By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/19/2005 5:29:09 PM ET 2005-05-19T21:29:09

A human rights group Thursday leveled charges of torture, psychological abuse and even murder against an Iranian dissident organization that some members of Congress and other influential figures in Washington view as potential allies against the Islamic government in Tehran.

Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, made the charges in a report based on people who describe themselves as dissidents and defectors from the group, the Mujahedin al-Khalq or MEK. Former members, interviewed by human rights watch, “reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members,” Human Rights Watch said.

Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, reached by telephone by MSNBC.com, confirmed that he was held in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years inside the group’s encampment in Iraq, from 1992 until 2001, when Saddam Hussein’s government was sheltering and arming the MEK.

“I was beaten severely for disagreeing with them, but I thought it would not last. It lasted for years,” Sobhani said.

Sobhari eventually was turned over to Saddam’s government, then repatriated to Iran with a group of Iran-Iraq war POWs. He says he escaped from Iranian detention and made his way to Europe.

The MEK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. However, it also is credited in 2002 and 2003 with providing information on Iran's nuclear weapons program that revealed the existence of far more sophisticated efforts to enrich uranium than were previously known.

The group began as a Marxist organization opposed to the Shah of Iran in the 1970s and took part in his overthrow in 1979. But they later broke with the Islamic regime and fled Iran, finding shelter and support from Saddam Hussein during the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

The MEK mutated into something of a cult of personality, led by the husband and wife team of Masoud and Maryam Rajav, and U.S. officials says under their leadership it carried out dozens of terrorist attacks inside Iran and elsewhere in the past two decades. The MEK was still in Iraq when U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam in 2003 and is currently under “protected persons status” – a special category of the Geneva Convention -- in their encampment outside Baghdad.

Nonetheless, the MEK has support in Congress from both the Republican and Democratic side among lawmakers who want the State Department to remove the group’s terrorist label and allow the U.S. to openly cooperate with their efforts to undermine the regime in Tehran. Among those who have called publicly for rehabilitating the MEK are Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

Raymond Tanter, a former White House national security aide and Iran specialist at Georgetown University, is among those lobbying for the MEK’s status to be changed. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he says.

Tanter, who co-founded a group called the Iran Policy Committee, says that Human Rights Watch has been duped by agents sent by Iran’s government to discredit the MEK.

“It is a humongous mistake for a human rights organization to promote the agenda of a rogue regime by taking at face value the claims of its intelligence agents,” he says. “Most of the individuals cited in the Human Rights Watch report are agents of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, including Mohammad-Hossein Sobhani," he said.

Sobhani, in the telephone interview from his exile in Europe, denied that charge.

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