London, Jun. 1 – Controversy over a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch is taking a new turn with speculation that Iranian intelligence might have exerted influence on the group through surreptitious agents.
Human Rights Watch issued a 28-page report on May 18 alleging that the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK) opposition group mistreated its “dissident members” in Iraq.
Iran Terror has learnt of two secret emails distributed by a senior figure in Human Rights Watch, which Iranian exiles opposed to the clerical regime in Iran are using as evidence of sinister political motives, and possible interference activity by Iranian intelligence.
The two email messages were distributed by Gary Sick, chairman of the Middle East Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch, to a list of recipients called “Gulf 2000 list”, discussing the HRW report on the MeK on the day it was released.
The first message distributed by Sick said in part, “The Human Rights Watch report on MKO (MEK) abuse comes just in time for the consideration of H.R. 282/S. 333--The Iran Freedom Support act, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania).”
“Aside from renewing the ineffective economic sanctions against Iran, Section 302 of the bill provides for support for groups opposing the current Iranian regime,” the message added. “Since Representative Ros-Lehtinen is one of the strongest supporters in Congress of the MKO/MEK, one assumes that this proposed appropriation is designed to go to them, at least in part. The Human Rights Watch report on the MKO/MEK would seem to disqualify them from funding under the provisions of the bill.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the Middle East and Central Asia sub-committee in the House of Representatives, has been supportive of Iranian exiles’ efforts to bring about fundamental change in Iran. In an interview after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Ros-Lehtinen said of the MeK, “In no meeting or briefing I have ever attended has anyone called this group an anti-U.S., terrorist organization.” She said there was “wide support” in Congress for the MeK and that it will be “one of the leading groups in establishing secular government in Iran.”
Significantly, Sick distributed a separate email message from Masoud Khodabandeh, urging further action against the MeK.
Khodabandeh, based in Britain, left the MeK in the mid-1990s. In a written statement to a British judicial board in 2002, Khodabandeh’s brother, Ebrahim, testified that Masoud Khodabandeh had been recruited by Iran’s notorious secret service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
In early 2003, Ebrahim Khodabandeh was abducted while on a visit to Syria by suspected MOIS agents acting on information provided by his brother, Masoud. Khodabandeh had been living in Britain for thirty years as a political refugee before being abducted to Iran together with another Iranian dissident.
The case provoked an outrage in Britain. A year later, Tehran allowed Win Griffiths, a member of Britain’s House of Commons, to visit Khodabandeh in prison. On his return, Griffiths said he was shocked in his first visit to Evin Prison to see Anne Singleton, the British wife of Masoud Khodabandeh, wonder freely in the high-security prison and socialize with prison officials and wardens.
“Please do what you can to prevent them from bringing Anne Singleton here,” Ebrahim Khodabandeh told Griffiths unobtrusively. To Griffiths, the reason seemed clear. Singleton was working for the Iranian regime and was being used to break Khodabandeh.
Masoud Khodabandeh noted in his email, “While experts on the MEK have welcomed the HRW report, it represents just the tip of the iceberg as far as the organization’s human rights abuses are concerned”.
The MeK have used testimonies by MOIS defectors and former associates to show that Masoud Khodabandeh has been working for Iranian intelligence since 1998. These accounts indicate that he first traveled to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that year to meet senior MOIS officials. He later set up a website, Iran-Interlink, at the request of his MOIS handlers. MeK officials say Khodabandeh was a key organizer of a small demonstration outside the offices of Iranian opposition leader, Maryam Rajavi, north of Paris, which was engineered by MOIS as a means of stepping up pressure on the opposition.
In his email message, distributed by Gary Sick, Khodabandeh noted, “There is enough, as yet unverified, information to suggest that the MEK in Camp Ashraf is currently in severe crisis and on the point of collapse, and that the camp is only held together by an atmosphere of fear and repression at the hands of the MEK’s leaders. The most recent reports suggest that if the flag of the US army is replaced by the flag of the Red Cross more than 80 percent of the people in the camp will go to the North camp”.
Iran experts said the emails raised serious questions about the nature of the relationship between Sick and Iranian intelligence agent, Masoud Khodabandeh.
Given his position as chairman of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Board, Sick’s emails are likely to add to the controversy surrounding the HRW report.
“The big question now is ‘What did Gary Sick know about the report, and when did he know it?” said Masoud Zabeti, president of the Committee of Anglo-Iranian Lawyers in London.
