Four brothers from Iran may have been in U.S. custody longer than any of other post Sept. 11 detainees. During their calls home to Iran, the Mirmehdi brothers pretend they're so busy selling houses that they have little time for dating or hobbies or visits from elderly parents.
LOS ANGELES – During their calls home to Iran, the Mirmehdi brothers pretend they're so busy selling houses that they have little time for dating or hobbies or visits from elderly parents.
They can't bear to tell their family they are calling from a Los Angeles jail. They've been detained since October 2001 because the U.S. government claims they are members of a terrorist organization.
Mostafa, Mojtaba, Mohsen and Mohammad Mirmehdi, who came under scrutiny because of visa irregularities, are possibly the nation's longest-held post-9/11 detainees. But the government isn't alleging they had anything to do with the 9/11 hijackers or al-Qaeda as it did with those in the first round of about 800 detainees, most of whom were deported.
he brothers are part of a different category: an untold number of immigrants labeled national security threats because they allegedly belong to one of 27 organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department. And like the brothers, most if not all of these immigrants are not charged with terrorism. The brothers' attorney and government critics say innocents are caught in a net that has been cast too widely. Even if the government allegations were true, attorney Marc Van Der Hout said, "all they have done is associate themselves with an organization that (Attorney General) John Ashcroft himself publicly praised a few years ago."
The organization is Mujahadeen Khalq, or MEK, which hopes to overthrow the Islamist government of Iran and replace it with a democracy. This is a goal shared by numerous members of Congress, many of whom decry Iran's human rights violations and its efforts to develop uranium enrichment programs. They see the MEK as freedom fighters.
he MEK began in the 1960s as one of many groups opposing the shah of Iran. But after the shah's downfall in 1979, it ran afoul of the Islamist regime and its members went into exile. Although the State Department declared MEK a terrorist organization in 1997, the group has attracted wide support among Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including Ashcroft, who was then a senator from Missouri. More than 250 members signed a petition in 2000 asking the State Department to drop the MEK from its terrorist list. Some of that support eroded after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The State Department said the MEK's history includes assassinations of Iranian leaders and the killings of several U.S. military officers and civilians working in Tehran in the 1970s, as well as support for the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
But the group and its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have tried to change its image in recent years. The council, which had an office in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, denies it deserves a terrorist designation.
The primary evidence against the brothers is a document the U.S. government contends is a roster of the MEK's Los Angeles cell members. The brothers' names appear on the roster, which was obtained during a search of an alleged MEK safe house in Los Angeles.
The brothers deny they are members of MEK and counter that the roster is simply a list of people who attended a legal and peaceful 1997 demonstration in Denver against the Iranian government.
"We believe that attending a legal and peaceful rally is part of our constitutional rights," said Mostafa Mirmehdi. "Our dreams have been shattered and our lives have been ruined. We have been punished severely and unjustly."
The 1997 demonstration occurred six months before the State Department designated the MEK a foreign terrorist organization. As a senator, Ashcroft continued to support the MEK even after it received that designation.
he brothers admit they attended protests against the Iranian government, and Mostafa has admitted to overstaying in the United States on his student visa, but they say they are freedom seekers whose idealism has been replaced by disillusionment.
"Now I am so disappointed at this system," said Mohammad Mirmehdi. "Here they said you have the First Amendment and your rights are protected by the Constitution. Years later, they hunt you for the same thing. It feels like a stab in the back."
The case against the brothers is complicated, with various immigration, federal and appellate judges weighing in, sometimes issuing what appear to be contradictory decisions.
The Department of Homeland Security has been trying to deport them since 1999, when they applied for asylum and were accused of lying on the applications. But a judge has ruled they may not be returned to Iran because they would be persecuted. So officials are looking to send them to another country.
A panel of immigration judges ruled in 2002 that the brothers represented a national security threat; the same panel ruled in August that they do not. Meanwhile, the Mirmehdis remain in jail.
Taste of freedom
The brothers were born in Tehran. The eldest brother, Mostafa, 45, studied English intensely for five years as a young boy in preparation for attending college in the United States. He was the first in his family to come to the United States, as a student in 1978.
"When I was here, I really felt so good," he said. "The dream came true."
Back home, his younger brothers felt oppressed in a country without economic opportunity or social or political freedom; where expressing opinions about the government, wearing ties, sunglasses or T-shirts was forbidden and punishment was severe.
Mostafa, who goes by the name Michael, began selling real estate in the San Fernando Valley. His brothers joined him in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and also became successful agents, even buying several investment properties.
The youngest, Mohammad, 34, recalled a day in 1996 on the Mall in Washington, D.C., when democracy became real to him, when he participated for the first time in a demonstration attended by hundreds of marchers against the Islamist government in Iran.
"I was really happy to express myself freely," he said recently in a jailhouse interview that included all four brothers. "I was very emotional. It's hard to put it into words. The crowd was wonderful, you could see people were so excited, like they were part of a big family. I was happy to bring the voice of my people to the world."
