Tel: (301) 946-2918. Fax: (301)942-5341
Copyright © 1994-99, by the Middle East DataProject, Inc. All rights reserved.
Police in Los Angeles and Nevada arrested 15 persons on March 16for their involvement in a scheme to smuggle members of theMujahedin-e Khalq illegally into the United States by acquiring U.S.visas for them, according to court documents obtained by The IranBrief.
A June 1998 grand jury indictment, unsealed on March 16, allegedthat the group operated a series of visa service companies in Encino,California, and had helped up to 300 Iranians illegally enter theUnited States over the past three years, and as many as 22,000 since1983. Many of those helped were known to U.S. law enforcementofficials as Mujahedin operatives, a group which is on the StateDepartment's list of international terrorist organizations.
The indictment alleges that 43-year old Bahram Tabatabai, ofSherman Oaks, California was the ring-leader, and ran the operationout of a series of businesses known variously as CaliforniaManagement Network, IMN, International Management Network, andIranian Aid Services Network. He used the aliases Ben, Ali, and RezaTabatabai, depending on the situation.
Tabatabai had two main partners: Mohsen Arefe, who produced falsedocuments; and Rafi Tamtami, who was in charge of helping Mujahedinoperatives and others to fraudulently obtain visas at the U.S.embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus.
FBI sources say the Bureau has run several cases against theMujahedin in the Washington, DC area, including cases where Mujahedinoperatives attempted to enter the country using false visas, falsepassports, or fake political asylum travel documents. The Bureau haslong suspected that the Mujahedin operated a "document shop," butthis is the first time U.S. law enforcement officials have actuallydiscovered one in operation.
Mohsen Arefe and his wife churned out thousands of forged bankrecords, marriage certificates, business and property records,employment records, military records, identification documents, andschool records in support of the visa applications, the indictmentalleges. On average, they charged around $500 per client for acomplete set of counterfeit documents.
The insider: The case began in October 1996 when one ofTabatabai's employees Tabatabai voluntarily came to the FBI offeringinformation on individuals who had fraudulently obtained U.S. entryvisas. The FBI subsequently put the informant in touch with the StateDepartment's Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DSS), which is in chargeof investigating passport violations and became the lead agency onthe case. The FBI paid the informant close to $40,000 betweenFebruary 1998 and March 1998 when the indictment was unsealed.
The informant had an insider's view of Tabatabai's operation,since he was responsible for sending forged visa applicationdocuments to Tamtami in Cyprus. "Tamtami would review these documentsfor completeness, would meet with the applicant, and would coach theapplicant in preparation for the visa interview at the U.S. Embassyin Nicosia, Cyprus," according to a sworn affidavit prepared by KevinHuska, a DSS Special Agent.
Tabatabai offered a full range of services, depending on how dirtywas the client's real past.
"Tabatabai offers two types of services for political asylum,"Huska wrote. "The first service involves assisting the client in thecompletion of the INS forms... Tabatabai charges the client at least$2,000 for his services, and the client would apply to the INSwithout Tabatabai's assistance. The second type of service providedby Tabatabai guarantees that the client will be granted politicalasylum. Tabatabai would develop a new identity for the client, andwould give the client supporting documents including birthcertificates, employment records, diplomas from secondary schools topost graduate institutions, official Government of Iranrecords/correspondence describing death or prison sentence decrees,etc."
It was necessary to go through these complicated procedures, thecourt papers allege, because many of the applicants were Mujahedinmembers or had arrest records in the United States. Because theMujahedin is on the State Department's list of terroristorganizations, its members are barred from applying for politicalasylum in the United States. Convicted felons are barred from entryinto the United States.
"In addition to the false documents and assumed identities,Tabatabai further fabricates a "story" for the potential politicalasylum client and then coaches them for the political asyluminterview," Huska testified. "Once Tabatabai has obtained thefraudulent documents and is comfortable that the client knows his newidentity and "story" for the political asylum request, Tabatabaiaccompanies the client to the INS political asylum hearing andrepresents himself as a translator. If Tabatabai does not like ananswer given by the client (in Farsi) in response to a question bythe INS hearing officer during the interview, Tabatabai would changethe client's response during the translation."
INS records showed that Tabatabai had thus represented "over 300individuals in their political asylum interviews" at the INS officein Anaheim, California.
"This investigation has also revealed that Tabatabai and othershave assisted members of the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq with theirasylum applications [by providing] new identities; fraudulentdocuments in support of these new identities; and fabricated "cover"stories in support of the applicants' asylum claims. These "cover"stories typically entail involvement with anti-government of Iranactivities, incarceration, beatings, etc.," according to the Huskaaffidavit.
The document shop: Mohsen Arefe and his wife ran a veritabledocument shop out of a small office known as Vijeh Company in BeverlyHills. Since October 1997, they have operated out of their home inHenderson, Nevada. The confidential informant, sent to pick updocuments from them, found via embossing stamps, letterheadpurporting to be from various Iranian government ministries, andforms from private companies in Iran. They used these to create falselife histories - or "legends" - for their clients.
In one case, Tabatabai paid the Arefe $700 to obtain an entiredocument suite for a client named Safoura Pashaei Marandi. Thedocuments included employment verification for Marandi from theSheepra Shoes Manufacturing Company; a computer course certificatefor Marandi from the Computech Center; a factory ownershipcertification in the name of Reza Pashaei Marandi; bank accountbalance in Marandi's name from the Etebarat Bank of Iran; anownership deed in the name of Reza Pashaei Marandi; transcripts inMarinade's name from the University of Tehran; and a promissoryguarantee from the City of Tehran in Marandi's name. The documentswere shipped by Federal Express to Marandi in France.
For someone leaving Iran out of fear of persecution, it was animpressive amount of documentation. The only problem was, all thedocuments were fakes.
Ms. Marandi was clever, and applied for her visa at the U.S.consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, not in France. But the Bureau ofDiplomatic Security was clever, also. They sent out a watch list ofTabatabai's known customers to U.S. embassies in Europe, and soon hadin hand copies of Ms. Marandi's entire student visa application file,which matched exactly with the photocopies made by the confidentialinformant before he had sent the documents to Marandi in France.
In similar cases, the DSS found that Tabatabai's clients hadapplied for U.S. visas in Turkey and Cyprus.
In a conversation between the confidential informant and Arefe atArefe's home outside of Las Vegas that was taped clandestinely, Arefesaid he had forged documents for more than 22,000 customers since1983, and that he maintained a client data base on his computer with"everybody's name, phone and address."
If the FBI gains access to the Arefe data base, they may discoverthe secrets of Mujahedin operatives who have been working undercoverin the United States for years without notice.