Canadian teens recruited in plot to overthrow Iranian government
CREDIT: Peter Redman, National Post
Mustafa Mohammady sits with a picture of his daughter Somayeh now 25, in his Richmond Hill home. Mohammady is working for the return of his daughter…
CREDIT: National Post
Somayeh Mohammady, shown in 1998, the year she dropped out of Grade 10 and left Canada for a guerrilla training camp in Iraq.
A National Post investigation has found the banned terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq recruited teens in Canada and sent them abroad to overthrow the Iranian government by force. Today, we begin a five-part series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with the guerrillas — and now regrets it.
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RICHMOND HILL – The video playing on the 36-inch Hitachi television in Mustafa Mohammady’s living room in the suburbs north of Toronto shows his daughter Somayeh in a paramilitary uniform, her hair tucked under a khaki scarf that’s knotted at the neck.
The home video has come to the Mohammadys from the plains north of Baghdad, where their daughter lives in a guerrilla compound called Camp Ashraf, the headquarters of the Organization of the Freedom Fighters of the Iranian People.
A student at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, Somayeh dropped out of Grade 10 to join the rebels, and for the past several years her parents have done little else except try to get her back to Canada. They have written pleading letters to guerrilla commanders and the Canadian government. They travelled to Iraq four times.
But she is there still.
"Her brain’s been washed," her younger brother Morteza said. "The Canadian government needs to take her out of there. We know my sister is not a terrorist."
The Mohammadys are nervous and sleepless with worry, but as much as the parents are torn up that their daughter is a member of what the Canadian government calls a terrorist organization, in arguably the most dangerous country in the world, they also know they are partly to blame because she went to the camp with their consent.
"I trusted them," Mustafa, himself a former activist in the group, said of the guerrillas, better known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. "At the time I sent my daughter, I trusted them…. I thought this organization respect the human rights. I never thought they would do the same thing [Ayatollah] Khomeini did to his people."
An investigation by the National Post has found that the MEK sent recruiters to Canada to enlist teenagers and send them to Camp Ashraf, where they were armed and trained to overthrow the Iranian government by force.
One Iranian group in Toronto, the Centre for Thought, Dialogue and Human Rights in Iran, says three boys and seven girls under the age of 18 were sent to Ashraf.
The teens were sent from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Dozens of others older than 18 have attended the camp.
To date, only one Canadian is known to have returned to Canada from Ashraf. The rest remain at the camp to this day, either unable or unwilling to leave, and Somayeh is among them.
The Mohammady family fled Tehran after it degenerated into a rigid dictatorship of mullahs. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution had broad support at first, but disenchantment soon set in.
The MEK, led by Massoud Rajavi, had been one of the strongest supporters of the revolt to depose the Shah, who preceded Khomeini’s rule. But when Khomeini began a crackdown on opposition groups, the MEK turned against the new regime and began assassinating key government officials and hijacking Iranian airplanes. In some cases, it used suicide bombers.
In Tehran, Mustafa was active in the MEK, although he said he was never a member, only a supporter who distributed literature and tried to convince others to join. But his family was deeply involved.
His brother-in-law, Hadi Hamzeh Dolabi, joined the MEK but was arrested in 1981 and executed by Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards three years later. A sister-in-law, Hourieh Hamzieh, joined the MEK as well, but was killed in 1988.
Under surveillance and fearing for his life, Mustafa fled with his wife and children to Turkey in 1992. Eighteen months later, Ottawa recognized the Mohammadys as refugees, and in September, 1994, they flew to Amsterdam and then Toronto.
For the first two months, they lived in a refugee shelter in Scarborough, but as their first Canadian winter set in, they found their own apartment in Etobicoke.
In the spring, Mustafa went to a community event to celebrate Noruz, the Iranian New Year. Some activists who ran a support network for the MEK in Canada were there and they invited Mustafa to their office in Toronto.
From the outside, it looked like just an ordinary home in a residential neighbourhood. But inside, everyone wore MEK uniforms, and the walls were decorated with MEK flags and portraits of Rajavi and his wife, Maryam.
The house served as the Canadian headquarters of the Mujahedin’s international support network. From this unassuming house, the MEK organized protests and raised money. But it was also recruiting for Camp Ashraf, the 36-square-kilometre military encampment that Saddam Hussein had set aside for the MEK in Iraq to stage cross-border attacks against Iran.
Mustafa watched propaganda films at the centre with his wife and children and attended group discussions.
Eager to see the overthrow of the Iranian regime he blamed for the deaths of his family members, he began to spend a few hours a day collecting money for the cause.
He went door to door, or stood on a street corner near Dundas and Spadina. He would show photos of crying children, and tell stories about how their parents had been executed by the Iranian regime. On Saturdays and Sundays, his daughter Somayeh would accompany him on his rounds. She was 13, maybe 14 at the time.
In 1997, the MEK began a major recruiting drive. The fighting ranks were ageing, and young blood was needed to rejuvenate the People’s Army. During the 1991 Gulf War, MEK members at Camp Ashraf had sent their children abroad for their safety. Some of them came to Canada to stay with aunts and uncles. The recruiters were tasked with bringing them back, along with as many other young Iranian expatriates as they could get.
