The Iranian people currently live under one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world. The theocracy in Iran not only murders, tortures and suppresses its own population, but it is also the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism. It has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East by supporting the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has slaughtered close to half a million Syrians, including tens of thousands of children. It has also lent political, financial and military support to extremist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, making it the biggest source of instability in the Middle East and the greatest foreign policy threat to the United States and moderate countries in the region.
Yet the Iranian regime has an Achilles Heel: the Iranian people. It realizes that its existence is threatened by the people’s yearning for freedom and democracy. It was this yearning that organized a progressive resistance movement to struggle for a secular, democratic and non-nuclear Iran.
Thousands of members of the Iranian Resistance had sought refuge in neighboring Iraq for years. In September 2016, after spending years under siege and faced with threats from the Tehran regime, the final group of these dissidents was resettled in Europe, primarily in Albania. Nearly 1,000 of them are women, with many survivors of the Iranian regime’s prisons.
Prior to that, the thousands of Iranian refugees were residing in a prison-like Camp Liberty in Iraq as “protected persons” under international law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described them as “asylum seekers.”
Brutally pursued by the Iranian regime and its puppet government in Iraq since the 2003 Iraq War, these refugees are now settled outside of Iraq. However, given the harsh treatment, the medical siege and numerous deadly attacks they suffered, these refugees are in desperate need of support, particularly with respect to medical treatment, hospitalization and life-saving surgeries.
Before agreeing to move to Camp Liberty, these Iranian exiles lived in Camp Ashraf, a sprawling city they had built themselves starting 25 years ago. In September 2011, the UN High Commission for Refugees declared the residents as asylum-seekers and “persons of concern,” who are entitled to international protections.
In 2009, the American forces transferred control and jurisdiction for the residents of Ashraf to the Iraqi government, which was sympathetic to Tehran. The Iranian regime despised the exiles, seeing them as motivating and inspiring the rest of the Iranian people to call for democracy and human rights. There was a constant state of intense siege imposed by the Iraqi government, at the behest of Tehran.
The residents were violently attacked by the Iranian regime’s mercenaries on multiple occasions, resulting in dozens of deaths. Three massacres at Camp Ashraf, five missile attacks on Camp Liberty, two cases of abduction of defenseless residents, and the imposition of a fully-fledged eight-year siege, which left 177 residents dead, constituted parts of this vicious, although ultimately futile, plan to annihilate the refugees.
This siege involved the complete imprisonment of the residents after they moved to Camp Liberty, which was a small compound vulnerable to repeated rocket attacks. The residents suffered a sporadic blockade against fuel, food, and essential equipment. A medical blockade took many innocent lives and caused enormous suffering. This was accompanied by constant psychological torture, including the blaring of insults and noises through hundreds of loudspeakers installed around the camps.
Prominent former U.S. government officials and members of Congress pressured both the U.S. and Iraqi governments to meet their respective obligations regarding the human rights of residents of Camp Liberty/Camp Ashraf.
To their credit, the U.S. Department of State and Secretary John Kerry worked diligently to secure the safe relocation of the residents of Camp Liberty to Europe, which was successfully completed in September 2016.
The history of the political activism of the brave residents of Camp Liberty is the history of modern Iran and the uncompromising quest of its people to establish a secular and democratic government that separates religion and state, respects human rights, women’s, and minorities’ rights.
For over 26 years, these Iranian exiles had lived in Camp Ashraf, building through their own toil and resources an oasis, a fully equipped city with beautiful architecture, spectacular flower gardens, hospitals, schools, pools, a university, libraries and museums, a mosque, and recreation centers.
The refugees, whom form a microcosm of Iran’s diverse society, believe in a democratic, progressive, and tolerant interpretation of Islam, according to which elections and universal suffrage are the sole indicators of political legitimacy. Because of these beliefs, since the 1980s, tens of thousands of their friends and sympathizers (by some estimates over 100,000) have been killed by the clerical fundamentalist regime in Iran. In 1988 alone, the regime killed thousands of political prisoners who were already serving time in the span of a few months. International human rights organizations refer to it as a “massacre,” and prominent legal experts have said that the episode is more shocking in magnitude than events like the Srebrenica massacre. In 2016, a senior figure in the regime released an audio tape in which the regime’s former no. 2 official strongly criticized the killings, describing them as the worst crime committed by the regime.
About a third of these dissidents are former political prisoners who have endured unspeakable torture while incarcerated in the Iranian regime’s prisons and torture chambers. As such, these dissidents have become an inspiration to the millions of young Iranians and women who strive for democracy in their country. They are, in effect, the brain trust of the Iranian nation, offering millions hope for a free, democratic, and prosperous future.
