Bock: Lost in the crowd
With the eyes of the world turned to protests in Iran, seven Iranian-Americans face prison in the U.S. for raising money for a resistance group in their homeland.
By ALAN W. BOCK / Senior Editorial Writer, the Orange County Register
I don’t suppose anybody with a drop of red blood in his or her body has not been inspired by the demonstrations in Iran. The presidential election itself didn’t offer stark choices, but Mir Hossein Mousavi somehow tapped into what appears to be a huge pent-up demand for a freer, less-restrictive and possibly even secular form of governance. It may end badly, in bloodshed and renewed repression, but millions of Iranians have shown they want a semblance of justice and dignity from the regime that governs them.
As we admire the spirit of the demonstrators in Iran, however, perhaps we could spare a few thoughts for the fate of seven Iranian-Americans, including Hossein Kalani Afshari of Mission Viejo, who are suffering what I view as a serious injustice at the hands of the United States government. The seven, who are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 13, face up to 20 years in federal prison for raising funds for Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian resistance group officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
When we talked on the phone, Mr. Afshari, 52 and a 30-year U.S. resident, became most emotional when he thought about his mother, who raised seven children by herself after his father died when Mr. Afshari was 4. Because of the charges, filed in 2001, he is unable to have a passport, so he was unable to visit Iran when his mother became ill. She died a few years ago without the chance to see him.
“We cannot allow any terrorist organization to fundraise on our shores or to steal money from our own citizens so that they can finance their own terrorism operations,” U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien self-righteously proclaimed when the seven men were convicted. “Terrorism anywhere poses a significant security risk to the United States.”
Stern words, and perhaps heartfelt. But it’s a bum rap. MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or PMOI, is a resistance group of long standing, opposed to the shah before it was opposed to the Islamic Republic. Its designation as a terrorist organization was a political ploy rather than being based on evidence of terrorist activity and is long overdue for reconsideration, as other nations have after investigating the evidence.
The MEK is not a charitable humanitarian group. It has advocated and sometimes practiced armed resistance to the Iranian government, but its international activities have been nonviolent. It has been accused of an action in which Americans in Iran were killed in the 1970s, but its spokesmen claim that was another group. The State Department says the MEK supported the 1979 U.S. hostage-taking, but it didn’t carry it out.
These Southern California people are not terrorists and never were. In this case the law, as Charles Dickens might have put it, is an ass. The U.S. government should reconsider this prosecution and the designation of MEK as a terrorist organization immediately.
Stick with me. The evidence is overwhelming.
Mujahedin-e Khalq was founded in the 1960s to resist the shah’s government. It has been labeled Marxist, but Nasser Sharif, president of the California Society for Democracy in Iran, tells me that was a slur promulgated by the shah’s people. Its stated desire now is for a secular democratic state in Iran with free elections and a free press. Maryan Rajavi, head of the National Council of Resistance in Paris, an umbrella group of Iranian dissidents in exile that includes MEK, called last week for new elections in Iran to be supervised by the United Nations and to include all candidates, not just those cleared by the mullahs.
MEK participated in the revolution against the shah in 1979 but quickly fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. MEK/PMOI claims that of the 120,000 people executed in Iran in the past 25 years for their political views, a majority were MEK members or supporters. It has assembled a book with photos and life stories of 20,000 members who were executed. It also takes some credit for at least helping to organize occasional student protests against the regime.
After it came into opposition against the mullahs’ regime, MEK leadership moved to France and then to Iraq in the 1980s to continue resistance activities. It was welcomed by Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. It has had a presence in Iraq ever since.
In July 1985, Richard Murphy, then-assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the PMOI was viewed by the State Department as a user of terrorism. He didn’t explain why he said so, but two years later, with the release of the Tower Commission report on Iran-Contra, it came out that calling the PMOI a terrorist organization was one of the conditions the Iranians set for the release of U.S. hostages then being held by Iranian allies in Lebanon.
In 1997, the Clinton administration, under a new law that authorized freezing the assets of organizations designated as terrorist by the State Department, included the People’s Mujahedin on the list. A Los Angeles Times story on the designation noted that “[o]ne senior Clinton administration official said inclusion of the Peoples Mujahedin was intended as a goodwill gesture to Tehran and its newly elected moderate president, Mohammed Khatami.” A Reuters story affirmed that the designation was “being seen in Tehran as the first positive sign of American good will toward the new government.”
So the official U.S. designation of MEK/PMOI as a terrorist organization was a political gesture rather than one based on evidence. It was an attempt to curry good will with supposed moderates in Iran, a gesture that essentially went nowhere.
The United Kingdom and the European Union followed the U.S. in designating the MEK/PMOI as a terrorist organization a few years later. However, court cases in Europe challenging the designation eventually reached the highest available courts. Those courts were able to examine all the available material on the organization, including classified material the public is still not allowed to see.
In June 2008, the U.K.’s highest court ruled: “The reality is that neither in the open material nor in the closed material was there any reliable evidence that supported a conclusion that MPOI retained an intent to resort to terrorist activities in the future.” The European Union’s highest court came to a similar conclusion in January 2009. Both the U.K. and the EU have removed the organization from the lists of designated terrorist organizations.
All this time, the MEK has had a presence in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 it bombed MEK camps as part of a back-channel agreement with Iran for Iran not to interfere in the upcoming war. After that initial bombing, however, U.S. forces became better acquainted with MEK and its operations. It turned out that MEK could be a source of intelligence on Iranian intentions and actions, and MEK cooperated fully with U.S. occupation forces. The MEK forces, were, however, herded into a rudimentary camp near the village of Al-Khalis, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, and gave up their tanks, heavy artillery and even their light weapons. The camp grew into what is now called Ashraf City, which now holds about 3,800 people, including women and children.
The U.S. military investigated every MEK member in Ashraf for 16 months, and in July 2004 decided officially that there was no reason to prosecute any of them. Under the Geneva Conventions the group was placed under the protection of the U.S. military. It has continued to cooperate with the military in Iraq. It has also informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear programs, and more than half the tips provided to the IAEA have panned out.
Despite all this, MEK/PMOI is still officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. In 2001 the U.S. attorney for Southern California initiated a legal case against seven Iranian-Americans – Hassan Rezai, Moustafa Ahmady, Alireza Moradi, Navid Taj, Mohammad Omidvar, Roya Rahmani and Hossein Afshari – for collecting and contributing money to a terrorist organization. Eventually 117 charges were brought. The legal maneuvering – dropping the case was considered several times – continued for eight years.
In April federal prosecutors dropped 110 of the 117 charges and negotiated a plea bargain to avoid an anticipated six-month trial. The “Southern California Seven” agreed to plead guilty to providing material support to the MEK. They hope that on appeal they will be able to present evidence that the MEK is not a terrorist organization so that the charges can be dismissed.
It shouldn’t have to come to that. This was obviously an ill-considered prosecution based on a designation that was a political gesture rather than factual. The charges should be dropped immediately so the ordeal of these seven people can come to a merciful end.
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