A year ago this week, Hamid Orafa doused himself in petrol, walked up to the French embassy in Knightsbridge and set himself alight.

"I still remember the moment," he said. "I had already doused myself in petrol in the toilet of a restaurant in Knightsbridge. I was smiling. I went past and saw opposite me the demonstrators. I said 'goodbye'. Then I took the lighter. When I was in flames I didn't have pain. I felt an enormous heat and that I was going to suffocate. I fell down and almost fainted.

"One ambulanceman shouted in my ears: 'Please don't die. You have to stay. Tell me your name.' I was fainting and I heard a strong beeping sound. Then I was back again. I heard later that the ambulancemen had been trying to get me to talk because they were afraid that I would die if I fainted. I was happy although I had pain. I began to sing the national anthem of Iran. I didn't want to die."

Hamid, 21, of Lanacre Avenue, Grahame Park, was one of several Iranians across Europe to register the most extreme of protests at the arrest in France of about 160 members of the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI) - including the group's leader Maryam Rajavi.

The group opposes the Iranian government and is listed as a banned terror organisation by the UK and the USA. The French authorities said the group was planning to commit or finance acts of terrorism.

What followed stunned the Western world. Images of men and women silhouetted in flames on the streets of London and Paris dominated the television news. One Iranian in London, Neda Hassani, a 26-year-old Canadian computer science student, later died of her burns. Another woman in Paris also died.

Hamid spent a month in a coma in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital specialist burns unit, suffered 20 per cent burns to his face, hands and body, which later became infected, and lost most of the nerves and muscle in one of his legs. It might not sound it, but he was lucky - he survived.

Hamid first encountered the PMOI when he was just 16. His family left Iran when he was 12 and moved to Holland. Hamid moved to the UK three years ago as a qualified computer database manager. But things were far from normal. His uncle and aunt were executed in Iran during the 1980s because they opposed the regime, he said.

The PMOI started life as an armed struggle against the Shah in Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini seized control of the country in 1979, the PMOI soon realised that its dreams of democracy would not be realised under Khomeini's Islamic republic. It continued its guerilla tactics, including assassinations and bombings.

More than 20 years on, the group claims to have renounced violence and instead tries to encourage democracy by organising big demonstrations and strikes.

Despite being banned in this country, it enjoys the support of several parliamentarians, including Bridgend MP Win Griffiths; Sir Sydney Chapman, the MP for Chipping Barnet; and Lord Corbett of Castle Vale.

"I had heard about their struggle against the Iranian regime," said Hamid. "I always thought these people were great. When I got bigger I realised I could not just have my own life. I loved football and computers but I knew people in my own country didn't have this. I realised I had to help in any way I could."

On June 17 last year, Hamid and his fellow PMOI supporters awoke to find the symbol of their hope languishing in French custody.

"On that day I got up as usual and checked the internet and there it was everywhere - the French police had arrested 160 PMOI members including its leader, Maryam Rajavi.

"I was shocked - the French have been protecting them for 25 years. Then I got deeply scared - two days before Syria had returned two NCRI [National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group which the PMOI is affiliated to] members to Iran [refugees Jamil Bassam and Ebrahim Khodabandeh who both live in Barnet]. I thought I just cannot do nothing. If these people get deported, then what will happen to me. Until now they have been the voice of the Iranian resistance. I don't want a Rwanda or a Somalia in my country. I knew I had to do something - but what?

"There was a struggle inside me. I could do nothing but protest, but how would that help? I can't hurt anybody. I love so much in life - music, football, I dreamed of becoming a footballer. I am a database manager and I help a lot of small businesses and charities.

"On the other hand, the Iranian resistance is the sole reason that I can say I am proud to be an Iranian. Although there is a dictatorship in Iran, there are thousands of committed people who want their freedom back. They would say to me 'we were in a prison called Iran and we couldn't do anything'. But you were in a free country why didn't you do anything? How could I look them in the eye and say 'sorry, but I love my life?' "On June 19 [2003] I decided to do this. Until that moment I felt I had been so stressed. Suddenly I felt such a relief. This was a much bigger value than anything else. To sacrifice yourself and what you love in life in order to help others get the same," he said.

"The resistance is our only hope and Mrs Rajavi is its symbol. Why are British people proud of Winston Churchill or French people of Charles de Gaulle? Because they gave people hope. We love Western society and its values. And the PMOI has millions of supporters in Iran and thousands outside it."

As Hamid and the others set themselves ablaze in front of the television cameras, the world sat up and took notice.

"I wanted to shock the world. Injustices are committed all over the world but most of them are not reported well. We don't hear or see them. It's not just 165 people whose lives are threatened - it's 70 million Iranians. I don't see this as an extreme act. I would really rather set myself on fire because in a minute you can die. If you are taken by the Iranian government you can suffer for years. They do not let you die easily," he said.

And Hamid has had no regrets - despite the pain.

"It was definitely worth it. I have not for one second thought that I shouldn't have done it. The effect it had was that the PMOI members in France were not deported back to Iran. I have no doubt that the French government would have sent them back to Iran.

"I am an ordinary guy. I'm not extremely good or bad, or someone who didn't have any joy in life. My parents did not like to see their son hurt, but they understood it was something I believed in and that it was my choice.

"I have extreme pains. I have an intense itching all the time because some of the nerves in my legs are beginning to grow back," said Hamid, who still wears a protective face mask.

"But I enjoy living even now. Every Saturday night I have friends round and we eat dinner and watch a DVD. People come round and ask for help with their computers. Although I am not able to do everything, I have my mind and my heart."