Nearly 1,000 of them are women who have courageously defied the heart of the Iranian regime’s ideology: misogyny. Many of the residents who were educated in western universities left comfortable lives in Europe and the United States to go to the front line of a battle struggle to free their homeland from the tyranny of a ruthless theocracy. Among them are hundreds of western-educated doctors, nurses, engineers, mathematicians, artists, poets, and the like.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, United States military forces took control of Camp Ashraf. In July 2004, following a 16-month review, the United States Government on behalf of the Multi-National Forces-Iraq, granted residents of Camp Ashraf “Protected Persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Awarding of the Protected Persons status was based on their status as non-combatants in a zone of conflict.
The camp was protected by the United States military until 2009, when it was turned over to the Iraqi Government. In July 2009, with pressure from neighboring Iran, Iraqi forces launched an attack on the camp and its unarmed residents, killing 13 and wounding hundreds. On April 8, 2011, Iraqi armed forces launched a much larger and more deadly attack on Ashraf. Some 36 residents were killed and hundreds more were severely injured. Hundreds of residents were severely injured, with some permanently losing the use of their limbs. Others were shot at point-blank or run over by military vehicles. One of those killed was Ms. Asiyeh Rakhshani.
Asiyeh, 30, was a journalist with IranNTV.com and a resident of Ashraf who was shot to death by Iraqi security forces on April 8, 2011 as she filmed the carnage being inflicted on Ashraf and its defenseless residents. Asiyeh grew up in northern California with some relatives who acted as her guardians. She returned to Ashraf after graduating from high school. With a keen interest in journalism, she became a cameraman. She took up a camera and was on the scene of the attack on April 8, where she filmed the attack. She also filmed her own last moments before being shot. Seven other women were also killed on that day, including Saba Haftbaradaran
According to Saba’s father, who was at the scene, Saba’s treatment was deliberately hampered by Iraqi officers, leading to severe bullet-induced blood loss and ultimately, to her tragic death.
Others were severely wounded by shrapnel from Iraqi hand grenades or machine gun fire. On Thursday, July 7, 2011, a hearing, entitled, “Massacre at Camp Ashraf: Implications for U.S. Policy,” was held by the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Among those who provided testimony in at the hearing was Ms. Neda Zanjanpour, a survivor of the massacre at Camp Ashraf. Other witnesses included Michael Mukasey, former Attorney General of the United States and Colonel Gary Morsch, M.D., the chief medical liaison between Camp Ashraf and the U.S. military. A Canadian citizen who studied at York University, Ms. Zanjanpour, went to Ashraf in 1999 at the age of 20. She testified that she had been wounded “when an Iraqi soldier threw a grenade at me, which exploded between my legs.”
In a statement, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), condemned the April 2011 attack on Camp Ashraf and called it a “massacre.” He urged the U.S. and Iraq to ensure protection of Ashraf and to facilitate a solution acceptable to Ashraf residents. Similarly, the Chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement to condemn the attack.
In 2012, the residents were all moved to Camp Liberty at the insistence of the Iraqi government to close down Camp Ashraf. On December 25, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement announcing her full support for an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq to relocate the residents from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, near Baghdad International Airport. The “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) outlines some of the steps relevant to the temporary relocation and eventual resettlement of the residents of Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty in Iraq.
On September 1, 2013, some 100 residents, who had remained at Camp Ashraf as custodians of the residents’ property, were attacked by heavily-armed Iraqi commandoes. Fifty-two were killed execution-style, many with their hand tied behind their backs. Seven others, including six women, were abducted.
Camp Liberty also came under attack by the pro-Iranian Iraqi militias. In three major missile attacks, dozens were killed, and hundreds wounded. In the deadliest assault, 80 rockets rained on the Camp on October 29, 2015, killing 24 and wounding dozens.
The process of relocation gained momentum as the result of the deadly attack. Finally, on September 9, 2016, the last group successfully relocated to Albania. In announcing the completion of the resettlement process, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said, “[This] concludes a significant American diplomatic initiative that has assured the safety of more than 3,000 MEK members whose lives have been under threat. And as everybody remembers, the camp they were in had on many occasions been shelled. There were people killed and injured…. I visited Tirana earlier this year and I discussed with the Albanian Government how to assist in facilitating the transfer and the resettlement of the last group of MEK members from Camp Liberty. Albania has a proud tradition of protecting vulnerable communities, as it did during the Kosovo conflict and in sheltering large numbers of Jews during World War II.… This is a major humanitarian achievement, and I’m very proud that the United States was able to play a pivotal role in helping to get this job done.”
Currently, the 2,400 refugees now in Albania are in dire need of support, especially medical assistance, having endured years in exile, accompanied by persecution, medical blockades, violent attacks and loss of life and limbs. USFLHR is specifically focused on providing the resources needed for the residents’ enormous medical expenses and for their permanent housing while in Albania, as they have been told by the UNHCR to vacate their temporary housing quarters.