THE guru of an Iranian exile group who commands a near-mythical hold over her followers yesterday begged them not to harm themselves after she was formally named the target of a terror investigation.
The detention last week of Maryam Rajavi by French authorities triggered violent protests in several European capitals with demonstrators setting fire to themselves in Paris, London, Rome and Bern. One woman in Paris died from her burns.
Yesterday, Mrs Rajavi issued a statement begging her followers to keep protests peaceful. "We appeal to aggrieved compatriots to refrain from self-immolation and only pursue their demands through peaceful sit-ins, strikes and rallies," it said.
Judges in Paris have placed 17 members of the Iranian People’s Mujahideen (MKO) under formal investigation - one step short of being charged - for alleged links to terrorism.
They include Mrs Rajavi, the powerful European head of the Mujahideen Khalq and wife of the Iranian exile opposition group’s chief, Massoud Rajavi.
The 17 have been questioned about alleged plans to attack Iranian embassies in Europe.
Judge Jean-Louis Bruguire placed them under investigation for "conspiring with a terrorist organisation" at a special hearing amid tight security at the Palais de Justice.
It followed the mass arrest of 166 suspected MKO members after French police swooped on the organisation’s headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris last Tuesday.
A search turned up some $8 million in $100 bills and several bullet-proof vests but failed to find weapons or explosives.
Despite Mrs Rajavi’s plea, some 40 Iranian exiles entered the third day of a hunger strike yesterday near the group’s headquarters, pledging to continue until she is released.
The MKO, a left-wing organisation which blends Marxism and Islam, is violently opposed to the current regime in Iran. It has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and by Iran’s clerical rulers, who have welcomed the French action.
However, the MKO has maintained offices in several European countries, including France, where it has been based for 22 years in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small, tranquil town once home to many of the French impressionists.
The French secret service says the MKO made Auvers-sur-Oise an international terrorist base after many of its senior lieutenants were forced to leave Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Mrs Rajavi, 50, was born Maryam Qajar-Azedanllo in 1953 in Tehran to a middle-class family. She joined the movement to oust the former ruler, the Shah, in her late teens and signed up to the MKO at university.
The movement took part in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but fell foul of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
Mrs Rajavi stood for election against pro-Khomeini candidates in 1980 and helped stage anti-Khomeini demonstrations, which provoked a violent backlash from the new government. A number of MKO leaders were executed.
She shot to prominence in 1985 when she married Massoud Rajavi, the movement’s head, and was made joint leader. It was described by the mujahideen PR machine as a "cosmic" and "inevitable" union which would give rise to "miracle cures". The wedding invitation described the marriage "as one of the most important revolutionary decisions".
In fact, Mrs Rajavi divorced her first husband, one of Rajavi’s lieutenants and the father of her daughter Echref, in order to marry the chief.
She is said by her followers to have lost two sisters, one to the Shah’s regime and another, who was pregnant, under the current Islamic regime.
After her husband’s exile in Iraq, Mrs Rajavi became the sole leader of the mujahideen in Europe. Billed as a future Iranian president, she made trips to Western cities in the mid-Nineties to address Iranian exiles and canvas support, demanding equal rights for women. However, the figurehead of the mujahideen reportedly runs the headquarters like a religious sect. Men, women and children live separately, with even husbands and wives and mothers and children kept apart. The majority of those living at the compound do not speak French and reportedly never leave the base.
"She is the guru. Her words are sacred and cannot be disputed," a former mujahideen, named only as Ziad, was quoted as saying in Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the mujahideen’s parliament in exile, denounced the "baseless charges" against Rajavi and demanded her immediate release.