Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Catastrophe on Horizon for Camp Ashraf Refugees

The Middle East Times
October 08, 2008

About 3,500 refugees in Camp Ashraf, in Iraq close to an hour's drive from both Baghdad and the Iranian border, are at serious risk. They are members and supporters of the main Iranian opposition, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), formed in the 1960s in opposition to the shah's absolute monarchy and currently seeking to replace the Iranian regime with a secular and democratic government.

The PMOI became the largest democratic political movement in the country following the 1979 revolution. Soon, however, it found itself in opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's religious tyranny. After June, 1981, its members were persecuted mercilessly by his regime and its Revolutionary Guards. Many thousands of PMOI supporters, including children, have been murdered by the regime both inside and outside Iran in the following years.

In 1986, the French government, as part of a quid pro quo with Tehran to secure the release of the French hostages in Lebanon, put pressure on the PMOI, which by then had offices and supporters in France since 1981, to leave. The PMOI, therefore, relocated to Iraq. Camp Ashraf was built on a piece of arid land in the northeast of Iraq. Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the PMOI officially declared its neutrality in the conflict.

Later that year, the PMOI agreed to consolidate all of its supporters within Iraq at Ashraf. Following a 16-month investigation by seven U.S. government agencies, every resident of Ashraf was cleared of any violation of American laws and all were recognized as "protected persons" by the U.S. government under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ashraf has since 2003 been protected by a detachment of U.S. soldiers.

Recent assaults on Ashraf by Iran's regime have included the bombing of its water supply station (February 2008) and two missile attacks (May and July 2008), which luckily caused no deaths. In mid-June of this year, more than 3 million Shiites in southern Iraq signed a petition condemning the meddling by the Iranian regime in Iraq and declaring support for the PMOI and Ashraf. Such support underscored the positive role played by the PMOI at Ashraf, seen as welcomed guests assisting with the rebuilding and providing of support for surrounding Iraqi communities.

Matters have not gone as well diplomatically. In 1997, the Bill Clinton administration added the PMOI to its list of terrorist organizations. In 2002, at the request of the U.K. government, the European Union included it on its list. In 2005, the Paul Martin government did so in Canada. Fortunately the Court of First Instance of the European Court of Justice ruled in December 2006 that the PMOI was wrongly listed. Then the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission (POAC), a branch of the U.K. High Court, ruled in late 2007 that the listing of the PMOI in the U.K. was "perverse," unlawful, null and void.

The U.K. Court of Appeal later agreed with POAC, noting that neither the classified nor unclassified evidence provided a basis for terrorist activity or intent for such activity by the PMOI since 2001. Both houses of the U.K. parliament accordingly de-proscribed the PMOI in June 2008. In mid-July, however, the EU council of ministers, claiming unspecified "new evidence," left the PMOI on its terrorist list.

The Tehran regime relies on the continuing terrorist labeling of the PMOI in the European Union, United States, Iraq and Canada to insist that its supporters in Ashraf and elsewhere around the world be harassed by governments.

This includes pressuring the outgoing George W. Bush administration to turn the protection of Ashraf over to the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, whose ministers' comments have created no confidence whatsoever in their willingness to provide continuing adequate protection to Ashraf residents.

On June 17, for example, the Iraqi council of ministers issued a statement saying that the PMOI "will come under the full control of the Iraqi government until it is expelled from Iraq." The interior minister declared recently that the present joint patrols by American and Iraqi forces indicate that "Iraqi forces have taken control of Ashraf and that its residents have a six-month deadline to leave the country."

During a visit to Iran in August, the Iraqi justice minister added: "If it were not for the presence of coalition forces at Ashraf, you would have seen that the people of Iraq attacking and destroying Ashraf."

A legal opinion by Eric David, professor and president of the Center on International Law at the Free University of Brussels, concludes that under both The Hague and the Fourth Geneva Conventions the United States must ensure the protection of the refugees at Ashraf. No other authority in Iraq, he adds, is capable of this protection except the American forces.

The opinion of the law firm Greenberg Traurig in Washington this September concluded, "The United States may not hand over the people of Ashraf to the Iraqi government without becoming legally responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe that is virtually certain to result."

The International Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf, representing numerous concerned lawyers in Europe, the United States and Canada, wrote earlier this month to the outgoing commanding general of the Multinational Force-Iraq, stressing that "the transfer of the protection of Ashraf by the U.S. forces to Iraq would pose major risks to the safety and security of the residents thereā€¦. We are gravely concerned about a wholesale slaughter of the residents of Ashraf."

There are terrible examples in recent years of what can happen when the international community and the United Nations fail to protect vulnerable communities, including Rwanda, Bosnia (Srebrenica), Kosovo and Darfur. The residents of Ashraf must not be added to this "list of shame."

David Kilgour is on the advisory board of the International Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf and a former Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America for Canada, as well as Secretary of State for Asia Pacific.