IT WAS not your usual Washington press conference. It was held in a tent on the edge of Glover-Archbold Park, and the temperature was near freezing in spite of three electric heaters ranged down the middle. The people who called it were pale, drawn, melancholy. The only cheerful person on view was a 5-year-old boy, who was playing with the Iranian flag on the table.
These were 25 hunger strikers, Iranians living in the United States, who have been fasting for more than three weeks to protest what France is doing to their countrymen. The little boy's father, mother and older sister are on the strike. They drink only tea and water. They will fast to the death they say. From the tent they can look up the slope to the huge pile of white buildings that is the French Embassy.
As part of a deal made with Lebanese Shiite terrorists holding two French hostages, the French rounded up 14 members of the People's Mojahedin, an anti -- Khomeini resistance organization, and deported them to Gabon on Dec. 7.
It seems that the ayatollah has enough time left over from massive executions of dissenters at home to be thoroughly annoyed with dissenters abroad. His agents informed the government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac that if two French hostages held in Lebanon were to be released, the French must kick out members of the resistance.
The Iran-contra hearings taught us about the lengths a country will go to to get its kidnaped citizens back. But kidnaping guests of the nation goes beyond disgrace to dishonor. France prides itself on its tradition of asylum. The ayatollah himself enjoyed it. This use of human beings as ransom has caused an outcry. Iranians are staging hunger strikes in London and Paris.
The Iranians were rounded up by the police at night, dragged from their homes and families in handcuffs, bundled aboard a plane with darkened windows. They were terrified that they were being sent back to Iran and certain execution. But they were taken to Gabon, a former French territory in west Africa. Two, who had unluckily been visiting the City of Light, were able to get back to England and Sweden, two countries that had taken them in and did not renege on their promise of asylum. The remaining Gabon 12 are on a hunger strike.
The French government, when the clamor began, mumbled something about the Iranians being "a menace to public order" -- although no charges were brought. French human-rights groups plan to ask courts to rule on the legality of the deportations.
On Thursday, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees met with French President Francois Mitterand in Paris. Mitterand, who seems to realize that France's reputation for civilized behavior is at stake, went with his wife to commiserate with the Paris hunger-strikers.
Awintry week brought more examples of governments trying to make problems go away by banishing people.
Israel proposed to expel nine Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. This is a savage way of saying, in the face of contrary evidence, that if they get rid of "agitators" they will put an end to the violence and rioting in the occupied territories. In other words, nothing is really the matter.
The Israelis know better.
Maybe their plan made them think they had accomplished something. In the meantime, all it has brought them is world-wide condemnation and an official reproof from its best friend, the United States, which cast a rare vote with the Security Council castigating Israel for violating the Geneva convention.
The final bleakness in this spate of homelessness, statelessness and heartbreak is the case of a 9-year-old boy. He is Terrence Karamba of Zimbabwe, whose father, a diplomat at the United Nations,, beat him. In the one defensible deportation, the father was expelled. The State Department wants to send Terrence back, too.
New York City is up in arms. The welfare officials have closed ranks around the child. They learned their lesson from the fate of Lisa Steinberg, the 6-year-old girl whose father beat her to death. Lisa's teachers had noted her bruises but accepted her explanation that her baby brother was the culprit. When Terrence Karamba's teachers saw scars, they went to the authorities. The authorities moved. They heard accounts of a father who strung the boy up on steam-pipes and beat him with an electric cord.
The State Department, apparently as anxious about Zimbabwe's good will as France is about Iran's, says that Terrence will be "protected" from his father. In a tribal society? New York is screaming, has gone to court.
The 12 Iranians, the nine Palestinians and Terrence Karamba should be allowed to be where they want to be.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.