The HRW report has tremendous long-term consequences for the MEK, and at the very least deprives it of yet another propaganda plank. For as critics of the organization have pointed out, a group that is a serious human-rights abuser cannot effectively protest at the human-rights abuses of the Iranian government. More broadly, the HRW report complements US government reports of 1994 and 1997 that branded the MEK as undemocratic and terrorist, respectively
A recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) that documents and condemns serious human-rights abuses by the Iraqi-based and formerly armed Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) came as welcome relief to dozens of former members of this controversial organization who have consistently complained of gross human-rights abuses in MEK camps in Iraq since 1991.
The MEK insists that it should lead a US-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.
Since the March 2003 US-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 neo-conservatives and retired military officers called the Iran Policy Committee, and some US officials - particularly in the Pentagon - who believe the MEK could be used to help destabilize the Iranian regime, if not eventually overthrow it in conjunction with US 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 US 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 US military contractors and its participation in the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Teheran. The European Union also cites the MEK as a terrorist organization.
After a year-long tug-of-war between the two US agencies, a truce between the State Department 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.
Given that the HRW report is a major strategic setback for the MEK, it is not altogether surprising that this controversial organization and its Western backers have started a major propaganda campaign, accusing former members of maintaining ties with Iranian intelligence services. It is important to review both sides of the argument to understand the full significance and the implications of the HRW report.
A controversial organization
By all accounts, the MEK is a controversial organization. The group emerged in the mid 1960s as a splinter faction from the Freedom Movement of Iran (itself a splinter group from the National Front). In the 1970s, the MEK gained notoriety by assassinating five US military technicians in Iran. The organization enthusiastically welcomed the Islamic revolution of 1979 and was even more enthusiastic about the seizure of the US Embassy later that year. However, the organization's inability to penetrate the inner sanctums of power, coupled with the misgivings of the revolutionary regime toward this quixotic group, eventually propelled them into conflict with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
From 1981-83, the MEK prosecuted a serious campaign of violence against the Islamic republic; in the process, eliminating many of its top officials and ideologues. But this came at a terrible cost to the organization, which lost more than 8,000 of its members in executions and street battles with revolutionary guards. Indeed, by late 1983 the MEK network had been completely eliminated inside Iran. The group's entire leadership and more than 90% of the remaining members took refuge in Paris, where the group underwent a series of bizarre transformations in the mid-1980s.
Always a quixotic and perplexing organization, the MEK promoted an ideology based on Marxism-Leninism and Shi'ite theology. However, in January 1985 Massoud Rajavi - keen to consolidate his dominance over the organization - married the wife of his right-hand man and set in motion an "ideological revolution" that was theoretically designed to turn the MEK into the antithesis of the Islamic regime. The result was the wholesale "feminization" of the organization and the placing of females - irrespective of competence - in all top positions.
Consequently, the MEK banned all relationships within the group and commanded their members to fully eschew their individualism and devote all their energies to the cause. Given the extremity of these transformations, even sympathetic observers could not dismiss the notion that the MEK had become an isolated cult. But to the MEK, these changes were necessary to maintain the unity of the organization in the face of the Islamic republic's relentless security and propaganda onslaughts.
Another hugely controversial feature of the MEK was its decision in 1983 to ally itself with the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Massoud Rajavi moved to Baghdad in 1986, and the following year announced the formation of the National Liberation Army. The NLA fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iranian troops, thus completely destroying the organization's rapidly diminishing credibility inside Iran. Moreover, a number of Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurdish organizations have alleged that MEK forces played a role in the suppression of the so-called Safar Intifada of March 1991 against the former Iraqi regime. In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, the same forces that the MEK allegedly helped suppress in 1991 are today in power in Baghdad and thus - at the very least - anxious to expel them from Iraqi territory.
MEK and its dissidents
Historically, the MEK has had major problems with internal dissidence. In the mid-1970s, the organization was almost destroyed as a result of an internal "Marxist" coup. The root cause of the problem was the organization's awkward mixture of Marxism-Leninism with Islam. In the mid-1980s, another wave of dissenters caused a major crisis inside the organization. This time the dissenters, led by Parviz Yaaghoubi, were objecting to Rajavi's "ideological revolution" and his increasingly bizarre personality cult.