Zabeti, a lawyer himself, is considering moves to challenge the report through legal avenues. “We might even ask courts in America, on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act, to order all correspondence between Mr. Sick and HRW to be made public,” he said in an interview.
Sick, who has been an outspoken proponent of rapprochement with the Iranian regime, told Time magazine in May, "Rafsanjani will have secret talks going with the Americans within three months after he takes office”. He did not say if this was merely a prophesy or based on secret contacts with senior Iranian officials.
“If Sick has allowed an MOIS operator to develop close ties with him, this is going to attract a lot of a attention,” said Mahmud Delju, who monitors Iranian affairs from his home in Paris. “MOIS has been aggressive in targeting Western academics and ex-officials in its disinformation operations. But this is a new level of operation.”
Whatever the significance of the emails, many observers agree that Iranian intelligence scored a big success when the Human Rights Watch report came out.
“You have psychological warfare experts in MOIS who have been trained by KGB specialists and have been doing this for years,” Delju said. “But to see a report by an American human rights group based on accounts by MOIS agents must have won praises for MOIS in many high places in Tehran.”
The MeK state that MOIS (a.k.a. VEVAK) no longer simply uses military and terrorist attacks alone, but also a sophisticated demonization and disinformation campaign, to suppress dissidents abroad.
The latest revelations come as a United States Army colonel who commanded the Military Police Brigade at MeK’s Camp Ashraf in 2004 joined a chorus of criticism directed at Human Rights Watch by academics, human rights activists, parliamentarians, and Iranian exiles over the report.
Col. David Phillips wrote in a letter to Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth that from January to December 2004 he was given “numerous reports of torture, concealed weapons and people being held against their will by the leadership of the Mujahedin e-Khalq.”
“I directed my subordinate units to investigate each allegation. In many cases I personally led inspection teams on unannounced visits to the MeK/PMOI facilities where the alleged abuses were reported to occur. At no time over the 12 month period did we ever discover any credible evidence supporting the allegations raised in your recent report,” he wrote.
In the article by Nasser Taba, titled 'Iran intelligence gaining foothold in US', appearing in the Mojahedin's Iran Focus website, dated Wednesday 1 June 2005, of which I received a copy in Evin prison today, there are some claims with reference to me that I thought I had to act upon in response to make just a few matters clear. Obviously, I am not in the conditions to give a detailed overall reply to that article and I do not intend to do so.
The article states that: "In a written statement to a British judicial board in 2002, Khodabandeh's brother, Ebrahim (me), testified that Masoud Khodabandeh had been recruited by Iran's notorious secret service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS)."
I should point out a very obvious fact that in the year 2002, I was a full member of the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI). Therefore, I had no contact of any sort neither with my brother Massoud who had completely left the Organisation in 1996, or with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Hence, I could not have been in a position to be aware of, and then testify to any kind of relationship between them. Further, I should also state that while I was in the Organisation no one claimed or mentioned to me that my brother had been recruited by Iran's secret service. Although the people in charge always complained that my brother's political activities in opposition to the Organisation would only serve the goals of the Iranian regime. This of course is a totally different claim from being recruited by them.
In recent years it has become a very common habit of the PMOI to accuse all those who defected from and who deplore the Organisation, of being tools and apparatus of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. It is not difficult to believe that the Iranian Services would try to make sufficient use of any kind of activities against the Organisation (which is true visa-versa), but it would be very hard to accept that the 'Ministry' could manage to recruit so many ex-members around the world and influence a significant number of international bodies and direct them all regularly in their daily political activities toward the PMOI.
The article further claims that: "In the early 2003, Ebrahim Khodabandeh was abducted while on a visit to Syria by suspected MOIS agents acting on information provided by his brother, Masoud Khodabandeh, (Ebrahim) had been living in Britain for thirty years as a political refugee before being abducted to Iran together with another Iranian dissident."
Initially, I should clarify that we were arrested and jailed in Syria by the Syrian Police and Authorities on particular charges relating to our mission in that country and we were not abducted by anyone. Then again I should emphasize that in early 2003 neither I nor anyone within the Organisation had any communication with my brother whatsoever and I wonder how he might have known about our trip to Syria while very few people inside the Organisation knew about it.
In fact, I am totally convinced that if the Organisation, during the seven weeks that we were in custody in Syria before being transferred to Iran, had let my brother know about our case there, he would definitely have made every effort to try to return us back to Britain.
