An Iranian rebel group that is aggressively campaigning for Washington’s support as part of a "regime change" strategy in its homeland has committed serious abuses, including torture and prolonged isolation, against dissident members, according to a leading human rights watchdog.
The group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), insists that it should lead a U.S.-backed effort to bring what it has termed democratic rule to Iran. Last month, it organized a rally, attended by several powerful Republican lawmakers and billed as the "2005 National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Republic in Iran," at Washington’s historic Constitution Hall.
But MEK’s own human-rights record during its almost 20 years as an armed group sheltered and supported by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein belies its professed commitment to democratic rule, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 28-page report, "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MEK Camps," released Thursday.
"The Iranian government has a dreadful record on human rights," said Joe Stork, Washington director of HRW’s Middle East division. "But it would be a huge mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for serious human rights abuses."
The report comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran focused primarily on U.S. charges that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, a development that President George W. Bush has described as "unacceptable."
The U.S. administration has not yet explicitly endorsed "regime change" in Iran, but hardliners based primarily in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and at the Defense Department have made little secret of their belief that such a policy should be adopted. Their only question is how best to achieve that goal.
Since the March, 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where the MEK had been based since 1986, the group has tried to persuade Washington that it holds the key to overthrowing the Islamic Republic next door.
It has been backed in this quest by right-wing lawmakers, a group of hardline neoconservatives and retired military officers called the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), and some U.S. officials particularly in the Pentagon who believe that the MEK could be used to help destabilize the Iranian regime, if not eventually overthrow it in conjunction with U.S. military strikes against selected targets.
While the group’s supporters in the Pentagon so far have succeeded in protecting the several thousand MEK militants based at Camp Ashraf near the Iranian border from being dispersed or deported, they have failed to persuade the U.S. State Department to take the group off its terrorist list, to which it was added in 1997 based on its attacks during the 1970s against U.S. military contractors and its participation in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The European Union (EU) also cites the MEK as a terrorist organization.
After a year-long tug-of-war between the two U.S. agencies, a truce between State and the Pentagon was apparently worked out. MEK members at Camp Ashraf were designated "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions.
Since then, the Pentagon has recruited individual members of the MEK to infiltrate Iran as part of an effort to locate secret nuclear installations, according to recent articles published in The New Yorker and Newsweek magazines. At the same time, nearly 300 members have taken advantage of an amnesty in Iran to return home, leaving a total of 3,534 MEK members inside Camp Ashraf as of mid-March, according to the HRW report.
In this context, the MEK and its supporters have been campaigning hard for the group to be "de-listed" by the State Department as a terrorist group. That appeared to be the principal demand of last month’s rally, which was addressed via video-conference by MEK’s co-president, Maryam Rajavi.
The group, one of whose Washington representative, Ali Safavi, described it as "Tehran’s greatest and most feared nemesis" in a recent Washington Times column, also claims a commitment to democracy.
In another column published by the International Herald Tribune in January, Rajavi, who also heads the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a MEK front group, stressed that she was "committed to holding free and fair elections within six months of regime change, to electing a constituent assembly and handing over affairs to the people’s elected representatives."
Those claims are likely to invite greater skepticism in light of the new HRW report, which is based on a series interviews between February and May 2005 with 12 former MEK members currently living in Europe.
They testified to a pattern of torture, beatings, and prolonged detention in solitary confinement at military camps in Iraq after they criticized the group’s policies and what they called its undemocratic practices, or indicated that they planned to leave the organization. Two of the interviewees said they had personally witnessed the deaths of two prisoners under interrogation.
Those who wished to leave the organization were held incommunicado in special units in the camps, they said. If they held a high rank in the MEK, they were held for years; one of the interviewees reportedly was held for a total of eight and a half years; another for five years.
The most brutal treatment was meted out to suspected dissidents in secret prisons located within the MEK camps, according to the report. Four of the witnesses, who were suspected of dissident views, testified that they had all been severely tortured and forced to sign false confessions asserting that they had links to Iranian intelligence agents.
Three of them witnessed the death of Parviz Ahmadi, a former unit commander, in February 1995, shortly after a particularly severe beating. His death was reported three years later in the MEK’s publication, Mojahed, which described him as a "martyr" killed by Iranian intelligence agents.
Five of the witnesses were eventually transferred to Abu Ghraib prison during the 1990s and released by Saddam Hussein’s government in 2001 or 2002.
The testimonies included in the report also lend weight to the view that the MEK is more of a cult than a political movement. They suggest that the group’s exile in the early 1980s, followed by the marriage of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi in 1985, set off a series of phases in what the husband-and-wife team declared was a permanent "ideological revolution" that the couple embodied.
These included compulsory divorce of married couples, regular self-criticism sessions, renunciation of sexuality, and absolute mental and physical dedication to the leadership. "The level of devotion expected of members was on stark display in 2003 when the French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in Paris," HRW said. "In protest, 10 MEK members and sympathizers set themselves on fire in various European cities; two of them subsequently died."