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Why has the film Kandahar sparked a terrorist hunt

01:00 Mon 28th Jan 2002 |

A.� The actor Hassan Tantai's role in the hit film Kandahar has caused a sensation, not for his performance, but because US prosecutors say he is an American fugitive wanted for killing an Iranian dissident 21 years ago.

Kandahar premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, but attracted little attention. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York on September 11 even George Bush demanded a special screening.

Q.� What were the events surrounding the alleged killing

A.� Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former Iranian diplomat and critic of Ayatollah Khomeini, was killed in July 1980 in the suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. US prosectors say David Belfield, the disaffected son of a black father and white mother from North Carolina, posed as a postal worker. Belfield, who had converted to Islam while at Howard University, is said to have shot Tabatabai, and then headed for Canada.

Belfield, who has now assumed the name of Hassan Tantai, turned up 21 years later in the Iranian film, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, head of Iran's most celebrated film-making dynasty.

The Montgomery County State Attorney, Doug Gansler, saw Belfield, confess to the killing on ABC's 20/20 programme in Istanbul in 1995. He has told the world's press there is no doubt that Belfield and Hassan Tantai are the same man.

Belfield, who took on the name Daoud Salahuddin after his conversion, volunteered to fight with the Mojahedin after working as a journalist on the state-run Tehran English language newspaper, Iran Daily.

Q.� Who does he play in the film

A.� He plays a black American, Tabib Sahid, who like him, joined up to fight the Russians and then returned years later to tend to the women suffering under Mullar Omar's interpretation of Sharia law. It is the story of an Afghan girl who returns to Afghanistan from abroad to save her sister, who in desperation, wants to commit suicide.

Q. Where is the actor now

A.� Tracking Belfield/Tantai and other names he had - Salahuddin and Abdul Rahman - is not quite as simple a task as thought, even given the fact he has a film which is likely to be an Oscar candidate to promote. The film's distributors say they know nothing of his movements.

The director, Makhmalbaf, has described him as a "superior human being". In an interview recently, he said he knew his actor had killed someone but didn't know he was a murderer "because no legitimate court had proven him so".

He also said: "As for the question that if I had known he were a murderer would I have made a film with him or not, I would have to say yes, of course. If I knew that he was a murderer, I would have made a film with him about the murder that he had committed, in order to explore why it is in the civilised and opulent United States, a black man commits a political assassination and then escapes to a country like Iran, which has a tense relationship with the United States."

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By Katharine MacColl

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