A camp inhabited by several thousand members of Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group opposed to the theocratic government in Iran, has been raided by police in Albania.
One person died and dozens were injured, while claims and theories on what exactly happened at the Ashraf-3 camp abound.
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So who are the MEK? What are they doing in the Western Balkan nation? How does the United States fit in? And why does this matter?
Who are the MEK?
The Mojahedin-e Khalq started as a leftist revolutionary-minded group that opposed the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran who was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic revolution that birthed the current establishment in Iran.
They were initially allied with other revolutionaries, but had a falling out with the country’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and started an armed uprising against his fledgling government that included bombings and high-level assassinations.
They eventually had to leave Iran and allied themselves with Saddam Hussein, the then-authoritarian leader in neighbouring Iraq. Members of the group launched armed offensives on Iranian soil during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
The Iranian government considers them a “terrorist” group and claims they are responsible for the deaths of about 17,000 Iranians.
MEK members were for years based in a camp in Iraq, but eventually had to secure an agreement to move to Albania in the mid-2010s after Iraqi officials turned increasingly hostile to them.
Accounts by former members and numerous reports by international outlets over the years detailed how the organisation “operates like a cult”, imposing harsh restrictions on its members and subjecting them to physical and mental abuse.
Lacking legitimacy and support among Iranians, the group has also been documented to operate online troll farms, repeatedly boasting of hacking or penetrating state-linked institutions in Iran. Some of their accounts went dark on Tuesday after the Albanian police raid.
Why the raid?
Scores of Albanian police raided the Ashraf-3 camp near Manze, a small hill town some 30km (18.6 miles) west of Albania’s capital Tirana.
Police said the raid was in accordance with a court order, which was issued after an investigation by the SPAK, or the Special Anti-Corruption Structure, into what it said were unsanctioned political activities by the MEK that went against the 2014 agreement that allowed members to reside in Albania.
The Albanian interior ministry supported the raid, and national police Chief Muhamet Rrumbullaku said he was “indignant and offended” that MEK members tried to block police officers from seizing electronic devices and that their leaders did not cooperate.
Videos and reports from the raid showed chaotic scenes, with MEK members shouting and angrily confronting police and media.
“I want to know if Albanian police are protector or terrorist,” one member told an Albanian television reporter on the scene after inserting himself into the camera frame.
The MEK said one of its members, identified as 65-year-old Ali Mostashari, died on Tuesday and more than 100 camp residents were injured by pepper spray. Police said the man’s death had nothing to do with police action and officers took care not to use forceful action.
What’s everybody saying?
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanani, greeted the news by saying that the MEK will always be a danger to the security of its host country due to its “terrorist nature”.
“This is why the Iraqi government expelled them and other governments refused to accept them. We hope the Albanian government makes up for its mistake in hosting this terrorist cult,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
Interestingly, the US government responded by distancing itself from the MEK, a group that has been vociferously backed by a number of senior US officials over the years, including former Vice President Mike Pence.
Washington said it has been assured by Albania that the raid was conducted in accordance with the law and that it has serious concerns about the MEK, including in relation to allegations of abuses committed against its own members.
It also said it does not consider the MEK “a viable democratic opposition movement that is representative of the Iranian people” and sought to ensure that the US government does not provide support, training or funding to the group.
The US and the European Union delisted the MEK as a “terrorist” organisation more than a decade ago after the group promised to renounce its violent practices. Iran last year blacklisted dozens of US officials over their support of the MEK.
Last September, Tirana cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after accusing it of a major cyberattack, something Iran denied. The US and the European Union supported Albania in the incident.
Tuesday’s raid prompted MEK-affiliated accounts online to accuse Albania of engaging in practices favouring the Iranian government.
Since the raid came one day after France blocked the MEK from holding a July 1 rally in Paris – where they had gathered many times before – some users online linked the two incidents, while the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the umbrella group of the MEK, accused France of bowing to “pressure” from the Iranian government.
The online theories were only compounded by the fact that last week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had a lengthy phone call with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. Neither side officially mentioned the MEK.