Catastrophe looms for Ashraf refugees

By The Hon. David Kilgour on October 30, 2008

The 3500 refugees in Camp Ashraf, located in Iraq about an hour's drive from both Baghdad and the Iranian border, are at serious risk. They are members and supporters of the main opposition in Iran, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), formed in the 1960s in opposition to the Shah's absolute monarchy. It became the largest democratic political party in the country following the 1979 revolution. The party soon found itself in opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini's religious tyranny as well; its members were persecuted mercilessly by him and his Revolutionary Guard after June, 1981. An estimated 120,000 PMOI supporters, including children, have been murdered by the regime within and outside Iran in the intervening years.

Approximately five million Iranians of varying political views have fled the systematic terror and human rights abuses of the ayatollahs across Iran since 1979. Several thousand sought safety in France. In 1986, however, the French government, seeking better commercial and political relations with Tehran, expelled most of them as "undesirable aliens". They ended up in various camps within Iraq, including Ashraf.

In 2001, the PMOI renounced violence as a means of restoring Iran's government to its people as a whole. Its members in Iraq thus declared their neutrality and took no part in the 2003 war between the multinational coalition forces and Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, dozens of residents of Ashraf were killed by coalition aircraft bombs.

Later that year, the PMOI agreed to consolidate all of its supporters within Iraq at Ashraf. Following a 16-month investigation by seven US government departments, every resident of Ashraf was cleared of any violation of American laws and all were recognized as "protected persons" by the multinational force-Iraq (MNF-I) under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ashraf has since 2003 been protected by 500 American soldiers from the MNF-I.

Recent assaults on Ashraf by Iran's regime have included bombing its water supply station (Feb 2008) and a missile attack (May 2008), which luckily caused no deaths. In mid-June of this year more than three million Iraqi Shiites signed a petition condemning the meddling by the Iranian regime in Iraq and declared support for the PMOI and Ashraf. This recognized the positive role of Ashraf as a good neighbour assisting with the rebuilding and support of surrounding Iraqi communities.

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

The UK Court of Appeal later agreed with POAC, noting that neither the security classified nor unclassified evidence provided a basis for terrorist activity or intent by the PMOI since 2001 and described the UK government's decision to keep it on the list as "perverse". Both houses of the UK Parliament accordingly de-proscribed the PMOI in May 2008. In mid-July, however, the EU Council of Ministers, claiming unspecified new evidence revealed to the Council but not made public by the Sarkozy government, left the PMOI on its terrorist list.

The Tehran regime relies on the continuing terrorist labeling of the PMOI in the EU, US, Iraq and Canada to insist that its supporters in Ashraf and elsewhere around the world be harassed by governments. This includes pressuring the outgoing Bush administration to turn the 'protection' of Ashraf over to the government of Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, whose ministers' comments have created no confidence in their willingness to provide continuing adequate protection.

On June 17th this year, for example, the secretariat of Maliki's 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, the Justice Minister added: "If it were not for the presence of coalition forces at Ashraf, you would have seen that the people of Iraq would have attacked and destroyed Ashraf."

A legal opinion by Eric David, professor and president of the Centre on International Law at the Free University of Brussels, concluded that under both The Hague and the Fourth Geneva Conventions the US must ensure the protection of the refugees at Ashraf. He added that there is no other authority in Iraq except the American government which has the capability to protect them.

The International Committee of Jurists in Defence of Ashraf, representing many concerned lawyers in Europe, the US and Canada, wrote earlier this month to the then 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."

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


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