'Turquoise Palace' A True Political Murder Mystery

On Sept. 17, 1992, a group of Iranian and Kurdish opposition leaders were assassinated in a Greek restaurant in Berlin. Despite pressures to keep the investigation at the lowest possible level, a German prosecutor unraveled a tangle of threads that led to Iran's Supreme Leader himself. Host Scott Simon speaks with Roya Hakakian, author of the new book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On September 17, 1992, a political assassination took place in a Greek restaurant in Berlin. Dr. Sadegh Sharafkandi, chairman of a Kurdish political party in Iran, two of his aides and an exiled dissident were shot to death. Five men, including four Iranians, were arrested by German police. Despite pressures to keep the investigation at the lowest possible level, the German prosecutor assigned to the case began to unravel a tangle of threads that led all the way back to Iran's supreme leader.

Roya Hakakian, a Persian poet, who is the author of an acclaimed memoir, "Journey From The Land Of No," has written a book that is at once an investigation of a crime, a police and legal procedural and a poetic appreciation of how those murders changed the lives of those who survived, investigated and mourned. Her new book is "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace." Roya Hakakian joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why does a poet write a book like this?

HAKAKIAN: A poet has no business writing about a crime and the only reason this came about was that one of the survivors of this assassination ended up being my house guest a few years ago. And he started telling me, night after night, an installment of this story and the trial which lasted almost four years, which really is the reason that I got lured into writing this.

SIMON: How did Dr. Sharafkandi and his aides wind up on a hit list?

HAKAKIAN: Actually, this goes back to 1979 and to the Iranian Revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. He had expected all ethnicities and minorities throughout Iran to cast aside whatever ethnic or religious or minority interests they had on behalf of his broader Pan-Islamist idea. And the fact that the Kurds did not do so really created the kind of hostility that lingered from then on.

SIMON: Well, and also, as you detail in the book, by the time that these assassinations in the Berlin restaurant had occurred, there was already being a pattern established around the world. So any Iranian in exile must live in fear for his or her life.

HAKAKIAN: That's right. I mean there were victims from the United States to Paris and Rome and Geneva. I mean all over the world. And therefore, not only the Iranian community was certain about who had done it, but they were all certain that in this case everyone would get away with this murder. And what makes this story really, really astoundingly wonderful and beautiful is that it didn't go the way anybody had thought.

SIMON: At the same time, maybe we should remember - especially in the 1990s - Germany had many interests in revolutionary Iran. How did that complicate the investigation?

HAKAKIAN: Well, I think that Germany had hoped to step into the empty space that the U.S. had left behind after 1979, the seizure of the American embassy and the loss of relations between U.S. and Iran. And in many ways, Germany had successfully inched its way into that space, and this case just created a major obstacle in the way of all these efforts going forward.

SIMON: Can I get you to capture that what really sounds like an electric moment in the courtroom...

HAKAKIAN: Ah.

SIMON: ...when Judge Kubsch not only said the men who pulled the triggers will be held responsible, but...

HAKAKIAN: (Reading) For the next several minutes, Judge Kubsch traced the history of the Kurds' persecution since the rise of the Ayatollah to the killings at the Mykonos Restaurant. By then tension had fallen away from him and he was speaking in the same measured and deliberate voice everyone knew.

(Reading) Speaking the lines the exiles had never thought he would, never believed any foreigner capable of understanding their tale well enough to compose, Judge Kubsch uttered what to their exhausted ears was a lullaby, one of vindication. The orders for the crime that took place on September 17, 1992 in Berlin came from Iran's supreme leader.

SIMON: I mean, what an extraordinary moment. And why was that especially controversial for this court to hold the supreme leader of Iran responsible?

HAKAKIAN: Well, first of all, it was historic, just by the mere fact that a living, ruling leader was being implicated in crimes. And it worked, meaning that it had great repercussions inside Iran for many years to come, and I believe even to this day. And it was just a mere confrontation with the truth that had never been presented in this way that really made this work.

And I think the subsequent moral stand that the EU took, because of the judgment, really delivered a blow to the leadership in Iran in a way that no other act has ever done. And I think the simplicity of it, that telling the truth to power can work in a great way is just what makes it sublime.

SIMON: Roya Hakakian, her new book "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace."

Roya Hakakian, thank you very much.

HAKAKIAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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