Anxious to suppress any signs of internal dissidence, the MEK labeled all dissenters as either "quitters" or "agents". The former category applied to those former members who left the MEK quietly and did not raise their objections publicly, thus saving the organization from embarrassment. The latter - and far more sinister - category was applied to those former members who chose to publicize their differences with the organization. As a highly centralized, disciplined and overly pretentious organization with impeccable authoritarian instincts, the MEK is unable to accept criticism from any quarter, let alone criticism from those formerly in its ranks, whom it sees as lacking the quality and stamina to continue the fight against what it anachronistically calls the "Khomeini regime".
The MEK's problems with its dissidents became much more serious following the ending of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, which saw its Ba'athist hosts being decisively defeated and driven out of Kuwait by an international coalition led by the United States. Several dozen members and active sympathizers deserted its Ashraf base, northeast of Baghdad, protesting, among other things, the MEK's complicity in the suppression of Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels in the aftermath of the Kuwait war. The arrival of these former members in Europe and their organized attempts at spotlighting the alleged abuses and deviations of the organization, led the MEK to intensify its character assassination campaigns against its former members. The organization even coined a new term, borideh-mozdoor (quitter-mercenary) to denounce its former members. This term had a simple logic; the former members were quitters simply for leaving the organization and they were mercenaries because their disclosures - irrespective of accuracy - coincided with the propaganda of the Iranian government.
The MEK went even further and accused the active former members of having been "bribed" and effectively recruited by the Iranian intelligence services. These accusations had worked well against one former senior member, Saeed Shahsavandi, who had been captured by Iranian forces during the MEK's ill-fated "Eternal Light" operation at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Shahsavandi spent nearly two years in Iranian prisons before he was released and allowed to leave for Europe. Having settled in Germany, Shahsavandi began to outline his perspective on why things had gone so badly wrong with the MEK. Not surprisingly, the MEK started a merciless character assassination campaign against Shahsavandi, not only accusing him of having been sent to Europe at the behest of the Iranian intelligence services, but also of having taken part in executions of imprisoned MEK members. The accusation of complicity in executions was particularly outrageous, but it had the desired effect; Shahsavandi was forced into silence. Nearly 15 years after the events, it has turned out that accusations that Shahsavandi had Iranian intelligence links were completely unfounded. Indeed, it was revealed earlier this year that certain personalities inside the MEK, including veteran member Mohsen Rezai (better known as "Habib") had maintained a relationship with Shahsavandi throughout these years.
HRW report and MEK dissidents
The 28-page HRW report, "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MKO Camps", details how dissident members of the MEK were tortured, beaten and held in solitary confinement for years at military camps in Iraq after they criticized the group's policies or indicated that they planned to leave the organization. The report is based on the direct testimonies of a dozen former MEK members, including five who were turned over to Iraqi security forces and held in Abu Ghraib prison under Saddam's government. The witnesses also reported two cases of deaths under interrogation by MEK operatives.
Disclosures on detentions inside MEK camps and torture at the hands of senior members are nothing new and date back from as early as April 1991. However, this is the first time that a credible and high-profile human-rights organization has verified the testimony of former members and thus given a major boost to a wide spectrum of people who want the MEK to admit to their abuses and correct their behavior accordingly.
It is not only former members who have been putting pressure on the organization in the past several years, but a wide array of Iranian organizations and personalities, including the hugely respected Iranian human-rights lawyer and activist Karim Lahiji and Farah Karimi, a Dutch member of parliament of Iranian origin. But true to form, the MEK prefers to label its critics as "agents" and "apologists" of the Islamic republic rather than address the very serious and altogether credible allegations that have been made against it in the past 15 years.
In the bizarre ideological cosmos of the MEK, Human Rights Watch, by lending credence to the disclosures of MEK dissenters, has become an agent of the "Khomeini regime". Historically, the MEK has never seen the virtue of being open with the public that it is trying to address. The fate of the MEK's "ideological leader", Massoud Rajavi, is a case in point. More than two years after the downfall of Saddam, not a word has been heard from Rajavi, who is believed to be hiding in the Ashraf camp, in Iraq's eastern Diyala province.
