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Iranian Rights Activist's Backers Assail Bid to Deport Her

By Lorraine Adams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2000

Mahnaz SamadiThe federal government is seeking to send back to Iran a women's rights activist who was tortured for four years by the Khomeini government and received political asylum in the United States in 1995, a deportation that her supporters contend is part of the Clinton administration's recent overtures to Tehran.

Mahnaz Samadi, 35, is being held in a rural Alabama jail under the authority of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. If INS efforts to deport her are successful, there is a high likelihood the Iranian government will execute her, her attorneys and some members of Congress say.

"Sending messages to foreign governments should not involve the taking of people's lives," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). "She faces certain death. This is outrageous. It cannot be permitted to happen."

A State Department official said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's conciliatory March 17 speech on Iran was in no way related to the case. "We are not taking any steps, public or not public, to push this thing forward," a department official said yesterday. "The suggestion that State is behind this attempt at deportation in order to curry favor with the Iranians is wrong."

The INS declined to comment and said it stood by an April 27 letter sent to Samadi's attorney by INS Assistant District Director Juan A. Campos. In it Campos said the INS is seeking Samadi's deportation because she was--for a seven-month period in 1993 and 1994--a member of a terrorist organization. That group, the National Liberation Army (NLA), is the armed wing of the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) Organization. The State Department designated the NLA a terrorist organization in 1997.

The terrorist designation has been a source of controversy, with more than 100 members of Congress signing a statement last fall criticizing the Clinton administration for labeling as terrorist a group that they see as made up of freedom fighters. They say the State Department has also designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and that the policy on Iran is confused.

The administration has argued that Iranian government abuses do not excuse alleged NLA attacks on civilians.

The INS, however, has not offered evidence of Samadi's role in incidents involving civilian attacks. Nor has the INS charged that she was involved in the NLA since she came to the United States in 1994--three years before the State Department designated the NLA a terrorist organization. Instead, the INS argues that when she applied for asylum in 1995, she "failed to disclose her terrorist activities on behalf of the NLA," according to Campos's letter.

In her 1995 asylum application, Samadi was not asked about the NLA. A copy of the application shows that she was asked about membership in "any organizations or groups in your home country." She freely admitted her opposition to the regime--it was the basis for her seeking asylum. The NLA was an Iraq-based armed group and did not qualify as a home country organization.

Samadi was born in Iran in 1965. She became active as a high school student in protesting the treatment of women under the Khomeini regime in 1981. The government imprisoned her over a four-year period that ended in 1986. During that time, she was sexually assaulted and tortured, and she witnessed the torture of her younger brother, who was ultimately executed.

She fled to Iraq in 1993, where she lived for seven months in NLA camps active along the Iran-Iraq border. She arrived in the United States in 1994 and was granted political asylum in 1995 based on her torture and resistance to the Iranian regime. Samadi has lived in the Washington area working as a speaker on Iranian human rights and women's issues.

"Why after five years is she suddenly a security risk?" asked Jay Fredman, one of Samadi's attorneys, who noted that her arrest--in Ottawa on Dec. 23--came in the midst of charges that Canadian intelligence had been lax on terrorism. That criticism followed the Dec. 14 arrest of an Algerian man crossing the border from Canada into the United States with a carload of explosives. He had been living in Montreal for four years.

"You had a situation where everyone in the U.S. said to Canada--Congress held hearings--you are [a] sieve for terrorists. We have more terrorists entering the U.S. from Canada than any other border," Fredman said. "So, Canadian intelligence service said, 'Aha, someone who is identified with a terrorist organization is here. We arrested a terrorist!' "

Canadian Security Intelligence Service spokesman Dan Lambert called Fredman's statements "irresponsible" and said that Samadi was arrested because "she is an MEK leader." The last time Canada arrested and deported an MEK leader was in 1993, he said. He would not comment on why other Iranian MEK members are living in Canada and have been granted political asylum.

Canada deported Samadi and escorted her under armed guard to the U.S. border at the One Thousand Island Bridge in New York state on April 3. She was immediately arrested by U.S. authorities at the border and has since been in custody in jails in Buffalo, Syracuse, N.Y., South Fulton, Ga., and in Alabama. In addition to having been restrained with leg irons and chains, she has been subjected to strip searches.

The strip search "happened at a local county facility that does not contract with INS; and that is a local facility policy. It is not an INS policy. That's not something we have a say in," said an INS spokesman.

An Ottawa friend of Samadi, Zahra Mirzakhani, 39, said she saw Samadi last month at a hearing in Atlanta, where the INS has filed the deportation case.

Because of Samadi's torture in Iran, Mirzakhani said she is concerned about the conditions under which her friend is being held. "Her arms were injured because they had handcuffed her for the 3 1/2-hour drive. There were cuffs on her feet, and she was chained. There were bruises on her arms and wrist, and she had lost a lot of weight."