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Posted: 12/22/2003 10:01:06 AM EDT

Prisoner Swap with Iran Illegal  Top Stories  
December 22 2003 11:26:00 AM EST  
WASHINGTON, Dec 22, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) --

Iranian rebels in U.S. custody cannot be handed over to the Islamic Republic because U.S. laws do not allow a swap of prisoners with a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. State Department said.
"And the Iranian Governing Council cannot hand them over to the Iranian government either because the rebels are in U.S. and not the IGC custody," a senior State Department official told United Press International.

Last week, a U.S.-based Iranian dissident group, the U.S. Alliance for Democratic Iran, said the IGC had decided to hand over the rebels to the Iranian government. Other Iranian opposition groups also joined the alliance in condemning the decision, which, they said, enjoyed U.S. support because Washington wanted to swap the rebels with al-Qaida operatives now in Iranian custody.

The protest followed a Dec. 9 IGC statement saying the governing council had decided to "expel the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran from Iraq before the end of the year." A day later, a member of the IGC told reporters in Baghdad that it "is considering handing the People's Mujahedin back to the Iranian authorities."

Tehran applauded the IGC decision.

Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi said: "We have very good relations with the Governing Council, and we have had discussions (on the Mujahedin) and this decision is the result."

The Iranian statement sent Iranian opposition groups into panic, particularly the Mujahedin who are also known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MeK. Despite being designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the MeK has many supporters in the United States and other Western countries.

"Handing over the dissidents to Iran's clerical regime would be tantamount to signing their death warrants. Tehran's execution of its political opponents and rights abuses is well documented," warned the U.S. Alliance for Democratic Iran. "Last November, the United Nations condemned continuing and systematic violations of human rights and the use of torture, inhuman and degrading punishments."

The State Department described such fears as "unfounded."

"Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism ...and also has a horrible human rights record," the State Department official said. "I am not sure if there is a legal way of sending these men to Iran and swapping them for other individuals."

The official said it was wrong to assume the United States does not have to deal with the rebels directly and can arrange the swap by allowing the IGC to send them to Iran.

"They are not in IGC control. They are under the control of the U.S. forces, at camps controlled by Centcom (U.S. Central Command). And because we cannot deal with Iran, sending them to Iran is out of the question," the official said.

He said the IGC had only decided to close MeK offices in Baghdad, banned membership to the group, and stopped them from participating in political activities. During Saddam Hussein's rule, the group used Iraq to stage terror attacks on targets inside Iran.

"The IGC says, 'We don't care where they go, as long as they do not carry out their activities in Iraq,'" the State Department official said.

The official also said the MeK were " designated as a foreign terrorist organization. They are contained by coalition forces and are prevented from reconstituting themselves as a terrorist force."

Mujahedin-e-Khalq is an Iranian opposition group, which tried earlier - but eventually failed -- this year to solicit U.S. support for its efforts to bring down Iran's clergy-dominated government.

Washington's stand against the MeK came amid increased contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials and statements from Tehran expressing an interest in extending indirect support to the U.S.-led war on terror.

Such contacts led to speculation that the United States might hand over MeK rebels in its custody to Iran in exchange for al-Qaida suspects held by the Islamic Republic.

Talks between Washington and Tehran in Geneva broke down about three months ago. Last month, however, media reports said Jordan's King Abdullah was mediating between the two countries and was encouraging Iran to hand over al-Qaida members to Washington.

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