As a human rights lawyer who defended scores of women unjustly condemned to death by stoning or other methods of execution in Iran, I am accustomed to hearing unpleasant news. However some stories still shake me. Ashraf Adelzadeh's ordeal is one of them. I came to know about Ashraf's case during my research in the "Justice For Iran" project that investigates rampant rapes and tortures of the women prisoners in Iran.
Iranian authorities arrested Ashraf in 1982, when she was only 20 years old, in the city of Tabriz. She was charged with distributing pamphlets for the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (MEK) -- an opposition group targeted by the current Iranian regime and since 1997, included in the United States government's list of terrorist organizations. They took her to Tabriz prison -- a jail notorious for the rape of political prisoners -- where she spent the next seven years. Ashraf was also held for six months in a 1x1m cell in the revolutionary courthouse of Tabriz, where her torturers repeatedly abused her. The trauma from those events still affects her today -- she takes several pills daily to treat her anxiety from the memories of her torture.
Ashraf finally fled Iran eight years ago, along with her husband and son. The family has since taken refuge in Baku, Azerbaijan, and has tried, in vain, to find a new home in a safe country. Although the U.N. High Commission approved Ashraf's asylum application by declaring that she satisfies all conditions under the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, no host country has accepted her because of her previous affiliation with the MEK. As recently as 2008, the US government rejected her refugee application solely because of her former membership in the MEK. European governments followed the US example and declined such applications as well.
Sadly, Ashraf and her family are not the only refugees trapped by Western government policies toward the MEK. In Ashraf's neighborhood in Baku, families of former MEK members are stuck, some with cases pending up to 18 years. They have no right to work, no health coverage, no social services -- in short, no civil rights in the western Asian country they reside in. Their children -- who have no connection to the MEK -- have never attended school, even though they are of high school- and/or college-age. And the circumstances affecting other ex-MEK refugee families in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are similar.
The tragedy is that while the Western ban on the MEK has negatively impacted the lives of ordinary people like Ashraf, it has left the leadership and high-level members of the MEK, who openly participated in terrorist acts, largely untouched. Far from struggling in refugee purgatory, high-ranking MEK officials today live comfortably in France and the US.
Now there is an opportunity to change all that -- soon, the US government will decide whether or not to take the MEK off its terrorist list. There is strong support to declassify the MEK -- and equally strong opposition to block the move. The outcome could make all the difference for people like Ashraf -- who after a seven-year ordeal in an Iranian jail is still being penalized for her prior involvement with a group she left decades ago.
In the aftermath of Iran's Revolution in 1979, Ashraf and her husband joined the MEK, along with a huge number of hopeful and idealistic Iranian youth, in the aspiration of building a just society. Many were imprisoned by the Iranian regime before they had the opportunity to decide to leave an organization that started resorting to armed struggle against the state to advance its objectives. Even though Ashraf and her husband cut contact with the MEK decades ago, they are branded by their past association and denied a future in a new country far away from their tiny room in Baku.
If keeping the MEK on the terrorist list will hold its leadership responsible for their actions over the last 30 years, I wholeheartedly defend this decision. However my concern is that high-level officials will continue to live in the West with impunity while bit players like Ashraf and her family suffer. A decision to keep the MEK on the terror list could also be seen as a green light for the Iraqi government of Mr. Nuri Al-maleki to extradite some 3,000 MEK members currently residing in Iraq's Ashraf camp to Iran, where despite deceitful assurances of the Islamic Republic, they could face arrest, torture, and even execution. Or, these people could be facing firing bullets much more destructive than what they faced last April in the camp, where 34 ordinary members of the MEK were killed.
The continuum of human rights does not cover a particular timeframe or location, and we cannot choose to apply it selectively to suit us. We also cannot condemn human rights violations in only one segment of the history of a nation. President Obama spoke in defense of Iranian protesters imprisoned in the aftermath of Iran's presidential election in 2009 -- he should not remain silent about severe human rights violations against ex-MEK members who were imprisoned during the first decade of the brutal rule of the leaders of the Islamic regime. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cannot speak about allocating a 25-million-dollar budget to expand freedom of expression in countries like Iran, yet ignore the plight of Iranian refugees, like Ashraf, who were penalized for exercising that very right.
As decision time approaches, US State Department employees and Congress members who are stakeholders in this decision should think carefully about their choice -- and the impact on thousands of Iranians, like Ashraf, who are branded by a past link they no longer support.