Controversial Iranian Exile Shakes Up Canadian Parliament’s Human Rights Program

by Ali Gharib*

A weeklong series of events in Canadian parliament on Iran’s human rights record caused worry among some human rights advocates who fear that the activities could harm their efforts. The controversy centers around Iran Accountability Week, a program of hearings at the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights and other events organized by members of parliament from the three major parties, with Liberal MP Irwin Cotler taking the lead. The program runs through Thursday.

A human rights lawyer and pro-Israel figure, Cotler has organized three Iran Accountability Weeks. In the past, the events included testimonies highlighting Iranian political prisoners and other victims of Iranian human rights abuses. This year’s lineup, however, was different: Maryam Rajavi, the leader of a controversial exiled Iranian opposition group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), appeared in the program along with a UN rights official and pundits from a hawkish American think tank.

One human rights advocate working on Iran, who asked not to be named, raised the issue of other advocates’ sharing a platform with the head of the MEK, which the activist called “toxic and irrelevant” — a view widely held among Iranians of all political stripes, save members of the MEK itself.

The MEK, which until two years ago was listed as terrorist organization by the United States and Canada, has a tortuous history that carried it from its founding in the mid-1960s as an Islamo-Marxist anti-Shah group to its current position as a vocal opponent of the Islamic Republic. Many critics say the group exhibits cult-like behavior. In addition to its history of violence, the MEK has, notably, been accused of its own human rights abuses.

In a phone interview, Cotler, the Canadian MP whose office spearheaded the multiparty Iran Accountability Week, said the invitation to Rajavi was only to give “issue-specific testimony” — specifically the alleged killings of MEK members by Iraqi security forces.

The MEK moved its operations to Iraq in the 1980s, to fight alongside Saddam Hussein in the bloody Iran-Iraq war, taking up in a desert military base called Camp Ashraf. In September 2012, nine years after the fighters had been disarmed following the US invasion, Iraqi forces evacuated Ashraf. Those MEK members and fighters who remained in country moved into Camp Liberty — an erstwhile American military installation. At various points since Hussein’s overthrow, both Liberty and Ashraf had come under attack, mostly by Iraqi security forces, and disarmed MEK members have been killed.

When asked why a notice for the event sent around by his office, obtained by The Nation, said Rajavi would discuss more broad “violations of the rights of the Iranian people” — a category that expands beyond the Ashraf/Liberty incidents — Cotler repeated that the invitation was “issue-specific,” though he noted Rajavi may speak on or be asked about other matters. (In 2012, Colter reportedly joined a campaign to get the MEK removed from terror rolls in the United States and Canada.)

The association with the MEK, however, raised red flags for another participant, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Since 2011, when his mandate was initiated, the Maldivian diplomat has been a main address for credible information about Iran’s alleged human rights abuses. Shaheed was scheduled to address the subcommittee on Thursday, May 8, by video link in an open hearing.

According to his office, however, Shaheed requested to withdraw from the official Iran Accountability Week proceedings. He agreed, an assistant said, to brief lawmakers “in a different context than Accountability Week.” Asked why, Shaheed’s representative responded, “He just didn’t think it was appropriate.”

The assistant explained that Shaheed felt the event’s framing “made it feel less like a briefing and more of something that encroached upon what he believes is his independence on the issue” of human rights in Iran.

Cotler confirmed that, fifty minutes before he was set to go on, Shaheed phoned and requested his testimony be delivered on camera, or in a closed-door session. But the Canadian parliamentarian denied Shaheed withdrew from Iran Accountability Week: “He was not taken off the program. His appearance was in camera,” Cotler said, adding that Shaheed did not request in their phone call to withdraw.

Divining whether Shaheed was indeed withdrawn from the program proved difficult. Cotler’s office referred The Nation to the bureaucrats who run the subcommittee, but none would comment on whether Shaheed remained part of Iran Accountability Week. Asked if Shaheed was on the public program, Miriam Burke, the subcommittee clerk, said, “I can’t tell you.” Shaheed’s name did not appear in a May 8 press release on Cotler’s official website.

Several sources said the MEK’s involvement spurred Shaheed’s request to be removed from the program. One source with knowledge of the decision said several human rights groups reached out to Shaheed’s office, “and it didn’t take long for them to make this decision.” Two other sources confirmed the account. “From our understanding he was unaware he was part of this broader program,” said a rights activist. “Once it was discovered, the MEK issue was a critical concern.”

The issue is particularly fraught because Shaheed has, over the years of his UN mandate, attempted to negotiate with the Iranian government for access to the country. The Islamic Republic rejected Shaheed’s latest report in March. One Iranian MP remarked that “the intelligence sources for Ahmed Shaheed’s reports are the hypocrites” — the way Iran refers to the MEK — “and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s opposition.”

