US film producer pleads guilty to beheading his own director

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The Independent US

Three weeks after a first screening of his film about an Afghan refugee navigating western culture in America, producer Nathan Powell finds himself in prison this weekend after pleading guilty to killing his director and stuffing his severed head in a freezer.

Powell pleaded guilty on manslaughter charges before a Long Island judge last week to avoid trial. His lawyers had been preparing to argue an insanity defence, citing stress after the 11 September attacks in New York and allegations that the victim, Jawed Wassel, had voiced sympathy for the Taliban regime.

Mr Wassel was an Afghan himself, and the film, Firedancer, was the first from Afghanistan ever to be considered for an Academy Award nomination. But its impact on critics has been eclipsed by the drama of the bloody killing and the mystery surrounding what drove the perpetrator to commit it.

Prosecutors expressed outrage at the notion of exploiting the twin towers attack as a reason for killing someone. And on announcing the guilty plea, Powell's lawyer, Thomas Liotti, tried to put the record straight. "Mr Powell wants it to be very clear that he was not in any way taking advantage of 9/11," he said.

The fatal frenzy appears to have been sparked in part by a business disagreement in Powell's Queens apartment on 3 October 2001. Powell told the New York Post from his prison cell that he first struck Mr Wassel with a pool cue. "I grabbed a knife and I stabbed him in the back as he was kneeling. Then I hit him again in the head with the stick. There was blood all over my daughter's toys and books."

Earlier, however, Powell told police that Mr Wassel had visited Afghanistan just before the 2001 terror attack and that he had later said what had happened was America's "just deserts". He also claimed that Mr Wassel had threatened to have Powell's wife and children killed by the Taliban. A jury might not have been convinced, however. Prosecutors later revealed that Mr Wassel had given the US authorities 80 hours of film showing roads and mountain passes in his native country to help American intelligence to plan their subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

Powell was stopped by police while he was driving in Long Island in the early hours of 4 October with his headlights switched off. They found blood-smeared boxes, with the body parts of his victim inside. But the head was missing. It was later found in the freezer at Powell's home. Powell told the Post that police asked him, "Where is the friggin' head?" He apparently replied, "I have no idea."

The last-minute decision to plead guilty, thus short-circuiting the possibility of a more serious second-degree murder conviction, came after Powell concluded he would not get a fair hearing. "I feel I would have gotten a more fair chance on trial in Afghanistan than here," he complained. As part of the plea deal, he will get a 20-year sentence, but is likely to serve only five years.

It took Mr Wassel six years to put together his film, based on his own unpublished autobiographical novel. It tells of a 20-something Afghan-American artist, orphaned during the Afghan-Soviet war in 1980, who comes to New York where he struggles to reconcile his roots with his new surroundings.

The film caused a stir when it was screened to an eager audience in Kabul's battered stadium last September. When people started to gather around the projector to protest against scenes of women in "immodest" attire, an associate director, Vida Zaher-Khadem, was forced to hold a coat in front of the projector whenever images came up that were likely to offend.

It was an American producer who later suggested that the work could win the foreign film category at the Oscars. But it was never nominated, and its first American showing, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last month, was understandably overshadowed by the lurid events involving its makers.