News that, in spite of the difficulties thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission accession talks are going ahead is welcome. Albania, in particular, has many serious issues to address if it is to make progress and the country will benefit from pressure to meet EU expectations on combatting crime and corruption as well as instituting judicial and political reforms.
The recent arrest of 5 senior officials of Albania’s Regional Border and Migration Directorate on charges of people smuggling and illegal assistance to cross the borders, after an investigation into illegal trafficking and abuse of migrant documentation, illustrates the depth of Albania’s problems. Coordination with the CIA in these arrests by Director General of the State Police, Ardi Veliu also reminds us that one of Albania’s difficulties has been to emerge in any meaningful way from under the control of the US as a NATO state.
These arrests have inadvertently exposed another significant, but easily ignored aspect to US influence – the presence of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, MKO, Rajavi cult), an Iranian terrorist group which operates as a mind control cult. The MEK in Albania is protected by the Trump administration and claims CIA links. Albania’s government has allowed the MEK unprecedented freedom; freedom that former benefactor Saddam Hussein never granted. Indeed, the tolerance of and collusion with the MEK’s maverick, often criminal behaviour acts like a litmus test for how corrupt various Albanian institutions are.
In the case of the police arrests, several former members of the MEK who live in Tirana said they were surprised and relieved because “These five are the same police who have been harassing us, refusing to give us residence permits and denying our basic rights. They have arrested one of us and detained him without charge for almost a year. The police have been doing this on behalf of MEK leaders.” What this exposes is that the MEK enjoys undue influence with the police services, and that MEK members do not have any legal status in the country; no ID papers, work permits or travel documents. They are not refugees, they are stateless and unaccountable people who live outside the law.
Since arriving in Albania in 2016, the MEK presence has been at best problematic – the MEK has interfered in the internal and external affairs of the country – and at worst poses a serious security risk. An examination of MEK behaviour reveals profound corruption in every institution of Albania.
The following sample of the range of MEK activities in Albania displays a pattern not of simple disregard for the laws and norms of the host community, but a deliberate exploitation of weaknesses in every aspect of the Albanian state from local to national level.
- Persuaded deputy Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, Dr Elona Gjebrea to support Maryam Rajavi even though MEK modern slavery is clear for all to see.
- Diverted drinking water [in English] from a tourist area for their camp.
- Taken precedence for the supply of electricity to their camp over local residents.
- Angered locals by burying one of their dead in an already overcrowded cemetery.
- Evaded the post mortem examination of a member who died in suspicious circumstances [in English].
- Had media interviews removed after Anne Khodabandeh revealed the MEK was recruiting Albanian youth.
- Falsely accused two Iranian academics of being terrorists and used this as evidence to have diplomatic staff from the Iranian embassy expelled after MEK labelled them terrorists.
- Established an extrajudicial, extraterritorial camp to keep members in a state of modern slavery.
- Used slaves to run a troll farm against the national interests of Albania.
- Interfered in media freedoms to have favourable articles published and critical articles suppressed.
- Denied access and physically assaulted western journalists who came to report on the activities in the closed camp in Manez.
- Paid politicians and personalities to attend their meetings and promote their anti-Iran agenda using Albania as a platform to call for violent regime change against Iran [in English].
In response to revelations of its activities, the MEK accuses critics of being “agents of Iran’s intelligence services” – cult jargon intended to frighten the members and call into question the integrity of the critics and distract attention from MEK illegal activities.
Even respected and well-known Albanian citizens are not exempt from the MEK’s unchecked defamation and intimidation campaign. Albanian journalist Gjergji Thanasi is still seeking justice against leading member MEK Behzad Safari as court hearing after court hearing is postponed after spurious excuses are raised. Civil rights activist and historian Olsi Jazexhi and lawyer Migena Bala have been threatened with violence by MEK for investigating and criticizing the cult.
What is to be done?
Clearly, if the European Union is to welcome Albania as a member state something must be done to root out the MEK’s influence in that country. In the past two years, member states of the European Union have severely curtailed MEK activities in Europe. The MEK leader Maryam Rajavi has been obliged to quit France and set up her new headquarters in Albania. There can be no doubt that the EU will not tolerate the group re-entering by default should Albania finally join the union. If Albania does issue them with ID papers, these ‘refugees’ will have direct access to everywhere in the EU following accession.
It is time to dismantle the group.
In 2003 when Saddam Hussein was removed from power, families of MEK members who had not seen their loved ones for two decades made the perilous journey to Camp Ashraf to make contact. These families joined together as an NGO called Nejat Society (Rescue Society) and Sahar Family Foundation was created to help disaffected members in Iraq. Since then they have helped hundreds of individuals who left the MEK to reunite with their families, de-radicalise and return to normal life. In that time, the MEK has transferred from Iraq to Albania, but still in 2020, many, many members remain trapped, incommunicado without knowledge of how they can be helped.
Back in August 2017, an official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tirana met with representatives of these families and pledged to help. Visiting Tirana, Iran Interlink representative Anne Khodabandeh explained how important families are to helping de-radicalise MEK members after they leave the group, and offering them support in returning to normal life.
Since then MEK have waged a campaign to demonize families of MEK members who travelled, or want to travel, to Albania to make contact with their long estranged loved ones, labelling them terrorists and accusing them of wanting to kill their relatives, ensuring they cannot obtain visas.
Families’ petition Albania’s PM
In May this year, a petition by the families addressed to Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama reached over eleven thousand signatures. There is a lot of sympathy for the plight of these families, many of whom are elderly and are desperate to be reconciled with their loved ones before it is too late. The petition urges Albania’s prime minister to allow the families to contact their loved ones in the MEK camp. Tens of families added personal appeals and wrote individual letters. Still Rama has not responded.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi boasts that she can organize a Zoom conference from Albania on July 17th to link up paid pundits she would normally invite to her annual rally – a cut price event. On July 16th families from every province in Iran linked up by Zoom to talk and asked ‘if Rajavi is so afraid that we will come to the camp with bombs, why can’t she allow our loved ones to make supervised Zoom calls with us from afar?’
If the European Union is serious about allowing Albania to accede to the union, the negotiators on all sides must take this issue seriously. The coronavirus pandemic offers a strange but real opportunity to treat this as a humanitarian issue rather than a political or terrorism problem. The MEK can be dismantled, the members rescued, their families are ready to help. Edi Rama should be supported in taking this courageous and defining step to secure the future of his country.
Olivér Várhelyi – European Commissioner Neighbourhood and Enlargement
Genoveva Ruiz Calavera – Director of the Western Balkans at the European Commission
Isabel Santos – EP Standing Rapporteur on Albania
Zef Mazi – Albania’s chief negotiator for EU integration
David McAllister – Chair of Foreign Affairs Committee EUP
By Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh