Efforts to Return Exiles to Iran Problematic

The government of Iran is closely watching the fate of the Iranian opposition group living at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Although the government views the group as a threat, some Iranians see the situation differently. An Iranian NGO is trying to help them return to Iran.

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Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran's government has regarded Camp Ashraf warily, but some Iranians are helping MEK members get back home. NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.

MIKE SHUSTER: Like Baltun Sultani and thousands of others, Arash Semitipour(ph) could've been trapped in Camp Ashraf all these years. He joined the MEK in the 1990s, and in 2001 he was sent from Iraq into Iran to assassinate an Iranian general. The plot failed, he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion and was imprisoned in Iran.

Now he runs the Najat Society in Tehran, a non-governmental group that helps former members of the MEK who want to get out of the organization. Recently Semitipour was in Baghdad to meet with some of them, who he agrees are in an impossible situation.

Mr. ARASH SEMITIPOUR: Since these people, they did not have any legal documents and the situation in Iraq was really critical for them, we decided to provide them any humanitarian help that we could, and I think we were successful in that point.

SHUSTER: Of the MEK militants in Camp Ashraf, more than 200 have left the camp on their own and have been living in the transitional camp the U.S. set up nearby. These people, Semitipour says, want to leave the MEK but don't necessarily want to return to Iran.

Iran's government still views the MEK as a threat and wants to see the group disbanded, according to Ali Resaid(ph), the director of the North America department of Iran's foreign ministry.

Mr. ALI RESAID (Iranian Foreign Ministry): They are a very serious and very dangerous terrorist group and it is recognized by European and even the U.S. government.

SHUSTER: Iran's government would like to take custody of the leaders of the MEK and put them on trial, says Semitipour.

Mr. SEMITIPOUR: They were involved in brainwashing process and terrorist operations inside Iran. Iranian authorities have announced that these people must be prosecuted in Iran. I think a list of 50 to 60 people are there who Iranians want them. They want them to be prosecuted.

SHUSTER: But it is the position of the Iranian government that the vast majority of those who live in Camp Ashraf are free to return to Iran without punishment, says Ali Resaid.

Mr. RESAID: For those of them who have repentance of their activities, also those of them who are not seriously involved with any assassination or these sort of things, we have amnesty for them.

SHUSTER: The Najat Society has tested Iran's offer of amnesty. Arash Semitipour says his group has helped repatriate several hundred former MEK members, and he says they are now living normal lives in Iran.

Mr. SEMITIPOUR: Right after fall of Saddam Hussein, Iranian government had announced officially that there is an amnesty for those who are willing to return home. We have talked to many authorities over here and this is a truth that, you know, when they come back over here to Iran there won't be any prison waiting for them. They can just live like any other citizen.

SHUSTER: When Semitipour was in Iraq recently he concluded that the U.S. is not really sure what it wants to do with those in Camp Ashraf. Some in the U.S. government, he fears, may still be tempted to use them as a bargaining chip with Iran.

That may also be the case between the government of Iran and Iraq. The issue was on the agenda when Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, traveled to Baghdad in early March for talks with Iraq's president, Jalal Talibani. Iraq's government may simply take custody of these people if they are released by the U.S. In that case their fate may figure significantly in the future of relations between Iraq and Iran.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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