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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Still a hostage, but no longer afraid

Mustapha Karkouti, who was held captive during the 1980 siege of the Iranian embassy in London, talks about the harrowing experience and the impending release of the sole surviving gunman.
Mustapha Karkouti is now the head of corporate affairs for the Higher Colleges of Technology.
Mustapha Karkouti is now the head of corporate affairs for the Higher Colleges of Technology.

Mustapha Karkouti can remember the events of April 30, 1980, as if they happened yesterday. Then a London-based correspondent for a Lebanese newspaper, Mr Karkouti was visiting the Iranian embassy in London for a meeting with the cultural and press attachés. They were just a couple of minutes into their meeting when the sound of machine gun fire came from downstairs. "I was terrified. My heart started beating 10 times the normal speed and my hosts simply ran out and left me there. I didn't know what to do," he said.

Mr Karkouti saw a group of embassy staff running up the stairs, screaming in Farsi. From his limited knowledge of the language, he worked out the embassy had been taken over. "I ran upstairs and we went into an office. Five minutes later we were found by Fowzi Nejad. We had locked the door but he kicked it down. He was holding a gun in his hand." That was the start of six days in the hands of half a dozen terrorists protesting what they said was harsh treatment of Arabs in Khuzestan, a southern province of Iran.

The gunmen demanded the release of 91 people held in Iranian jails and announced a series of deadlines for their demands to be met. If these were ignored, they said, the hostages would be killed and the embassy would be blown up. "It was very, very terrible, quite horrible. We had so many horrifying moments," said Mr Karkouti, 64, a Briton of Syrian descent who works in Abu Dhabi as head of corporate affairs for the Higher Colleges of Technology.

Because of his language skills - he spoke English and Arabic fluently as well as some Farsi - he was repeatedly called on to translate for the terrorists, hostages and the British security forces. "I was the go-between with the security outside and the gunmen. The leader spoke English, but not very well," he said. "I was most of the time at the window with a gun behind my neck conveying the messages of the gunmen."

Initially there were 26 hostages, mostly Iranians but also Mr Karkouti, two other British journalists and a policeman. They were moved from room to room several times a day by jumpy gunmen "in constant fear" the British authorities would storm the building, Mr Karkouti said. Five hostages were released during the siege, with Mr Karkouti being freed on May 5 shortly after he collapsed from exhaustion.

Soon after, things got much worse. The embassy's press attaché, Abbas Lavasani, one of the people Mr Karkouti was meeting as the siege began, was murdered. From early on, Mr Lavasani had argued with the terrorists, much to the frustration of the other hostages, in particular Mr Karkouti. "When a gunman would enter a room where we were kept, he would argue with them. He marked himself as a martyr. That made the situation much more fearful and dangerous," Mr Karkouti said.

"On the fourth day, I had to hit him because he was about to cause a massacre. We were all in a small room, 21 of us, and he started arguing with the second in command, who had a machine gun. The argument was heating up and he got his gun ready to shoot. Women and men as well started screaming. "I went to Abbas Lavasani and threw myself over him and slapped him in the face. I told him if he wanted to die to do it somewhere else, not here."

After Mr Lavasani's corpse was thrown from the embassy, the British authorities stormed the building. "It was obvious a decision had been taken to storm the building ... a few hours before they killed anybody," Mr Karkouti said. Troops from the Special Air Service (SAS) entered the embassy in a mission that was broadcast live on television. All but one of the remaining hostages were rescued alive, and five of the six terrorists were killed.

Controversy followed, with some of the hostages saying the SAS killed gunmen who could have been arrested. Nejad only survived by pretending to be a hostage. "When the hostages were brought outside the building, everybody was ordered to lie face down on the ground with their hands tied behind their back." Nejad was identified as a gunman and, Mr Karkouti said, the SAS then wanted to take him inside to finish him off.

"But police ordered them to stop. They arrested Fowzi Nejad and took him from the SAS." Nejad was convicted of conspiracy to murder, two counts of manslaughter, false imprisonment and possession of a firearm. At the end of the trial in 1981, the judge recommended a 22-year minimum sentence. A decade later, Mr Karkouti, who keeps a home in London, received a letter from Nejad asking for forgiveness. Nejad explained how he had become a better person, had learnt English and was studying through the UK's Open University.

During the siege, the two men had talked about Nejad's upbringing in Khuzestan. Nejad took part in strikes against the regime of the Shah and joined a group demanding autonomy for the southern province. Under the later Islamic regime, he continued his political activities. Iraqi intelligence allegedly urged the terrorists on, assuring the gang that the British authorities would not attack them. After receiving the letter, Mr Karkouti thought "long and hard" about whether to forgive his former tormentor and discussed the issue with his wife and some of his fellow former hostages. He eventually decided to reject Nejad's plea, despite feeling that the terrorist was "just a kid" and "totally ignorant" when he took part in the siege aged 22.

"I was still full of anger. Nejad to me was after all, despite his naivety, still a member of a terrorist group who had taken innocent civilians by force," he said. Later, there were approaches on behalf of Nejad asking Mr Karkouti to sign "a statement of good behaviour" for what was said to be a campaign to free the terrorist. "The campaign lawyer had written to us claiming the government intended to free Nejad but could not do so because he would face the death penalty if he was deported to Iran and because Britain could not find a country that would accept Nejad as a refugee," he said.

Nejad will be permitted to remain in the UK but must remain under supervision and will have to report to the authorities. While Mr Karkouti, a father of three, still refuses to forgive Nejad, he supports his release from jail, believing that the one-time gunman, now 50, has spent long enough behind bars. "If I saw him on the Underground or in the street, I may exchange greetings, but I wouldn't seek to get to know him. I've seen enough from him," he said.

"In my view we have to give him the opportunity to lead a better life. Punishment does not mean deprivation. "You should punish people, but constructively." Despite "the outrageous terrorist act" that Nejad took part in, Mr Karkouti believes Nejad is no longer a threat to society, even if those held hostage by him still suffer from their "dreadful experience". "Speaking about it now will bring it back to live with me for another week," Mr Karkouti said.

"It's one of those things that never goes away. It stays with you for ever. The only thing you can do is get used to it. That's what I've been doing the whole way through." dbardsley@thenational.ae