Facing terror charges, Iran diplomat skips trial opening day

Facing terror charges, Iran diplomat skips trial opening day
This file photo taken on June 30, 2018 shows people holding pictures of relatives killed by the Mohllas regime, during “Free Iran 2018 — the Alternative” event in Villepinte, north of Paris during the Iranian resistance national council (CNRI) annual meeting. Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi and three alleged accomplices face trial in Antwerp on November 27, 2020 over plot to bomb Iran opposition rally of June 2018 in France. (AFP)
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Updated 27 November 2020

Facing terror charges, Iran diplomat skips trial opening day

Facing terror charges, Iran diplomat skips trial opening day
  • In June 2018, Belgian authorities thwarted what they said was an attempt to smuggle explosives to France to attack a meeting of one of Iran’s exiled opposition movements

BRUSSELS: An Iranian diplomat suspected of masterminding a thwarted, state-sponsored bomb attack against an exiled Iranian opposition group in France did not show up at a courthouse in Belgium on the opening day of his trial on terror charges Friday, invoking his diplomatic immunity.
More than two years after the cross-border police operation that foiled the plot, Assadollah Assadi and three other suspects face up to 20 years in prison on charges of “attempted terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.”
Lawyers from the plaintiffs and representatives of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq opposition group, or MEK, claimed without offering evidence that Assadi — who is in custody — was ordered by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif not to attend the trial. Plaintiffs claim that the diplomat set up the attack on direct orders from Iran's highest authorities. Tehran has denied having a hand in the plot.
“The Iran state conspires, threatens and carries on attacks and executions," said lawyer Georges Henri Beauthier. “We have irrefutable proof that the Iranian state gave orders from Tehran and authorized the death of thousands of people."
Assadi, 48, denies all charges.
Following a full day of hearings at the Antwerp courthouse, public prosecutors requested a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, if Assadi is convicted.


His lawyer, Dimitri de Beco, said his client considers “the court is not competent to judge him” due to his diplomatic status. De Beco said he will also raise procedural issues during a second hearing set for next week. Lawyers for the plaintiffs retorted Friday that diplomatic immunity does not equate to “impunity.”
A verdict is expected be delivered by the end of next month or early next year.
The case has the ingredients of a classic spy novel.
On June 30, 2018, Belgian police officers tipped off by intelligence services about a possible attack against the annual meeting of the MEK, stopped a couple traveling in a Mercedes car. In their luggage, they found 550 grams of the unstable TATP explosive and a detonator.
Belgium’s bomb disposal unit said the device was of professional quality. It could have caused a sizable explosion and panic in the crowd, estimated at 25,000 people, that had gathered that day in the French town of Villepinte, north of Paris.
Despite a security perimeter spanning several hundred meters, an officer was injured when the bomb accidentally went off during the clearing operation.
Assadi was arrested a day later in Germany and transferred to Belgium. Regarded by prosecutors as the “operational commander” of the attack, he is accused of recruiting the couple of Iranian heritage — Amir Saadouni and Nasimeh Naami — years before the attack, to obtain information about the opposition.
Investigators also said that Assadi carried the explosives to Austria in a commercial flight from Iran and later handed the bomb over to the pair during a meeting at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg.
A note from Belgium's intelligence and security agency seen by The Associated Press identified Assadi as an officer of Iran’s intelligence and security ministry who operated under cover at Iran’s embassy in Vienna. Belgium’s state security officers said he worked for the ministry’s so-called Department 312, the directorate for internal security, which is on the European Union’s list of organizations regarded as terrorist.
The fourth suspect, Mehrdad Arefani, is an Iranian poet who was in Villepinte, a commune outside Paris, on the day of the planned attack. Investigators found he was in possession of a phone with Assadi’s number. Prosecutors requested a 15-year prison sentence for Arefani and 18 years for Saadouni and Naami.
Based near Paris, the MEK, once an armed organization with a base in Iraq, is the most structured among exiled Iranian opposition group, and detested by Iranian authorities. It was removed from European Union and U.S. terrorism lists several years ago after denouncing violence and getting Western politicians to lobby on its behalf.
In 2018, among dozens of prominent guests attending the MEK’s annual rally were Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a regular headliner, along with Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.


