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 Whistleblowers Need Protection



Remarks by David Kilgour
Celebrating One Hundredth International Women’s Day
Crossroads Church
Red Deer, Alberta
8 March 2011

Approximately 3500 Iranian refugees at Ashraf (including about 1,100 women) are increasingly at serious risk of life-threatening violence from the government of Iraq against their community just an hour's drive from Baghdad.

Ashraf residents are members and supporters of a major Iranian opposition group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which was formed in the 1960s in opposition to the Shah's dictatorship and is now working to replace the clerical regime in Tehran with a democratic government. The PMOI was doing decades ago what so many others are courageously doing across the Middle East and North Africa today.

Since 2001, the PMOI has advocated non-violence, the rule of law, free and fair elections, multiparty democracy, separation of church and state, no-nuclear weapons for Iran, and legal equality for women.

The PMOI was the largest democratic political movement in Iran following the 1979 revolution. It quickly found itself in opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini's religious tyranny; after mid-1981, its members were persecuted mercilessly by his regime and many thousands of PMOI supporters were murdered. 
In 1986, the French government, as part of an agreement with Khomeini to secure the release of French hostages in Lebanon, forced the PMOI, which since 1981 had many supporters living in France as refugees, to leave the country. Reluctantly, they relocated to the arid desert of Iraq when no European government would accept them. Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the PMOI officially declared its neutrality in the conflict, but Ashraf was bombed anyway by coalition aircraft. Despite what Tehran wants the world to believe, the PMOI, opposed to tyrants of any stripe, maintained an arm`s length relationship with Saddem Hussein.

Later in 2003, the PMOI agreed to consolidate all of its supporters inside 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 US government under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ashraf was protected by a detachment of American soldiers from 2003 until Jan. 2009, when protection under the convention was transferred to the government of Iraq. 
The cross-border assaults on Ashraf by Iran's regime have included the bombing of its water supply station (Feb. 2008) and two missile attacks (May and July 2008), which fortunately caused no deaths. In mid-November 2007, some 300,000 Iraqi Shiites (including 25,000 women) in southern Iraq signed a petition condemning the meddling by the Iranian regime in Iraq and declaring support for the PMOI and Ashraf. The support from Shiites rose to a reported three million signatures by June 2008 and 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.

Current Realities

Here is where matters stand for Ashraf residents today:

  • Since the transfer of protection, the government in Baghdad has refused to issue visas for families, lawyers or parliamentarians from outside Iraq to visit Ashraf or to allow any visits to Ashraf,
  • In late July 2009, Iraqi forces attacked Ashraf, killing 11 unarmed men and injuring numerous others,
  • The earlier government of Nouri al-Maliki in July 2004 illegally refused to recognize ‘protected person’ status for Ashraf residents under the Convention,
  • Maliki’s former national security advisor (Moaffaq al-Rubaii) stated that the goal of his government was to enter Ashraf and make life for residents there "intolerable"; other officials have declared that Ashraf residents will be forcibly displaced within Iraq.

Iraqi forces have on several occasions entered the camp, beaten and injured residents. Since February 8, 2010, Tehran agents outside the gates, with the cooperation of Iraqi forces, have been shouting through many loud speakers, threatening residents with mass murder, burning down Ashraf and a repeat of the July 2009 attack.

In Iran, hundreds of family members of Ashraf residents have been arrested. Seven have been sentenced to death as 'mohareb' (enemies of God) for either contacting loved ones in the camp or visiting Ashraf.

Amnesty International notes, “In the past five months the already appalling medical conditions at (Ashraf) have deteriorated even further. Many residents are reportedly suffering from … diseases that without prompt and adequate treatment can result in irreversible health damage...” At the Nov. 18, 2010 meeting of the outgoing U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, members called for the American government to take immediate measures to end the cruel actions against Ashraf residents.

International law experts say that the U.S. government must resume protection for all Ashraf residents as ‘protected persons’ under the Fourth Geneva Convention since the Iraqi government as successor guarantor clearly has no intention of discharging its legal obligations to them.

