A D.C. Superior Court jury found two of three men guilty yesterday in connection with the 1980 execution-style slaying of prominent Iranian exile Ali Akbar Tabatabai, who was shot in the doorway of his Bethesda home by a man disguised as a mailman.
Convicted in the case were were Ahmed Rauf, also known as Horace Butler, and Ali Abdul-Mani, also known as Lee Curtis Manning. The third defendant in the case, William Caffee Jr., also known as Kalid, was found innocent of all charges.
The eight-woman, four-man jury, which deliberated for 10 hours over two days before returning the verdicts, found Rauf guilty of helping the accused triggerman, Daoud Salahuddin, also known as David Belfield, obtain a U.S. Postal Service Jeep as part of the ploy to pose as a mailman. Rauf was also convicted of being an accessory to a subsequent effort to cover up the crime by, among other things, having disposed of the murder weapon, a 9-mm pistol.
Abdul-Mani was found guilty of making a false stolen car report as part of the cover-up a week after the assassination. He lent a rental car to Salahuddin who used it to flee the country after the shooting. In addition, Abdul-Mani was convicted of two counts of lying to a grand jury for having testified that he had never lent the car to Salahuddin, a one-time security guard at the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy, and never received reimbursement for doing so.
Neither of the two convicted men was found by the jury to have actually conspired with Salahuddin, who is believed by law enforcement officials to now be in Iran, to murder Tabatabai, at the time one of the foremost critics outside Iran of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
All three men sat impassively as the jury foreman read the verdict in the nearly empty courtroom.
Prosecutors said they were "gratified" by the guilty verdicts, which followed a year-long investigation of the killing. Sources familiar with the investigation said prosecutors were still pursuing leads into the possible involvement of others in the killing.
In addition to Salahuddin, one of those investigators are still searching for is Mehdi Safiri, an Iranian employe of the Interests section. Safiri, who prosecutors believe paid for the killing, dissappeared shortly after the incident.
Defense attorneys expressed their dismay with the verdicts. Even Caffee's attorney, Ed Wilhite, who said Caffee was glad he was found innocent, said he and Caffee were both "saddened by the verdict as to the others."
Abdul-Mani's lawyer, Bruce McHale, said his client was in "total shock" over the verdict. He said Abdul-Mani, who has no prior criminal record, faces a maximum of 40 years in jail. His conviction as an accessory after the murder actually carries a longer maximum sentence -- 20 years -- than does a conviction for conspiracy to murder someone, which carries a five-year penalty. Each of the perjury counts is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Thomas Abbenante, Rauf's attorney, said his client faced a maximum sentence of 35 years in jail.
Throughout the trial, the defense attorneys emphasized that the two they said were most responsible for the assassination -- Salahuddin and Safiri -- were not present.
They repeatedly emphasized that the government's star witness, Al Fletcher Hunter, also known as Abu Bakr Zaid Sharriff, who testified under a grant of immunity, was far more involved in the plot to kill Tabatabai than were any of the defendants, yet he, too, was going free. Hunter confessed to actually helping plan of the murder and driving the getaway car to Montreal, Canada on the day of the shooting.
Abbenante and McHale repeated those arguments once again to reporters after the verdicts.
"If they the defendants did anything at all, they were duped by Salahuddin," McHale said.
The killing of Tabatabai took place as more than 50 Americans were being held hostage in Iran. The assassination was followed in Washington by demonstrations by both pro- and anti-Khomeini Iranians. At one point, the demonstrations became violent as pro-Khomeini Iranians clashed with police.
Because of the volatile nature of the camps, both for and against, the two-week trail before Judge Fred B. Ugast was conducted under tight security, with some 22 deputy U.S. marshals, supplemented by special D.C. police and court security guards, assigned to check visitors and guard the courtroom. A floor-to-ceiling bullet-proof glass partition separated the participants in the trial from the public.
Tabatabai had served as a press attache in the Iranian Embassy here before Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was ousted in 1979. Tabatabai later became president and founder of the Iran Freedom Foundation, an organization now headed by his twin brother, Mohammed.
Sentencing for the two men is scheduled for January 27.