Assassins of the Turquoise Palace
- Roya Hakakian
- Grove Press
- 320 pp.
- September 13, 2011
In this nonfiction political thriller highlighting the Kurdish resistance in Iran, the author adeptly leads us from a brutal assassination to the conclusion of a complex, drawn-out trial.
Reviewed by Howard Sacks
Late in the evening of September 17, 1992, seven men, including the leaders of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPKI), were having dinner in a back room of a run-down restaurant in Berlin, Germany. Suddenly, two tall men with faces partly obscured burst into the room, one with a handgun, the other wielding a machine gun. When the shooting stopped, four men lay dead, including the DPKI leaders. Quite clearly, this was a political assassination.
Two groups immediately came under suspicion. One was the PKK, a Kurdish organization and rival of the DPKI. The second was an Iranian government agency trying to suppress Kurdish resistance in Iran.
This book, a political thriller, is fact, not fiction. It’s a thoroughly researched, dramatically told account of the crime, the investigation, the Berlin trial, and the far-reaching results of that trial. Author Roya Hakakian, born and raised in a Jewish family in Tehran, came to the U.S. in 1985 as a political refugee. Her previous work is the well-received and aptly-titled memoir, Journey from the Land of No.
The author provides readers helpful information about the Kurds. They are a Muslim group with their own language and culture. Centuries ago, Kurdistan stretched from southern Turkey and northern Iraq to western Iran and eastern Syria. But that ended in 520 A.D. Over the centuries, military attacks tore it apart, leaving the Kurds a minority people in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They have continued to fight for a new, independent Kurdistan, or at least enough autonomy in these countries so that they can live according to their traditions. In Iran, the nearly 4 million Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims, suffer under the rule of 50 million Shiite Iranians.
Readers will find everything they could ask for in a book of this kind — and more. The story surrounding the attack and prosecution of the suspects is discussed in riveting detail. The Iranian expatriates in Germany included a mole who tipped off the gunmen that they would find their targets in that particular restaurant on that particular night. However, although the crime was seemingly perfect, it turned out to have been badly botched, and led to the arrest of six suspects, all Iranian.
The prosecutor assigned to the case received calls from “concerned colleagues,” advising him that he should “let law yield to diplomacy,” and that limiting the scope of his investigation would “surely benefit one’s future career.” Moreover, concern over a possible Iranian-directed attack required him to accept police protection.
Other factors threatened the case. Interference from the German foreign ministry — and perhaps the chancellery itself — resulted in unusual delay in issuing the indictment. Investigative journalism played a part in its eventual release. The Iranian intelligence minister met secretly with his German counterpart and offered various concessions in exchange for cancellation of the trial. Nonetheless, the trial finally started, and it lasted almost 3 ½ years.
The case was further complicated by an apparent conflict of interest on the part of the presiding judge of the five judge panel, which not only applied the law, but found the all-important facts. A senior Iranian intelligence official who had fallen from grace in 1987, but continued to live in Iran, was called as a witness for the prosecution. In 1996 this official fled to Pakistan after being warned that he was about to become a victim of “truckicide” (killing by a heavy vehicle). He was brought from Pakistan to Berlin to testify in the trial and, despite the fact that he had been out of office for 9 years, he became the prosecution’s star witness.
The decision not only settled the issue of the defendants’ guilt or innocence, but caused important repercussions throughout Western Europe. The outcome illustrates how a few good men can uphold the integrity of a criminal justice system by refusing to bow to intense political pressure.
The author has done everything imaginable to make this fine book easier to read. There’s a time line, a glossary, an explanatory list of abbreviations, and a list of the 50 characters. Beyond that, she has taken the trouble to follow up on the principal characters well beyond the date of the court’s decision.
Some readers will find excessive the amount of attention given to victims’ families. More significantly, the book would have been even better had Ms. Hakakian described the current situation of the 30 million-plus Kurds living in the Middle East.
She probably would have said that, in Iraq, thanks to the American no-fly zone and the 2003 invasion, the Kurds enjoy an astonishing degree of autonomy; that in Turkey they have gained some rights, but have not achieved autonomy; that in Syria, although they can own property, vote, and hold government jobs, they cannot express their cultural identity; and, finally, that in Iran nothing has changed for the better since 1992.
Oh, yes, what was the “Turquoise Palace”? It was one of the former Shah’s residences in which the high-level “Committee for Special Operations” met to order and oversee assassinations.
Howard Sacks is a retired law school dean and professor, and has held various governmental positions in Connecticut and at the federal level.