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Mon 24 Oct 2011 09:30 PM

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Car salesman denies role in Saudi envoy murder plot

Manssor Arbabsiar in court on charges that he conspired to kill Saudi ambassador

Car salesman denies role in Saudi envoy murder plot
Courtroom drawing shows Manssor Arbabsiar, who has been charged over an alleged plot to murder the Saudi envoy to the US

Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American car salesman, on Monday pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges that he conspired to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the US.

Arbabsiar, 56, and Gholam Shakuri, who the US said was a member of Iran’s “Qods Force,” plotted to hire someone from a violent Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, according to a five-count indictment filed October 20.

The man they approached was actually a US informant, prosecutors have said.

Asked on Monday by a clerk how he would plead to the charges, Arbabsiar replied: “Not guilty.” Arbabsiar has lived in the Corpus Christi, Texas, area, a federal law enforcement official said. He faces life in prison if convicted of all charges against him, prosecutors said.

US District Judge John Keenan said there will probably be an extensive pretrial exchange of evidence, including secretly taped conversations made by investigators working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Some of them may need to be translated if they’re in Farsi,” Keenan said. “There are alleged admissions of guilt which may be challenged.”

Keenan agreed to give lawyers time to review the evidence in the case and set a December 21 hearing. Arbabsiar is the only defendant in the case in US custody. Prosecutors said Shakuri is at large.

Sabrina Shroff, Arbabsiar’s court-appointed lawyer, declined to comment after today’s hearing. Two men with Saudi United Nations credentials who attended the arraignment declined to speak to English-language press after the hearing.

The man recruited by Arbabsiar and Shakuri to kill the ambassador was secretly working for the Drug Enforcement Administration, prosecutors said when they announced the charges October 11.

Arbabsiar told the informant his cousin was a “big general” in Iran who focused on matters “outside Iran,” prosecutors said.

The two men discussed killing the ambassador by blowing up a restaurant that he frequented, prosecutors said. Other targets included “foreign government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country,” the US said.

Others from the Qods Force in Iran were also involved and helped bankroll the plot, which was to have cost $1.5m, the US said.

The US State Department has described the Qods Force as an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that conducts “covert operations abroad” and has sponsored attacks against US coalition forces in Iraq.

Iran said it “categorically” rejected the US claims about the alleged plot.

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