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It looked like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale. Two glittering flags projected on jumbo screens behind a well-known politician as he addressed a massive gathering, flanked by women dressed in identical red headscarves and black-and-white overcoats.
But this was no Republic of Gilead: it was rural Albania, the flags were Canadian, and the politician — former prime minister Stephen Harper — was addressing Iranian men and women, alongside dignitaries from at least 10 different countries.
“I am delighted to be here because there are few causes in this world today more important at this moment than what you are pursuing — the right of the people of Iran to change their government, and their right to do it through freedom and the power of the ballot box,” Harper declared to loud applause last month.
Harper was speaking at an event hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which the U.S. government-funded think tank RAND Corporation describes as "exclusively controlled" by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK).
The Iranian regime terrorizes its own citizens and poses a serious threat to global peace and security. Today in Albania I was proud to again join the #NCRI in standing up for a peaceful, non-nuclear future for Iran & freedom & democracy for its long suffering people. #FreeIran pic.twitter.com/0skdssuGVB— Stephen Harper (@stephenharper) July 13, 2019
Peculiar as it may have appeared to Canadian viewers, the setting was not an unfamiliar one to many Canadian political figures. For almost a decade now, Liberal and Conservative Parliamentarians have attended gatherings or spoken, as Harper did, at events linked to the MEK.
The Iranian opposition group aims to replace Iran’s theocracy with a secular, democratic and Western-facing government. It was previously listed as a terrorist entity in Canada, before Harper’s government dropped the group from the list in 2012, after the United States and the European Union did so. It has long renounced political violence.
The MEK now works closely with powerful hardliners in the White House, including U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. But the MEK has also been described in other terms.
RAND, for example described the MEK in 2009 as possessing “many of the typical characteristics of a cult.” Such characteristics, it wrote, include "authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labor, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and limited exit options."
More recently, investigative reports published by The Intercept, British broadcaster Channel 4 and Al Jazeera English have depicted MEK “troll farms” where members create thousands of inauthentic accounts on a daily basis and promote hashtags and tweets, targeting anyone that favours diplomacy with Iran. Human Rights Watch has reported that MEK leaders force people to issue false confessions.
In 2006, the National Post published an extensive report about a Canadian family that got wrapped up in the group. And in 2003, Neda Hassani, a 26-year-old Carleton University student, became a martyr for the MEK when she set herself on fire in front of the French embassy in London to protest the arrest of its leader by police in France.
'They help create the illusion of legitimacy'
Video and documents available online show several current parliamentarians have attended MEK functions or given speeches, including Conservative Senator Linda Frum, Conservative MP Michael Cooper, Conservative MP Candice Bergen, Liberal MP Judy Sgro and Liberal MP Michael Levitt.
As well, along with Harper, other former politicians have interacted with the MEK in recent years, including Harper’s former foreign affairs minister John Baird, former Conservative MP Paul Forseth, former Liberal minister of justice and attorney-general Irwin Cotler and David Kilgour, a former public prosecutor and MP.
The fact that current and former Canadian politicians attend MEK events is deeply problematic, argues Stephanie Carvin, who worked as a national security analyst with the government of Canada at the time the MEK was a listed terrorist entity.
Politicians attending MEK events “help create the illusion of legitimacy,” said Carvin, who is now an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University. "It also creates the perception of influence."
National Observer sought comment from the Canadian political figures that have directly engaged with the MEK in recent years. Of those contacted, Frum, Cooper, Cotler’s policy director and Kilgour responded.
Emails sent to the Liberal and Conservative caucuses, asking whether they were comfortable with MPs attending MEK events, were not answered.
Sylvain Leclerc, a media relations spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said: “Canada closely follows political activity related to Iran. Canada supports free, inclusive and peaceful political activity and strongly condemns violence in all its forms.”
