The Trump administration is trying to prevent 100 mostly Christian Iranians stranded in Vienna for more than a year from being deported back to Iran where they would undoubtedly face severe persecution amid a government crackdown on dissidents.
Human rights activists and U.S. government officials told the Washington Free Beacon Trump administration officials are trying to negotiate a resolution that would prevent Austria from deporting the 100 Iranians back to their home country where they warned they likely would be jailed and tortured for trying to emigrate to the United States.
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The State Department is still denying the Iranians entry into the United States, even though the U.S. government invited them to spend their own funds—some their life savings—to come to the Vienna more than a year ago, the sources said. Many in the group are now living in shelters in Austria after running out of money for other accommodations during their yearlong layover there, according to the human rights activists.
The group of Iranians were seeking asylum in the U.S. under a 27-year-old law known as the Lautenberg amendment, which grants persecuted religious minorities in Iran and other countries special refugee status as persecuted religious minorities. While mostly Christians, the group of 100 in limbo in Vienna includes members of the Baha'i faith, who have faced arrest, torture, beatings, and other forms of sever punishment in Iran for decades.
A White House official said the administration is paying "careful attention to the issue."
"High-level administration officials are monitoring the progress," the official said. "Certain complexities exist that the administration has to work through, including human-rights concerns and national security. But the administration is certainly engaged."
The State Department will not say exactly why they are denying the current group of Iranians entry into the United States, saying only that they view U.S. citizens' security as "paramount" in decisions related to asylum seekers.
Cheryl Harris, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration told the Free Beacon late last week that the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has resettled more than 53,000 Iranian religious minorities through a "unique partnership with Austria, which allows temporary entry of applicants directly into Austria from Iran for USRAP processing."
Since fiscal year 2004, these Iranian minorities have fallen with the Lautenberg amendment, a statute that defines certain categories for "whom less evidence is needed to establish refugee status," she said.
"The safety and security of the American people are paramount," Cheryl Harris, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration told the Free Beacon late last week. "Iranian refugee applicants under this program are subject to the same security vetting process that apply to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America."
The Free Beacon first reported that the U.S. government's denial of its asylum applications could force the group of 100 Iranian Christians to be sent back to Iran amid the regime's brutal crackdown on dissidents.
Human rights activists have argued that sending the protesters back to Iran as Austria originally planned flies in the face of President Donald Trump's and other administration officials' vocal support of religious freedom around the globe and dissidents in Iran who have lead the strongest protests against the authoritarian government in Tehran over the last few weeks since the Green Revolution in 2009.
On December 28, the Iranian government sentenced two Iranian Christians to eight years in prison for "acting against national security" for trying to exempt Christian students from Islamic studies classes, according to Middle East Concern, an organization that works to defend the religious freedoms of Christians in the Middle East.
Trump this week declared Jan. 16 Religious Freedom Day and extolled the need to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens to practice the religion of their choice without fear of government reprisal. He also stressed the need to champion religious freedom around the world.
"We will be undeterred in our commitment to monitor religious persecution and implement policies that promote religious freedoms," Trump said in a statement.
The White House last Wednesday specifically called on the Iranian government to end the crackdown on the protesters and release thousands of political prisoners who have been jailed in recent weeks. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement said that the Trump administration is "deeply concerned" by reports that thousands of peaceful protesters have been arrested and called other reports that some of them have been tortured or killed "deeply disturbing."
Human rights activists say the 100 Iranians inevitably would face immediate imprisonment or worse if they were forced to return to Iran. As many as 3,700 people have been arrested amid the uprising, and at least 22 Iranians have reportedly died in the protests and five in Iranian prisons. Families of five of the dead dissidents told the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) that the regime's claims that their relatives committed suicide in prison were likely untrue.
"The FDD has documented the murder of five dissidents or protesters in Iran in the last two weeks. It’s very likely that these minority refugees could meet the same fate. They would be put at tremendous risk of persecution after having attempted to leave Iran for the ‘Great Satan’ [the U.S.]," said Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
"It's unconscionable to send them back—we did not even do that to Taliban terrorists at Gitmo prison, those from China whom we feared would face persecution if we sent them back home. Instead, we found a permanent home for them in Bermuda."
Shea was referring to a secretive 2009 deal between the Obama administration and the Bermuda government to bring four Uighur members of the Taliban to stay on the island where they remain.
Ann Buwalda, executive director of the Jubilee Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for religious minorities who suffer persecution in their home countries, says it is simply not true that these refugees face the same security vetting process as other non-religious minority refugees from Iran or elsewhere.
Vetting them is much easier than other non-Christian refugees asking for asylum in the United States, she said.
The group of mostly Christian Iranians are not converts, but ethnic minority Christians of Armenian and Assyrian descent who fled their homeland during Turkish persecution before and during WWI. They have different sounding names than other Iranians, speak a different language, and belong to churches allowed to exist in Iran, though they are heavily discriminated against.
Buwalda said holding up the group's entry into the United States for more than a year is particularly cruel, given that they have already endured generations of persecution in Iran.
"My concern is that the State Department is thwarting the whole intent of the Lautenberg amendment, which recognizes religious communities in Iran as being persecuted communities," Buwalda said.
"You're not going to find a radicalized Assyrian Christian or Armenian Christian—they have been persecuted by Muslims and are not going to somehow decide to join their persecutors," she said.
The move to try to find a new home for the Iranians comes as a group of prominent bipartisan House lawmakers introduced legislation calling for new sanctions for Iranian officials involved with human rights abuses and hostage taking.
Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.), along with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D., Calif.), the ranking member of the panel, cosponsored the bill, which would, among other things, require the president to determine whether senior members of the Iranian government are "responsible for or complicit in" committing human rights violations and should be sanctioned.
It also describes the Iranian regime's practice of taking Americans or those with strong U.S. ties and other foreign nationals hostage in an attempt to extort ransom payments for their release.
It also lays out several steps that the administration should take in conjunction with U.S. allies to put an end to hostage-taking practice, including attempting to extradite, try, and convict Iranian officials responsible for this practice. It requires that the secretary of State provide to Congress a strategy on how it will do so.
It specially cites the unlawful detention of a "significant number of American" including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Xiyue Wang, as well as U.S. legal permanent resident Nizar Zakka, in violation of international norms.
All of those prisoners have been held on "fabricated charges" over the last several years since the United States and four other world powers negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran that involved the prisoner swap of five Americans for seven mostly Iranian-American fugitives held in the United States.
Correction: This post originally stated 22 protesters had died in Iranian prisons; while 27 in total have died since the protests began, only five died in prison.