"We’ve got to do all we can to raise awareness of this so that people will know what is going on – but more importantly, so that the Iraqi Government knows that the world is watching and that if what they did in July is repeated there’s going to be, again, a huge question mark about why British troops, men and women, gave their lives to give a new chance for Iraq to build a society that’s free and democratic.” – Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, 10 December 2009
Ten days before Christmas more than 3,000 people face eviction from their home of 20 years in what Labour peer and British civil liberties champion Lord Robin Corbett has described as ‘a pact with the devil’.
The men, women and children facing forcible displacement are Iranian refugees, members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), a pro-democracy group granted safe haven under the Geneva Convention. They live in Ashraf, an isolated desert encampment 60km north of Baghdad, dependent on deliveries by road for its survival. Their forced removal comes with the endorsement of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki whose website publicised a 15th December ‘deadline’ for the evacuation.
While the Iraqi Government now claims that ‘agreement’ has been reached with Ashraf residents the message from those inside is that this is untrue and they are under siege. For days deliveries of meat, vegetables, medicine, fuel and hygiene products have been blocked. Food rots outside the gates. Doctors and journalists are denied access.
To some Iraq’s fixation with a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere is perplexing and dismissed as a domestic issue. But as Iran’s nuclear capability comes under increasing scrutiny and Iraq’s internal stability is shaken by bomb attacks on the capital a bigger picture becomes clearer.
During Iran’s sham elections Ayatollah Khamenei officially demanded that the Iraqi President and Prime Minister agree to expel the PMOI from their country as soon as possible.
President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Maryam Rajavi, in a message to British supporters, explained “Ashraf is the frontline bastion in defending democracy and human rights in Iran. If the regime is defeated in its bid to destroy Ashraf, it cannot contain the people’s uprising.”
Ashraf has achieved iconic status among freedom-loving Iranians, exerting an influence well beyond its geographical boundaries. Paradoxically, this was enhanced by the Iraqi assault on its inhabitants in July.
Rajavi told British peers and MPs “The UN High Commission for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN Assistance Mission Iraq has warned repeatedly against forced displacement of Ashraf residents in violation of international human rights law.
“The mullahs are horrified at the rising protests. They insist on distancing Ashraf as far from the (Iranian) border as possible in order to eliminate the dedicated women and men who act as inspiration to the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom. The inhuman siege on Ashraf is the prelude to this plot.”
Speaking only hours ahead of the publicised eviction deadline Lord Corbett asked why the Iraqi president was so exercised about removal of refugees when the country’s capital, Baghdad, was being wrecked by explosions.
“Is this all President Al-Maliki has on his mind? The young, struggling democracy that people are trying to build in his country is still under threat from extremists and one finger we know is in that pie, determined to make life difficult for the new Iraq, belongs to those across the border (in Iran) who, in this pact with the devil, have demanded that whatever force is needed will be used against Camp Ashraf.”
Addressing a cross party assembly of MPs, peers and guests Lord Corbett expressed his disgust at the British Government’s inertia and lambasted Ivan Lewis, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who still regards the refugees as members of a terrorist organisation.
In fact the “terror-tag” was formerly lifted from the PMOI last year by the POAC (Proscribed Organisation Appeal Commission). The then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s appeal against the POAC decision was not only thrown out but branded by the Appeal Court as “capricious and speculative”.
Lord Corbett said “I wrote to Ivan Lewis at the end of last month (November), to make sure he knew about the threat to Camp Ashraf made on the 29th of October. He treated with contempt the decision of the POAC and the Court of Appeal and the Council of Ministers of the European Union . . . . The FCO hangs on to stale allegations about the PMOI that have no current relevance. And in many cases the source of the allegations cannot be confirmed.
“When Ivan Lewis wrote back to me, on December 2nd, his letter didn’t even mention the threat to use force against Ashraf in 120 hours time. I find this shaming and I have written to tell him so.”
“I said please do not waste time repeating the many undertakings Iraq has given about its responsibility in ensuring the safety and security of Iranian dissident refugees in Ashraf. Its government violently breached those in a brutal attack on defenceless residents on the 28th of July; residents who offered only passive resistance against thugs in security uniforms who attacked with chains, axes, poles and live ammunition, killing 11 and wounding 500.”
To suggestions that there was no evidence Lord Corbett said “He has had – as have others in the FCO – a DVD of those events. And the Embassy in Baghdad has had copies of the DVD because I gave it to someone in the FCO who said his colleague was going out there the next day.”
