Yesterday, in a Washington Post article datelined Baghdad, correspondent Ernesto Londoño wrote in part:
“ Iraqi police officers and soldiers on Tuesday raided a camp near Baghdad that is home to an Iranian opposition group ..."
- "Officers used batons, hoses, pepper spray and sound grenades during the raid at Camp Ashraf, home to the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK/PMOI). The United States had protected the camp until about three months ago, and the raid came a day after the Iraqi government announced it would assume complete responsibility of the camp and vowed to 'protect the people inside the base'.”
- "The raid appears to have caught U.S. officials off guard, and it marks one of the boldest moves by the Iraqi government since U.S. forces nominally withdrew from the country's cities late last month. The crackdown coincided with a surprise visit to Iraq by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.”
- "The opposition group members have provided U.S. intelligence officials with information about Iran's nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have urged the Iraqi government to treat the group's members humanely -- and the U.S. pressure on the Iraqi government is widely believed to have prevented it from taking aggressive steps to expel the residents, as Iran has long urged it to do.”
Humanitarian Catastrophe in Making
What happened yesterday to unarmed women and men at Ashraf can best be understood by watching videos available on Youtube. These include:
Worst Fears Realized
Those of us gathered here today worry that our worst fears about a humanitarian catastrophe are now being realized for the refugees at Ashraf, including the 50-60 who are reported to be Canadian citizens. What happened yesterday is by far the most brutal in a series of hostile initiatives taken in recent months by the Iraqi government, including:
- Stationing Iraqi soldiers at three entrances of the camp which in effect isolated the refugees, many of whom are women.
- Banning journalists, lawyers, parliamentarians and human rights organizations from entering the camp.
- Iraqi soldiers assaulting and threatening to extradite camp residents to Iran.
While Iraq's former National Security Advisor al-Rubaie denied mistreatment of Ashraf residents, Reuters news agency reports at the time quoted an official of the Iraqi interior ministry saying, “Iraqi troops beat residents before U.S. forces helping guard the camp stepped in’’. Where on earth were the American soldiers yesterday? The latest reported toll of the victims from yesterday I have are seven persons dead, 400 injured, 13 in serious condition and two in comas, 50 taken prisoner. Ashraf resembles the streets of Tehran.
MEK/PMOI De-listed in Europe
Mr. Al-Rubaie and some others continue to refer to the MEK/PMOI as a terrorist organization. In contrast, in December 2008, the Court of First Instance of the European Community ordered the EU Council of Ministers to delist the opposition movement as a terrorist group. The 27 member countries of the EU complied in January this year.
On November 30, 2007, a specialized branch of the High Court in the United Kingdom, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), annulled the British government's decision to proscribe the MEK/PMOI. The POAC scrutinized much evidence, including classified evidence submitted by the British government. After months of investigation, it ruled that proscription of it was not only "unlawful" but "perverse." The government was not even allowed leave to appeal by the English Court of Appeal; as a result, the MEK/PMOI was officially taken off the UK terrorist organizations list in June 2008.
After a 16-month review and the screening of every resident of Ashraf after 2003, the US government announced that no Ashraf resident had any links to terrorism. In addition, while Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made allegations about activities in Ashraf, then Colonel (now Brig. Gen.) David Phillips, the commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade of the US Army responsible for the security of Camp Ashraf in 2004, responded to the executive director of HRW in a May 2005 letter. In it, Phillips wrote:
"... I directed my subordinate units to investigate each allegation. ... At no time over the 12 month period did we ever discover any credible evidence supporting the allegations raised in your recent report... To my knowledge, as the senior officer responsible for safeguarding and securing Camp Ashraf throughout 2004, there was never a single substantiated incident as outlined in your report."
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the coalition which includes the MEK/PMOI, some of whose members are taking refuge in Ashraf, has reiterated its respect for the independence of the Iraqi government and has extended its full cooperation to it. Mrs. Maryam Rajavi on behalf of the NCRI has offered to return the residents of Ashraf to Iran, provided the UN Security Council and the Iranian and American governments guarantee their safety.
Many of the Iraqi people, religious figures, politicians, intellectuals, and responsible persons across the world, from Palestine to Egypt, and from Jordan and Europe to the U.S., Canada and Australia, stand in solidarity with the residents of Ashraf. Responsible Iraqi leaders have repeated that anyone who seeks the expulsion of the PMOI from Iraq does not represent the interests of Iraqis.
Fourth Geneva Convention
The isolation of Camp Ashraf and Iraqi government actions yesterday seriously compromise the al-Malaki government's commitment to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which obligates it to protect all Ashraf residents. In fact, the ongoing campaign by elements in it are in support of and following the Iranian regime, which has made no effort at hiding its intention to wipe out Camp Ashraf and its residents.
The international community must heed the warning of many of Camp Ashraf supporters about the grave risks to Ashraf residents following the transfer of protection from the US forces to the Iraqi government. Failure to respond to the attack on Camp Ashraf will only embolden the dictators of Tehran, who have demonstrated time and again their willingness to impose ruthless oppression, including murder, on democratic dissidents.
We appeal to both the Obama administration and the Harper government to follow the lead of the EU countries and de-list the MEK/PMOI as a terrorist group now. In addition, immediate efforts must be taken to end the siege of Camp Ashraf and restore the situation there to the pre-January 2009 status, when the Ashraf residents were under U.S. military protection. The US-led multinational force promised to protect Ashraf residents when they disarmed in 2003. Who will be responsible for 3500 lives now?
Legal Responsibility of Iraqi Government
In closing, I'll mention some conclusions of a legal opinion provided by a senior practioner in Europe, which relate to possible liabilty of the Iraqi government following yesterday should it complete the forceful relocation of Ashraf residents:
1- "Iraqi officials ordering or taking part in the forcible transfer (of Ashraf residents) may incur international criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity."
2- "...the planned forcible transfer raises particular concerns in relation to the following principles and standards applicable to the residents of Ashraf:
-the obligation that they must be treated in all circumstances humanely;
-the prohibition on violence to life and person;and
-the prohibition on cruel treatment, torture, and outrages upon personal dignity, including humiliating and degrading treatment."
3- "By forcibly displacing the residents of Ashraf, Iraq might be in breach of its obligations under one or more of the following rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
-the right to life, should lethal force be used in breach of Article 6;
-freedom from torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (article 7);
-the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose one's residence (article 12);and
-the right of aliens lawfully in the territory to be expelled only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with the law (article13)."
4- "In addition, it is also likely that the forced eviction of the residents of Ashraf would breach their right to an adequate standard of living, and in particular their right to housing (article 11). In its general comments on this right, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has observed that 'all persons should possess a degree of security which guarantees legal protection against forced evictions, harassment and other threats' and that 'forced evictions are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant'.
5-Any forced eviction of the refugees in Camp Ashraf would also appear to violate article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which defines 'crime against humanity' to include a "systematic attack directed against any civilian population", including a "forcible transfer of population". Iraq has not yet acceded to the Statute, but Iraqi officials can incur criminal responsiblity under customary international law for crimes against committed within Iraq.
Canada was a major advocate of the Responsibility to Protect concept accepted at the World Summit of 2005. All states are now expected to use peaceful means to help protect 'populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity'. Any forceful removal of the residents of Ashraf to some other location in Iraq would certainly appear to be a crime against humanity, which the international community as a whole must strongly oppose.
Kilgour is a member of the International Committee of Jurists in Defence of Ashraf.