WALL STREET JOURNAL – By DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS
PARIS—Preliminary charges of terrorism filed eight years ago against members and supporters of an umbrella Iranian opposition group have been dismissed by investigating magistrates looking into the case, French officials said Thursday.
The decision could give a boost to the France-based group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and its main branch, the Mujahedin e-Khalq, known as MeK, in their campaign to persuade the U.S. to remove them from the State Department’s list of global terrorist organizations.
A group of 24 NCRI members and supporters was put under formal investigation in 2003 after a predawn sweep against the dissident movement’s headquarters near Paris. At the time, French investigators said they suspected the NCRI was diverting money collected in Europe through relief organizations to help finance terrorist projects against the Iranian regime.
The NCRI, which formally renounced acts of violence in 2001, and its leader, Maryam Rajavi, who was among those under investigation, have repeatedly denied any link to terrorism.
During their probe, French investigators also found documents in which the MeK praised violent actions conducted against government targets in Iran. Lawyers for the MeK argued during the investigation that violent actions against an oppressive regime should be regarded as an act of resistance, not as terrorism.
In their decision, investigating magistrates Marc Trevidic and Edmond Brunaud said it wasn’t their role to decide whether Iran is a democratic or oppressive regime. They said that in the absence of any evidence that civilians had been hit in the actions praised by the MeK in the documents, it would be beyond their mandate to classify the group as a terrorist organization or as a resistance movement.
“The fundamental rule of our criminal code, under which suspects must have the benefit of the doubt, must apply and lead in this case to dropping terrorism charges,” the magistrates said in their decision.
The two magistrates said they didn’t solicit the assistance of Iranian authorities to investigate the MeK’s actions in Iran because they feared any information Tehran could have passed on about a group it regards as an enemy would have been biased.
Nine of the 24 remain under formal investigation on preliminary embezzlement charges.
William Bourdon, a lawyer for the NCRI and some of the nine, said he was confident his clients would be able to provide explanations for any irregularities during fund-raising activities. “I am not at all worried by those charges,” Mr. Bourdon said.
Founded in 1965, the MeK helped topple the regime of the Shah of Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution.
But the group quickly split with Iran’s new clerical rulers, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Some MeK members fled to France, and some later established themselves in Iraq and fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran.
The MeK was listed as a terror group by the U.S. in 1997, and by the European Union in 2002.
Senior U.S. and European officials have said the sanctions against the MeK were in part the result of a bargain with Tehran. Iran wanted the West to adopt a hard line against dissidents; the U.S. and some EU countries were trying to build ties with Iran.
The MeK was removed from the EU’s terror list in 2009.
As part of the 2003 sweep, then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy marshaled 1,300 police to raid the NCRI headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. More than 160 dissidents were arrested.
All were released shortly afterward, and the terrorism probe was launched against 24 of them. At the same time, the embezzlement probe was launched.