Shahram Golestaneh, an Iranian-Canadian activist who has been described as “the leader” of the MEK in Canada, initially agreed to an interview via email on July 15, but then subsequently did not respond to questions on July 16.
Those questions pertained to his role in the MEK or its affiliated groups, Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran or the Iran Democratic Association, which lists an Ottawa address and whose homepage espouses MEK literature and videos, as well as what its objectives are and which Canadian politicians it has had success lobbying.
Follow-up queries to Golestaneh on July 22 and August 1 also did not receive responses. On July 23 and July 31, further attempts to contact several other spokespeople for the organization through their website and social media accounts were left unanswered.
‘Engaging is not endorsing’
In 2017, Frum and Cotler were photographed together at an event organized by the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran. Frum and Cotler have categorically denied any affiliation with or support of the MEK.
At the event, Frum delivered a speech, published on her website, in which she appears to call Golestaneh (spelled Goledani in the online version) and other travelling delegations "true heroes."
When contacted by National Observer, Frum wrote in an emailed response, “I am not affiliated with any lobby group. I believe it's important to remain independent."
“I have never attended events in support of the MEK," she added. "Do I support Iranian regime change? Yes. Do I support or endorse the MEK or any other specific opposition party or group? No...I have never expressed support for anything other than freedom and human rights in Iran.”
When asked to explain the photographic evidence and her endorsement of Golestaneh, Frum said: “The event you are questioning was not in support of the MEK."
In a separate email, she wrote, "Are you a journalist or an Iranian regime activist? Based on your line of questioning, your unwillingness to take repeated clarifications at face value, I presume it is the regime that is shaping your views."
On Twitter, Frum has interacted with @heshmatalavi, the account for a purported journalist by the name of "Heshmat Alavi" who has published scores of opinion articles on Iran. A report by The Intercept last month discovered "Alavi" was in fact a fake persona managed by a trio of MEK members.
When asked why she followed MEK-identified accounts, and for comment on the Intercept’s findings, Frum responded: “‘Engaging’ on social media is not the same as endorsing.”
A ‘high-calibre’ delegation
In a video posted by an MEK-affiliated Twitter account last year, Michael Cooper, the Conservative justice critic and MP for St. Albert—Edmonton, is shown expressing his solidarity with the people of Iran who “every day risk their lives to stand up for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and to see an end to the brutal theocratic regime.“
In a phone interview, Cooper said he last attended MEK’s summer rally in 2016 and that he hasn’t been able to go again for scheduling reasons. He is drawn to attending their events, he said, because Iran is “the biggest exporter of terrorism and the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East.”
“What’s been interesting in the last year or so is that the demonstrations (2017-18 street protests) have been taking place all over the country in areas that were once believed to be regime strongholds...it’s encouraging to see.”
Several MEK defectors based in Albania, Canada and Belgium told National Observer the MEK's internet unit was active during these public protests over inflation, unemployment and inequality.
When asked what he thought about MEK’s "cult"-like practices, Cooper said: “they are one movement among many others that seek an end to the Iranian regime."
"What you’ll find is that their Paris rally is a high-calibre delegation of world leaders, including Howard Dean," he said. Dean is the former chair of the U.S. Democratic National Committee. "I support their efforts along with all efforts on the part of Iranian dissidents to see the end of the regime.”
A ‘message of peace and justice’
Cotler is the founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, an emeritus professor of law at McGill University and a human rights lawyer.
Cotler's policy director, Brandon Silver, said Cotler has not offered support or endorsement to the MEK, and "appearing or speaking at a venue would not imply endorsement of the host, it is the content and nature of this engagement that would be relevant."
“Indeed, Professor Cotler has in the past indicated to me that he would not have a problem speaking at an event run by the Iranian authorities, as long as it was an opportunity that allowed him to speak on behalf of those unjustly imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, and to share his message of peace and justice for the people and publics of Iran,” he added.