The recruiter who came to Canada was a petite woman with glasses and a headscarf who went by the name Mazia. She began to pay a lot of attention to Somayeh. They talked about Somayeh’s favourite aunt, the one who had died fighting with the Mujahedin almost a decade earlier. Mazia showed Somayeh photographs of Camp Ashraf and described it as a "very nice place."
Mazia convinced Somayeh to attend a demonstration in Washington, D.C., and on June 30, 1997, she crossed the border and travelled to the Pirayesh, the MEK’s secret base in Sleepy Hollow, Va. Somayeh watched videos of Ashraf and met the head of the U.S. Mujahedin recruiting network, Sima, who offered to send her to Iraq to visit her aunt’s grave.
Somayeh returned to Toronto and started Grade 10, but she dropped out to join the MEK. She was only 17 years old, but Sima told the Mohammadys their daughter would be safely returned to them after a month.
Mustafa had a favourable opinion of the MEK back then. The security era ushered in by 9/11 was still three years away, and the Mujahedin had not yet been outlawed as a terrorist group.
"We thought they were a nationalist group that wanted to topple the Iranian government," he said. As for Ashraf, he thought it was "like other camps that were run by nice people. So I consented for my daughter to go there."
Somayeh said her parents paid for her airfare. Mustafa denied that.
"I didn’t have the money," he said. The MEK’s U.S. office bought the ticket, he insisted.
"I think the purpose was just to deceive some young people and get them there," he said. "At that time, I did not know." He said he thought she would be like an exchange student.
"I thought it was just another program."
In February, 1998, Somayeh flew from New York to Amsterdam, then transferred to a flight to Amman, Jordan. From there, she went by road to Baghdad and then travelled north on a highway for 65 kilometres to a gate where palm trees and Iranian flags marked the entrance to the rebel base.
For the next decade, Camp Ashraf would be her home.
DECODING THE MUJAHEDIN-E KHALQ ORGANIZATION
Mujahedin-e Khalq: "The Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) is an Iranian terrorist organization that was based in Iraq until recently. It subscribes to an eclectic ideology that combines its own interpretation of Shiite Islamism with Marxist principles. The group aspires to overthrow the current regime in Iran and establish a democratic, socialist Islamic republic. This Islamic socialism can only be attained through the destruction of the existing regime and the elimination of Western influence, described as ‘Westoxication.’ To achieve this Islamic ideology, the use of physical force, armed struggle or jihad is necessary. Besides having had an alliance with Saddam Hussein, the organization has or had ties with Amal [from which Hezbollah originated], the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Al Fatah and other Palestinian factions. The MEK is even suspected of past collusion with the regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan." Source: "Currently listed entities," Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, (www.psepc-sppcc.gc.ca/prg/ns/le/cle-en.asp).
MONDAY: Part II
In the second part of the series, Somayeh’s brother Mohammad joins her at Camp Ashraf.
Ran with fact box "Decoding the Mujahedin-E KhalqOrganization" which has been appended to the story.
© National Post 2006
Losing a son
Stewart Bell – National Post
Monday, September 25, 2006
CREDIT: Roberto Schmidt, AFP
Getty Images / Armoured vehicles belonging to the People’s Mujahedeen (MEK) are lined up at a camp in northern Iraq in this file photo from May, 2003.
A National Post investigation has found that the banned terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq recruited teens in Canada and sent them abroad to overthrow the Iranian government by force. Today, part two of a five-part series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with the guerrillas — and now regrets it.
RICHMOND HILL – Nervous and pensive, Mohammad Mohammady has the look of someone who has been through too much, too young. Five years at a guerrilla camp in Iraq will do that to a person.
At age 16, Mohammad left Toronto and made his way to Camp Ashraf, the headquarters of an armed resistance group fighting to overthrow Iran’s repressive government.
His parents, Mustafa and Robabe, were refugees from Iran and supporters of the militants, known as the Organization of the Freedom Fighters of the Iranian People. But in his first interviews since returning to Canada, Mohammad said he only went to the paramilitary camp in Iraq for one reason: to bring home his sister, Somayeh.
Somayeh had dropped out of Grade 10 at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute in 1998 and travelled to Camp Ashraf. The guerrillas had told her parents she would only be gone four weeks.
But a month passed, and then another, and another. Still, there was no sign of Somayeh; no letters, no phone calls. The Mohammadys began calling the guerrillas’ secret office in Virginia, but they could not get a straight answer.
"She likes being in the camp and she would like to stay," one of the commanders finally told the parents.
The Freedom Fighters, better known as the MEK, short for its Farsi name Mujahedin-e Khalq, enjoyed wide support among Iranian refugees in Canada, and Mustafa was an activist in the group’s Toronto branch. Somayeh had gone to Camp Ashraf with his permission, but he said he never intended for her to join its cadre of guerrillas.
"She didn’t go to join," Mustafa said. "She went to see the camp. I sent her to go there to see the camp for a holiday…. That’s the greatest mistake I have ever made in my life."
Feeling they had nowhere to turn and afraid to alert the Canadian government (even friends and neighbours were told she was on an exchange program in France), the Mohammadys agreed to send their son Mohammad to Iraq to look for Somayeh and bring her back.
"And that," Mustafa said, "was our second mistake."
Mohammad was close to Somayeh. She was like a mother to him and he missed her terribly. He wanted her to come home to Canada. He travelled to the Pirayesh, the MEK’s U.S. secret headquarters near Washington, D.C.
