Daoud Salahuddin, the accused assassin of an expatriate Iranian leader here, telephoned an old friend and mentor in Switzerland shortly after the murder to say that he was safe and to deny that he had committed the crime, the friend said yesterday.
"He just wanted to tell me he was all right and safe, and he wanted to assure me he was the same good Muslim he had always been," said Said Ramadan, an Egyptian lawyer and scholar who heads the Centre Islamique in Geneva. "He said he was being framed," Ramadan added.
Ramadan said he did not know where Salahuddin was calling from, or where he went after placing the call. "In such conditions, you don't ask a person where he is going or where he is," he said reprovingly.
Investigators believe Salahuddin boarded a jet in New York City and headed for Geneva on July 22, less than 10 hours after the murder of Ali Tabatabai, the former press attache at the Iranian Embassy here. Investigators have obtained information indicating Salahuddin later flew to Iran.
Ramadan said yesterday that he has not seen Salahuddin in five years, although he has had frequent telephone conversations with him. Asked if Salahuddin flew to Geneva the day after the murder, Ramadan replied, "Maybe." He would not elaborate.
Telephone records here indicate that Ramadan received three phone calls from Washington about the time of Tabatabai's murder. Sources said that two of these calls -- and probably the third -- were placed from pay telehpones near the Wisconsin Avenue offices where Salahuddin worked.
Salahuddin placed all three calls, according to sources.Two of them were billed to the telephone number of the Islamic Center, the Massachusetts Avenue NW mosque that is the center for the meetings and worship of much of the Islamic community in Washington.
Islamic Center officials declined to discuss the matter except to deny that the center had approved the calls. One official said the center would refuse to pay the bill for the calls.
In a telephone interview from Geneva, Ramadan confirmed that he had received several telephone calls from Salahuddin in the past few weeks, but said he did not remember the exact number or the exact dates."I'm not good on dates," he said.
Telephone records indicate that the calls to Ramadan's Geneva home were made on June 22, July 20 -- two days before the murder -- and July 22, the day of the murder. The phone call on July 22 was made about 1:50 in the afternoon -- about two hours after Tabatabai was shot and killed on the doorstep of his Bethesda home by a gunman posing as a postman.
However, it is unclear whether the phone call that Ramadan cites, in which he says Salahuddin denied committing the slaying, is the same call that was made two hours after the murder or a call placed by Salahuddin later from some other location. Ramadan said the call came "The day or the day after" the slaying.
Salahuddin, who has been charged with murder by Montgomery County police, was not publicly identified as a suspect until 24 hours after the murder.
In the weeks prior to the slaying, Slahuddin was employed by the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy here -- the only remaining Iranian diplomatic presence in Washington since the United States severed diplomiatc relations with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's government in April.
Salahuddin, 29, was a member of a Washington-based group of Arabs, Iranians and American blacks who were fervent supporters of Khomeini's brand of Islamic revolution. The vicim, Tabatabai, had been a diplomat in the ousted government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and was an active, outspoken foe of the Khomeini regime.
But even before Salahuddin became fascinated by the beliefs and actions of Khomeini, he had long been a devotee of Islamic fundamentalism. And, several of his acquaintances said yesterday. Salahuddin's beliefs were crystallized by conversations with Said Ramadan, a scholar 25 years his senior whom he deeply respected.
Salahuddin met Ramadan in 1975, when the scholar, on a speaking tour of the United States, lectured at Washington's Islamic Center.
The two men were immediately drawn to each other, according to an acquaintance -- Salahuddin as a Muslim in search of a mentor and Ramadan as a teacher seeking to spread his faith.
"Daoud got very excited about meeting Said," said Ezzat M. El Dak, a local Egyptian who said he introduced the two men at the Islamic Center. Ramadan said yesterday that he stayed with Salahuddin for two weeks during that trip.
"Daoud loved the man," El Dak recalled. "We prayed together, all three of us, all night." Ever since, Ramadan said yesterday, Salahuddin has called him regularly in Geneva.
"We've been talking on the phone now and then ever since I left" (Washington), Ramadan said yesterday. "He and hundreds of others there never lost contact with me. He wanted to talk about Islamic law -- that's my main subject," added Ramadan, who wrote a book entitled "Islamic Law," which was published in London in 1961.
"i think (Salahuddin) is a very tender, gentle, thoroughly goodhearted person -- not a killer," said Ramadan.
Part of Ramadan's attraction for Salahuddin, said people who knew both men, was the scholar's turbulent past as a self-exiled Egyptian revolutionary committed first to removing the British presence from his native land and then to overthrowing the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
A native of Egypt, Ramadan fled his country in the 1950s after publicly opposing Nasser. He later surfaced as a leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, a sometimes violent organization dedicated to purging western and secular influences from the governments of Islamic nations.
While in exile, Ramadan was accused of plotting several attempts on Nasser's life. Today [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] although still well-organized and visible in Egypt and Syria, and gaining support among Islamic youths, is not considered a dominant force in the Middle East.
Ramadan, however, said yesterday that he was not a violent man and that none of the violent acts attributed to the Moslem Brotherhood had ever been proven in court. He added that his protege, Salahuddin, was also a gentle man.
Ramadan declined to answer specific questions about Salahuddin's whereabouts during the past few weeks. Asked if Salahuddin had visited Geneva at all recently, Ramadan [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] not answer that question at all . . . I don't want to be rude but I don't want to answer that question."
Asked if he believes Salahuddin is in Geneva now, Ramadan said, "No."
Asked if he believes that Slahuddin is in Iran, he said, "I don't know."
While Ramadan's religious beliefs, like Salahuddin's, reflect a fundamentalist approach to the Islamic religion, the older man had recently expressed concern about Salahuddin's increasing attraction to Khomeini and to Cahram Nahidian, the chief Washington exponent of the Iranian revolution, according to El Dak.
"I talked to Said about this and he said, 'It is not correct. Daoud should worship Allah, not a person," El Dak recalled yesterday.
Asked about his views of Khomeini, Ramadan said yesterday, "You should not forget that Muslims have all variety of tendencies and have standing whereever they are."
Ramadan developed a considerable following during his weeks in Washington in 1975, Edl Dak recalled. He wanted to stay at Salahuddin's home because "he said he wanted to live with a brother and learn the brothers' problems," El Dak said.
Hundreds of local Muslims flocked to Salahuddin's house at 67 Randolph Place NW to seek Ramadan's advice, El Dak recalled.
"He was tough with them," El Dak said of Ramadan's advice to the Muslms.
"He said to them, 'If you want to smoke marijuana you get out of my room. Anything that attacks your health and your mind is forbidden.'"
Ramadan said yesterday that his last telephone conversation with Salahuddin was brief. They talked, he said, "just about the usual things. The two important points were that he was safe and that he had nothing to do with [the assassination]."