Ex-member says MEK ‘is like a cult’
Anne Khodabandeh, a former member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation at her Leeds home. Lorne Campbell / The National
When the European Union removed a militant Iranian opposition group from its blacklist of terrorist organisations last month, it drew not only protestations from Iran but also the contempt of a former member who claims the group is little more than a cult.
The Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, or the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, and sometimes known as MKO), a leftist Islamist organisation that has vehemently opposed the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979, was taken off the EU’s terrorism blacklist on Jan 26 at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, the culmination of intensive lobbying by the group and its European supporters.
But Anne Khodabandeh, née Singleton, a former member of the group for 20 years, was sceptical.
“Well, at least this shows the EU blacklist for what it really is – nothing more than a list of friend and foe,” she said.
“But realistically I don’t think it will make any difference to them in Europe. They will continue to carry on with their propaganda and fund-raising activities. They will continue to have their base in Paris where they hold their own members captive in isolation.”
Mrs Khodabandeh, 49, now a computer programmer, runs Iran-Interlink, an organisation that aims to inform the public about what she says is the reality of the MEK and provide assistance to former members, as well as current members who want to leave.
Mrs Khodabandeh said the group enforces strict segregation of men and women – even forcibly separating or divorcing couples – and employs psychological manipulation and mind control. She pointed to the practice of self-immolation at MEK demonstrations in Europe and the United States as further evidence of the group’s “cult-like” characteristics.
“The MEK is a cult, with every implication that has,” she said. “The leadership is unelected, unaccountable and perpetrates abuses against its own members.”
The MEK was established in the 1960s by a group of radical students in violent opposition to the US-backed shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and took part in the 1979 revolution.
But it soon fell out with Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the the country’s religious establishment and many members were jailed and executed. Most fled the country for Europe and the United States while thousands of others set up a base in northern Iraq at Camp Ashraf, which is in the process of being closed down.
Various estimates put the group’s membership at anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000.
For its part, the MEK describes itself as a secular, democratic organisation that wants to bring democracy to Iran and enjoys significant support in Europe and the United States.
Brian Binley, a member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, hailed the decision to remove the MEK from the EU blacklist and said descriptions of the group as a cult were “completely untrue”.
“I am delighted the battle has been won,” Mr Binley, a Conservative member of parliament, said of the EU ruling. “This is a perfectly legitimate group that opposes the medieval theocracy of Iran.
“I have found them to be good people, to be democrats who want a free and democratic Iran.”
Mrs Khodabandeh first learnt about the MEK in the early 1980s through an Iranian boyfriend while studying at Manchester University.
An idealist “who wanted to change the world”, she began attending the group’s campus meetings and gradually became more involved with its fund-raising and awareness activities.
Before long she was a fully fledged member, espousing the group’s militant opposition to the theocratic regime in Iran and calling for its overthrow.
But the MEK’s demands on her grew and through such techniques as peer pressure and “psychological manipulation”, Mrs Khodabandeh said, she came ever more under control of the group.
By the age of 30 she had lost touch with most of her friends and family, given up her job as a computer programmer and handed over her house, car and savings.
She left her home in Leeds, Yorkshire, to live with other members at a number of “safe houses” belonging to the MEK, first in London and then in Sweden, and was put to work in the “diplomacy section”, monitoring the news and writing press releases for the group.
“We were like children. We took all our orders from the leaders – we wouldn’t so much as leave the building without their permission,” she said.
Since 1985 the MEK has been led by the husband and wife team of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi – the latter a leading figure in the recent campaign to have the MEK removed from the EU’s terrorist list – both of whom, according to Mrs Khodobandeh, embody all the traits of “cult leadership”. Their authority within the group is unquestionable, she said, and Massoud Rajavi is proficient in mind-control techniques.
A number of rights groups support Mrs Khodobandeh’s claims.
“We have documented serious human rights abuses that the MKO was inflicting on its own members in their camp in Iraq,” said Tom Porteous, the London director of Human Rights Watch. “The organisation … has shown that criticism of leadership is certainly not tolerated.”
It was in 1993, at the height of her devotion to the MEK – “I was willing to die for them,” she said – that Mrs Khodabandeh began to have doubts about the group.
The Rajavis and other leading members had begun introducing bizarre rules, including the banning of marriage and compulsory divorces so that members could dedicate themselves fully to the cause.
She walked out on the MEK, though it took her another three years to finally cut her mental and emotional ties to the group and return to normal life.
In 1996 she met Massoud Khodabandeh, another member who had doubts about the organisation and who left at the same time. They married soon after and moved to Mrs Khodabandeh’s native Yorkshire, where they have lived since.
As a former member and current director of a support group for former MEK members, Mrs Khodabandeh is concerned about the inhabitants of Camp Ashraf in Iraq who will be evicted when the camp is closed in the coming months.
The group has been used by the EU over the years, she said, for a number of purposes, including as a propaganda tool against Iran and as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations.
And now that the MEK has been removed from the blacklist, there is no barrier to giving them refuge in Europe.
“EU countries have benefited from their existence for years. If you use them, take responsibility for them,” Mrs Khodabandeh said.
Telephone calls and e-mails to the MEK for comment went unanswered.
Jonathan Spollen, Assistant Foreign Editor – February 03. 2009