AN Iranian group with a history of violent clashes with authority is fighting to be delisted as a terrorist organisation in Australia and it has the backing of several federal politicians.
For half a century the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), or People’s Mujahideen of Iran, has fought to topple what it calls the "oppressive" Iranian government.
Listed as a terrorist group in Australia since 2001, it is seen by some as a modernising democratic force, and others as a mystical terror-cult.
Its logo, in use since the 1970s, features a Marxist clenched fist holding a sickle, crossed over a gun and bayonet.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told AAP the MEK was listed because it satisfied, on reasonable grounds, the definition that it was either "a person who commits, or attempts to commit, terrorist acts or participates in or facilitates the commission of terrorist acts; an entity owned or controlled directly or indirectly by such persons; or a person or an entity acting on behalf of, or at the direction of such persons and entities."
Now the MEK is lobbying to be removed from the list, saying it has cleaned up its act.
But it’s unclear whether the outfit will be able to shake off its past.
In 1992, about 15 MEK members trashed the Iranian embassy in Australia and assaulted staff, an event filmed by an SBS camera crew which had been tipped off by local MEK supporters.
Federal police raided about 10 homes of suspected MEK members in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in 2003.
No one was charged or arrested, and the AFP still won’t comment on the raids.
The organisation has a far more troubled record overseas.
Defectors speak of a Marxist-Islamist cult centred for 40 years on its leaders; husband and wife team Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.
US government-funded think tank RAND Corporation, which produces analysis for the armed forces, listed the group’s cult-like characteristics in a 2009 report.
"(Massoud) Rajavi instituted what he termed an ‘ideological revolution’ in 1985, which, over time, imbued the MEK with many of the typical characteristics of a cult," the RAND report states.
It lists tactics including authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and limited exit options.
"Recruits were brought into Iraq illegally and then required to hand over their identity documents for ‘safekeeping’. They were effectively trapped," the report said.
The findings of the RAND report are largely replicated in a 2005 Human Right Watch (HRW) report.
It states that during the ideological revolution in Iraq, married couples were forced to divorce and families were broken up, with children sent to live in safe houses run by the MEK.
The HRW document says many were told their families had died, only to find out years later they had been alive all along.
Likewise the families had been told their loved ones in the camp had died.
The report claims members were also forced to undergo daily self-deprecation sessions where they would be marched out in front of hundreds of other members and asked to chastise themselves.
Those who tried to get out of the MEK were beaten, tortured, held in solitary confinement and even killed, it says.
But last month the US delisted the MEK as a terrorist group after a well-funded lobbying campaign.
Australian Federal MPs who support the group, including Labor Senator Claire Moore, and Nationals Senator John Williams, hope this country will follow suit.
"I think it’s worth giving them a go," Senator Williams said.
"Are they a threat to our society if they come here, are they a threat to the rest of the world?" he asked.
"A lot of countries have delisted them, saying they aren’t."
Co-Secretary of Australian Supporters of Democracy in Iran, Peter Murphy, isn’t surprised the US delisted the MEK, calling the group "a peaceful, democratic, constitutionalist force for change".
But University of NSW Middle East expert Dr Anthony John Billingsley claims that’s a fantasy.
"It’s a dark illusion and a shameful demonstration of the power of lobbyists," Dr Billingsley told AAP.
"I wouldn’t call them a force for democracy in Iran, quite the opposite.
"They’re a group of weird, quite nasty terrorists, guilty of killing a fairly large number of Iranians including leading members of the regime, but also a large number of Americans and other westerners as well."
Upon delisting the MEK, US State Department officials released a statement saying it "does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of US citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on US soil in 1992.
"The department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organisation, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members," it said.
"The secretary’s decision today took into account the MEK’s public renunciation of violence, the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism by the MEK for more than a decade."
Dr Billingsley said some members are giving up their lives for the group.
MEK observer Mohammed Sadeghpour explained that last year a Brisbane based supporter sold his home and donated all the money to the group before moving to France to become a full member.
"He is a good supporter, whole-hearted," he said.
"He sold it for about $300,000 or $400,000.
"But these are individual decisions; they make them on their own."
A report produced later in 2005 by a group known as Friends of a Free Iran (FOFI), comprising four European Parliament MPs, found no evidence of the RAND and HRW claims.
Mr Murphy said HRW’s report was "a spray job, but useful slander" for the MEK’s opponents.
"There are obviously HRW staff that are very pro-Iranian regime," he said.
"It’s a shame HRW let itself go down that path."
But HRW says its critics haven’t provided any evidence to back up claims the organisation is pro-Iranian.
Mr Murphy bristles at any suggestion the MEK has operated as a cult, including instances of self-immolation.
When MEK leader Maryam Rajavi was detained and questioned by French police in 2003, 10 members set themselves on fire in Paris – three died.
Hunger strikes also occurred in Australia, and Ms Rajavi was released without charge after a few weeks.
When asked about these events, Mr Murphy’s frustration becomes apparent.
"There’s absolutely no evidence anyone asked them to do that," he said.
"What you are suggesting is just absurd, ridiculous."
After the interview with AAP Mr Murphy took to Twitter to say this author was a pawn of the Iranian government.
"AAP journalist Martin Silk is unethically entrapping torture victims, ultimately for the misogynist Iranian regime," he Tweeted.
AAP rejects this notion as absurd and ridiculous.
Mr Murphy denies the MEK was ever anything but a pro-democracy group or has used any terrorist tactics in its war with the Iranian government.
"One of the MEK’s cultic characteristics is a focus on suicide," the RAND report states.
"Although it had not used suicide as a tactical weapon in terrorist attacks since 1981, the MEK has frequently used the threat of suicide as a negotiating tactic or to frustrate investigations," the document says.
Labor Senator Claire Moore admits it seems odd a democratic group has only had one leader in 40 years.
But she blames the terrorist listing for stopping the MEK telling governments its side of the story.
She says she understands the group has been at war with the Iranian government in the past, and employed tactics including bombings and assassinations.
"But they deny they’ve been careless, and they haven’t been involved in terrorist activities against Australia, the US or any European countries," she said.
But Dr Billingsley insists any portrayal of the MEK as a peaceful organisation is flawed.
Some people think the MEK isn’t so nasty after all, he said, because "they’re blowing up our enemies rather than us".
"The fact is they’re killing civilians," he said.
"It’s terrorism by any definition."
By Martin Silk, AAP