Rushdie makes surprise appearance, begs for help

March 25, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ARLINGTON, VA — ARLINGTON, Va. -- Salman Rushdie, the English novelist living under an Iranian death threat for writing the book "The Satanic Verses," made a dramatic and unexpected appearance here last night to plead for U.S. pressure to end "state-sponsored professional terrorism."

Last night's appearance is only the second time Mr. Rushdie has appeared in the United States since February 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered his death for writing a novel that Muslims say unfairly depicts the prophet Mohammed.

Mr. Rushdie, a bearded and slightly rumpled-looking academic, told a crowd of journalists and writers that he takes his life in his hands at every public appearance. "Today it's me. Tomorrow it could be you," he said.

Accompanied by a cadre of private security guards with bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors, Mr. Rushdie appealed "to the United States to show itself to be the true friend of liberty."

Yet Mr. Rushdie said his plans to meet members of Congress today were abruptly canceled without a satisfactory explanation.

Appearing at the headquarters of Freedom Forum, a foundation that promotes free speech and free expression, Mr. Rushdie, who lives somewhere in Great Britain, said the British government is losing interest in protecting him. "I don't think anybody expected it to go on so long," he said.

Mr. Rushdie said that living under constant guard "feels a little bit like living in the Twilight Zone."

His voice broke when he announced that the American paperback edition of "The Satanic Verses" was published yesterday, and he brandished a copy for photographers.

"This attack is not only on my right to write freely, not only on the right of an American publisher to publish freely, but perhaps most importantly of all, on the right of American readers to read freely," he said.

Failure to prevail in his case would encourage further terrorist acts of repression, he told the crowd.

An audience of about 150 had expected to hear only from Mike Wallace of CBS' "60 Minutes," before the author in hiding made his electrifying entrance.

His appearance was cloaked with extraordinary secrecy and stringent security. He was flown to the United States in a private jet guarded by British commandos, according to the conference's organizers. Among other precautions, Mr. Rushdie's security advisers requested that an anti-aircraft missile be mounted on the roof of the glass-sheathed office building where he spoke, which is adjacent to the flight path to Washington National Airport. They refused to say whether the missile was put in place before his appearance.

The extraordinary precautions have proved necessary by acts of violence against Mr. Rushdie's colleagues. Professor Hitoshi Igarishi, the Japanese translator of "The Satanic Verses," was stabbed to death last June on the Tsukuba University campus in Japan, a crime some suspected was linked to Ayatollah Khomeini's edict. Ettore Capriolo, the book's Italian translator, said he was stabbed last year by a man who had described himself as an Iranian.

Mr. Rushdie darted out the door immediately after the speech ended.

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