SANTA ANA — Seven individuals, including one Santa Monica resident, pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
The seven allegedly raised funds for the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian-dissident group that was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 1997. Each is charged with one count of conspiracy to provide material support and one count of actually providing support to the group.
The defendants signed a plea agreement to dismiss over 100 other charges against them. Even so, they each face up to 20 years in prison.
The plea bargain will allow the defense to argue on appeal an additional issue brought up during the discovery period, namely that since the defendants were indicted, the United States government has given protection and aid to the MEK despite its terrorist organization status.
“The court found on the record that the U.S. government is providing food, shelter and other humanitarian support for the MEK members and supporters at Camp Ashraf [in Iraq] where MEK refugees live,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an ACLU lawyer representing one of the defendants.
The court also found that the U.S. government had provided military protection to the camp and the State Department had extended consular services to the residents.
“There’s a serious constitutional problem for punishing people for giving humanitarian aid when the U.S. is doing the same thing,” Arulanatham said.
The seven individuals, six men and one woman, solicited funds from MEK supporters as well as unwitting donors at public locations such as the Los Angeles International Airport. Those approached were told they were giving to a charity called the Committee for Human Rights.
The defendants allegedly raised several hundred thousand dollars between the late 1990s and 2001. The money was transferred to the MEK for humanitarian purposes, but the fundraising took place after the MEK had been designated a terrorist group, Arulanantham said.
Though the defense will try to characterize humanitarian aid as legitimate under the law, the prosecution held in court that all money given to a terrorist organization constitutes an illegal transaction.
“We cannot allow any terrorist organization to fundraise on our shores or to steal money from our citizens so they can finance their own terrorist operations,” United States Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said in a statement to the press.
The pleas come after the original 2001 indictment was dismissed by the District Court in Los Angeles. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling in 2006, and the case has been taken up again by the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, heard by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter.
The defendants are Navid Taj, of Santa Monica, 58; Roya Rahmani, of Vienna, Virginia, 48; Alireza Mohammadmoradi, of Los Angeles, 38; Moustafa Ahmady, of Los Angeles, 54; Hossein Kalani Afshari, of Mission Veijo, 52; Hassan Rezaie, of Los Angeles, 54; and Mohammad Omidvar, of Corona, 54.
The defendants will be sentenced on Aug. 10.
Iranian groups in the U.S. are saddened by the prosecution of the defendants, characterizing them as victims of the Iranian regime trying to assist a popular movement to promote democracy in Iran.
“The MEK is the only hope for a free Iran. It is the most popular resistance to the Iranian regime,” said Nasser Sharif, president of the California Society for Democracy in Iran. “It is very well organized … . The Iranian people have big faith in this organization to bring democratic change in Iran.”
Other countries have accepted this view of the MEK. The highest courts in the United Kingdom and European Union have both removed the organization from their terrorist lists.
The United States is one of the few countries that persists in labeling the group as terrorist.