WASHINGTON – Al Sami cheered and fellow hunger strikers danced on the sidewalk in front of the French embassy Wednesday,celebrating the expected release of an Iranian opposition leader from French custody.
The 50-year-old Denver man,who consumed nothing but water and iced tea for a week,was part of a group of Iranians and Iranian-Americans who kept an around-the-clock vigil calling for the release of Maryam Rajavi,an Iranian opposition leader who had been in French custody since June 17.
A French court ordered Rajavi's release on bail Wednesday.
Rajavi is the president-elect of the National Conference of Resistance in Iran,a political organization encompassing several groups that oppose Iran's clerical government. One of those groups is the People's Mujahedeen,which is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union as well as the U.S. State Department.
French police raided the Mujahedeen's offices in Auvers-sur-Oise June 17 and detained more than 150 Iranian exiles. Eleven were imprisoned on terrorism-related charges,but French courts have since ordered them to be released. Two,including Rajavi,must post bail.
Sami's daughter,Azadeh,23,a student at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center,also participated in the protest but did not go on hunger strike.
“It's just an overwhelming feeling of happiness,” Azadeh Sami said after the announcement Wednesday. “This is proof that good always prevails over evil.”
Azadeh,who is working toward a master's degree in public health,put her thesis aside to come to Washington following a few protests in Denver. Her father left behind his job as an engineer.
“When you see this happen to the only hope for your people and your country,practically nothing else is important,” Al Sami said outside the embassy Tuesday,wearing a sign that designated him as one of 12 protesters on hunger strike there. He added that he had accumulated enough vacation days to keep his job,but he would have come to protest even if it meant losing it.
If French courts had not ordered Rajavi's release Wednesday,he planned to continue protesting in Paris. “We may have to fly to France from here,” he said shortly before the announcement.
Al Sami came to the United States as a student in the 1970s and decided not to return to Iran after the fall of the shah.
“It's not a place for a human being to live,” he said,citing the public hangings and torture carried out by the Iranian government. He said his relatives still in Iran wish they could leave the country.
The group protesting outside the embassy ranged from 15 to 35 people on weekdays,with more coming on the weekend.
Embassy spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said the protest was not large enough to cause problems for the embassy. She said the French government is working with U.S. counterparts to fight terror.
“The People's Mujahedeen are for sure opponents of the regime,but they are not a democratic opposition,” von der Muhll said.
Several demonstrators said the Mujahedeen is a resistance movement,not a terrorist organization.
Azadeh Sami frequently took up the bullhorn to lead the group in chants such as “Shame on French government! They are mullah supporters!”
Many of the protesters said they had lost family members to the Iranian government.
Zahra Amanpour,23,a student at San Francisco State University,said her father was captured and killed in Iran in the 1980s while researching for a book about a political prisoner.
Rep. Tom Tancredo,R-Colo.,was one of several U.S. congressmen who released a statement in June questioning France's actions.
“These people sought asylum in France to speak out against the Iranian terrorist regime and its nuclear capabilities,” he said in the statement. “I urge the French not to deport these individuals. The United States will not stand idly by while their lives are at stake.”