LOS ANGELES – A purported Iranian government agent who pleaded guilty to trying to hire a hitman to kill a broadcaster critical of the Iranian regime is a fugitive from justice after missing a Los Angeles court date.
Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia, 43, was granted permission to travel to his native Iran earlier this fall to visit his ailing father and apparently never returned. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to appear at Tuesday's hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court, deputy district attorney Ron Goudy said.
Sadeghnia's name appears among the trove of U.S. government documents recently posted by the WikiLeaks website. A confidential Jan. 21 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in London says Sadeghnia admitted being an Iranian agent and conducting surveillance on two anti-Iranian government broadcasters — London-based Voice of America commentator Reza Nourizadeh and Jamshid Sharmahd, who runs Los Angeles-based radio programming for opposition group Tondar.
Sadeghnia, who lived for years in Ann Arbor, Mich., was arrested in July 2009 by police at a hotel near the Los Angeles airport. Prosecutors say he tried to hire a hitman to kill Sharmahd for $32,000. The man rejected the offer, police said, and agreed to testify against Sadeghnia, who pleaded guilty.
Sadeghnia spent a year in jail before being placed on probation in July. He later was given permission to leave the country and go to Iran on the condition he return by Oct. 25. On Tuesday, Sadeghnia was supposed to give the court a progress report on his probation.
Sadeghnia's lawyer, Michael Zimbert, said he hasn't heard directly from his client but received an e-mail from Sadeghnia's brother. The e-mail said Sadeghnia could not return from Iran in time for the court date.
Zimbert did not specify what stopped Sadeghnia from coming back but played down any potential danger posed by his client. He said the charge was the result of outlandish drunken statements and that he encouraged Sadeghnia to plead guilty because he felt a jury would be biased against an Iranian.
"In his drunken state of mind he may have said something, but he never had the ability to assassinate anyone," Zimbert said.
In the end, Sadeghnia served a year in jail and was sentenced to five years probation, a seemingly light punishment, said Harland Braun, a Los Angeles criminal attorney.
"Looks to me that there's something odd about the case if you get a year in the county jail for plotting an assassination," said Braun. "There's probably a weakness in the case or (Sadeghnia) cooperated in some way."
Sadeghnia's citizenship may also have come into play, said Braun. Sadeghnia's lawyer said he is a U.S. citizen, but in the cables he's identified as an Iranian national. Many Iranian-Americans hold passports for both countries to travel easily between them, since diplomatic relationships have broken down since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
"If he was a U.S. citizen, then they couldn't deport him," said Braun. "So this way, they've issued a warrant for his arrest and he'd be picked up at the airport if he tried to come back. So when he leaves, basically it's a de facto deportation."
Zimbert noted the FBI interviewed his client but federal authorities have not brought charges.
The website annarbor.com has reported the FBI began investigating Sadeghnia following his arrest and executed two search warrants in Ann Arbor, where Sadeghnia lived until at least August 2008.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller declined comment on the investigation, noting that federal charges have not been brought against Sadeghnia.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Sharmahd said Sadeghnia repeatedly asked to meet him.
"Usually, someone who wants to help, with a donation or a suggestion, just does it and lets it go. They might email or call to follow up, but that's it. His repeated insistence to see me in person was suspect," said Sharmahd, who hosts a popular three-hour radio show.
Sharmahd said because he's long advocated for regime change in Iran, he wasn't surprised to learn from police that he was a possible assassination target.
"Iran is a big power," Sharmahd said. "There's no rights or laws that they uphold, they're violent against their detractors and this is something every detractor, including myself, knows."
The diplomatic cable says following Sadeghnia's arrest the FBI shared information about him with British authorities. Sadeghnia "apparently admitted his surveillance" of Sharmahd and Nourizadeh and claimed he was an Iranian agent, according to the cable, which spells Sadeghnia as "Sadeqinia," perhaps because "q'' and "gh" sound the same when translated to Farsi.
Acting on the FBI's information, British authorities told Nourizadeh that Sadeghnia was "working for the Iranian intelligence services and gathering information on Nourizadeh's habits."
Nourizadeh, "obviously shaken by this news," told authorities Sadeghnia had contacted him several months before, claiming to be a "big fan," according to the cable. Nourizadeh met with Sadeghnia several times in London and Washington, D.C., but became suspicious after Sadeghnia insisted on taking many photos, including shots of Nourizadeh's car and garage.
Then came a tip from "a well-placed friend" who told Nourizadeh that Sadeghnia's photos had landed on the desk of Iran's deputy intelligence minister Majid Alavi, according to the document. Nourizadeh stopped taking Sadeghnia's calls and heard nothing more about the matter until he was visited by British authorities on Jan. 14.
Associated Press writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.