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EXCLUSIVE - International Drug Trafficker Working For Iranian Intelligence From Turkey To Romania

The Turkish Police said on December 14 it arrested 13 members of a criminal group known as the Zindashti Cartel working in Turkey, on charges of collaboration with the intelligence organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Turkey's official government news agency, Anatoli, has said that the Iranian Intelligence Ministry has been employing this criminal group to assassinate or abduct Iranian dissidents in Turkey at least since 2015.

According to Turkish media reports as well as the videos that Britain's Sky News broadcast on December 16, the abduction of Habib Asyud or Chaab, an Iranian-Arab leading separatist from the oil-producing province of Khuzestan with a large Arabic speaking population, and delivering him to the Iranian authorities, was the latest mission carried out by the criminal group on behalf of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.

Beside his associates in drug trafficking, Naji Sharifi Zindashti, the man after who the cartel is named, is also suspected to have been behind the assassination of Iranian dissident Masoud Mowlavi in Istanbul in November 2019.

In 2018 some of the members of the group and Zindashti himself were arrested in Turkey on suspicion of assassinating Saeed Karimian, the founder and head of Gem TV, and some other killings related to drug trafficking. They were freed after some time, reportedly as a result of lobbying, bribery and lack of adequate evidence.

Zindashti's villa in Istanbul with expensive cars and personalized license plates. Undated

After his release Zindashti returned to Iran and despite his convictions for drug trafficking and the killing of a prison guard in the past, Zindashti leads a free life in Iran. Sources in Iran say he openly collaborates with the intelligence ministry and even runs his drug business there. He has built houses in his home village and a block of apartments in Urmia named after his mother Nafia. 

Some evidence has now surfaced that shows the Zindashti Cartel may have been also involved in the killing of the Iranian fugitive judge Gholamreza Mansouri in the Romanian capital Bucharest in June. The fugitive judge accused of receiving about half a million dollars in bribes and on the run in Europe was found dead in suspicious circumstances at his hotel.

The assassination of judge Mansouri in Bucharest may have been carried out by men connected with Hossein Karimi-Rigabadi, Zindashti's maternal cousin and brother-in-law. Karimi-Rigabadi's involvement can explain the obscurities of Mansouri's case: Iranian authorities who say Mansouri committed suicide may have lured him from Germany to Romania where the contract killers had better resources. Mansouri went to Romania on advice of the Iranian foreign ministry to avoid arrest on charges of human rights violations in Germany.

Gholamreza Mansouri, a fugitive judge and regime insider killed in Bucharest in June 2020

The way that the Romanian police and courts handled the case and the fact that the Iranian embassy in Bucharest ignored Mansouri's warning about the danger to his life are parts of a puzzle created by the Iranian intelligence organs that use criminal groups abroad, such as the Zindashti Cartel in Turkey and Rigabadi cartel in Romania to carry out their dirty work for them.

Karimi-Rigabadi lived in Bucharest for over 25 years where he ran one of the major drug cartels in the city. He was wanted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for many years for his role in international trafficking of heroin and was eventually arrested in Austria in March 2007 and extradited to the United States. He was freed after five years and returned to Iran where he now lives.

Naji Sharifi Zindashti was involved in a massive drug trafficking operation in 2014 which the Greek police aborted, seizing two tons of pure heroin. Dozens were arrested after the discovery of the cache, the largest so far in Europe, and a chain of suspicious murders took place in various countries including Turkey where Zindashti and his family lived. At least 17 people connected to the operation have been killed on three continents over the past six years.

Zindashti with his mother Nafia. Undated

In the past twenty-six years Zindashti, 46, has been arrested on serious drug trafficking and murder charges three times but each time he has managed to escape punishment. He is the youngest child of a well-to-do and well-known family from Mamkan village in Iran's West Azarbaijan province.

Zindashti's father and older brother, dissident Kurds fighting for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, both died in an armed encounter between the party's men (peshmarga) and the Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic in 1983.

Iranian police arrested Zindashti in 1996 for a drug deal. He and his accomplice Esfandiar Rigi were sentenced to life but killed a guard during transfer to the court to testify in another case and fled. Rigi went to Pakistan and Zindashti fled to Turkey where he took residence with his sister in a village near the city of Van and began establishing his drug cartel.

Zindashti as child with his father.

In 2001, Zindashti moved to Istanbul where he established relations with the political movement of Fethullah Gulen and made generous donations to the group. Gulen who at the time was an influential cleric and political figure was backing rising star Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Later, the two titans of Turkish politics had a falling apart and Gulen now lives in the United states as a man Erdogan badly wants extradited.

In 2007 Turkish police arrested Zindashti with more than 77 kilos of heroin near Istanbul. Reportedly, Zindashti claimed that his name was Kamal Sharifi-Seyedani and cooperated with the authorities to identify drug trafficking routes during the investigation and trial in return for a reduction in his sentence.

The prosecutor in the case asked for a life sentence but Zindashti, still using his alias of Sharifi-Seyedani eventually went free, probably by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and agreeing to testify in the sensational Ergenekon case.

Two months after his release from prison using another alias, Tarazi, he testified against the judges in the case involving the trafficking of 350 kilos of heroin. He told the court that the judges had received 1.2 million euros in bribes to let all the defendants walk free.

Esfandiar Rigi AKA Mohammad Diesel. Undated

Testifying against others damaged Zindashti's stature among his peers and he came to be known as a snitch. The fall from grace among his peers cost him dearly a few years later when they suspected him of giving them away in the case of the massive Greek Noor One heroin discovery, the biggest ever in Europe.

One of the people arrested by the police was Esfandiar Rigi, the person who escaped with Zindashti from prison in Iran years earlier. Rigi fled from Greek police custody and went to Turkey where his old friend helped him to go to Dubai where he lived.

Other drug lords who had invested in the deal began to suspect Zindashti after the failure of the deal and the arrests in Greece and even mistakenly assassinated his young daughter Avin, a university student, in Istanbul instead of him a few months later. Zindashti claimed he had warned the Turkish authorities and thought he and his family were under their protection.

Zindashti's daughter Avin. Undated

Zindashti who did not know who had targeted his family began a bloody feud against all his former partners. The first target, Murad Garki, was killed in Amsterdam and then two others in Turkey. The killings of former associates, including Esfandiar Rigi, known as Mohammad Diesel, continued in Turkey, UAE, the Netherlands and Iran. Zindashti later took responsibility for his killing in a message to another drug lord.

Zindashti was eventually arrested in March 2018 by Turkish police when Greece issued an international warrant for him but was freed with the help of Turkish politician Burhan Kuzu, a high official of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK), and went to Iran.

Kuzu had told the judge that freeing Zindashti would have a positive effect on Turkish-Iranian relations. It is not clear whether Kuzu had acted on his own initiative or due to the demand of an Iranian diplomatic or security official. The Turkish politician was later put on trial for his role in this case.

Up to this point Zindashti still seemed to be investing his hopes for the future in Turkey and the Turkish political scene, not the Islamic Republic.

Turkish media named him as the man behind the abduction of Habib Asyud on December 16 and claimed that he was connected to the Iranian intelligence ministry. In a video interview with a Turkish journalist published on YouTube on December 20 Zindashti denied allegations of collaboration with the Iranian intelligence ministry, brought against him by Bakhtiar Forat, a relative who was arrested in Turkey in November. Zindashti said Forat's confessions had been made under torture and were baseless.

Turkey has arrested a number of Turkish citizens for their role in the abduction of Asyud and handing him over to Iranian intelligence, presumably on Zindashti's orders.

Shahed Alavi, Iran International staff journalist
Iran International staff journalist
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