The Iranians On Hunger Strike On the Streets of Central London
Seven activists have been protesting outside the US Embassy for three months.
Signs outside the Iranian hunger strike at the US Embassy
At their makeshift camp outside London's American embassy, seven supporters of the People's Mojahedin of Iran (or the MEK) are on their 95th day of hunger strike. The group – six women and one man, all British residents aged between 40 and 60 – are starving themselves in the cold to protest against the killing of 52 residents and the alleged kidnapping of seven others at Camp Ashraf, Iraq on the 1st of September. For three months, they have survived on nothing but water and sugar lumps. Now, there seems a very real chance that these people will be allowed to die on the streets of central London.
In case you're not particularly well versed in the minutiae of the world's many refugee camps, Ashraf was home to a large number of exiled Iranian dissidents. It also acted as the headquarters of the MEK – a leftist organisation that wants to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. The camp was taken by US forces after their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and eventually handed back to the Iraqi security forces in 2009. Since then, there have been several outbreaks of deadly violence between the MEK and Iraqi forces.
In 2012, over 3,000 Ashraf residents were relocated to Camp Liberty, a former US military base on the outskirts of Baghdad. Around 100 stayed at the old camp to sell off property and goods that had been accumulated over the years, and it was 52 from that group who were killed at the beginning of September.
Some of the hunger strikers camped outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square
The hunger strikers allege that the killings were carried out by the Iraqi security forces and demand that the USA and UN guarantee protection for the remaining Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty. They claim that those left in Iraq don't have proper access to food or medicine and say they will be persecuted if they are deported back to Iran. However, the Iraqi government disputes the group's claims. Haider al-Akaili – a member of the Iraqi investigation committee – has stated his belief that his country's security forces weren't behind the attack. Rather, he has laid the blame at the hands of an "unknown militant group".
According to Amnesty International, "Video footage and photographs showed that many of the 52 had been shot in the head, some [while] handcuffed. Eyewitnesses from the camp said they had seen the seven people in handcuffs being beaten, thrown to the ground and then taken away in a white minibus." The statement also says that the seven hostages "were transferred under tight security to an unofficial detention facility in the former al-Muthana airport in central Baghdad at the end of September", and that "unconfirmed reports have suggested that they are in the custody of the Iraqi authorities".
Last Thursday, on the 89th day of their protest, I went to Grosvenor Square in central London to speak to the hunger strikers.
I found their tarpaulin tent in front of the embassy's gates and was greeted and questioned by two men before I was granted permission to speak to the protesters.
Faizaneh Majidi (left) and Susan Alijani
First, I spoke to Faizaneh Majidi and Susan Alijani – the other activists were either sleeping or absent at this point. "We are all victims of the regime of Iran – we have all lost family in Iran," said Faizaneh. They then showed me photos of relatives who they say have been executed in Iran and began talking me through each of their stories.
"My brother was 16 years old [when he was executed], and my aunties and my uncles were executed from 1981 to 1997," said Faizaneh. "Three of my relatives are in Camp Liberty now, and these people are innocent; they are intellectuals and academics and they have sacrificed themselves for democracy and for freedom – that’s why they are represented by the Iranian resistance. When I first heard of the attack on the 1st of September, I thought, 'I can't stay at home. I can't think or do anything.' I just thought, 'We have to do something.'"
When I asked what it would take for them to call off their hunger strike, they listed their demands. First, Susan told me, they want the seven hostages to be released. Secondly, they want "blue helmets" – UN peacekeepers – to be deployed at Camp Liberty to protect the remaining Iranian dissidents. "If we die, the US is responsible, because they have broken their promises," said Faizaneh.
After speaking to the pair for around 30 minutes, they seemed to be growing weaker by the second and I felt like my questions were draining what little energy exists in bodies that have been fed nothing but sugar and water for three months.
I was starting to feel pretty uncomfortable for making two clearly exhausted protesters talk at length about their deceased relatives, so I decided to leave. However, as I was saying my goodbyes I was instructed to speak to two other women who'd been absent when I first arrived. Touran Ranjbar first, who explained that she had been admitted to a hospital the previous night because her health was deteriorating.
"I’ve got pain in all of my body," she told me, "in my heart, my eyes. My blood pressure and blood sugar levels jump up and down. I’m dizzy and I’ve got headaches. One of the 52 who died was my childhood friend and over 3,000 people’s lives are in danger at Camp Liberty." Continuing, she explained that, at Camp Liberty, "they can't get water, they can't get medicine and they can't get food – nothing. They don’t get it to them; that’s why we're here."
"We don’t want to die, we don’t want to be hungry and we don’t want to sleep on the street in cold weather, but our hands are tied," she said. "This is the only way and they have put us in this situation. I choose to die, so at least I can save the others' lives. This my choice."
Fatima Abdi and her husband
I spoke to Fatima Abdi and her husband next, with their friend translating their stories for me. Fatima explained that she was protesting because her cousins had been executed in Iran and she fears that the dissidents in Iraq will meet the same fate if they are sent back. "One cousin was 16 and the other was only 13," she said. I asked what their crimes had been and Fatima explained that they'd been detained and executed after being caught in possession of anti-government literature.
Fatima’s husband said that he had been detained in an Iranian jail from 1981 to 1988, where he was beaten and tortured – treatment that has since brought on various disabilities. He continued, talking me through the process of the two mock executions he was subjected to: first, he was blindfolded, then told he was going to be shot, then a gun was fired next to his head.
When I asked what his charges were, he said he didn't know, but remembers that he too was in possession of anti-establishment literature. He says that he also witnessed the bodies of political prisoners who'd been executed being loaded onto trailers and towed away by lorries.
This, of course, took place during another time in Iran's history. But political executions are still
common in the country, and it's no huge stretch to suggest that Iranian dissidents – those whose opposition to the government is so strong they've been forced into exile – would meet the same fate as people in possession of anti-government literature 25 years ago.
The UN have demanded that the Iraqi government carry out an investigation into the September 1st attack at Camp Ashraf, but so far no concrete answers have been provided. The protesters, unsurprisingly, are demanding that an independent investigation be launched, because – as they pointed out – any government probe into itself, let alone one concerning the deaths of 52 people, isn't likely to be the most impartial of investigations.
The hunger strikers told me that various British MPs have visited them, but so far no one from the embassy or the UN has come out to hear their demands. And as the days drag on and their conditions worsen, it's hard not to wonder if they will meet their fate before anyone agrees to investigate how those at Camp Ashraf met theirs.
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