by Anne Khodabandeh
A petition addressed to Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has reached over ten thousand signatures. The petition was created by estranged families who need help to contact their loved ones trapped in the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cult’s closed camp ‘Ashraf 3’ in Albania. The families are demanding that PM Rama ensures they get this contact. Now with the global coronavirus pandemic affecting Albania as elsewhere, they are even more urgently concerned to have news about the fate of their loved ones.
The families have tried for decades to find ways to have news of their relatives – including taking the dangerous journey to the gates of MEK’s Camp Ashraf in Iraq after the 2003 defeat of Saddam Hussein. The MEK’s policy of forced divorce and separation of families has meant this has not been possible. It was hoped that the move to the more open western country Albania might give the families a better chance to visit their loved ones. Unfortunately, after 2016, the Trump administration allowed the MEK to corral the ordinary members back inside a closed and isolated camp in Manez, Durres county, where they are kept incommunicado.
In addition to the Trump administration’s support for the MEK, the government of Albania also capitulated to the MEK leaders’ demands, turning a blind eye to the conditions of modern slavery which characterise this group. Indeed, although they are said to be refugees, neither the government of Albania nor the UNHCR take any responsibility for the MEK members. Ex-members appealing for help are told by the UNHCR and the Interior Ministry that their existence in Albania is governed by an agreement that allows the MEK to take charge of all the people transferred from Iraq; they are entirely reliant on support from the MEK itself. This suits leader Maryam Rajavi very well. It is imperative for her to exert total control over the members since she has re-purposed her former combatants in Iraq to keyboard warriors in Albania where the MEK now runs a notorious click farm. Rajavi does whatever she can to prevent the members from leaving, no matter their state of health or willingness to work.
In the petition, the families – the elderly parents, siblings, cousins and children of the members – have appealed to Edi Rama to be granted visas to travel to Albania to search for their loved ones. These have so far been refused. But preventing the members from having contact with their families is just one element in a panoply of tactics designed to prevent defections. The MEK members have been denied the identity papers, travel documents and work permits which would enable them to live independently. This means that those who have managed to leave the MEK cannot work, cannot get a driving license and cannot even open a bank account to allow their families to transfer funds to cover their basic sustenance. These conditions of forced dependence are all part of a deliberate scheme to close every possible door to help from outside the MEK.
But the blatant human rights and justice implications of hosting a slave camp on its territory that has been largely swept under the carpet by corrupt politicians and media in Albania, has now become an urgent matter because of the coronavirus pandemic. The MEK members did not choose to live in Albania but were brought en masse under an agreement between the MEK, U.S., Albania and the UNHCR. Once in Albania they were herded into the camp and kept isolation there. In Albania, there is a refusal at government and local level to acknowledge them as individual people and grant them rights – they are dealt with only as a group.
According to investigative journalist Gjergji Thanasi, who reports from Durres county where MEK is based, and where the worst of the coronavirus outbreak has been recorded, the Albanian Ministry of Health “deals with Camp Ashraf 3 as if it does not exist. There is not a single line in the Durres Municipality health officials’ paperwork written about the camp and its residents. No Albanian health official has ever entered the camp.” The group is therefore inaccessible and unaccountable. This means that no matter how hard epidemiologists may be working to trace the contacts of positive cases throughout the country, the MEK will not submit to allow Health Ministry staff inside the camp to test or treat the individuals there. Based on its past behaviour, the MEK is also unlikely to register deaths inside the camp as COVID-19 related as this would itself force the involvement of the local health authorities. This makes the group an unsafe entity for the general citizenship of Albania and in particular the residents of Manez and the greater Durres county, the epicentre for the virus in that country.
This is a thorny issue for PM Rama. On one hand he must kowtow to the demands of the Trump administration which continues to support the MEK. President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have been happy to use MEK disinformation and propaganda emanating from the troll farm in Camp Ashraf to boost their anti-Iran agendas. On the other hand, Albania’s aspirations to join the European Union are hampered in part by the MEK presence there. The EU’s tolerance of the MEK ran out in 2018 when an alleged bomb plot brought the MEK’s conflict with Iran to the heart of Europe, forcing France, Belgium, Denmark and Germany to look afresh at the security implications of allowing the MEK a free rein in their countries. As a result, MEK leader Maryam Rajavi was obliged to relocate to a new headquarters in Albania, and MEK activities in the EU were severely curtailed, particularly public demonstrations and gatherings. As long as the MEK remain in Albania, the EU will not accept them returning through the back door by allowing Albania to join the union.
In a strange way then, the pandemic offers an opportunity for PM Rama to address this issue once and for all. To deal with the MEK not as a political or terrorist problem but instead as a social problem. The petition of the families points to an obvious solution to this problem: allow the families of MEK members to make contact with them and help them individually. But this relies on the acknowledgement of government that MEK poses a threat to Albanian society, along with the willingness to deal decisively with them. This is possible. But will PM Rama have the courage and wisdom to take this opportunity?