Gansler says actor is confessed killer
Jan. 9, 2002
Manju Subramanya
Staff Writer

Actor Hassan Tantai, pictured in the new Iranian movie "Kandahar," has been identified by Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D) as David Belfield, who confessed on television in 1995 that he killed Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai in Bethesda in 1980.

Victim's twin: 'The most unsettling thing'

Imagine looking for a fugitive for 21 years -- and then finding him on the movie screen of your local art theater.

It's more than M.R. Tabatabai can stomach.

Three weeks ago, an acquaintance called Tabatabai from California to say he had just seen a preview of the critically acclaimed Iranian film "Kandahar" and that an actor in the film bore a striking resemblance to his slain brother's killer.

"This is the most unsettling thing one can imagine," said Tabatabai, 71, of Bethesda, still mourning the death of his twin brother, slain Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai, in 1980. "He was my twin. You can imagine the closeness we had."

Amateur actor Hassan Tantai, who plays a sympathetic African-American physician in the film, is actually fugitive killer David Belfield, wanted by the FBI for gunning down Ali Tabatabai in Bethesda, said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D).

"It's clear as day that it's him," said Gansler, who has viewed both the movie and a tape of ABC's "20/20" interview in 1995 with Belfield, in which he confessed to the killing.

"He's a terrorist, a confessed assassin," Gansler said. "Now he's profiting as a celebrity. It is adding insult to injury."

Belfield -- known then as Daoud Salahuddin after converting to Islam -- arrived on the doorstep of Ali Akbar Tabatabai's Friars Road home in Bethesda posing as a mailman on the rainy morning of July 22, 1980. When the 49-year-old Tabatabai opened the door, Belfield shot him in the abdomen three times, Gansler said.

Tabatabai died 45 minutes later at Suburban Hospital; Belfield fled to Iran. Prosecutors speculated at the time that Tabatabai -- a press counselor at the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., and the president of the Iran Freedom Foundation, an organization he formed 10 months before his death -- had been targeted because of his criticism of the Ayatollah Khomeini regime in Iran.

The apparent political killing, which happened while American diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran, caused a national and international furor at the time.

To have his brother's assassin appear on American movie screens is upsetting to M.R. Tabatabai, who questioned the propriety of showing the movie in America.

"What would this movie say? That crime pays? That if you kill someone, you can become a movie star?" he said.

The man identified as Belfield plays Tabib Sahib in the movie, a healer who tends to the main character, Nafas, when she is ill. Nafas, a journalist in Canada, has returned incognito to Afghanistan to rescue her sister, who is threatening suicide after being persecuted under the stringent Taliban regime.

At one point in the movie, the actor removes his fake beard -- a disguise to fool the Taliban -- and reveals his full face. Gansler said the actor is clearly Belfield as he appeared in the ABC interview.

"There is a certain irony in all this," Gansler said. "Here's a man who killed an Iranian dissident critical of the oppressive regime in Iran, and here he is having a role in a movie critical of Taliban's oppressive regime. He's flipped roles."

The movie won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and was the official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival. Time magazine movie critic Richard Corliss placed "Kandahar" as No. 1 on his top 10 movie picks of the year.

The movie's Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who has made more than 20 films, said in a statement that he was not aware that the actor and the fugitive were one and the same.

"I have always chosen my actors from crowded streets and barren deserts. I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film," Makhmalbaf said. "'Kandahar' is no exception."

If Belfield, believed to be in Iran, is extradited to stand trial, that trial would take place in Montgomery County, Gansler said.

Asked if he has a strong enough case against Belfield for a two-decade-old killing, Gansler replied, "We would push 'play' on the VCR, for starters."

While prosecutors would like to see Belfield brought to justice, it is unlikely to happen because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, ruling out extradition.

But M.R. Tabatabai -- who took over as president of the Iran Freedom Foundation two weeks after his brother was killed in order to keep his legacy going -- is optimistic.

"It is high time that the U.S. gets the man, puts him on a plane to have a trial here," he said, saying the government can use other venues to bring Belfield to justice. "It takes only a single call or letter."

As for watching "Kandahar," the thought is repugnant to Tabatabai.

"Going and seeing the movie is like promoting terrorism," he said. "How could I see such a thing?"

"Kandahar," which premiered in New York City on Dec. 14, opened Friday at the Visions Cinema in Washington.

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