The brothers' troubles began in 1999, when they were arrested on suspicion of visa violations and lying on asylum applications. The brothers said they were duped by two unscrupulous Iranian immigrants, one who fabricated their applications without their knowledge and another who coached them to lie in their immigration interviews. The coach turned out to be an FBI informant with a criminal record, according to court records.
They were released on bail. Then came Sept. 11, 2001. A few weeks later, federal officials said circumstances had changed because of new evidence that the brothers were members of the MEK.
They were returned to custody Oct. 2, 2001. A panel of judges denied the brothers' appeal for bail.
"We find sufficient evidence in the record that the respondent is associated with a terrorist organization, and therefore he poses a danger," the judges wrote about one of the brothers in a ruling in June 2002.
Two years later, in August this year, the same panel of judges came to a different conclusion in regard to the same brother, Mostafa: "We can find no evidence in the record, despite the seemingly extensive government investigation, that directly connects the respondent" to terrorist acts.
The judges noted that the brothers admitted to sympathizing with some of the MEK's views, "such as the principles of freedom and democracy." However, the judges wrote, even the FBI has acknowledged the demonstrations were legal and occurred prior to the State Department designating the MEK a terrorist organization.
The government has a different interpretation. One official pointed out that the courts have not disputed that the brothers are members of MEK. And, not to be forgotten, the official said, are the lies on their asylum applications.
"We are just simply attempting to do our job and to protect the American people," said the Homeland Security Department official during a recent interview. "We realize that a lot of people say they're innocent and that they're not engaged in terrorist activity, and sometimes they lie to us, and then they go ahead and commit atrocities against the American people.
"We're not about to believe people, simply because they say, 'Oh no, not me,' particularly since these guys have a history of not telling the truth," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the department discourages public comment on pending cases. "If you want to be believed don't tell lies."
Officials are making all terrorist groups, not just al-Qaeda, a priority.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, detention of immigrants with no al-Qaeda connection has increased significantly because of a provision in the Patriot Act, authorities said. The act gave law enforcement officials the power to detain people based solely on membership in an organization designated as terrorist.
"We have a lot of people who are not al-Qaeda, from all kinds of countries of the world," the Homeland Security official said. "This allows us to focus upon preterrorist activity for people who have attended training camps, people who give us cause for concern, people who are members of terrorist groups. The Patriot Act provides tools to deal with those people before they fly planes into buildings."
Critics say the government is going too far.
"What we have seen with the Patriot Act ... is lawmakers are making very dangerous assumptions about who refugees are and assuming that people claiming asylum are somehow mixed up with terrorism and it's simply not true," said Alison Parker, senior researcher in the New York office of Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization.
About half of the 27 groups on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations are anti-American Islamic extremists, and others – such as the MEK – have mostly parochial goals such as overthrowing their own governments.
"The U.S. government has decided to make everyone a terrorist who might be somebody else's freedom fighter," said Randall B. Hamud, an immigration attorney in San Diego who represented several Middle Eastern men arrested as material witnesses in the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks.
People sometimes have to take up arms against oppressive governments, Hamud said. "The U.S. is doing itself a disservice by labeling several of these organizations as terrorist organizations when in fact nothing can distinguish them from the actions of our own forefathers in establishing our own country. Our forefathers would have found themselves on the State Department list."
That the Mirmehdi brothers are not members of al-Qaeda, or a group that has threated to harm the United States, is irrelevant, the Homeland Security official said.
"Terrorism is a threat to the world and people who kill innocents, regardless of whether they're from Iraq or Yemen or Chechnya or Afghanistan or Iran, and regardless of who they're killing, are not right and not tolerable," the Homeland Security official said.
The Mirmehdis are not charged with terrorism because the government can accomplish the same thing – deportation – without going to all the trouble, the Homeland Security official said.
Meanwhile, the debate over MEK and its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, continues.
This month, the resistance council accused Iran of planning to develop a nuclear bomb and hiding the true extent of its nuclear program from international inspectors. On Nov. 17, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged the council's claims: "I have seen intelligence which would corroborate what this dissident group is saying."
In Washington this month, thousands of marchers attended a rally – much like those attended by the brothers – to protest a State Department report that describes one of the MEK's leaders as a terrorist.
Mohsen Mirmehdi, 37, saw a report about the rally on a cable news channel. He has plenty of time to watch television now – and time to call his parents in Tehran. But the brothers dread it.
The Mirmehdis are so worried about the impact their incarceration could have on their elderly mother and father that before each phone call to Tehran they politely beg guards and fellow inmates to please, please keep the noise down so their parents don't catch on.
They continue the charade despite their mother's relentless questions: Why don't you get married and have children? When are you going to invite us to visit? Why aren't you ever home when we call? Did you receive the package we sent? And why haven't you sent pictures?
"We have to continually lie, and it's so frustrating," said Mojtaba, 41. "I just don't want to talk to them."
The brothers have paid more than $150,000 in legal fees for about seven lawyers. Their business has closed.
Incarceration has ravaged their psyches and bodies. Two older brothers have developed serious speech impediments. Sometimes there are anxiety attacks. They spend most of the day sleeping. There isn't much to say to each other anymore.
Mojtaba Mirmehdi, dejected, said: "I feel like we are hostages and there is no end to it."
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