Supporters say Iranians pawns in post-9/11 chess game
Los Angeles -- Four Iranian brothers have spent the past 40 months locked up in federal detention despite a court ruling last summer clearing them of terrorism-related charges leveled by the Department of Homeland Security.
The men, real estate agents in the Los Angeles area, are accused of being members of an Iranian group that is on the U.S. government's terrorist list, although the group is regarded by some American lawmakers as a legitimate resistance organization.
The Mirmehdi brothers -- Mohsen, Mojtaba, Mohammed and Mostafa -- have been detained since October 2001 by the Department of Homeland Security under the Patriot Act. Marc Van Der Hout, a San Francisco lawyer who is leading the Mirmehdis' defense, calls his clients "victims of post-9/11 hysteria."
"It's clear that some people in government want them kept in jail and want a hard line on them," he said.
While they have admitted to lying on applications for political asylum in the United States, their chief offense appears to be that they once attended a rally in support of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, which the State Department designated as a terrorist organization in 1997 despite the group's long campaign to overthrow the fundamentalist Iranian regime, which the Bush administration has labeled as part of an "axis of evil." The U.S. government argues that the brothers' activities justify the actions taken against them.
"The Mirmehdis are associated with a terrorist organization, and President Bush has made it quite clear that the United States will not be a haven or platform for terrorists whose aim is to commit acts of terrorism,'' said William Odencrantz, director of field legal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Congress wrote that into the statute when they wrote the Patriot Act," Odencrantz added.
Court rulings in 2002 found that the Mirmehdis were members of the MEK. But last August, the Board of Immigration Appeals, the nation's highest immigration court, rejected those findings and said the government could not deport them to Iran because of the likelihood they would be persecuted or tortured there.
"This case illustrates how the government is misusing the law to keep people locked up for years even when it doesn't have enough evidence," said Susan Benesch, an attorney specializing in refugee issues at Amnesty International in Washington. "If this is the war on terror, I don't feel very safe."
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, hundreds of foreigners have been held without trial in U.S. federal detention, plus thousands more at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations. Under various preventive detention policies and laws, the Bush administration has argued that it can imprison any foreign national as long as it wants if terrorist links are suspected.
The Mirmehdis say they are being victimized by overzealous government authorities who have coerced witnesses and ignored judges' rulings.
"We have done nothing that hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the United States haven't done, as well as several members of Congress," 37-year- old Mohsen Mirmehdi said in an interview at the San Pedro immigration jail in Los Angeles, where the brothers are being held.
The key elements of the government case against the brothers are the fact that they participated in a pro-MEK rally in June 1997 in Denver and that their names appeared on a roster of rally participants later found in an FBI raid of a MEK safe house in Los Angeles in 2001.
The brothers point out that the rally, which took place outside a summit meeting of heads of state from the G-8 industrial nations, was legal because the MEK had not yet been placed on the terrorist list. The rally, which featured Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., as a speaker, drew several thousand people, according to media reports.
Among the MEK's backers at the time was Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, who ended his support when he became the Bush administration's attorney general.
Similar pro-MEK rallies have been held in recent years, including one in Washington last November, at which Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, told the estimated 15,000 in attendance that the MEK should be removed from the State Department's terrorist list.
In interviews at the San Pedro jail, Mustafa and Mojtaba spoke with a severe stutter, which they said was a result of the hardships of jail life, and Mustafa, Mohammed and Mohsen said they were on antidepressant drugs. The four have spent more than $150,000 on lawyers and have exhausted their savings, they said.
Before their collision with post-Sept. 11 America, the Mirmehdis seemed typical of many of the estimated 1 million Iranians in the United States.
Mustafa, the oldest, moved from Tehran to Texas in 1978 to study nuclear engineering. But soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution, his father lost his job as a bank accountant and could no longer afford to pay for Mustafa's studies. Mustafa, now 45, dropped out and made his way from Texas to Los Angeles, where he wound up in real estate, buying properties and reselling them to the large Iranian exile community in the area.
Mojtaba, now 42, spent three years in Iranian jail after he was swept up in a police dragnet after an opposition rally staged by the MEK in Tehran in 1981. It was the organization's last public event before it was driven underground by hundreds of arrests and killings at the hands of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's security forces.
He was repeatedly tortured in jail, he said, accused by his jailers of being a Mujahedin-e Khalq member. "But I didn't tell them anything -- I told them I was innocent, so they finally let me go," Mojtaba said.
"Our political ideas began right there," said his brother Mohsen.
Mojtaba, Mohsen and Mohammed, who is 34, spent most of the 1980s dodging the Iranian military draft, fearing that they would get sent to the front lines of the war against Iraq, where waves of Iranian soldiers were sent in suicidal charges against heavily armed Iraqi troops.
The three immigrated to the United States in 1992 and 1993, and Mustafa helped them find jobs in the San Fernando Valley real estate business.
The brothers are unmarried and have no other relatives in the United States.
The Mirmehdis' former neighbors and co-workers describe them as friendly and outgoing, hard workers who went to extremes in their attempts to blend in. The brothers adopted American first names -- not an uncommon practice among some immigrants -- and went so far as to pretend they were Christian.
