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Growing concern in Washington for protection of rights of Iranian dissidents in Albania

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on 26 July to discuss several pending nominations to State Department positions, including that of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. In his questioning of nominee James Obrien, the Committee’s Chairman Robert Menendez raised the issue of persons seeking refuge in his area of concern, and made specific reference to a community of approximately 3,000 Iranian exiles who have been residing in Albania for the past several years.

“On June the 20th, the Albanian government raided Camp Ashraf 3,” Menendez specified, adding that there have been “different accounts” of the raid.

According to news reports, one resident was killed in the raid and a number of others suffered injuries requiring hospitalization. Albania agreed to host thousands of members of the main Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), beginning a few years ago.

Menendez appeared skeptical about the raid’s motives when raising the issue in Wednesday’s hearing. On one hand, he expressed gratitude to Albania for agreeing to help relocate MEK members from the former US military base of Camp Liberty in Iraq, where they had come under repeated attack at the behest of the Iranian regime. But on the other hand, he emphasized that “if you seek refuge, you ultimately have to be in a position to know that refuge is secure.”

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Obrien concurred on both points, saying, “I join you in the appreciation of Albania, which has been a very important place of refuge for a number of people seeking asylum.” He went on to promise that he would look into the raid on Ashraf 3 and report back to the Foreign Relations Committee on his findings, in anticipation of working together with the committee going forward.

Asked by Menendez whether he would “commit to advocating for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the residents of Camp Ashraf,” Obrien answered, “Absolutely.”

Several other US lawmakers have also expressed concern about the safety of Ashraf 3 residents, often attaching these issues to the question of international support for pro-democracy protests in Iran, which have been especially visible since last September, when a nationwide uprising was sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the “morality police”.

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Toward that end, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives on July 27, condemning the Iranian government for its crackdowns on dissent, especially the 1988 massacre of political prisoners which primarily targeted members and supporters of the MEK. The resolution identified recent protests as being “rooted in the more than four decades of organized resistance” that the Iranian regime tried unsuccessfully to stamp out by killing as many as 30,000 dissidents and activists during the summer of 1988. Accordingly, it urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to include inquiries into that massacre as part of its ongoing investigation into crackdowns on the September uprising.

The resolution, which has acquired dozens of cosponsors from both parties, stated that “the United States should be involved in any establishment of an international investigation into the 1988 extrajudicial killings of Iranian dissidents as well as the murder of protesters.” It then went on to emphasize that over 900 residents of Ashraf 3 are former political prisoners who could testify about the details of the massacre and the involvement of high-ranking Iranian officials including current President Ebrahim Raisi.

Indeed, several of those residents provided such testimony in 2021, as part of the Swedish judiciary’s prosecution of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prison official, for war crimes and mass murder.

The House Resolution expressed gratitude to Albania, but also concern about the endurance of its commitments.

It called “on the United States Government, in cooperation with our ally Albania, to ensure the full protection of the Iranian political refugees in Ashraf 3 in Albania and for them to benefit from all rights stipulated in the Geneva Convention 1951 and the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security, and protection of property, as well as freedom of expression and assembly.”

More broadly, the resolution stated that the House of Representatives “stands with the Iranian people” and recognizes “their struggle to establish a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran”.

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