Cotler said he would explicitly renounce any connections made between various witnesses at hearings in a press conference marking Iran Accountability Week’s closing. “We will not make any association between Dr. Shaheed and the MEK,” he said. “The last thing any of us would want to do would be to hurt Dr. Shaheed’s work or testimony. Not that [the Iranians] need any excuse to do that.”

*This article was first published by The Nation on May 14 and was reprinted here with permission.

Copyright 2014, The Nation.

Photo: MEK leader Maryam Rajavi is welcomed by followers in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2008. Credit: Todd Mecklem

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. The Iranian Terrorist organization (Mojahedin-e-Khagh or MEK) is extremely despised by Iranians. Yet, they hold meetings in various nations to promote themselves, noecon, and Israel. Before Canada, they held a Conference in Paris in Villepinte, a suburb of Paris. The conference notable for its list of attendees included several so-claimed “defenders of democracy and freedom” such as now the infamous Mayor of San Diego, former Mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former US Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton. Most speakers apparently received substantial fees for travel and/or speaking at the Conference. The same group of necons show up at all meeting thanks to support by AIPAC, spy agency of Israel.

    The subjects of these lectures are the same. They were linked to so-called President-Elect, Maryam Rajavi (born in Tehran on December 4, 1953) who heads the MEK.

    Certainly, the CIA knows the history of murders committed by MEK against the citizens of Iran and America. For example, MEK worked with Saddam’s military to aid him in pinpointing civilian (yes – civilian) targets allowing for Iraqis to dose Iran with chemical weapons (in artillery and missiles)!

    The American “loudspeakers” at the MEK organized and funded gathering have certainly disregarded vital interests of the United States by their war-mongering lectures and by accepting free trips and hefty speaker’s imbursements from this terrorist group. Surely, acting against America’s national interest warrants investigation and retribution.

    This country cannot embark on serious diplomacy and dialogue with the rulers in Iran when such “prominent members” support a human rights violator and a terrorist organization that until September 2012 was considered a terrorist group (MEK was delisted in September 2012) by the United States. Importantly, such reckless actions by the US or Canadian government, coupled with new sanctions passed in the House, effectively help the Supreme Leader to convince Iranians that America does not intend to bring the long-lasting disputes to a reasonable conclusion in a peaceful manner. Aside from the Iranian regime, the highly intelligent people of Iran will undoubtedly infer that the delisting of MEK was accomplished to allow America to use MEK as a puppet, to attack Iran, similar to Saddam. Certainly, this type of diplomacy reduces or eliminates any chance of peace.

    Let us be reasonable. How can America fight and eliminate terrorism in this country or abroad by maintaining two sets of standards? Think about it. Is this not outright duplicity? Traitors and terrorists are always turncoats and assassins irrespective of their boss! Wherevers the outlaws go they bring miseries.

  2. Mr Montaser has a grip on the subject, one that should be shouted near and wide. Couple his remarks with the post above, it says more than anything, what makes this country tick. Without coming right out and saying: the terrorists are right here at home, among us, yet that’s exactly the present situation both in and out of the U.S. Government. “The Inmates are in charge of the asylum”, as far as foreign policy goes. Hollywood produces the “Si-fi” thrillers, the idiots in the Pentagon spend $$$$$ from the taxpayers, to make it reality, and for what, someones ego, to build the greatest garbage dump here on earth, perhaps it’s a form of birth control, but anyway you slice and dice it, it’s still insanity.

  3. The Canadian government sees MEK terrorists, the killer of 25000 Iraqi Kurds and 12000 Iranians, mostly civilians… as human-right activists? Shame on you! Shame on you! They will never forget nor forgive you for what you are doing.

  4. Unfortunately the list of inaccuracies in Mr. Gharib’s piece would take a few thousand words to list and rebut. Suffice it to say that even with all of the sideshow issues he raises over the MEK, he never mentions the one key issue that dominates all others and that is Iran’s horrific human rights record. It’s worth mentioning that even Iran’s staunchest defenders never get around to that issue. The current string of public executions, imprisonments for silly crimes such as posting on Facebook, attacks on political prisoners, throttling of internet access and social media, all add up to a dismal picture. All of which combines to demonstrate Iran’s complete lack of trustworthiness. So while they try to divert your attention with claims about MEK, the real issues of their own shortcomings are really the object of cover up here.

  5. I disagree with Mr. Mike F. Given short comings of IRI in respecting human rights within its jurisdiction does not justify turning towards a terror group like MKE, a group in direct payroll of Israel as some sources claim, as well as other entities not friendly to the Iranian nation. MKE is a terrorist organization that has killed Americans, Iraqis and of course their own countrymen, Iranians, it is well documented. Seeing certain political factions in the West supporting them is disheartening and it provides those who are in control of levers of power in IRI cause to push forward their agenda further.

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