Opposition Group Seeks Recognition and Support in Western Capitals
May 18, 2005
Members who try to leave the MKO pay a very heavy price. These testimonies paint a grim picture of what happened to members who criticized the group’s leaders.
Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

An armed Iranian opposition group in exile, the Mojahedin Khalq Organization, has subjected dissident members to torture and prolonged solitary confinement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 28-page report, “No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MKO Camps,” details how dissident members of the shadowy Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) were tortured, beaten and held in solitary confinement for years at military camps in Iraq after they criticized the group’s policies and undemocratic practices, or indicated that they planned to leave the organization. The report is based on the direct testimonies of a dozen former MKO members, including five who were turned over to Iraqi security forces and held in Abu Ghraib prison under Saddam Hussein’s government.

“Members who try to leave the MKO pay a very heavy price,” said Joe Stork, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “These testimonies paint a grim picture of what happened to members who criticized the group’s leaders.”

One former high-ranking MKO member, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, was held in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years, from September 1992 to January 2001. The MKO then turned him over to Iraqi authorities. He was held in Abu Ghraib prison until 2002, when he was forcibly repatriated to Iran. The witnesses also reported two cases of deaths under interrogation by MKO operatives.

In 1997, the U.S. government classified the MKO as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The European Union included the MKO in its list of “terrorist and terrorist organizations” in 2002.

Meanwhile the MKO’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance, which is based in France, continues to lobby the U.S. government and EU countries to remove this designation and lift the restrictions that have ensued. From Washington to Brussels, the group is presenting itself as a “democratic alternative” to Iran’s government. The MKO’s political wing has presented itself as the Iranian “government in exile” and has called on the international community for recognition.

After the French government in 2003 arrested MKO co-leader Maryam Rajavi on suspicion of plotting terrorist activity on French soil, 10 MKO members and sympathizers protested by setting themselves on fire in Paris, London and other European cities. Two of them died. In January, 40 members of parliaments across Europe, as well as the European Parliament, publicly called for the removal of MKO’s terrorist designation.

On April 14, several members of the U.S. Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, attended the National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Republic in Iran, an event that an MKO-backed organization held in Washington. Among other members of Congress, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R., Colo.) has called for removal of the MKO from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. On February 10, a think-tank co-chaired by retired U.S. military officers, the Iran Policy Committee, called for the removal of the designation and for the U.S. government to actively support the group against the Iranian government.

“The Iranian government has a dreadful record on human rights,” said Stork. “But it would be a huge mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for serious human rights abuses.”

The MKO was founded in 1965 as an Islamic urban guerrilla group to challenge the shah’s government. In 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution, the anti-clerical group went underground after trying to incite an armed uprising against Ayatollah Khomeini. After exile in France, the group’s leaders relocated to Iraq in 1986.

During the Iran-Iraq war, MKO forces regularly attacked Iranian troops along the border and made several incursions into Iran. After the war ended in 1988, Iranian courts issued summary rulings to execute thousands of political prisoners, including many MKO members.

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003 put an end to Iraqi financial and logistical support for the MKO. After the U.S.-led invasion, the U.S. military disarmed MKO forces operating in Iraq. In July, the U.S. designated them as “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions and confines more than 3,000 of them in their main military camp north of Baghdad.

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