Background Briefing

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I.  Summary

The Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) is an armed Iranian opposition group that was formed in 1965. An urban guerrilla group fighting against the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it was an active participant in the anti-monarchy struggle that resulted in the 1979 Iranian revolution.1

After the revolution, the MKO expanded its organizational infrastructure and recruited many new members. However it was excluded from participating in power sharing arrangements, and the new revolutionary government under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini forced it underground after it instigated an armed uprising against the government in June 1981. The majority of its top cadres went into exile in France. In France, the MKO continued its active opposition to Iran’s government. In 1986, under pressure from the French authorities, the MKO relocated to Iraq. There it established a number of military camps under the banner of the National Liberation Army and maintained an armed presence inside Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the MKO fighters made regular incursions into Iranian territory and fought against Iranian government forces. After the end of Iran-Iraq war, the group’s armed activities decreased substantially as Saddam Hussein’s government curtailed the MKO’s ability to launch attacks inside Iranian territory.

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003 put an end to Iraqi financial and logistical support of the MKO. The MKO fighters remained neutral during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. After the occupation of Iraq, the U.S. military disarmed the MKO fighters and confined them inside their main camp known as Camp Ashraf.2 U.S. military sources told Human Rights Watch that as of March 10, 2005, there were 3,534 MKO members inside Camp Ashraf.3

Some MKO fighters took advantage of an amnesty offer by the Iranian government. Since October 2004, 273 MKO members have returned to Iran.4 The U.S. military has recognized the MKO fighters in Iraq as Protected Persons under the Geneva Conventions.5 Their fate remains uncertain; the Iraqi government and the U.S. military appear not to have reached a decision regarding their future.

During Saddam Hussein’s last year in power, some Iranians held in Abu Ghraib prison were repatriated to Iran in exchange for Iraqi prisoners of war (POWs). These were dissident members of the MKO who had been sent by the organization for “safekeeping” in Abu Ghraib.6 The release of these prisoners in 2002-2003 provided a direct window into conditions inside the MKO camps that was previously inaccessible to the outside world. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed five of these former MKO members who were held in Abu Ghraib prison. Their testimonies, together with testimonies collected from seven other former MKO members, paint a grim picture of how the organization treated its members, particularly those who held dissenting opinions or expressed an intent to leave the organization.

The former MKO members reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members. The MKO held political dissidents in its internal prisons during the 1990s and later turned over many of them to Iraqi authorities, who held them in Abu Ghraib. In one case, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani was held in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years inside the MKO camps, from September 1992 to January 2001.

The witnesses reported two cases of deaths under interrogation. Three dissident members—Abbas Sadeghinejad, Ali Ghashghavi, and Alireza Mir Asgari—witnessed the death of a fellow dissident, Parviz Ahmadi, inside their prison cell in Camp Ashraf. Abbas Sadeghinejad told Human Rights Watch that he also witnessed the death of another prisoner, Ghorbanali Torabi, after Torabi was returned from an interrogation session to a prison cell that he shared with Sadeghinejad.

The MKO’s leadership consists of the husband and wife team of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi. Their marriage in 1985 was hailed by the organization as the beginning of a permanent “ideological revolution.”7 Various phases of this “revolution” include: divorce by decree of married couples, regular writings of self-criticism reports, renunciation of sexuality, and absolute mental and physical dedication to the leadership.8 The level of devotion expected of members was in stark display in 2003 when the French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in Paris. In protest, ten MKO members and sympathizers set themselves on fire in various European cities; two of them subsequently died.9 Former members cite the implementation of the “ideological revolution” as a major source of the psychological and physical abuses committed against the group’s members.

At present, the MKO is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and several European governments. The MKO’s leadership is engaged in an extensive campaign aimed at winning support from Western politicians in order to have the designation of a terrorist organization removed.10


Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone twelve former members of the MKO living in Europe. These witnesses provided credible claims that they were subjected to imprisonment as well as physical and psychological abuses because they had either expressed criticism of the MKO’s policies or had requested to leave the organization’s military camps.

Each witness was interviewed separately several times between February and May 2005. All witnesses are currently living in Europe. More than twelve hours of testimonies were collected. All interviews were conducted in Farsi. Each witness provided independent accounts of their experience inside the MKO camps, and their testimonies corroborated other evidence collected by Human Rights Watch. A number of witnesses who were detained and tortured inside the MKO camps named Hassan Ezati as one of their interrogators. Hassan Ezati’s son, Yasser Ezati, also interviewed for this report, confirmed his father’s identity as a MKO interrogator. 

Of the twelve former MKO members interviewed for this report, eight witnesses11 left Iraq between 2002 and 2004. The remaining four witnesses12 left Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. In addition to being held in internal MKO prisons, five of the witnesses13 were imprisoned in Abu Ghraib prison prior to their release.

[1] For a comprehensive history of the organization, see Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[2] Camp Ashraf is located near the city of al-Khalis, north of Baghdad.

[3] Human Rights Watch e-mail interview with U.S. military officials, March 10, 2005.

[4] According to U.S. military sources, twenty-eight members were repatriated in December 2004, thirteen in January 2005, 100 on March 3, 2005, and 132 on March 9, 2005.

[5] “US grants protection for anti-Tehran group in Iraq,” Reuters, 26 July, 2004.

[6] Former MKO members who were held in Abu Ghraib prison told Human Rights Watch that their cell doors bore a plaque with “Mojahedin Safekeeping” [Amanat-e Mojahedin] written on it.

[7] Mojahed, No. 241, April 4, 1985. Mojahed is the official publication of the MKO, and at the time it appeared weekly. 

[8]  See Masoud Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel (London: Saqi Books, 2004). On self-criticism sessions, see pp. 210-230; on decreeing of divorce, see pgs. 307-311; on renunciation of sexuality, see pages 313-340.  Immediately following Masoud and Maryam Rajavi’s marriage, the MKO military command issued a directive stating: “In order to carry out your organizational duties under the present circumstances there is an urgent need to strengthen and deepen this ideological revolution. You must pay the necessary price by allocating sufficient time and resources for absorbing related teachings…” Mojahed, No. 242, April 12, 1985.  The Social Division of MKO also issued a directive to the members stating: “To understand this great revolution …is to understand and gain a deep insight into the greatness of our new leadership, meaning leadership of Masoud and Maryam. It is to believe in them as well as to show ideological and revolutionary obedience of them.” Mojahed, No. 242, April 12, 1985.

[9] Arifa Akbar, “Human torches mark protest; 10 Iranian exiles become fireballs, two die martyrs,” The Independent, July 2, 2003.

[10] Maryam Rajavi, “Empower Iran’s opposition forces checking the Mullahs,International Herald Tribune, January 28, 2005. Katherine Shrader, “Iranian Group Seeks Legitimacy in U.S.,” Associated Press, February 24, 2005.

[11] Farhad Javaheri-Yar, Ali Ghashghavi, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, and Akbar Akbari were repatriated by Iraqi officials to Iran on January 21, 2002. Amir Mowaseghi was repatriated on March 18, 2003. Alireza Mir Asgari was abandoned along the Iran-Iraq border in February 2003. Yasser Ezati left Iraq in June 2004. Abbas Sadeghinejad escaped the MKO military camp on June 20, 2002.

[12] Mohammad Reza Eskandari, Tahereh Eskandari, Habib Khorrami, and Karim Haqi.

[13] Farhad Javaheri-Yar, Ali Ghashghavi, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, Akbar Akbari, and Amir Mowaseghi were imprisoned in Abu Ghraib.

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