"Maurice was a wonderful guy, a good Christian," said Jon Locke, the manager of Gold Star Realty in the San Fernando Valley, where Mohsen worked for several years.
Locke is a semi-retired actor with a genial swagger from his many years playing bad guys in television and movie Westerns such as "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke." He called Mohsen "as good an American as I know ... he would pray with us all the time."
In an interview, the brothers described themselves as secular, non- practicing Muslims. "I've been to a lot of churches," Mohsen said apologetically. "But just to learn."
In 1999, the Mirmehdis were arrested on immigration charges. They admitted to making false statements in their applications for political asylum -- such as misstating the date of their original entry into the United States -- but they blamed the problem on an immigration consultant who, they said, had told them that their real date of entry would have made them too late to apply under U.S. asylum regulations.
The brothers were released, joining the many thousands of U.S. immigrants who typically spend years in a kind of bureaucratic twilight zone, neither fully legal nor illegal.
In October 2001, one month after the terrorist attacks, however, the Mirmehdis were rearrested on charges of being MEK members, and it was clear that federal agents had been tracking them for a long time.
According to court documents, the Iranian consultant who helped the brothers prepare their asylum applications was an FBI informant with a criminal record. The informant told the FBI that the Mirmehdis were MEK members.
This past August, a Board of Immigration Appeals court threw out the key charges against the brothers, saying that the government's evidence was inconclusive and "with little probative value." The court also said the brothers should not be sent back to Iran on the grounds that they faced likely persecution there.
Amnesty International's Benesch says that the government has taken a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" stance. "The bottom line is that the government has not directly charged them with any terrorist crimes because it doesn't have any evidence that they are dangerous," she said.
The Mirmehdi case is complicated by the controversial history of the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Former members describe it as a cult in which members are blindly loyal to its leaders, the husband-and-wife team of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. During the 1970s, in opposition to the U.S.-backed monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi, the group espoused a mix of Marxism and Islam, and its guerrillas killed several U.S. military advisers and civilian contractors in Tehran. After the 1979 revolution, the MEK broke with the new fundamentalist regime and resumed guerrilla warfare, assassinating several regime officials and attacking Iranian military bases.
From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, the MEK was backed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with weapons and military bases, and its fighters are widely believed to have helped Hussein's troops smash a rebellion by Iraqi Shiites after Iraq's defeat by the U.S-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.
The MEK's political leaders, who are based in France, say their anti- American days are long gone. "That was 30 years ago, and it's ridiculous to bring that up now," said Shahin Gobadi, an official with the MEK's civilian wing, the National Council of Resistance in Iran. "Our goals now coincide with those of the United States."
The State Department designated the MEK as a terrorist organization in October 1997, just months after Iran elected a moderate reformer, Mohammed Khatami, as president. Former Clinton administration officials have said the designation was aimed at shoring up support for Khatami, who faced strong resistance from the country's hard-line religious establishment. According to analysts, the Bush administration is continuing the Clinton-era two-track policy toward the MEK to coax the Iranian regime into negotiating with Washington. The Mirmehdi brothers, they say, are unfortunate enough to be pawns in this diplomatic chess game.
"Iran sees the MEK as its principal internal enemy, and it is pressuring the United States and Europe" to crack down on the group, said Abbas Milani, an Iranian exile who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Iran has indicated that it might exchange al Qaeda prisoners for the MEK."
Odencrantz, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, denied that diplomatic concerns played a part in the case. "This is about terrorism, nothing else," he said.
Some influential neoconservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq now advocate using the MEK fighters to destabilize Iran, and the group's 4,000 fighters are being housed in a military base north of Baghdad, disarmed yet protected by U.S. troops -- and, according to U.S. officials' statements, working closely with the CIA.
But the United States cannot appear to be siding with a terrorist group, Milani said: "If this war on terror is to have any credibility, it needs to be consistent. The Iranian regime often complains that acts of terrorism against it by its opponents nevertheless are not treated that way. You have to apply the same standard to all groups."
The brothers now while away the time in jail, hoping that one day they will be able to go back to selling real estate in the San Fernando Valley.
Mohsen and Mohammed are continuing their applications for political asylum, protected from deportation while their cases wend their way through the courts. Mojtaba and Mustafa, whose asylum cases have collapsed, are awaiting deportation -- although their final destination is unclear.
Because the Board of Immigration Appeals ruling last August barred the brothers' deportation to Iran, the government must find another country to accept them. Homeland Security officials have ordered Mojtaba and Mustafa to conduct the search themselves.
Mojtaba said one official had instructed him to apply for an immigrant visa to Guatemala, a poverty-stricken U.S. ally. "It's ridiculous to expect us to apply for visas all around, especially in places like Guatemala where we don't speak the language," he said. "The government says we're terrorists, so who will accept us?"
Odencrantz declined to discuss the countries to which the Mirmehdis could be sent. Although the board's ruling gives the government until Feb. 20 to release Mojtaba and Mustafa or press new charges, Odencrantz made it clear that if the Mirmehdis dug in their heels, they were likely to remain behind bars indefinitely.
"If they do not cooperate in getting travel documents, we can extend the period," he said. "They have to do what we ask them to do."