US gun lobby NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas

US gun lobby NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas
Updated 49 min 59 sec ago

US gun lobby NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas

US gun lobby NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas
  • NRA execs are facing charges of illegally diverting funds for lavish personal trips and other questionable expenditures
  • New York Attorney General Letitia James said she would not allow the NRA to “evade accountability” or oversight

AUSTIN, Texas: The National Rifle Association announced Friday it has filed for bankruptcy protection and will seek to incorporate the nation’s most politically influential gun-rights group in Texas instead of New York.
The announcement came months after New York’s attorney general sued the organization over claims that top executives illegally diverted tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips, no-show contracts for associates and other questionable expenditures.
The coronavirus pandemic has also upended the NRA, which last year laid off dozens of employees. The group canceled its national convention and scuttled fundraising. The NRA’s bankruptcy filing listed between $100 million and $500 million in assets and between $100 million and $500 million in liabilities. Still, the NRA claimed in announcing the move that the organization was “in its strongest financial condition in years.”
The NRA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court in Dallas and said it planned to incorporate in Texas, where records show it formed a limited liability corporation, Sea Girt LLC, in November 2020. Sea Girt LLC made a separate bankruptcy filing Friday, listing fewer than $100,000 in liabilities.
In its filing, the NRA said its longtime leader, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, made the decision to file for bankruptcy protection in consultation with a “special litigation committee” comprised of three NRA officials that was formed in September to oversee its legal strategies. The NRA board voted Jan. 7 to clarify LaPierre’s employment agreement, giving him the power to “reorganize or restructure the affairs” of the organization.

National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre and other officials of the gun lobby are facing charges of diverting the gun lobby's money for lavish personal expenses. (AFP file photo)

“The move will enable long-term, sustainable growth and ensure the NRA’s continued success as the nation’s leading advocate for constitutional freedom – free from the toxic political environment of New York,” the NRA said in a statement.
A message seeking comment was left with a Dallas lawyer who made the bankruptcy filings on behalf of the NRA and Sea Girt LLC.
Shortly after the announcement, New York Attorney General Letitia James said she would not allow the NRA to “evade accountability” or oversight. Her office’s lawsuit last year highlighted misspending and self-dealing claims that have roiled the NRA and LaPierre in recent years— from hair and makeup for his wife to a $17 million post-employment contract for himself.
“The NRA’s claimed financial status has finally met its moral status: bankrupt,” James said.
The gun-rights group boasts about 5 million members. Though headquartered in Virginia, the NRA was chartered as a nonprofit in New York in 1871 and is incorporated in the state. Going forward, the NRA said a committee will study opportunities to relocate segments of its operations to Texas and elsewhere.
The NRA’s largest creditor, owed $1.2 million, is Ackerman McQueen, which is the group’s former advertising agency that was behind the now-shuttered NRA TV service. The NRA sued the Oklahoma-based company in 2019, alleging it was being overbilled and said in Friday’s bankruptcy filing that the debt it is owed is disputed. The lawsuit is pending. A message seeking comment was left with Ackerman McQueen.
In the New York lawsuit, Ackerman McQueen was accused of aiding lavish spending by LaPierre and other NRA executives by picking up the tab and then sending a lump sum bill to the organization for “out-of-pocket expenses.”
“No financial filing can ever shroud the moral bankruptcy of Wayne LaPierre and his wife and their lap dogs on the NRA board,” said Bill Powers, an Ackerman McQueen spokesperson and former public affairs director for the NRA.
Court records also show more than $960,000 owed to Membership Marketing Partners LLC, a firm that lists its headquarters at the same address as the NRA. Another $200,000 is owed to Speedway Motorsports, the North Carolina-based company that owns and operates NASCAR tracks, according to the records.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott quickly welcomed the news, tweeting: “Welcome to Texas — a state that safeguards the 2nd Amendment.” The NRA said it has more than 400,000 members in Texas and plans to hold its annual convention in Houston later this year.