Terror Watch: Consider the Source

A controversial exile movement cited by President George W. Bush as a source of information on Iran's nuclear ambitions is condemned for psychologically and physically abusing its own members in a new report by Human Rights Watch.

In a document scheduled for public release this week, Human Rights Watch alleges that the Iranian exile group known as Mujahedine Khalq (MEK) has a history of cultlike practices that include forcing members to divorce their spouses and to engage in extended self-criticism sessions.

More dramatically, the report states, former MEK members told Human Rights Watch that when they protested MEK policies or tried to leave the organization, they were arrested, in some cases violently abused and in other instances imprisoned. Two former recruits told the human-rights group that they were held in solitary confinement for years in a camp operated by MEK in Iraq under the protection of Saddam Hussein. MEK representatives in the United States and France, where MEK is headquartered, did not immediately respond to NEWSWEEK phone calls and an e-mail requesting comment.

MEK has long been controversial because of its history of violent attacks in Iran, its relationship with Saddam's regime and its background as a quasi-religious, quasi-Marxist radical resistance group founded in the era of the late Iranian shah. In 1997, the Clinton administration put MEK on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups. MEK's U.S. supporters, among whom at one point numbered dozens of members of Congress, charged that the Clinton administration only labeled MEK as a terrorist group as part of an ill-conceived attempt to improve relations with the ayatollahs who currently run Iran. However, the Bush administration added two alleged MEK front organizations to the State Department's terrorist list in 2003.

Despite the group's notoriety, Bush himself cited purported intelligence gathered by MEK as evidence of the Iranian regime's rapidly accelerating nuclear ambitions. At a March 16 press conference, Bush said Iran's hidden nuclear program had been discovered not because of international inspections but "because a dissident group pointed it out to the world." White House aides acknowledged later that the dissident group cited by the president is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), one of the MEK front groups added to the State Department list two years ago.

In an appearance before a House International Relations Subcommittee a year ago, John Bolton, the controversial State Department undersecretary who Bush has nominated to become US ambassador to the United Nations, was questioned by a Congressman sympathetic to MEK about whether it was appropriate for the U.S. government to pay attention to allegations about Iran supplied by the group. Bolton said he believed that MEK "qualifies as a terrorist organization according to our criteria." But he added that he did not think the official label had "prohibited us from getting information from them. And I certainly don't have any inhibition about getting information about what's going on in Iran from whatever source we can find that we deem reliable."

However, current and former senior U.S. national-security officials, who asked not to be named because they are not supposed to talk about intelligence-gathering activities, say that all the major revelations MEK publicly claims to have made regarding nuclear advances in Iran were reported in classified form--and from other sources--to U.S. policymakers before MEK made them public. A Western diplomat familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations component that has been monitoring Iran's nuclear program, said that while the MEK has occasionally come up with accurate information about Iran's nukes, the group has come up with a similar number of other tips that have not checked out.

According to Human Rights Watch, several members of Congress, including both Republicans and Democrats, only last month attended a Washington meeting of a legal "MKO-backed" group called the National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Republic in Iran. In February, the group says, a think tank co-chaired by retired U.S. military officers called for MEK to be dropped from the State Department terrorist list and recommended that the U.S. government actively support MEK in its campaign to bring down the Iranian theocracy.

According to administration officials, some Pentagon officials want to recruit former MEK members as U.S. secret agents who would infiltrate Iran on intelligence missions. The Pentagon has emphatically insisted that it has no plans to work with the MEK or any of the group's members.

The new Human Rights Watch report offers no insight into the validity or inaccuracy of MEK information about Iranian's nuclear program but it does allege strange and sometimes brutal behavior by the group's leaders and internal security apparatus. According to the report, MEK, formed in 1965 by three political activists, originally was an "urban guerilla group" which participated in the struggle against the shah that resulted in the 1979 Iranian revolution and produced the current theocratic regime in Tehran.

In an early schism following the revolution, the MEK and Abolhassan Bani Sadr, briefly Iran's president during the 1980 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, split away from the main revolutionary movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini and went into exile. Later, Bani Sadr in turn split from MEK after a disagreement with Massoud Rajavi, who, with his wife, Maryam, subsequently became the movement's unchallenged leader. During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam allowed MEK to set up several military camps in Iraq--with a headquarters encampment near Baghdad known as Camp Ashraf--and the group proceeded to conduct paramilitary operations against the Tehran regime, the largest of which was mounted--unsuccessfully--shortly after Iran agreed to a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. MEK reportedly lost more than 1,000 fighters in this attack.

According to Human Rights Watch, following this 1988 military defeat, the Rajavi's leadership of MEK became increasingly authoritarian and cultlike. According to an MEK defector's memoir, Rajavi claimed to have a mystical relationship with a prophet known as Imam Zaman, who is Shia Islam's version of the long-awaited Messiah. In order to better cement their relationship with their leader, and hence ultimately their Messiah, Rajavi then instructed his followers to divorce their spouses. The group had already established a practice of "self criticism," under which members were asked to undergo their own personal "ideological revolution" by confessing personal inadequacies in cultlike confession sessions.

Paranoid about defectors and possible infiltrators from the Tehran regime's intelligence apparatus, in the l990s, according to Human Rights Watch, MEK leadership ordered a series of stringent "security clearances" in which "many" members were arrested by group organizers and interrogated and even imprisoned in special buildings inside the boundaries of MEK camps in Saddam-ruled Iraq. Human Rights Watch says the testimony of former MEK prisoners paints "a grim picture of how the organization treated its members, particularly those who held dissenting opinions or expressed an intent to leave the organization."

Witnesses contacted by Human Rights Watch reported two deaths during the course of MEK internal interrogations and other cases of lengthy imprisonment. One MEK detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, claimed to have spent eight and a half years in solitary confinement in MEK detention facilities after he started raising questions about the leadership's policies. He said he was beaten on 11 occasions with wooden sticks and leather belts. Another former MEK member interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Farhad Javaheri-Yar, claimed to have been imprisoned in solitary confinement by the group for five years.

Other witnesses told Human Rights Watch claimed it was the practice of MEK interrogators to tie thick ropes around prisoners' necks and drag them along the ground. One witness told investigators: "Sometimes prisoners returned to the cell with extremely swollen necks--their head and neck as big as a pillow." In a statement accompanying its investigative report, Joe Stork, a Human Rights Watch expert on the Middle East, commented: "The Iranian government has a dreadful record on human rights. But it would be a mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for serious human rights abuses."

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