Iraq’s Looming Massacre of Iranian MEK Refugees
Geoffrey Robertson on the appalling human-rights tragedy unfolding near Baghdad.
The time bomb that is ticking toward a new human-rights disaster is near Baghdad, in a 25-acre compound, where 3,400 refugees from Iranian religious fascism await the cruelest of fates. Whilst nominally under United Nations protection, 36 of them have been killed by Iraqi forces already this year, and Dec. 31, the deadline for the U.S. troop pullout, is likely to be their deadline as well. The Iraqi government, under pressure from Iran, has announced that on that very same date it will demolish Camp Ashraf.
The camp houses the remnants of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)—once described by Ayatollah Khomeini as “a syncretic mix of Marxism and Islam.” It started in Tehran universities in the late 1960s, attracting idealistic students who fought guerrilla battles against the shah’s secret police, but whose dreams of a secular state were soon dashed by the rule of the ayatollah. Hundreds were killed in student protests by his Revolutionary Guards, whilst thousands were arrested and then executed or (if lucky) sentenced to long prison terms.
Some escaped to Paris, but the fickle French expelled them in 1986 under pressure from Iran. They had nowhere to go but Iraq, where Saddam Hussein welcomed them to Camp Ashraf and used them as a “Free Iran” force. After the truce in 1988, Khomeini issued a secret fatwa ordering that all MEK supporters in Iranian prisons should be killed. In a bloodbath that ranks as the worst prisoner-of-war atrocity since the Japanese death marches at the end of World War II, thousands were summarily executed, under the orders of Ali Khamenei, then Iran’s president and now its supreme leader, and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Camp Ashraf remained. Its residents were protected under the Geneva Conventions and were in any event refugees unable to return to Iran because of a well-founded fear—indeed, a certainty—that they would be executed both as traitors and as mohareb, or enemies of God. After the invasion in 2003, the U.S. formally recognized the MEK as having the status of “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. Their weapons were decommissioned by the U.S. forces, and every Ashraf resident signed a written agreement denouncing terrorism and rejecting violence. In return, the U.S. promised to protect them until their final disposition. They built roads and residential complexes at the camp, with educational, social, and sports facilities, and infrastructure worth millions of dollars.
On Oct. 7, 2005, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces praised the residents of Camp Ashraf for “working together in the spirit of common humanitarianism,” and confirmed the coalition’s endorsement of their right to be protected from violence and their right as refugees not to be “refouled”; i.e., sent back to Iran. Their safety seemed assured, especially after the MEK did the world a service by revealing Iran’s secret nuclear facility at Natanz. That, of course, merely deepened the Iranian regime’s hatred of them, and it began intense diplomatic pressure on Iraq to close down Camp Ashraf.
Once the U.S. troop pullout began in 2008, the pressure started to have an effect. The Iraqi government formally demanded that it should take over security at the camp because the MEK was a “terrorist organization.” Gen. David Petraeus insisted that they were “protected persons” and U.S. forces would defend them. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced his determination to “put an end” to the MEK. As soon as all U.S. combat forces had left, he ordered a joint Army and police attack on the camp. In July 2009, U.S. military observers watched helplessly as Iraqi forces besieged and then attacked the camp, killing 11 residents (six were shot, the others beaten to death) and wounding hundreds. The operation was apparently intended to terrify the residents into leaving voluntarily, but instead it steeled their resolve.
Despite an international outcry, Maliki continued the siege of the camp, denying supplies of food and medicine. In early 2011 Iran stepped up its demands that the camp be destroyed. After Camp Grizzly, a nearby U.S. Army observation post, was disbanded, Maliki ordered another murderous assault in April, leaving 35 dead and more than 300 injured with gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Iran immediately congratulated Iraq for its “positive stance that strengthens mutual relations”—presumably a stance that was positive because it included killing innocent people that both governments disliked.
There was, of course, an international outcry. The U.N. commissioner for human rights and the European Union deplored the killings and called for an independent and transparent inquiry, which the lying Maliki promised but never set up. There was hand-wringing at the White House, “deeply troubled” by the casualties, but not troubled enough to do anything to protect the residents from the massacre that is likely when the U.S. troops leave Dec. 31. That is when Maliki’s deadline expires and his Army and police will move in, destroying the camp, whose buildings and facilities are worth millions of dollars, without compensation. Doubtless they will kill residents, just as they recklessly killed them in 2009 and in April 2011, and remove the rest to a prison in Baghdad, ready, perhaps for Iranian interrogators.
International law is clear: the people of Ashraf are refugees, and they are entitled to protection from the kind of brutality that almost certainly awaits them from Maliki’s forces. The U.S. has abandoned them and UNAMI, the remaining U.N. mission, has been pathetic—its “ambassador,” a German diplomat, has refused to meet the residents and has allowed himself to be fobbed off for months by the government. He is not even objecting to Camp Ashraf’s closure, but only asking for its residents to be relocated inside Iraq, which would make it easier for more of them to be killed.
The conduct of the U.N.’s refugee agency, in relation to people it accepts as asylum seekers whose claims demand adjudication, also has been lacking in humanity. It has a duty to process their claims, but it declines to do so inside the camp. It has persistently delayed whilst claiming to look for a ”safe” location to conduct interviews outside the camp, although it must be obvious that for Iranian dissidents, no location in Iraq is “safe” from Maliki’s army and police.
Although no one doubts that these Iranians would face persecution if returned to Iran, the UNHCR claims, wrongly in law, that it cannot accord the group refugee status until each and every one of them has been interviewed. This special treatment, it says, is because the MEK has “a history of armed activities.” But that is not international law, and in any event the group’s armed activities ended in 2001. By deliberately stalling on any peaceful solution and putting at risk the lives of those it should be protecting, the UNHCR is playing Iran’s game.
Ironically, the Obama administration has given a free kick to Camp Ashraf’s enemies with its failure to lift its “terrorist” designation on the MEK. This designation was removed by court order in the U.K., where the court described it as “perverse,” and in Europe, but the label remains in the U.S., pursuant to Section 219 of its Immigration and Nationality Act. Over a year ago a U.S. court ordered the State Department to reconsider, because the designation had been made without due process. The failure of the State Department to do so provides the tormentors of the Ashraf refugees—Iran and the pro-Iranian Iraqi government—with a bogus excuse to deny them their rights.
Many American and British soldiers died for the cause of liberating Iraq from Saddam’s oppression; it is galling to see his successor behaving with comparable brutality. Iraq is now a sovereign state and its power to expropriate Camp Ashraf, after paying appropriate compensation, cannot be doubted. But nor can its duty under international law to protect these refugees and give them safe passage out of Iraq, where they will be persecuted, and avoid Iran, where they will be killed. European countries should give them refuge—France, in particular, which wrongly expelled many of them in 1986. Until that can be arranged, Camp Ashraf must remain. Otherwise, in just a few weeks time, it is very likely that more of its residents will be massacred.