France drops charges against Iran opposition group

French investigators have dropped terror charges against 24 members of an exiled Iranian opposition group whose arrest in 2003 triggered several sympathizers to set themselves alight in protest.

Judicial officials said Thursday that nine people remained under investigation for financial misdoings, including suspicion of financing terrorist groups. The officials were not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, was among 150 people detained in a sweep of their European headquarters in suburban Paris by hundreds of masked police in June 2003. During the raid, police discovered $9 million in cash. After questioning, most of those detained were let go.

France's counterintelligence agency claimed the group was planning attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions and assassinations of Iranian secret agents in Europe.

There also were suspicions the group — which advocates the overthrow of the Tehran regime — was planning to make its headquarters outside Paris a nerve center for terrorism after losing its firepower in Iraq, where it mounted attacks on neighboring Iran. The military wing, the Mujahedeen Khalq, was disarmed by U.S. forces in Iraq in April 2003.

The group has vehemently denied all charges against it, saying the case was mounted to appease Iran. Rajavi said Thursday the decision to drop most charges "nullifies and devastates a decade-long investment, demonization and disinformation campaign by the clerical regime (of Iran), its agents and witnesses against the Iranian resistance and its symbols."

The arrests and detention of Rajavi set off protests in France and several other European countries, with people setting themselves ablaze. Two died — one at a Paris protest, one outside the French Embassy in London — and six others were injured.

Rajavi, who married Mujahedeen Khalq leader Massoud Rajavi in Iraq, has been named "president-elect" in a future Iranian government. She was freed on $93,000 bail.

Founded by Iranian leftists opposed to Iran's U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran is an arm of the Mujahedeen Khalq, a guerrilla organization under Iran's Shah Mohammed Rez Pahlavi that briefly allied with the Islamic clerical regime that came to power in 1979, but its blend of Marxism and secular Islamism eventually pitted it against the mullahs.

It insists it is a peaceful umbrella movement of exiled Iranian opponents based in Auvers-Sur-Oise, north of Paris, and says its members are not Islamists, although female members, including Rajavi, wear headscarves.

The People's Mujahedeen is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. The European Union removed the group from its terrorist list two years ago.


Elaine Ganley contributed to this story from Paris