It is also stated in the article that: "On his return, Griffiths said he was shocked in his first visit to Evin Prison to see Anne Singleton, the British wife of Masoud Khodabandeh, wander freely in the high-security prison and socialize with prison officials and wardens."
I do not know when and where Mr Griffiths, then a member of Britain's House of Commons, might have separately visited my sister-in-law inside Evin prison and observed her "wander freely in the prison and socialize with prison officials and wardens". If he is referring to when he came to see my colleague and I the account is as follows:
On Monday 14 June 2004, I was called to a meeting room inside Evin Prison along with my colleague who was arrested with me in Syria. This was exactly the same room that we both had previously visited with my daughter Homa and my son-in-law Tahir and my three grandchildren who all live in Britain and had just come to Iran to visit me. In that room along with Mr Griffiths MP, I also found Sir Teddy Taylor MP and my sister-in-law Anne and my nephew Babak whom I particularly was delighted to see. Thereafter joined us six other prisoners, all former members of the PMOI who were sent from Iraq by the Organization to perform terrorist activities inside cities in Iran and who were captured and then were serving their prison sentences. There was of course no room for anyone else to enter, otherwise there were more prisoners of the same type to come in. After our meeting the visitors all left together and we all returned back to our compartments.
If the honourable gentleman is referring to that very day, I should remind him that none of the guests including Ms Anne Singleton went to any parts of the prison apart from where visitors can normally go. I should also emphasize that there were prison officials present in the meeting room socializing with everyone and offering hospitality to the guests. Perhaps Mr Griffiths recalls mentioning how out of his expectation he was granted a visa to come to Iran immediately and was well received by the Iranian authorities and then had the chance to pay a visit to Evin prison and meet us, and how his judgment towards Iran and especially Evin prison had completely changed.
The most unusual part of the claims of the article is: "'Please do what you can to prevent them from bringing Anne Singleton here', Ebrahim Khodabandeh told Griffiths unobtrusively. To Griffiths, the reason seemed clear. Singleton was working for the Iranian regime and was being used to break Khodabandeh."
As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to believe that the (former) British MP has made such a statement in any circumstances. I personally did not talk about my sister-in-law to Mr Griffiths on any subject at all, and I cannot think of anything that might be the cause for misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to declare that "Singleton" had the sharpest criticisms against the "Iranian regime" in that meeting and she could not be the best choice for "being used to break" me at all. And of course it is very naive to even imagine that the people in Evin prison might ever need the help of a foreign person like her for their tasks.
I must make this clear too that as soon as my brother and his wife learned about our case they tried everything in their capacity to help us including approaching Baroness Emma Nicholson, MEP. They actually had believed the Organisation's propaganda claims that we were both under severe torture and soon would be executed. Baroness Nicholson too visited both of us in the same meeting room in Evin prison six months earlier and let my relatives in Britain know to their relief that we are safe and well and there had been no trace of physical or mental pressure on us.
The PMOI's customary tactics of psychological warfare to counter the Organisation's defectors and opponents have been to try to disgrace them by using fake accusations against them (like those referred to in the above mentioned article against my brother and his wife). There exists a mere fact that there are a good number of people who used to be devoted members of the Organisation for a long time and even some in key positions, and since there was no atmosphere inside the Organisation to express their political ideas and their criticisms, they had to leave and do it in other ways. The leaders of the PMOI have always refused to recognize the demands of this vast group and directly answer their questions. Instead they have constantly accused them all of being the direct employees of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. The Organisation, of course, unable to clearly answer their queries, has found the best way to oppose them is by just fabricating false accusations to discredit them. This certainly would not serve the best interests of the PMOI and this kind of escaping from charges will not work in the long run.
Even if considering every word said or every political move made around the world relating to or opposing the PMOI has been fully masterminded by one single ministry inside Iran, yet again the leaders and those responsible inside the Organisation ought to respond to the criticisms directly and logically instead of diverting them back to the dissidents or opponents themselves.
In the end I would like to express my own view that I believe the reason behind the Organisation's hysterical hostility towards my brother and his wife is that they stopped my daughter's feelings for me being misused for propaganda purposes and instead they adopted a wiser self-determining process to try to help our situation. [The PMOI had tried to persuade Ebrahim's daughter while she was in a very vulnerable state of mind to set fire to herself in front of the British parliament to protest her father's imprisonment in Evin. See Open Letter to Massoud Rajavi]
I would like to extend my personal invitation to your good self to visit me and my family in Iran, and for you to contact my daughter and her family as well as my brother and his wife in Britain to ascertain their views.