How do we protect the residents of Camp Ashraf? There are 3,500 members of the People's Mujahadeen of Iran or Mujahadeen Al Khalq (PMOI/MEK) in Camp Ashraf, in Diyala Province, Iraq near the Iranian border. A recent decision of the European Union that the PMOI is not a terrorist organization, in principle, should make the Camp safe. But has it?
The United Kingdom in March 2001 banned the PMOI as a terrorist organization. The European Union followed suit in 2002, renewing the designation every six months.
The Proscribed Organisations Appeals Commission ordered on November 30, 2007 that the PMOI be removed from the British list of terrorist organisations. The England and Wales Court of Appeal upheld the British Commission decision on May 7, 2008.
The Court of First Instance of the European Communities on December 4, 2008 annulled what was then the most recent periodic six month renewal of designation of the Council of the European Union that the PMOI is a terrorist organization. The Council of the European Union (EU) on 26 January 2009, as it had to do to respect its Court decision, delisted the PMOI as a terrorist organisation.
The PMOI were part of the original revolutionary coalition which deposed the regime of the Shah in 1979. A Bolshevik type takeover of the revolutionary forces by the mullahs under Ayatollah Khomenei led to the eviction of the PMOI from the government and their slaughter in the thousands. The remnant fled Iran in 1981 and set up headquarters in Paris, the former haven of the Ayatollah. In Paris, the PMOI organized armed attacks against the Iranian regime. The French expelled them in 1986; they relocated to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, in the midst of war with Iran, was happy to offer them refuge.
The PMOI continued their armed attacks against the Iranian regime till June 2001 and then changed strategy, renouncing the use of force. When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, deposed Saddam Hussein and conducted elections, the local political forces which took over the government had a strong pro-Irani coloration, making Iraq a decidedly less friendly environment for the PMOI. The allies of Iran in the Iraqi government denounced the PMOI and threatened them with expulsion to Iran, where they face torture and death.
The Americans responded to the threats, declaring the group protected persons under the Geneva Conventions on the Law of War, and, for their own safety, collected them together in one place, Camp Ashraf, under American protection. Now the Americans forces are withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the Camp Ashraf residents to the tender mercies of the Iraqi forces and their Iranian friends.
The Iraqi government, under pressure from the Americans, has officially taken the position that the Camp Ashraf residents must leave Iraq "voluntarily". There is an obvious contradiction between being required to leave and voluntariness.
As well as there have been many statements of high level officials in the Government of Iraq calling for expulsion which give no hint of voluntariness. Moreover, the Government of Iraq has far from complete control of Iraqi territory. The Government of Iraq, it seems, is neither able nor willing to respect its official position.
The legal foundation for the presence of American forces in Iraq in December 2008 shifted from a United Nations Security Council resolution to a US Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement. Camp Ashraf dodged a bullet last December, even though security for the Camp went from American to Iraqi control, because the American forces kept observers in the Iraqi forces patrolling Camp Ashraf. The Iraqi government was not going to violate its commitments to the US from day one, under American noses.
Keeping Camp Ashraf residents in Iraq has political benefits for the PMOI. Within Iran itself, opposition to the government is impossible. A political opposition to Iran on the border in Iraq is the next best thing, a thorn in the side of the Iran of the mullahs.
Neither the Iranian regime nor their friends in the Iraqi government are impressed by the EU delisting. For the Iranian regime and their fellow travellers in the Government of Iraq, the PMOI remain terrorists, whatever the EU says, and should still be expelled.
Terrorist designations potentially serve any one of three purposes - freezing of funds and proscription of activities, criminal prosecutions and immigration bans. The EU terrorist designation served only the first.
The court decisions which preceded the EU delisting did not conclude that the PMOI had never been involved in terrorism, but only that the PMOI had not been involved in terrorism lately. The courts did not determine whether the campaign of violence the PMOI had conducted between 1981 and 2001 was legitimate rebellion against tyranny or terrorism.
The British and EU delisting make eminent sense where the issue is organizational activity or money, which has no past. But a ruling on individual responsibility would have to start from day one, not 2002.
The next deadline for Camp Ashraf is the end of June this year when, according to the Status of Forces Agreement, all cities, towns, and villages must be handed over to Iraqi forces. Between the end of June and the end of December, the date of the next Iraqi general elections, the Camp Ashraf residents are particularly vulnerable.
After the end of June, the presence of American forces in the Camp Ashraf patrol is likely to be further diminished, if not disappear altogether. The next general election could bring an Iraqi government less friendly to Iran. The friends of Iran in the Government of Iraq well know that their window of opportunity to get at Camp Ashraf is this six month period from June to December.
The PMOI will have to make a decision. The political disadvantage to leaving has to be weighed against the physical risk of staying. Does the PMOI take a risk and leave the Camp Ashraf residents sitting there? Or should the Camp Ashraf residents leave Iraq before the end of June and the deterioration of their situation?
Whatever the decision, steps to protect Camp Ashraf need to be taken. A decision to leave does not mean that the Camp Ashraf residents can just get up and go. There are some dual nationals in the Camp, including 60 Canadians. But most have only Iranian nationality.
One would hope that, if the Camp Ashraf residents wanted to leave Iraq to escape expulsion to Iran, torture and death, they could do so. Torture and arbitrary execution are unjustifiable in any circumstances no matter what the PMOI may have done. But obstacles to resettlement of the Camp Ashraf residents thrown up because of the past combat history and terrorist designation of the PMOI would have to be overcome.
If the decision is to stay, the Iraqi government needs to be persuaded to drop its insistence that Camp Ashraf residents must leave Iraq. Since that insistence is based on the claim that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation, one can hope that the EU delisting decision would persuade the Iraqi government to come to the same conclusion, that the PMOI is no longer a terrorist organisation, if it ever was.
Second, the international community in general and the Americans in particular have to keep an eye on the Camp to ensure that the official promise of the Iraqi government not to expel the Camp residents to Iran is kept. At some point all American forces will leave Camp Ashraf and leave Iraq. However, Americans can remain as observers as well as trainers. There needs to be an international presence at Camp Ashraf at all times to monitor compliance with Iraqi assurances. This international presence is only a small level of protection. But it is a basic minimum if the Camp Ashraf residents are to remain in Iraq with some measure of safety.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.