The MEK leaders told Mohammad he could go to Camp Ashraf. He could see his sister, see the camp and come back. The Mujahedin paid for his plane ticket.
Following the same route his sister had taken the year before, he flew to Jordan. From Amman, the MEK took him by road to the Iraqi border. He walked across the frontier and into a waiting car that delivered him to Camp Ashraf, a guarded paramilitary encampment that stretches six-kilometres by six-kilometres over the plains north of Baghdad.
Four thousand MEK members lived at the camp, all decked out in green fatigues. They had come from around the world; many were Iranian expatriates from the West. Mohammad believes that about 100 were from Canada. Other estimates say the number is closer to 50.
Camp life was rigidly regulated.
The men and women were strictly segregated into different sectors of the camp, with little interaction permitted. Even the bakery had separate hours for men and women.
Wake-up was at 4 a.m. The men would shave and shower before breakfast at 4:30. At 5:30, they would do chores, such as cleaning the tanks or working the farm.
A hot lunch was served from 10 to 11:30, after which the recruits had down time until 3 p.m. They would sleep or read. Anything but work; it was too hot for that.
The afternoons were devoted to political indoctrination sessions, then there was another three-hour work party at 4:30. At 7:30 p.m., it was exercise time. They would play soccer or go running. Dinner was at 9:30. Before a shower and bed, the recruits attended a final indoctrination session.
According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the MEK uses "internal propaganda" to indoctrinate its members. Recruits must chant their allegiance to MEK boss Maryam Rajavi, who ruled with her husband, Massoud, during training: "Iran is Rajavi, Rajavi is Iran. Iran is Maryam, Maryam is Iran."
A classified CSIS report obtained by the National Post says that, "This internal propaganda has served to foster a cult-like atmosphere as many MEK members revere the Rajavis like Gods."
Two weeks after he arrived, Mohammad had still not seen his sister. The excuses varied, he said: "She’s busy," "She’s not here," "It takes time," "She’s sick today."
It was a month before they were finally reunited. Two female MEK officials supervised. Somayeh asked about their parents but also voiced her support for the MEK’s husband-and-wife leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, but Mohammad said he could tell it was an act.
"She wasn’t happy," he said.
Having seen his sister, but having failed to convince her to leave, Mohammad told the MEK commanders he was ready to go home. He was told, "later." Then an administrative official told him he could not go back because he had signed a contract.
After three months, he began to resign himself to camp life. He had no passport and no plane ticket (the MEK had taken both). Even if he escaped, there was nowhere to run except into the barren, land mine-strewn Iraqi desert.
He underwent small arms training on an AK-47 and did odd jobs. He fixed the camp cars and cube vans, worked on their engines. He says he never took part in military operations. "I wasn’t a member," he said. "I was with the Mujahedin, but I wasn’t a member."
A year after his arrival, Mohammad was sent closer to the Iranian border, to another camp called Alavi, northeast of Ashraf. His visits with Somayeh were restricted to once a year at Persian New Year celebrations.
Back in Toronto, the Mohammadys waited to see whether Mohammad would bring Somayeh home, but as the weeks passed it dawned on them that he had met the same fate as his sister.
"He was recruited by the Mujahedin," Mustafa said.
The Mohammadys became Canadian citizens on June 23, 2000. At the ceremony, they received certificates signed by immigration minister Elinor Caplan that said, "Welcome to the Canadian family."
But their own family was in turmoil. Mustafa remained active in the MEK network in Canada, attending their demonstrations, but only because he thought it would help get his son and daughter home, he said.
As the MEK ramped up its attacks in 2001, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fought back with rocket barrages aimed at the Mujahedin’s six camps in Iraq. A dozen surface-to-surface missiles struck Ashraf and five hit Alavi.
Mohammad once again asked to leave the camp in 2001, but he said the MEK did not tolerate "defections." Mohammad was brought before a gathering of men who denounced him and spat on him. He relented, agreeing to stay.
He said in an interview that during a visit to his camp, Massoud Rajavi gave a speech in which he had said that anyone who left the MEK would be hunted down and killed. (Mohammad fears for his life to this day and would not agree to be photographed for this article).
Increasingly worried, Mustafa wrote letters to Mohammed pleading for news. On Nov. 22, 2002, he wrote to the Rajavis, whom he addressed as "brother Massoud and sister Maryam."
"I wish you good health and prosperity under the care of Imam Mahdi and hope that under your leadership we get rid of the inhuman ruling of the Mullahs in Iran," he wrote.
"Honorable brother and sister, we, the under signers, Mustafa and Mahboobeh Mohammady, humbly ask you to facilitate our meeting with our children, Somayeh and Mohammed Reza during the Christmas Holiday.
"With the warm wishes for you and victory for the movement in the New Year we appreciate your help on this matter."
He never got a reply.
A FATHER’S LETTER
In the name of God,
With warm greetings to all members of the "Army of Freedom" who are trying for the removal of the inhuman regime in Iran and to you my dear son.
I wish you are fine and wherever you are you are protected by almighty and the Imam Mahdi. Dear Mohammad, if you have any worries about us please rest assured that we are fine and our only concern is you and Somayeh and the unbearable pain of being apart from you two.
