WASHINGTON, Oct. 13 (UPI) — Human Rights Watch reasserted claims of abuses by an Iranian dissident group Wednesday even after a report compiled by a European Parliament delegation denounced its initial report as "devoid of any truth."
Earlier this year, the global watchdog group published a report alleging serial abuses at Camp Ashraf, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq headquarters, six miles north of Baghdad. The report described the MeK as an extremist sect, whose leaders had exerted a manipulative psychological influence on their followers, as in the case of the 1980s mass divorces enforced to ensure total loyalty to their cause. Members who wish to leave the organization suffered from beating and prolonged solitary confinement, resulting in a number of fatalities, the report said.
The MeK denies the allegations, claiming an Iranian conspiracy to discredit the group.
A report by the parliamentary delegation, based on a visit to Camp Ashraf in September, backed the MeK’s claims. In its report, the delegation said that the watchdog group had gone "far beyond the mandate of a human rights organization." The delegation heard counter-testimonies from MeK members, supporting this view and vilifying Human Rights Watch.
"We found the allegations contained in HRW report unfounded and devoid of any truth. We also came to the conclusion that the HRW report was procedurally flawed and substantively inaccurate."
The HRW has been criticized by the delegation for not visiting Camp Ashraf and for basing their report on testimony gathered in 12 telephone interviews.
But HRW’s Joe Stork Wednesday fiercely defended his conclusions, throwing his own accusations back at the EU delegation.
"They’re fine ones to talk about methodology," he told United Press International. "The counter-testimonies are all from people high up in the MeK. Most of the criticisms in the delegation’s report are from MeK sources."
Asked why HRW did not visit Camp Ashraf, despite invitations from the MeK, Stork explained that his organization’s allegations dated back before the occupation of Iraq led by the American coalition. "We were invited during the Hussein era. No human rights organization could credibly take up that offer."
HRW had sought permission to visit the camp since the fall of Saddam, he said. But "U.S. forces did not respond positively to later requests. In hindsight, I regret not including that in the report." Coalition forces in Iraq were unable to confirm that these requests had been made, according to Stork.
The MeK was designated a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration in 1997. But the group has since won favor in the United States by providing information on the Iranian nuclear program. In 2004, MeK members were given ‘protected status’ by coalition forces in Iraq.
The group’s seemingly contradictory status, at once a source of valuable intelligence and an acknowledged terrorist organization, is fuelling a fierce propaganda war between the MeK and the Iranian regime, in which HRW, the European Parliament and the United States Government have become players.
Stork is a target of an elaborate deception by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, claims Raymond Tanter, a Georgetown University academic and founding member of the Iran Policy Committee, which advises the United States government, citing a June White Paper issued by the IPC that describes HRW as "victims of a world class intelligence operation."
According to the IPC paper, many of the witnesses interviewed by HRW were in fact Iranian agents. These included Hossein Sobhani, "whom HRW cites as a "credible" victim but who, in fact, runs an intelligence ring in Europe that works under the direct supervision of MOIS deputy chief Mohammad-Reza Iravani."
"Human Rights Watch has been duped," said Tanter.
Terrorists or indispensable friends? Uncertainty over the true personality of the MeK has prompted debate over the U.S. administration’s relationship with the group. In an October report by Foreign Policy magazine, freelance writer Erik Saas suggested that MeK intelligence might not be quite as indispensable as their advocates claim:
"The group has a record of exaggerating intelligence or sometimes simply making things up. U.S. officials have learned to take MeK claims with very large grains of salt," wrote Saas.
Nevertheless, there is, according to Saas, increasing co-operation between the MeK and the United States. (Although they remain on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list.) Saas even claims MeK fighters have been deployed in Pakistan and Afghanistan, although this has not been confirmed.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, President of Strategic Policy Consulting and former MeK leader, says he sees no reason why the terrorist designation should not soon be lifted. MeK was placed on the terrorist list in 1997 as a conciliatory gesture aimed at Iran’s president at the time, Mohammed Khatami Jafarzadeh told UPI. "The designation came weeks after Khatami was elected," he said. But with the election this summer of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a shift in policy was likely. "With the new regime, the situation will change."
Tanter gives credence to the suggestion that the terrorist list has more to do with political expediency than human rights. "The designation is a diplomatic football tossed around to gain various diplomatic benefits," he said.
Asked if, in the light of the HRW allegations, co-operation with the MeK could damage the image of the United States, Tanter said: "American credibility is damaged if it doesn’t take sides with the Iranian resistance in general. The U.S. has to stand with the dissidents. That doesn’t mean picking a group."
"Regime change is the implicit policy of the Bush administration," he said. "Diplomacy has failed and the number of nuclear installations makes military action unfeasible." If Tanter is right, alliance with dissident groups, however unsavory, is one of increasingly few options.
By LEIGH BALDWIN