Stolen passports on Malaysia flight used before, Chinese firm says

BEIJING -- Stolen passports carried by two Iranian men to board missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were used last year by two people applying for visas to work as entertainers in China, according to the head of an entertainment company.

Xie Zhuoling, the head of a firm that recruits foreign performers for nightclubs and hotels, said that employment contracts had been signed in June for Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi, an Italian, to work as dancers in Ningxia, northern China.

“I remember at the time, these contracts looked very suspicious. Normally when we recruit performers they are from the Philippines or Russia, where wages are cheap, not Western European countries like Italy and Austria,’’ said Xie, who says an office manager for his company, Ningxi Overseas Prosperity Cultural Import. Co., handled the contracts.


PHOTOS: Malaysia Airlines plane missing

The March 8 flight vanished on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, along with its 239 passengers and crew.

When investigators announced last week they were looking into two passengers of the missing plane with stolen passports from Austria and Italy, it jogged Xie’s memory. He pulled the contracts from his files and indeed, the names were the same: Christian Kozel and Luigi Maraldi.

“I was very scared. I went to the police,” said Xie, on a telephone interview from the public security bureau office in Yingchuan.

Investigators say that the passports were used on the flight by two young Iranian men who were trying to immigrate illegally to Europe to find jobs. They reportedly had purchased them from a Thailand-based gang trafficking in stolen and forged documents. Kozel and Maraldi had reported the passports stolen while on vacation in Thailand in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Xie doesn’t know if the two Iranian men ever got visas or came to China. He didn’t see photographs of the men at the time the contract was signed and doesn’t know if the Iranians are the same people who were trying to come to China — or perhaps somebody entirely different using the same stolen passports.

The contracts, which Xie has made public, were for the men to work from mid-February to mid-May of this year at a base salary of $330 per month. The men, as well as a manager whose name was not listed in the contract, were all supposed to receive one-way plane tickets from Kuala Lumpur — something else that Xie said he found unusual.

“Performers usually come in from Moscow or Kiev or Dubai. We never had a contract that specified a plane ticket from Kuala Lumpur,’’ said Xie.

Xie said he didn’t know more about the contract because the business manager from his office left abruptly a few weeks after it was signed.

The two Iranians since have been identified as 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammed Mehrdad and 29-year-old Delavar Seyed Mohammed Reza, who are friends.

According to interviews given by other friends, they had arrived in Malaysia the week before the flight and told people they were going to Europe to find jobs. Reza was booked to Copenhagen and Mehrdad to Frankfurt, where his mother was waiting for him and called police when he did not arrive.

PHOTOS: Malaysia Airlines plane missing

“These two individuals were probably not terrorists… but might just be people being smuggled or trafficked,” Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said at a news conference in France last week.

Out of 227 passengers on the Malaysia Air flight, 159 were Chinese nationals. Malaysian authorities have concluded that the Boeing 777 was deliberately diverted from its flight path, making all the passengers and crew potential suspects in its still-unsolved disappearance.

Twitter: @barbarademick