Dear Mohammad, your mother is missing you so much and we keep ourselves busy watching films that we have from you. Your baby sister, Hurieh, is growing fast and she keeps asking about you and her elder sister all the time. She prays for both of you at bedtime every night.
Your younger brother, Morteza, is a grownup adult now and he also
expresses his deep feelings and concern about you too.
Dear Mohammad, I know that you don’t have free time to write us but the letters that were written on your behalf before our New Year were received by us 3-4 months after that date.
Although we were happy to hear about you, since it is hard to believe that you are so busy that you can’t spare a few minutes to write yourself, we became a little concerned. You know that seeing your own handwriting makes us really happy.
It is due to the concerns and worries caused by this incident that we have tried every possible way to get some information about the safety of you and your sister. Please write to us, in your own handwriting, or call us as soon as possible. If we don’t hear from you very soon we have no choice but to push every possible button to get some result.
So, please, either yourself or your sister should get in touch with us and confirm your health and safety.
In hope to see you as soon as possible and to see the demise of the inhuman regime in Iran,
God bless you
Mustafa and Mahboobeh
In the third instalment of the series, a father takes extreme measures to get his son and daughter out of the clutches of the guerrillas.
Ran with fact box "A Father’s Letter" which has been appended to the story.
© National Post 2006
Stewart Bell – National Post
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
CREDIT: Afp, Getty Images
An Iranian sets himself on fire in Rome in 2003 to protest the French government’s crackdown on the MEK.
A National Post investigation has found the outlawed terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq recruited teenagers in Canada and sent them abroad to overthrow the Iranian government by force. Today, part three of a five-part series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with the guerrillas — and now regrets it.
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At 11 o’clock in the morning on June 19, 2003, Mustafa Mohammady stopped his car on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, opened the driver’s door and headed toward the French embassy.
He held a gasoline canister in one hand and a lighter in the other.
Two days earlier, French anti-terrorist police had detained Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a cult-like resistance group fighting to overthrow Iran’s repressive government.
The MEK had responded by mobilizing its international network of supporters, ordering them to take to the streets in protest. At the French embassy in London, an Ottawa woman named Neda Hassani died after setting herself on fire.
Protesters also congregated outside France’s chancery overlooking Rideau Falls in Ottawa. They were chanting, waving placards and hunger-striking when Mustafa arrived to take the demonstration up a notch.
An Iranian-Canadian father of four from Toronto, Mustafa said in an interview that he went to the embassy after receiving a telephone call from a U.S.-based MEK activist named Sima.
Sima told him that Ms. Rajavi’s arrest was a disaster for the Iranian resistance, and that unless he did something, his children could be in danger, he said.
Although he had been a MEK activist in Iran and Canada, Mustafa said he followed the instructions not out of any zealous devotion to the cause, but because he thought it would help his son and daughter.
"It was all about my children," he said.
In 1998, his then 17-year-old daughter, Somayeh, an Etobicoke high school student, had been recruited into the MEK. The following year, Mustafa’s son Mohammad, then 16, joined her. They had been living at the MEK’s base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, ever since.
After four years, the Mohammady children had still not returned and Mustafa said he turned against the resistance over what he termed the MEK’s "kidnapping" of his children.
Camp Ashraf was a huge paramilitary complex 100 kilometres west of the Iranian border. Saddam Hussein had given the land to the MEK to use as a staging ground for cross-border attacks into Iran.
The Mujahedin at Camp Ashraf viewed themselves as Iran’s only hope against the religious extremists who had seized power in the 1979 Islamic revolution. But their low-level insurgency had little popular support within Iran and little to no chance of success.
Then the Americans invaded Iraq.
Within weeks of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. military captured Camp Ashraf and disarmed the MEK of its 10,000 small arms and 300 tanks. The MEK was all but finished.
Officially, any Mujahedin fighters that wanted to leave Camp Ashraf were free to go. A few hundred left, but most stayed, either because they were true believers or because they had nowhere else to go except back to Iran, where they were sure they would be detained, tortured or killed.
But human rights groups say there was another reason they didn’t leave: The MEK wouldn’t let them. Human Rights Watch says those who tried to leave Ashraf were labelled "defectors," imprisoned and tortured. A few were killed. The MEK has dismissed the allegations as lies planted by Iranian spies.
"The Iranian government has a dreadful record on human rights. But it would be a huge mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for severe human rights abuses," Joe Stark of Human Rights Watch said upon the release of the New York-based group’s report on Ashraf.
In September, 2003, the U.S. military opened a "defectors" camp. Formally called the Temporary International Presence Facility, it serves as a transit camp for former Mujahedin who want out of Ashraf and are waiting to return to their home countries.
A Canadian immigration official based in Jordan who visited the defectors camp described it in a report to Ottawa as "better than any refugee camp that I have ever seen," but that was in 2004 and human rights activists say conditions there have worsened and its occupants are eager to get out.
The defectors camp covers about six acres and has its own recreation area and mess tent. More than 200 Mujahedin have left Ashraf to live under the protection of the U.S. forces.
Somayeh was not among them.
While she had opted not to go to the U.S. camp, Somayeh apparently wanted to return to Canada. She wrote a letter in Farsi in 2004 and addressed it to the Canadian embassy in Amman.
In it she politely asked for help getting back to Toronto. "I would really like you to help me out," she wrote.
