France detains Iranian activists

Friday, June 20, 2003

PARIS -- Paris police rounded up nearly 100 members of an Iranian exile group Thursday to stop them from setting fire to themselves in protest of a French crackdown on their organization.

One woman who burned herself a day before died of her injuries, officials said.

Three people from the group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, doused themselves with flammable liquid and set themselves on fire in Europe on Thursday -- two in Rome and one in Bern, Switzerland. That raised the group's number of self-immolations to seven, even as its leaders appealed for a halt to the practice.

The Mujahedeen Khalq has been protesting in the streets of Paris and other European cities since French police mounted raids Tuesday on their headquarters and other offices.

The French government said the raids were intended to stop the group, fiercely opposed to the Muslim clerical government in Iran, from attacking Iranian diplomatic missions in Europe and elsewhere. The Mujahedeen Khalq has denied the allegations.

The woman who died Thursday set herself on fire a day earlier in Paris, judicial officials said on condition of anonymity. Her identity was not immediately known.

Another woman and a man who burned themselves in front of France's counterintelligence agency in Paris on Wednesday remained in critical condition.

On Thursday, two Mujahedeen Khalq members set themselves afire in front of the French Embassy in Rome. Another set himself ablaze in Bern, Switzerland, after failing in an attempt the day before. The three were severely injured.

Horrified by the grisly spectacle of protesters bursting into flames on the streets of Paris, police on Thursday detained 94 Iranian demonstrators gathered near the Iranian Embassy and elsewhere in Paris. Demonstrations by the group have been banned.

One of the group's co-founders, Maryam Rajavi, issued a statement from detention urging members not to resort to suicide. She was one of 22 people still being held from the raids Tuesday after four others were released.

That point was reiterated by Rajavi's supporters at a news conference later Thursday. The group denied that the violent actions were an established tactic, but some members said the self-immolations were driven by desperation.

"These are spontaneous acts by people who believe the only hope for the future of Iran ... is being jeopardized," said Farid Soulimani, from the National Council of Resistance, the Mujahedeen's so-called parliament in exile.

The group also accused the French government of negotiating with Iran to extradite their jailed co-founder. "To expel Maryam Rajavi would be like condemning her to death," Soulimani said.

Earlier Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said extradition was not the purpose of the crackdown, but declined to say whether officials would consider deporting those detained back to Iran in the future.

On Tuesday, some 1,300 French agents swarmed into the longtime headquarters of the Mujahedeen, which has been based in France since falling out with the Iranian government shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The group started as a Marxist guerrilla group fighting the regime of the Shah. Despite its leftist leanings, however, it respects Islamic traditions, and women supporters often wear traditional headscarves.

The group's armed wing, based in Iraq, is being disarmed by the U.S.-led occupation forces under a May agreement.

The government has been slow to explain why it suddenly cracked down on a group that had been in France for so long.

Since the raids, government officials have accused the group of trying to set up a support base in France to compensate for losses in Iraq.

In the fullest explanation yet, France's counterintelligence chief said on Wednesday that the group was planning attacks on Iranian diplomatic offices in Europe and elsewhere.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in an interview published Thursday in the newspaper Le Monde that the raids on the Iranian exile group were "in our national interest."

The police operation was aimed at "dismantling the nerve center of an organization qualified as terrorist by the European Union," Raffarin said.

Police initially detained more than 150 members of the Mujahedeen Khalq and seized more than $8 million. The group denies U.S. and European claims that it's involved in terrorism.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: