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MEK in Court to Force US to Drop Terrorist Label

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

An Iranian opposition group is in U.S. Federal Appeals Court trying to get the State Department to remove its designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. While the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) says it has replaced violence with political activism, the State Department has not de-listed the group.

Day-after-day, supporters of the Iranian opposition MEK hold protests outside the U.S. State Department in Washington, demanding the group be removed from the department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

The group, also known as the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), has been in federal court seeking to compel Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make a decision.

In 2009, the court ordered the State Department to review the group's terrorist designation, and to provide information on the criteria for getting on - and off - the list.

Allan Gerson, an attorney for the MEK, contends the State Department has delayed its response.

"A year and a half ago, the MEK/PMOI went to court - to the U.S. Court of Appeals - to ask the Court of Appeals whether or not they have been denied due process," said Gerson. "Because, even a foreign organization is entitled to some element of due process. You can't just be put on a terrorism list, they contend, without any criteria. Otherwise, you are left totally to the discretion of a federal agency."

The State Department's list arises from a 1996 U.S. law. What does it take to place a group on that list?

"The criteria, under the law, have to do with being an organization, being foreign, having been involved in terrorism - and having the capability and/or the inclination to conduct terrorism that directly or indirectly affects U.S. interests," explained Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar.

Another attorney representing the MEK, Steven Schneebaum, says that under those specific definitions, the group should be removed from the list.

"It does not have - and I am using the statutory language - it does not have the capability, or the intent, to engage in terrorism. Those are the statutory bases for listing [as a Foreign Terrorist Organization]. The secretary [of state] must affirmatively find that an organization has both the capability and the intent of engaging in terrorism," noted Schneebaum.

Schneebaum says that when U.S. forces in 2003 entered the MEK's base in Iraq, called Camp Ashraf, residents surrendered their weapons and signed pledges renouncing terrorism and violence. That, he contends, answers the letter of the law's criteria for being removed from the list of terrorist groups.

The group's lawyers recently filed a legal document called a Writ of Mandamus against Secretary of State Clinton to try to force a decision, but State Department official Henry Wooster said Clinton is not ready to act.

Some political observers say a desire by the U.S. to avoid upsetting nuclear talks with Iran may be a reason why the MEK's status is unchanged - for now.
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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.