By that time, things were looking grim at Camp Ashraf. Iraq’s new interim rulers wanted the base dismantled, and they were talking about deporting the occupants of the camp to Iran.
The Mujahedin’s campaign for international legitimacy was also struggling. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the West was beginning to look unfavourably at the MEK’s tactics, which included suicide bombings, hijackings and assassinations.
The arrest of Maryam Rajavi threatened to fatally taint the MEK as a terrorist group. The Mujahedin decided to respond dramatically, and Mustafa was to be part of the performance.
The MEK had a history of targeting embassies.
On April 5, 1992, about 40 people armed with sticks, crowbars and mallets stormed the Iranian embassy in Ottawa to protest an air attack on a Mujahedin base in Iraq.
Several people were injured. Most of the demonstrators were MEK members, according to a Canadian Security Intelligence Service report obtained by the National Post.
"The Ottawa attack occurred several hours after the bombing in Iraq, illustrating the high level of organization and commitment of the MEK within Canada," the CSIS report said.
Similar attacks were carried out simultaneously at Iranian embassies in 13 other countries. The mastermind of the Ottawa embassy assault, Robab Farahi-Mahdavieh, was later deported to Britain.
Eleven years later, France’s arrest of Ms. Rajavi had made French embassies the focus of the MEK. A commander from the MEK’s secret U.S. base in Virginia telephoned Mustafa in Toronto and suggested it would be a good time to do something, the Toronto man said in an interview.
She never told him in so many words to set himself on fire, he said. But elsewhere in the world, MEK activists had been self-immolating in front of television news cameras. Mustafa thought that if he were to do the same, the Mujahedin might let his kids return to Canada.
As he neared the French embassy, he tipped the gasoline canister over his head, dousing himself in fuel while shouting denunciations of the Iranian regime. But before he could ignite himself, onlookers wrestled him to the ground and knocked the lighter out of his hand.
It was all over in seconds.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES AT CAMP ASHRAF
"Human rights abuses carried out by MKO [Muhahedin-e Khalq Organization] leaders against dissident members ranged from prolonged incommunicado and solitary confinement to beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution, and torture that in two cases led to death. …
"Dissident members who requested to leave the organization as well as ordinary members were detained in the bangals [pre-fabricated trailers]. Detention inside a bangal was considered a form of MKO punishment for members whom the leadership considered to have made mistakes. They were expected to reflect on their mistakes and to write self-criticism reports while in detention….
"The third type of detention reported by the witnesses encompassed imprisonment, physical torture and interrogations inside secret prisons within the MKO camps. These prisons were primarily used for persecution of political dissidents. Their existence was unknown to most members. The witnesses who suffered under this form of detention told Human Rights Watch that they were unaware that the organization maintained such prisons until they experienced it firsthand.
"One of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, spent eight-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, from September, 1992, to January, 2001, inside the MKO camps. Another witness, Javaheri-Yar, underwent five years of solitary confinement in the MKO prisons, from November, 1995, to December, 2000. Both were high-ranking members who intended to leave the organization but were told that, because of their extensive inside knowledge, they could not be allowed to do so."
Source: "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MKO Camps," Human Rights Watch, May 2005.
THE MEK’S RESPONSE
"The Iranian Resistance’s President-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, described the report by Human Rights Watch against the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, as a catalogue of false allegations and a shameful example of rushing to the aid of the religious dictatorship ruling Iran. On the eve of the discredited presidential election farce, the clerical regime was in dire need of such an endorsement, she said.
"Mrs. Rajavi added, ‘This report contains nothing new. It is a rehash of allegations by notoriously discredited agents of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. That no inquiries were made to either the National Council of Resistance of Iran or the PMOI and that no notice was taken of explanations made public by the Iranian Resistance, and the haste in putting out this report, clearly reveal the political agenda behind it.’ "
In the fourth part of the series, Mustafa Mohammady journeys to Iraq to try to retrieve his son and daughter from the guerrillas.
Ran with fact box "Quote Unquote" which has been appended to the story.
© National Post 2006
Getting out of an Iraqi terror camp
Stewart Bell – National Post
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Part four of a five-part series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with an Iranian guerrilla group — and now regrets it.
– – –
Built on seven hills north of the Dead Sea, Amman is known for its Roman ruins and bakeries that sell nutty Arab sweets, but since 2003 the Jordanian capital has also become a hub for travellers bound for the war zone in Iraq.
The foreigners who converge in Amman before crossing the desert to Baghdad are mostly soldiers, contractors and journalists, but in April, 2006, a Canadian named Mustafa Mohammady arrived on a more personal mission.
A 49-year-old father of four from Richmond Hill, a suburb north of Toronto, Mustafa had only one thing on his mind as he landed at Queen Alia International Airport: Bringing his daughter Somayeh home from Iraq.
In 1998, Somayeh, then 17, had dropped out of Etobicoke Collegiate Institute and flown to Iraq to join the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) a self-professed People’s Army fighting to overthrow the repressive regime that had seized power in Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Then Mustafa’s son, Mohammad, 16, went to the guerrilla camp as well.
As the years passed without the return of his children, Mustafa mounted a dangerous and costly campaign to get them home. In 2002, he travelled to Damascus and took a bus to the Iraqi border. He slept at the border for three nights but he had no visa and was turned back.