But what of the MEK allegations that the most active and vocal former members are disinformation agents at the behest of the Iranian intelligence services? First and foremost it is important to note that not a single shred of credible evidence has ever been presented to establish a relationship between any former member and Iranian intelligence. Instead, the MEK has relied on "confessions" from former members before they are "expelled" from the organization. But more than anything else, these signed confessions point toward the existence of torture and aggressive interrogations at MEK camps. The MEK also issue reports from their "sources" inside the Iranian government, which strangely coincide with their own propaganda. Not surprisingly, these "confidential" reports have all the trappings of disinformation and propaganda in its most amateurish forms.
Consider, for instance, how the MEK has tried to tarnish the reputation of one former member, Mohammad Hossein Sobhnai, who spent eight years in solitary confinement in a MEK prison and whose testimony to HRW was particularly damning. The MEK claimed that its sources in Iran had secured an internal memorandum of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK) containing the following information:
In an internal VEVAK report dated February 20, 2002, Ramin Darami, a member of the Sobhani ring, wrote to Haj Saeed, his new handler, "After we entered Iran through legal channels [from Iraq], we were sent to Marmar Hotel in Teheran and were given a high-level reception. While we were in Marmar Hotel, the head of our team was brother Mohammad Hossein Sobhani and others in our group were Ali Qashqavi and Taleb Jalilian. Our brothers from the Ministry of Intelligence paid us daily visits and resolved all our problems, and during this period I spoke to Haj Mahmoud ... My stay in the hotel lasted 10 days ... During the period we stayed in Marmar Hotel, your proposed plans were reviewed several times by brother Mohammad Hossein Sobhani within our team and we were briefed on it."
While these so-called "disclosures" are only intended for a select audience (namely the MEK's sympathizers), it is unlikely that even the most hardcore of MEK supporters could really believe such puerile concoctions.
In fact, it has been claimed that the MEK's relentless efforts at branding active former members as Iranian intelligence agents has made it easier for the "real" agents to operate covertly inside the organization. Indeed, by all accounts the MEK has been heavily penetrated by Iranian intelligence. The organization has on occasion accepted this and published lists of alleged infiltrators. One of the most successful infiltrators was Mohammad Edalatian, whose entire family was connected to the MEK (and whose brothers were executed in Iranian prisons). While in Iranian detention (on charges of MEK activity), Edalatian was recruited by Iranian intelligence and on his release from prison was tasked with penetrating the MEK organization in Iraq. On completing his mission, Edalatian killed three MEK operatives on the Iran-Iraq border and subsequently returned to his handlers. At first the MEK reported that Edalatian had been "martyred" alongside his other three comrades, but several months later Edalatian turned up on Iranian TV and disclosed his mission.
Broadly speaking, the pattern of Iranian intelligence activity against the MEK over the past 24 years has been more geared toward penetration and subversion, rather than elaborate disinformation campaigns. There is a good reason for this: the MEK suffers from a severe credibility problem inside Iran and among Western political and media elites. In other words, there is no real need to tarnish the image of an organization that has no presence inside Iran and which has no serious widespread Western audience.
Even if we accept at face value the MEK accusation that its former members are working at the behest of Iranian intelligence, this still does not absolve them of their human-rights abuses, for surely even agents have human rights too. The signs of torture and mistreatment are all over the bodies of the former members who have consistently lobbied human-rights organizations for the past 15 years to get the MEK officially listed as a serious abuser of the human rights of those closest to it.
The HRW report has tremendous long-term consequences for the MEK, and at the very least deprives it of yet another propaganda plank. For as critics of the organization have pointed out, a group that is a serious human-rights abuser cannot effectively protest at the human-rights abuses of the Iranian government. More broadly, the HRW report complements US government reports of 1994 and 1997 that branded the MEK as undemocratic and terrorist, respectively. The combination of these official listings means that no matter how hard the MEK and its handful of Western supporters try to win the group a measure of respectability, they are likely to be thwarted time and time again.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.
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