'Kandahar' actor linked to murder of diplomat

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The Independent Online

An actor in Kandahar, an acclaimed independent film about the oppression of Afghan citizens under the Taliban regime, has been accused of assassinating a former Iranian diplomat more than 20 years ago.

American officials say they are all but certain that the man identified on the cast list as Hassan Tantai, 51, who plays the part of a kindly African-American doctor practising in the deserts of Afghanistan, once bore the name David Belfield.

A man of that name – understood to be an American who had converted to the Muslim faith – has long been wanted for the 1980 murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai.

Mr Tabatabai, a vocal critic of the fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran at that time, was gunned down outside his home in a Washington suburb by a man dressed to look like a postman.

The Maryland State Attorney, Doug Gansler, is among those in the United States who have accused Mr Tantai of carrying out the assassination.

Mr Gansler recently told ABC News that Mr Belfield carried out the killing under orders from the Ayatollah's regime. "We are very confident that the man who appears in the film is indeed David Belfield," he said. "He's an assassin and he's a terrorist."

Kandahar's director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf – who has received high praise for the film from critics across Europe and North America – has refused to be drawn into the controversy. "I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, not do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film," he said in a brief statement.

All of the cast of Kandahar were amateurs – including the Canadian documentary maker and Afghan exile Nelofer Pazira, who inspired its story and played the main role.

In a recent interview to promote Kandahar, Mr Tantai admitted that he had assumed several identities over the past few decades, although he added: "This is not an uncommon phenomenon among Americans of my generation, the Sixties generation."

The brouhaha over Mr Tantai has attracted the attention of Mr Tabatabai's relatives, who have asked American prosecutors to attempt to bring him to justice.

"Considering that our nation is now mobilised to counter international terrorism, the prospect of a fugitive for 21 years coming back to the US glamourised as a movie star is, to say the least, unsettling," Mohammed Tabatabai, 71, the victim's brother, said. "Not seeing the movie is not any major cultural loss to anyone. It should be stopped."

Kandahar's official website says Mr Tantai is a "Muslim of African-American descent who travelled from the US in 1979 to fight alongside Afghans against Russian invaders".

In an added twist, Time magazine reported that the would-be actor once lived under yet another name. As Hassan Abdul Rahman, he allegedly edited a state-sponsored English-language newspaper in Iran called Iran Daily, the magazine said.

Mr Tantai suggested in the interview, given to the website www.iranianfilm.com, that he was cast almost by default.

"The director got wind of a black American in Tehran who had been in Afghanistan," he said. "When he began to locate people to fill those slots, with respect to the role I play, he did not have many choices."

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