Ten days before U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, Mustafa finally reached the MEK’s military headquarters, Camp Ashraf, and visited his children.
He also met with guerrilla commanders, but while Mustafa had intended to ask about bringing home his children, he never did. He said his son begged him not to raise the topic, fearing it would only cause trouble. Mustafa kept quiet and left after a week, without his children.
A few months after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein, Mustafa returned to Ashraf once again. This time, he brought a video camera. His home movies offer a glimpse of life inside the guerrilla camp: Young women chatting in military uniforms, with khaki scarves over their heads; uniformed men play-fighting; a one-armed man shooting pool; kebabs cooking on a barbecue pit.
"It’s like a military base," Mustafa said.
But Camp Ashraf resembled a small city. There were residential buildings, two hospitals, gardens and sports facilities, serving a population of almost 4,000. There was a university campus and a water treatment plant. The camp even had its own Web site.
The U.S. invasion brought a sudden end to the MEK’s war against the Iranian regime. The Americans disarmed the group, confiscating thousands of weapons. But the rebel command discouraged its young guerrillas from "defecting."
Somayeh contacted the Canadian embassy in Jordan in 2004 saying she wanted to return to Canada, but she was also worried about her younger brother, Mohammad, and wrote a brief letter asking the Canadian government to help get him back to Toronto.
"I’d like to ask you to kindly help him, at your earliest convenience, with his return to Canada. I have been waiting for approximately six months now to hear back from you and I was not expecting it to take so long," she wrote in Farsi.
"All along I have been under a lot of stress, thinking constantly and hoping you would take care of him. Besides being a Canadian citizen, he would like to return to our father, mother, brother and sister.
"My only request of you is to quickly help him with his return to our family in Canada before something horrible happens to him."
The MEK knew Mohammad was unhappy at the camp. Instead of letting him go, however, they locked him in a metal shipping container, he said in an exclusive interview with the National Post.
Each morning, a guard would bring tea, and at 3 p.m., Mohammad would get bread, cheese and a cup of water. Twenty-four hours a day, he sweltered inside the container, which became a furnace under the midday sun. He lost weight. He thought he would die.
"I had no hope," he said.
After 21 days, he was released and telephoned his father in Toronto.
"Give me 14 days," Mustafa told him.
The MEK commanders told Mohammad that Mustafa would not come. But then Mohammad heard his father was in Jordan and would be arriving at Ashraf in a few hours.
Mustafa got there at 8 p.m. and spoke to a female commander, who told him Mohammad could leave. Father and son hugged.
Forty-five days later, Mohammad left Camp Ashraf for Jordan. He spent two weeks in Amman with his mother before returning to Canada on Dec. 20, 2004.
He had been with the guerrillas five years. But he soon learned it was not so easy to escape the MEK. A week before he left, a commander had warned him not to say anything bad about the MEK. If he did, he was told that something would happen to him, he said in an interview.
Exactly what would happen was not specified, but he said he was told to recall what MEK leader Massoud Rajavi had said at the camp a few years earlier: Defectors would be found and killed.
At home in Toronto, Mohammad’s fears heightened as he began receiving threatening calls from Mujahedin supporters angry he had abandoned the freedom fighters. They accused him of being a spy for the Iranian regime, a label the MEK commonly uses to tarnish disgruntled former members.
The MEK and the Iranian government had fought with tanks and AK-47s along the Iran-Iraq border, but they were also waging a propaganda war in Western cities.
Just as the MEK used propaganda to silence its critics and highlight Iran’s dismal human rights record, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran’s brutal secret service, was working to discredit the Mujahedin.
Operating out of Iranian embassies in Western capitals, Iranian agents were approaching and exploiting families with relatives at Camp Ashraf, a tactic known in the spy world as foreign-influence activities.
Mustafa said he never knowingly spoke with any Iranian agents, or even Canadian intelligence officers. He was approached last year by a man suspected of working for the Iranians, but Mustafa said he was not aware he was an agent, did not trust him and never accepted his offer of help.
Mustafa said he agreed to be interviewed about his family’s involvement with the MEK because he thought the publicity might pressure the Canadian government into bringing his daughter back to Toronto.
By the spring of 2006, Mustafa decided to return to Iraq once again. He flew to Jordan and waited in line at the Iraqi embassy every morning at 8 a.m., hoping for a visa. Each day he left at closing time at 2:30 p.m., empty-handed.
The Canadian embassy gave Mustafa a letter of introduction (although only after he signed a waiver saying he understood the risks inherent in travelling to Iraq), but it did not help get him a visa.
Looking for another route into Iraq, Mustafa went to Turkey and hired a local man to take him across the border, but the smuggler backed out, telling Mustafa it was too dangerous.
The security situation in Iraq was worsening. Improvised explosive devices planted along the highways had made travelling by road a form of Russian roulette. One roadside bomb killed more than a dozen Iraqi contract workers aboard a bus bound for Camp Ashraf.
Getting a visa from the Iraqi embassy, however, was just one of the obstacles Mustafa faced as he waited in Amman.
He also had to convince Somayeh to return to Canada, and after spending the better part of a decade in the company of the guerrillas, she sometimes sounded reluctant to leave.
The next challenge was to convince the Mujahedin to let her go, and according to human rights investigators, the MEK leadership had been imprisoning and torturing "defectors."
