The Iranian lawyer of the family of U.S. citizen Robert Levinson, who disappeared during a trip to Iran two years ago, believes that Levinson is alive and is being kept in Iran. Levinson, a retired FBI agent, had traveled to Iran's Kish Island, reportedly to investigate cigarette smuggling.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi says that he suspects that "an American" living in Iran whom he questioned may have been involved in Levinson's disappearance. The United States has on a number of occasions called on Iran to help find Levinson, and authorities in Tehran have responded by saying they have no information about his whereabouts.RFE/RL: You are representing the family of Robert Levinson in Iran. Can you tell us the status of the case, and which judiciary body is in charge of it now? Mohammad Hossein Aghasi:
I started working on this case in January 2008 by opening a case in the Kish Prosecutor's Office, and also with the Island's Security Police.RFE/RL: What kind of information have you been able to gather so far regarding Levinson's disappearance during his trip to Kish Island? What do you know about the last hours he spent there?Aghasi:
I traveled to Kish Island and found out through my own personal investigation that during the only night that [Robert ] Levinson spent at the hotel in Kish, he met with an American who lives in Iran. The next day Levinson checked out of the hotel around noon and left the hotel. He disappeared on the way from the hotel to the airport.
I talked to this American, I invited him to a place in Tehran where we met -- he lives in the outskirts of Tehran -- and during that meeting I realized that he was saying certain things that were not true. I didn't realize that he was lying during the meeting, but later when I started to investigate his comments in Tehran and Kish I realized that the things he said were not true.
This person threatened me indirectly that it's better if I didn't make [his comments] public because it could be dangerous. I informed the Kish Prosecutor's Office and police about these issues, and I requested that [the American] be summoned as a suspect in the case and to be questioned, but so far there has been no reaction from the judiciary or legal officials. RFE/RL: Is Dawud Salahuddin the name of the person you're mentioning? The wife of Robert Levinson told RFE/RL in 2007 that she believes her husband met with Salahuddin as part of his investigation into cigarette smuggling.Aghasi:
I am not going to name the person at this point.RFE/RL: Can you tell us what comments the American made that were not true, leading you to request that he be summoned for questioning in the Levinson case?
The most important thing was his answer to my question about where he was when Levinson left the hotel. He told me: "I was detained by some plainclothes agents on Kish Island at night and they took me to a location and kept me there. The next day, when I returned at the hotel at 1 p.m., Mr. Levinson was not there anymore."
I did some investigating [into his claims] and I realized that he had not been detained and that he had spent the night at the hotel with Levinson. I also realized that this person could have been in some way involved in the disappearance of Robert Levinson. Two days after the day I spoke to [the American], an e-mail was sent to my clients in the U.S. It was from a fake name -- Osman Javid -- who threatened that if the U.S. did not release Muslims it has detained and all the other people it had abducted and jailed, and leave Pakistan, you will hear unpleasant news about [Levinson].
I advised my clients to reply to the e-mail by saying that they will report to the Foreign Ministry any information regarding the Levinson case. After that there was no reply.RFE/RL: And you believe that the e-mail was from the American you met in Iran, and whom you believe might be involved in the case? Aghasi:
I believe so, because it was sent just two days after my meeting with him [the American] and I think he sent it just to mislead.RFE/RL: Do you think Robert Levinson is still alive and is being kept somewhere in Iran?Aghasi:
Yes, I believe he is alive and I believe that he hasn't left Iran. But I still haven't reached the conclusion as to whether legal authorities -- please pay attention, I'm not saying just authorities but legal authorities -- have detained him.RFE/RL: Do you believe it is possible that Levinson is being held hostage by a hard-line faction of the Iranian establishment, and that they may want to use him as a bargaining chip in any future dealings with the United States and to push for their interests?Aghasi:
If he was being held by a faction to be used in dealings, it should have happened already -- it's been two years. When someone is detained, it's problematic to keep that person for a long time. Therefore, usually a person is detained and those who detained him learn everything they want from him. They make his detention public and they try to get something out of it.
I think that he is being held by people who have some power in Iran and are probably involved in cigarette smuggling or other issues that [Levinson] was investigating.RFE/RL: What else are you planning to do to move the case forward? Aghasi:
Due to the inaction of the Kish judicial officials and the security police, I have asked this case to be transferred to Tehran. The first thing I will do after the transfer of the case to Tehran is to summon my suspect [the American] in this case. He should be investigated and I need to have access to the investigation.
If my case is handled like other cases of kidnapped or missing persons, then I will be certain that [Levinson] is not being held by legal authorities, and this is what I believe right now. But if the case and my request are handled passively, then I cannot tell my clients that the legal and intelligence bodies in Iran were not involved in the detention of Levinson.