Members of the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights invite witnesses to highlight the domestic repression and rights abuses perpetrated by Iran’s government. In 2014, MEK leader Maryam Rajavi was invited to testify in Ottawa.
Cotler has co-sponsored Iran Accountability Week since its inception in 2012, but denies personally endorsing any of the invited witnesses.
‘Resilient’ freedom fighters
Of all former MPs who have engaged with the MEK in recent years, David Kilgour appears to be among the most directly involved. A retired MP and former lawyer, Kilgour currently sits as co-chair of Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran, which he said has “no membership or budget.”
“We do support Mrs. Rajavi,” Kilgour told National Observer. “I’ve read about her, met her, talked to her...everything she stands for in her 10-point plan — no nuclear weapons for Iran, equality for men and women, democracy — all these things presumably you and I and everyone else from the democratic world stand for.”
When asked for comment on recent media reports that detail its cultish practices, Kilgour said he had seen no evidence of authoritarian control or forced labour during recent escorted political delegation visits to an MEK compound, Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
“I was a public prosecutor for 10 years and I hope no one’s more opposed to the sort of thing you’re talking about than I am,” he said.
In notes he prepared and published online for an MEK international broadcast held at Sandy Hill Community Centre in Ottawa last December, Kilgour quotes heavily from Struan Stevenson, a former Scottish member of the European Parliament. “I believe Struan Stevenson is a completely honest man who tries to write only what he knows and believes to be true,” he said.
Stevenson’s account relates how the new compound has been constructed by “hard-working and resilient freedom fighters” into “a small city, with shops, clinics, sports facilities, kitchens, bakeries, dormitory blocks, meeting halls, offices and studios. He said the MEK men and women are free to come and go as they please and journalists, politicians, lawyers and trades people visit frequently.
Kilgour suggested National Observer speak to his co-chair, Golestaneh, who he described as “the leader” of MEK in Canada.
‘Zero support’ inside Iran
Thomas Juneau, a former analyst for the Department of Defence who now teaches international affairs at the University of Ottawa, strongly refutes Kilgour’s account of the MEK.
It is “absolutely nonsense. And in most cases they (politicians who support or engage with it) know that is completely factually incorrect...it has zero support inside Iran," he said.
The MEK being a “cult” is a fact that is uniformly accepted among non-partisan observers who have no skin in the game, he argued.
“It is a brutal, thuggish, corrupt group that is led in a completely dictatorial way by its leader,” he said.
“Supporting MEK as a democratic opposition doesn’t make sense when it’s not a democratic movement,” added Juneau, stating that he doesn’t see it being a serious player if the Islamic Republic of Iran ever falls. “Supporting it is not only pointless, but seriously counter productive.”
Canada-Iran relations are currently at loggerheads. The previous Conservative government under Harper cut diplomatic relations with Iran, shut its embassy in Tehran and kicked out Iranian diplomats from Canada.
The current Liberal government campaigned in 2015 on re-establishing diplomatic relations but has been unable to do so.
Stéphane Shank, a media relations manager from the Privy Council Office, said the government has taken "the necessary steps to understand the possible threats to our democratic institutions, where they come from, and how they could affect our electoral processes."
"Canada's foreign policy is developed independently, grounded in an evidence-based approach, and above all, is centred on reflecting and advancing Canadian interests and values.”
It is not known whether any Canadian politicians are paid — outside of travel expenses — to attend MEK-affiliated conferences overseas, although many defectors who spoke to National Observer claimed they almost certainly are.
“They are masterminds of manipulation,” says Reza Sadeghi, a defector who used to work in the MEK’s fundraising section from Canada 30 years ago.
“Maryam Rajavi always talked about how many millions in dollars they paid to politicians to support us. Many gifts consisted of gold or Persian carpets, but it was mostly cash.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 9, 2019 at 7:40 p.m. ET to correct an error. Cotler did not specifically acknowledge that he attended and often spoke at MEK-sponsored events, as was previously reported.