But even if he could get Somayeh out of Camp Ashraf, and through the worsening war zone of Iraq, there was one final roadblock: Canada’s immigration department.
LETTER FROM CAMP ASHRAF
Greetings to the Canadian Embassy and the Government of Canada.
The undersigned, Somayeh Mohammady, holder of passport number RC009592 issued in Canada, daughter of Mustafa Mohammady, would like to ask you to make it possible, at your earliest convenience, for me to return to my old country Canada since I both went to school and taught there and also lived with my family.
All my family is there: my father, mother, brother, sister and the rest of my family including my uncle … I would really like you to help me out. I submitted my citizenship application to the government of Canada six months ago and requested to help me return to Canada, however unfortunately it appeared that there was no answer.
Nevertheless, I know that Canada pays a great deal of attention to human rights and values its citizens highly. I was a refugee in Canada for four years and filled out the application form for citizenship, but I couldn’t obtain my citizenship before coming here.
When I tried to return, I was not able to since I didn’t have my passport available and it wasn’t possible for me to contact my family. Now, my father has been able to come down to see us and also there were representatives from the government of Canada here six months ago. I managed to let them know about my request and also let my father know so that he can submit my request to you in order for me to return to my family.
Thank you very, very much.
Signed: Somayeh Mohammady.
Source: Letter sent to the Canadian embassy in Jordan on Oct. 17, 2004.
In the final part of the series, the Mohammady family squares off against Canadian immigration officials.
Ran with fact box "Letter From Camp Ashraf" which has been appended to the story.
© National Post 2006
‘I’m with the Mujahedin’
Stewart Bell – National Post
Thursday, September 28, 2006
CREDIT: National Post, courtesy of Mohammady family
Somayeh Mohammady is a member of the banned terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq. She lives at a guerrilla camp called Camp Ashraf in Iraq. She joined when she was 16 and he has been trying to get her back to Canada.
Today, the conclusion a five-part National Post series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with an Iranian guerrilla group — and now regrets it.
– – –
TORONTO – The voice on the speakerphone was faint.
"Hello. I am Somayeh Mohammady," the caller said.
"I’m in Ashraf city, in Iraq."
Somayeh was calling from Camp Ashraf, the headquarters of the guerrilla group she had joined when she was 17 years old.
Standing outside on the sidewalk for better reception, she held a borrowed satellite phone to her ear while 10,000 kilometres away her muffled words were broadcast through a speaker into Hearing Room 50 at the Immigration and Refugee Board office in downtown Toronto.
"Somayeh, are you still living in Camp Ashraf, in the Mujahedin camp?" her lawyer, Pamila Bhardwaj, asked, using the term for a Muslim soldier of God.
"Yes," she replied. "Yes, I am there."
A former student at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, Somayeh was in Grade 10 when she was recruited into the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a resistance group fighting to overthrown Iran’s hardline regime.
It was the regine that came to power in Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Her younger brother Mohammad joined her at the camp at age 16.
Although their parents were MEK supporters and initially backed their decision to go to Iraq, as the years went by, they became increasingly desperate to get the children home. In 2004, they succeeded in bringing Mohammad back to Canada after five years with the guerrillas, but Somayeh was still there.
They wrote letters, voyaged to Iraq and met diplomats and guerrilla commanders. In the end, however, it was Canada’s immigration and refugee board that would decide Somayeh’s fate.
The 25-year-old’s future hung in the balance on May 9, 2006, as she testified by telephone at the hearing that would determine whether she would be allowed to return to Canada or whether she would have to remain at a rebel camp in the world’s deadliest war zone.
The problem was that Somayeh was only a permanent resident of Canada when she left Toronto to join the resistance in 1998. She had been away with the rebels when the rest of her family became citizens. By 2006, she had been away so long that she had lost her Canadian immigration status. She was also a self-admitted member of the MEK, an outlawed terrorist organization under federal law, and therefore inadmissible to Canada.
Early in 2004, she sent a letter to the Canadian embassy in Jordan asking for help getting out of Ashraf. On May 31 of that year, an immigration official travelled to Camp Ashraf to interview her.
In the notes she took that day, the officer observed that the meeting was monitored by Behzad Saffari, a "legal advisor" to the MEK who "refused to leave the interview and regularly interfered, saying he was translating."
"If it is determined that you have the right to return to Canada, do you wish to do so?" the Canadian official asked Somayeh.
"Because I was an immigrant in Canada, I am willing to go back to Canada to join my family," she replied, according to a government report on the meeting obtained by the National Post.
Somayeh told the officer how she had immigrated to Canada from Iran with her parents in 1994.
"When did you leave Canada," the official asked.
"Have you been back to Canada since?"
As the immigration official wrote in her subsequent report, under Canadian law, landed immigrants automatically lose their status if they have been abroad for more than 730 days during the previous five years.
The math was not in Somayeh’s favour. She had not spent a single day in Canada in almost a decade. As the Canadian embassy in Amman wrote in its letter to Somayeh, that meant she was not entitled to return to Canada. Neither did the embassy find there were sufficient humanitarian or compassionate grounds to let her back in.
The Mohammady family did not give up. They hired a lawyer, Ms. Bhardwaj, who filed an appeal. To support the case, Somayeh’s father, Mustafa, a Canadian citizen, wrote a two-page affidavit that portrayed his daughter as a Patty Hearst-like victim.
