Senior Shia cleric in Iran shot dead at bank

Ayatollah Abbasali Soleimani (file photo via Tasnim news agency)
Ayatollah Abbasali Soleimani

A senior Iranian Shia Muslim cleric and member of the powerful Assembly of Experts has been killed in a gun attack in northern Iran, state media report.

Ayatollah Abbasali Soleimani died in hospital after being shot at a bank in Babolsar, in Mazandaran province.

Its governor said the attacker, who has been arrested, was a bank security guard and that the motive was unclear.

Ayatollah Soleimani was one of 88 clerics on the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the Supreme Leader.

The elected body also monitors his performance and can – theoretically – remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties.

He also previously served as the personal representative of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the restive south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, stepping down in 2019 after 17 years in the role.

Ayatollah Soleimani, who was in his mid-70s, was visiting a branch of Bank Belli in Babolsar on personal business at about 10:30 local time on Wednesday when he was shot.

CCTV footage published by the Tasnim news agency appeared to show the cleric, dressed in a traditional dark robe and white turban, sitting on a chair inside the bank.

A middle-aged man wearing a blue and white uniform and carrying what looks like a submachine gun is then seen walking up to him from behind before firing a series of shots into his back.

The man is then disarmed by two other men, one of whom is wearing a green uniform.

The governor of Mazandaran, Mahmoud Hosseinipour Nouri, said the attacker was a local man who was one of several armed guards employed by a security contractor to protect the bank.

“So far, the motive of the assailant for the act is rather unclear,” he told state TV.

He said the police’s investigation into the shooting was continuing, but that “our information and documents indicate that this was not a security or terrorist act”.

An initial report by Hawzahnews, the official website of Iran’s Shia seminaries, cited a witness as saying that the attacker was a man who grabbed a bank guard’s gun and opened fire, rather than a guard.

Last April, two clerics were killed and a third was injured in a knife attack at a Shia shrine in the north-eastern city of Mashhad. An ethnic Uzbek man was hanged in June after being found guilty of carrying out the stabbings, for which police did not reveal the motive.

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