Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Further written evidence submitted by Human Rights Watch


  In May 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report on alleged human rights abuses committed by an Iranian opposition group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO/MEK),[11] inside its military camps in Iraq from 1991 to February 2003, prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. The report, No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the MKO Camps, detailed allegations by 12 former members of the MKO who told Human Rights Watch of a range of physical and psychological abuses they had suffered and witnessed.[12] In addition, the report made use of the published memoir of the MKO's former chief diplomatic representative in Europe and North America, Masoud Banisadr.[13]

  Following publication of this Human Rights Watch report, individuals associated with the MKO and others, in communications to Human Rights Watch as well as publicly on Web sites connected with the MKO, raised objections to the findings of the report. We have investigated with care the criticisms we received concerning the substance and methodology of the report, and find those criticisms to be unwarranted.

  A number of critics of the report claimed that Human Rights Watch was calling on the United States, Canada, and the European Union not to remove the MKO from their respective lists of groups identified as perpetrating or advocating acts of terrorism, in the face of a campaign by the MKO to have itself removed from such lists. Human Rights Watch in fact at no point, either in the report or in responses to media and other queries, took any position whatsoever on whether the MKO should be on such lists or removed from them. Rather, we did no more than report what we believed to be credible testimonies alleging serious abuses perpetrated by MKO officials against dissident members of the group, including prolonged deprivation of liberty and torture.

  A group known as Friends of a Free Iran (FOFI), comprising four Members of the European Parliament—Alejo Vidal Quadras, Paulo Casaca, Andre Brie, and Struan Stevenson—presented the most extensive of the critiques of the No Exit report on September 21, 2005.[14] The FOFI document disputed the testimonies and challenged the credibility of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, saying, among other things, that their allegations were "widely believed to be orchestrated by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence."[15] The MKO has similarly alleged that Human Rights Watch's witnesses, and dissident former members generally, are in fact agents of Iranian intelligence. Neither FOFI nor any of the other critics of the Human Rights Watch report have provided any credible evidence to support this charge.

  The FOFI document followed a five-day visit by a delegation of FOFI members to the MKO's main base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, in July 2005.  The FOFI delegation reportedly interviewed 19 MKO members inside Camp Ashraf. According to the FOFI document, these present MKO members disputed testimonies given by the former MKO members to Human Rights Watch. The FOFI delegation did not interview any of the individuals who gave testimonies to Human Rights Watch.

  Because Human Rights Watch places a high premium on the accuracy of our reporting and public statements, the organization took these allegations seriously. We went back to our sources to review and reevaluate the credibility of their allegations. In October 2005 Human Rights Watch researchers met in person with all 12 witnesses quoted in the No Exit report. The researchers conducted interviews lasting several hours with each witness, individually and privately. All interviews were conducted in Germany and the Netherlands, where the witnesses now live.

  All of the witnesses recounted in extensive detail their experiences inside the MKO camps from the 1991-2003 period, and how MKO officials subjected them to various forms of physical and psychological abuses once they made known their wishes to leave the organization. Human Rights Watch researchers questioned the witnesses at great length about the circumstances under which these abuses allegedly took place. The researchers also asked the witnesses to respond to the specific issues raised in the FOFI document with regard to their testimonies. The witnesses provided detailed and credible responses to these challenges that were consistent with their earlier testimony as recounted in No Exit and are detailed in the appendix to this statement.

  The only piece of information that emerged during these detailed face-to-face interviews that differed from the account in No Exit concerned the period of Mohammad Hussein Sobhani's detention by the MKO. In No Exit, Human Rights Watch reported that MKO officials had held Sobhani in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years, from September 1992 to January 2001.  The FOFI document stated that "upon his own request, he [Sobhani] lived in an apartment furnished with all living commodities of a comfortable life. Despite PMOI's insistence that he must leave the organization, he was not willing to do so . . ."[16]

  In his testimony in October 2005, Sobhani told Human Rights Watch that MKO officials held him continuously in solitary confinement from September 1992 until February 1998 inside Camp Ashraf, a period of five-and-a-half years. He said that in February 1998 the MKO leadership offered to transfer him to a better location and then to facilitate his transfer to Europe, where his daughter was living. Subsequently, the MKO moved Sobhani to another MKO camp near Baghdad, called Camp Parsian. He said he stayed there until June 1999, under circumstances that he described as "house arrest." He said he was free to leave his apartment in Camp Parsian but could not leave the camp unless accompanied by MKO guards, and could not leave for Europe. In June 1999, during a visit to Baghdad, he escaped and attempted to reach the United Nations office there. He was captured by the Iraqi police and turned over to MKO officials. From June 1999 until January 2001, Sobhani said, the MKO again held him in a prison inside Camp Ashraf, once again in solitary confinement. In January 2001, the MKO transferred Sobhani to Iraqi custody. The Iraqi authorities imprisoned him in Abu Ghraib until January 21, 2002.[17]

  As reported by the witnesses interviewed for No Exit, the MKO transferred scores of dissident members from MKO detention into Iraqi custody. Iraqi authorities then incarcerated the men in Abu Ghraib prison. Five of the twelve individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch for No Exit said they ended up in Abu Ghraib as a result of such transfers, and they told Human Rights Watch that former MKO members were being held there when they arrived. The FOFI document fails to address the MKO's transfer of the dissidents to Iraqi custody or their subsequent detention in Abu Ghraib.

  The FOFI document also raised two other objections to the Human Rights Watch report. Firstly, the FOFI document questioned Human Rights Watch's methodology of conducting interviews with witnesses by phone. Human Rights Watch, like other organizations that conduct research and report on current affairs, sometimes relies on telephone interviews to gather information. Telephone interviews are a recognized and appropriate method of information gathering. Human Rights Watch has no reason to believe that any of the witnesses misidentified or (misrepresented) themselves in any way whatsoever. They reaffirmed their credibility in face to face interviews in October 2005.

  Secondly, the FOFI document challenged Human Rights Watch's report by stating that, during their visit to Camp Ashraf, the FOFI delegation did not find any indications of abuse or ill-treatment of MKO members. The Human Rights Watch report, as was made clear in that text, covered allegations of abuse inside the MKO camps prior to the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.  The testimonies by witnesses who recounted allegations of detention and physical abuse cover the period from 1991 to February 2003.  After the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, US forces interviewed MKO members inside the MKO camps. The US military set up a separate camp for those members who indicated that they wished to leave the organization. At least 300 members (out of a total of nearly 4,000) chose to leave the organization. The Human Rights Watch report did not include any testimonies or allegations of witnesses as to whether there were ongoing abuses inside Camp Ashraf after the invasion of Iraq. Thus, the findings of FOFI with respect to current conditions in the MKO camp have no relevance to the Human Rights Watch report of testimonies about conditions in the camp from 1991 to February 2003.

11   Also known as People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Back

12   http://Human Rights Back

13   Masoud Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel (London: Saqi Books, 2004). Back

14   The report was presented on September 21 at a meeting in Brussels sponsored by the FOFI, according to a September 23 press release on the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an MKO-related group The text of the FOFI document later became available on the same website: Many of the points raised in the FOFI document also were raised separately in correspondence addressed to Human Rights Watch by Lars Rise, a member of the Norwegian Parliament, and two members of the UK House of Lords, Lord Eric Avebury and Lord Gordon Slynn. Back

15   FOFI document, pg 6. Back

16   FOFI document, pg 65. Back

17   Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, Germany, October 4, 2005. Back

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Prepared 23 February 2006