France to expel Iranian convicted in 1991 assassination

A French court is expected to rule Tuesday on whether to release from prison a man convicted of assassinating former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar in what some observers are calling a likely prisoner swap deal between the two countries.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux signed an expulsion order Monday, according to media reports, that could lead to the release of Ali Vakili Rad, who has been serving a life sentence in connection with Bakhtiar’s slaying in 1991 at his home in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes, where he had been living in exile since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Officials said Vakili Rad, who was convicted and sentenced in 1994, is eligible for parole.

The expulsion order came one day after French researcher Clotilde Reiss, 24, returned home to Paris after being held in Iran for 10 months on espionage charges.

Earlier this month, French officials freed Iranian businessman, Majid Kakavand, who is wanted by the FBI on accusations of illegally selling sensitive technology to Iran’s military.

A French court denied a U.S. request for Kakavand’s extradition on May 5. Media reports that Vakili Rad may soon go home to Iran appeared to support speculation of a quid pro quo deal regarding Reiss.

“The hypothesis of an ‘exchange’ seems to be confirmed,” wrote the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche on Monday, reporting on the expulsion order for Vakili Rad.

France’s Foreign Ministry reiterated earlier statements that no bargains were made to secure Reiss’ freedom.

But the media and opponents of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP party, were not convinced.

“I’m not naive,” said Green Party leader Cecile Duflot on RTL radio. The French government underestimated the public’s intelligence, she argued.

It is worse to “pretend, with a little knowing smile … to say that it’s false,” she said of an exchange, adding that Sarkozy’s government owed the public “transparent” explanation of the facts.

RTL radio quoted an unidentified French official, who said Vakili Rad’s deportation would have been granted earlier if it weren’t for Iran’s imprisonment “of an innocent” French woman.

“The French succeeded in turning around the situation, by forcing the Iranian regime to free Reiss before Vakili Rad,” the diplomat was quoted as saying.

Lauter is a special correspondent.