"My daughter left Canada in 1998 for Iraq by herself on vacation. She was 16 years old at the time [she was actually 17]," Mustafa wrote. "My daughter informs me, and I verily believe, that after her arrival in Iraq, she was detained by the Mujahedin and has been held against her will since then."
At the hearing, Somayeh called in on a satellite telephone she borrowed from a U.S. soldier who was part of the Military Police unit guarding the camp. She said she was able to speak freely.
Her lawyer asked whether she had left the MEK camp and moved to the "defectors’ camp," a nearby compound that American troops had set up for those wishing to quit the guerrillas. But she said she was still living with the MEK.
"I’m with the Mujahedin," she said in Farsi.
Why hadn’t she gone to the U.S. camp?
"I don’t want to go there."
"I’m a Mujahedin myself and I want to be here."
Her lawyer asked if she wanted to return to Canada.
"No, I don’t."
"I would like to be here."
"Because I’m Mujahedin myself and I want to be here."
At that, the lawyer turned to the immigration judge and said she was not comfortable proceeding, arguing that Somayeh was afraid to speak truthfully since she was still living with the MEK.
The lawyer argued that Somayeh had not given up her landed immigrant status voluntarily. When she left Canada, she was a minor and never intended to stay in Iraq for so long, Ms. Bhardwaj said. The MEK had, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped her.
In her cross-examination, the immigration official asked Somayeh why she left Canada.
"I wanted to join Mujahedin," she replied.
Did your parents know this?
And they approved?
"Yes, they approved."
Who paid for you to travel to Iraq?
"My parents," she said, adding, "The money I have for telephone is running out."
Mustafa testified by speakerphone from Amman. He had arrived in Jordan in April with his wife, Robabe. They hoped to get into Iraq and move Somayeh to the American camp until her immigration status was sorted out.
"I swear as a father to tell the truth," he pleaded. "My daughter is a hostage and she is very frightened of these people, and whatever she might have said today is what they told her to say."
But the immigration official dismissed the family’s portrayal of Somayeh as a girl who went on a student exchange program and got kidnapped by rebels.
"It’s simply not plausible," the official said. "There’s something else going on here. This is the type of organization you chose for your daughter for a student exchange? He [Mustafa] was aware his daughter was going to join the Mujahedin. That is the only plausible explanation."
After two months in Jordan and Turkey, trying to reach his daughter in Iraq, Mustafa was running out of money and making little headway. He returned to Toronto on June 21, 2006. The construction contractor estimates the six trips he has made to the region have cost him $60,000.
Disarmed and confined to its base in Iraq, the MEK is all but finished as a fighting force. Its guerrillas pass the time studying and running their base. Camp Ashraf is now no more than a holding station for rebels like Somayeh who, whether out of fear or commitment, won’t abandon the MEK and have nowhere else to go.
A copy of the refugee board’s decision on Somayeh’s case was delivered to her lawyer last Thursday and released publicly on Monday. The judge, James Waters, ruled that Somayeh had "joined the MEK voluntarily with her parents’ consent."
He noted that the MEK was considered a terrorist group under Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act and that Somayeh "was clear that she was a long-time committed member of the MEK and wished to remain with her Mujahedin colleagues at Camp Ashraf in Iraq rather than return to Canada."
Somayeh’s appeal was dismissed.
Unless the decision is appealed and overturned, her life in Canada is finished, squandered by zeal for a cause half a world away.
Mustafa broke down when he heard the news. His wife cries every day. They are nervous all the time and can’t sleep. They worry that the MEK will kill Somayeh and claim it as a suicide.
The parents feel helpless. And they feel guilty as well because they were the ones who introduced her to the MEK when she was an impressionable adolescent.
"I understand," Mustafa said, "that we made a mistake."
IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE BOARD DECISION ON SOMAYEH MOHAMMADY
The appellant is not well established in Canada, having spent approximately four years of her life as a student here during her teenage years.
The appellant was a 17-year-old minor when she voluntarily decided with her parents’ consent to leave Canada and join the MEK.
Since 1998, she has been living at Camp Ashraf, Iran [it is actually Iraq], the MEK military base. The appellant has not been in Canada at all during the five-year period prior to May 31, 2004. The extent of the non-compliance is a negative factor.
Insufficient persuasive evidence has been proffered to displace the appellant’s oral testimony that she wishes to remain at Camp Ashraf with her MEK colleagues. The appellant does not wish to return to Canada to reside as a permanent resident.
The appellant’s entire immediate family is in Canada. It is their view that the immigration goal of family reunification would be served by permitting the appellant further time to defect from the MEK camp and return to Canada. The appellant’s immediate family in Canada believe it is in her best interests to return to Canada to live and would support her readjusting to life here. The appellant’s family want her to return to Canada; however, the appellant does not wish to return here.
Having regard to all the evidence presented, the appellant has not established, taking into account the best interests of children directly affected by the decision, sufficient humanitarian and compassionate considerations that warrant the granting of special relief in light of all the circumstances of the case. The appeal is therefore dismissed.
Source: Reasons and Decision, Somayeh Mohammady v. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Sept. 19, 2006.
Ran with fact box "Immigration and Refugee Board Decision on Somayeh Mohammady" which has been appended to the story.
Stewart Bell – National Post – Saturday, September 23, 2006