A legal opinion by Eric David, president of the Centre on International Law at the Free University of Brussels, concludes that under both The Hague and the Fourth Geneva Conventions the U.S. government must ensure the protection of the refugees at Ashraf. No other authority in Iraq, he adds, is capable of this protection except American forces. A legal opinion of the law firm of Greenberg Traurig in Washington 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 Defence of Ashraf, representing numerous concerned lawyers in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, wrote to the outgoing Commanding General of the Multi-national Force-Iraq, stressing that "the transfer of the protection of Ashraf by the US forces to Iraq would pose major risks to the safety and security of the residents there…we are gravely concerned about a wholesale slaughter of the residents of Ashraf."

U.N.-U.S. Responsibilities

U.N. responses have unfortunately weakened as the plight of Ashraf residents deteriorates. Following the July 2009 attack, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) established an observation post in Ashraf, but closed it shortly before American forces abandoned Base Grizzly there on July, 2, 2010. It was obvious that the danger to residents would increase with the departure of Grizzly.  Both UNAMI and the U.S. should re-establish their posts at Ashraf immediately.

The PMOI does not control Ashraf. American soldiers did; Iraqi forces now do. The PMOI has no exit controls over the camp; only Iraqi forces do.

European Parliament Vice President Alejo Vidal-Quadras in a letter to UNAMI last summer wrote:  "Various US agencies have interviewed each and every one of the residents privately and without the presence of a third party in 2003 and 2004… Moreover, representatives of the Iraqi government held private and individual interviews with every single resident outside the camp's premises from February to April 2009. Only a few of the residents decided to leave the camp in the end..."

The recent decline in the quality of the UNAMI reports coincides with the transfer of control over Ashraf from the Americans and the Multinational Force to the Iraqis. The timing leaves the UN/UNAMI open to the charge of imposing double standards, expecting less now that the Iraqis are in charge, and to the charge of reporting what those in the 
Government of Iraq under heavy influence from Tehran want to hear. 

In Brussels on December 1, 2010, the European Parliament adopted a declaration on Camp Ashraf stating that since U.S. and U.N. observers have withdrawn from Ashraf, rendering residents more vulnerable to attack, it therefore calls on the E.U. to: a) urge the U.S. government to follow the example of the E.U. by removing the PMOI from its blacklist and b) urge the U.N. to provide urgent protection for Ashraf.

Diplomatic Complications

In 1997, the Clinton administration added the PMOI to its list of terrorist organizations. In 2002, the European Union included it on its list. In 2005, the Martin government did so in Canada for reasons never made clear. Fortunately, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2006 that the PMOI was wrongly listed. In 2007, the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission (POAC), a branch of the UK High Court, ruled that the listing of the PMOI in the UK was “perverse”, unlawful, null and void. All 27 EU governments have now removed the PMOI from their lists of terrorist organizations; Canada and the U.S. to date have stubbornly refused to follow our allies in Europe.


The risks to Ashraf residents cannot be ignored. The threats of mass murder Iranian operatives now shout regularly outside Ashraf with the acquiescence of the Government of Iraq need to be taken very seriously.

To this end:

  • The U.S. and the U.N. should intervene to end the siege and restrictions on Ashraf residents;
  • Based on Article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the bilateral agreement between American forces and Ashraf residents, the U.S. should resume the protection of Ashraf as it did between 2003 and 2008;
  • UNAMI should set up a permanent monitoring team in Ashraf to oversee and end the continuing psychological torture of Ashraf residents by agents of Tehran;
  • The U.S. and Canada should remove the designation of PMOI/MEK as a terrorist organization. It serves as another excuse for the Iranian regime and their Iraqi counterparts to pressure residents of Ashraf, their families and other Iranians in exile.
  • The next UNAMI report on Iraq which deals with Ashraf should reflect the realities of the situation and
    • either drop all reference to allegations of psychological pressure, intimidation and abuse by Ashraf residents upon former residents or include the Ashraf response to those allegations;
    • call for an end to obstacles to delivering humanitarian and medical supplies to residents;
    • stop denial of access of relatives and counsel to places of detention and Ashraf; and
    • call for the Iraqi government to cease permitting Iranian government agents at the perimeter of Ashraf to harass and threaten the residents through loudspeakers and other noise making devices.

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`. 

Thank  you. 

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