immediately after none of the suspects were available in this country any more.

State reason had prevailed and was to continue to prevail. Helen Ghassemlou, PDKI and their friends and sympathizers had to cope with it. In vain the widow engaged advocates in August 1989 and tried to sue the Republic of Austria. Untiringly she met with the ministers of the interior, of justice and other leading politicians in Austria. She was received more or less politely, but all her interventions were essentially rejected. Finally, in November 1992, the Supreme Court ruled there had been no deficiencies in the proceedings, because the respective and relevant facts had not been clear to the authorities in time, the judges said.

The cause was lost shortly after another assassination – Sadegh Sharafkandi and three of his Kurdish confidents had been shot at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin on September 17th, 1992.

This time the Iranian killers did not make the lucky escape they might have hoped for after their experiences in Austria. They were arrested and put on trial in spite of warnings from Iran. On April 10th, 1997 they got their sentences: Lifelong for Kazem Drabi from Iran and for Abbas Rhayel from Lebanon, eleven years in prison for Youssef Amin and five years plus three months for Mohammed Atris, both from Libanon. Meanwhile all of them have been released from jail, Kazem Drabi in 2007.

In the reasons for the judgement the German court courageously named those responsible for the crime as the “Iranian committee for special affairs consisting of the President, the spiritual leader, the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of the intelligence”. To name them here these were Rafsanjani, Khamenei, Velayati and Fallahian. And the presiding judge added that the Iranian leadership had also ordered the assassination of Sharafkandi’s predecessor Ghassemlou in Vienna.

Once again the Ghassemlou-murder was widely covered in Austria’s media in the wake of the Mykonos verdict. Less than a week later, on April 16th, 1997 the Greens became active in Parliament with unpleasant questions to the minister of the interior. Another minority opposition party, the Liberals, joined in and, together with the Greens, demanded a parliamentary investigative committee to be established in order to re-examine the case. Their quest was denied on May 6th, 1997. Thus there had been some intense debates and no results again. Unfortunately up to the present day minorities are not entitled to have such parliamentary committees established against the will of the ruling party or coalitions in Austria.


Today, 20 years after the assassination, the international warrants are still in force basically, as the crime of murder does not become time-barred. Yet, amongst the ruling coalition, which is composed of Socialists and Christian Democrats as it was back in 1989, nobody wants these warrants to be executed, still. The general public in Austria has largely forgotten what happened meanwhile, and those under 20 or 25 have hardly ever heard about it.

Please, allow me a final thought. Although how Austria handled the case was and is a shame, state reason and cowardice tragically are not a characteristic of this country and its leaders alone.

I do not wish to raise any fury or hatred with my following short remarks: After Sahrarudi’s return to Tehran a prominent Kurdish leader hurried to the hospital with a bunch of flowers for the patient and his best wishes for a complete recovery. And in January 2007 an US-raid targeted against Iranian premises in Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq missed Sahrarudi, who had been received as a guest by another Kurdish leader before.

In spite of all the setbacks and tragedies of human history and politics a victory of civil courage and moral behaviour over state reason and cowardice will not be won with knives, guns, bombs or violence in general. We will have to struggle on for the respect of human rights and justice with peaceful means relentlessly – keeping a vivid and accurate memory of the past is indispensable in this regard. I wish us well …

A very good and detailed documentation of the crime and the cover-up was written by Peter Pilz, delegate of the Greens: “Eskorte nach Teheran – Der österreichische Rechtsstaat und die Kurdenmorde”, published by Ibera & Molden in 1997, ISBN 3-900436-57-6. Unfortunately the 200 pages book is out of print and has never been translated.

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Sissy Danninger
  • 10/07/2009 00:00:00