Monday, December 4, 2023

Iranians hold rallies to protest police raid on opposition’s Albania-based HQ

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Protests were held outside Albanian embassies and consulates in at least ten cities on June 20th and 21st following a raid by police on the Iranian expatriate community known as Ashraf 3, located just outside Albania’s capital Tirana. Further demonstrations are planned in the coming days, with various posts on social media utilizing hashtags such as “No2Appeasement” to highlight that the raid represents a concession to demands from Iran’s theocratic dictatorship.

Iranian expatriates throughout the world including in Washington, London, Paris, and Amsterdam vociferously condemned the brutal attack by the Edi Rama government against the Iranian dissidents.  At a rally in Stockholm, the Iranian community was heard chanting, “Those who shake the hands of the mullahs are complicit in their crimes,” while demonstrators outside the Albanian consulate in Essen, Germany” shouted “shame on this deal” in reference to a still unspecified arrangement between Tehran and Tirana, which may have led to the June 20th raid.

Albanian police raid Ashraf 3, outside Tirana.

Tehran has repeatedly condemned the Albanian government for agreeing to host most of the Iranian exiles who had been living in Iraq prior to the implementation of an international agreement for their humanitarian relocation in 2015. Dozens of those members of Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or the MEK, were killed in attacks on Camp Ashraf, and later at the former American military base known as Camp Liberty, from 2009 onward.

The record of those attacks was highlighted by the MEK and its political coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, in the wake of the raid on Ashraf 3. One resident was reportedly killed on June 20th, and approximately 100 others were wounded, some of whom were taken to hospital in critical condition.

Although Albanian police denied wielding any weapons and heavy-handed measures, photographs and video from the incident showed officers pepper spraying unarmed residents and setting up machine guns outside of the compound.

A member of the Iranian opposition, Ali Mostashari , was hospitalized after being heated by Albanian law enforcement officers.

Upwards of 1,000 officers were reported to be involved in the raid, which was variously explained as being motivated by concerns over terrorism, cyberattacks, and “violation of agreements and commitments” supposedly made by the MEK at the time of the exiles’ acceptance into Albania. But the MEK and its supporters, both in the expatriate community and in Western policy circles, were quick to question each of these explanations, alleging that they represent manufactured pretexts for a serious concession to the Iranian regime.

The raid came at a time when Albania’s relations with southern neighbor Greece have been strained by the Edi Rama government’s arrest and extended detention of the newly elected mayor of the Albanian town of Himare, populated largely by ethnic Greeks. Mayor-elect Fredi Beleri, himself an ethnic Greek, has been charged with vote tampering in the May 14 local elections which he won while in jail. Athens has stated it believes the arrest is “not consistent with the rule of law” and has hinted at retaliatory steps which would impact Albania’s EU accession talks. Due to health concerns, Beleri has also spent some time in the prison hospital.

Many critics of the raid also suggested that it was part of a broader pattern of concessions granted by Europe to the Islamic Republic. Belgian Senator Els Ampe highlighted the raid on Twitter and stated that it was “no coincidence, but submission, to the Iranian Mullahs,” adding that it was immediately preceded by an announcement from France that the French government is contemplating banning a planned rally of Iranian expatriates.

The July 1 gathering in Paris was expected to involve tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout Europe, along with various political supporters, and to convey an urgent call for more assertive Western policies toward the Islamic Republic. The event’s organizers have announced that they would take legal action against the ban if it were to be announced. 

The decision by French authorities came approximately a week after French President Emmanuel Macron held a 90-minute phone call with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi. Sources familiar with the call indicated that Raisi used that opportunity to appeal for new restrictions on Iranian opposition activists in France, where the National Council of Resistance maintains its headquarters. The activists have accused European policymakers of appeasing the Iranian regime at times when the theocratic government was weak.

That vulnerability has arguably been at an all-time high in recent months, as Tehran has struggled to prevent the resurgence of nationwide unrest, following a series of protests that many experts labeled the greatest challenge to the theocratic system since the 1979 revolution that brought it to power. More than 750 people have reportedly been killed by the regime’s crackdown on that uprising, which began last September following a young Kurdish woman’s death at the hands of “morality police”. But videos continue to be shared on social media which indicate that slogans like “death to the dictator,” in reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are still being repeated in many cities and towns.

The MEK’s network of Resistance Units inside Iran has been widely credited with helping to spread those slogans and organize protests. This role has even been acknowledged by Iranian officials and state news outlets, which lends credence to the notion that Tehran has stepped up efforts to silence the opposition movement, not just inside the Islamic Republic but throughout the world.

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