Quoting from his latest letter to Ivan Lewis at the FCO he read “We will not support Iraq dancing to Iran’s tune. The UK is part of the coalition still in Iraq and silence on the issue of proper respect for human rights and international law is no adequate response. Your silence at this looming outrage will shame our Government.”
Frustration about FCO inaction and seeming lack of interest by the British media has baffled many people including Lord Corbett. His response to FCO appeals to ‘trust Iraqi undertakings’ is scathing: “They are not worth the paper they are written on. While the (Iraqi) Minister for Human Rights is giving these assurances to our Embassy Staff, the Prime Minister is making it clear that come December 15th, whatever force is needed to remove people from Ashraf and to raze it to the ground, they are prepared to use.”
And the consequence of further non-intervention is something he is clear about.
“If this attack takes place there will be murder in the desert. The only real way to stop this massacre happening – and that’s what it’s going to be – we really must see a UN force of some kind stationed at Ashraf.
“We’ve got to do all we can to raise awareness of this so that people will know what is going on – but more importantly, so that the Iraqi Government knows that the world is watching and that if what they did in July is repeated, there’s going to be, once again, a huge question mark about why British troops, men and women, gave their lives to give a new chance for Iraq to build a society that’s free and democratic.”
The PMOI opposed both the Shah and the equally undemocratic fundamentalist clerical regime that replaced him. In the 1980s they were accused of orchestrating a bombing campaign against new Islamist leadership in which many senior officials were killed. As exiles the PMOI were welcomed by former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, who was at war with Iran at the time. He funded and armed the PMOI’s military wing, the National Liberation Army of Iran, which fought alongside Iraqi troops.
But in 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, the PMOI disarmed and, following an investigation by the UN in which every resident was individually interrogated, the people of Ashraf were duly accorded “protected person” status under Article 4 of Geneva Convention.
A US force was tasked with overseeing this, but its protection was withdrawn in January 2009 and six months later 36 Ashraf residents were detained by the Iraqi authorities after a violent assault on the camp. The attack was captured on video that showed Iraqi police and soldiers shooting and beating camp residents with clubs and chains. The film, shot by residents using mobile phones, recorded the violence that resulted in 11 deaths and many injuries. It also showed US troops looking on passively before driving away in their humvees.
The July assault provoked a worldwide protest and, in the UK, a 72-day hunger strike outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and multi faith leaders from across London.
Although it resulted in release of the Ashraf hostages the victory was short-lived. Pressure to isolate the residents continued.
Members of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom see the threatened transfer of the refugees to Murat al-Salman, near the Saudi border, as appeasement of the Iranian regime, the prelude to slaughter and the first step in exile or destruction of the group seen as a beacon of hope to dissenters in Teheran.
Former Home Secretary Baron David Waddington QC, a former Conservative MP, said “The Iranian regime continues to defy United Nations and world opinion as, hand-in-hand with the expression of dissent in the country . . . it carries on with its programme of uranium enrichment. How much longer can our government afford to tolerate this defiance which, if allowed to continue, will allow Iran and the mullah’s to become a nuclear power with weapons threatening the peace of the Middle East and far beyond?
“As to Ashraf; Britain and America have a special responsibility here and it is to restrain the Iraqi authorities from illegal action against the residents. There is no doubt that the people of Ashraf are entitled to protection under international law, as has recently been recognised by the National Court of Spain. What is clear is that if America and Britain do not act to bring home to Iraq its responsibilities under international law, they themselves risk having to accept responsibility in the court of public opinion for what may well turn out to be a terrible tragedy.”
“Already the people of Ashraf are being denied medical supplies and assistance – assistance even to those who suffered under the attack in July. Already there have been further cuts in the supplies of fuel, with tanker drivers attempting to get in being arrested and put in jail.”
Laila Jazayeri, spokeswoman for the National Council of Resistance, later issued a statement: “While the international community has been enraged by plans to forcibly displace Ashraf residents and Amnesty International has strongly denounced such an act, some international media have told the Iranian Resistance that the spokesman of the Iraqi government had told their correspondents based in Baghdad that the government had reached an agreement with the residents of Ashraf on their displacement, planned for December 15, and had obtained their consent. This claim is totally unfounded and untrue.
“It is only intended to deceive the public opinion.”
Glyn Strong is a globally respected journalist whose newspaper career began at The Guardian in the 1970s. Since then she has worked for a wide variety of publications and visited more than 40 countries. She specialises in ethical, gender, aviation, military, travel, human rights, general interest features and veterans issues. In 1994 she left journalism to work for the Armed Forces, spending lengthy periods in hostile environments, running civilian/military news teams in Bosnia and Kuwait and operating in the Falkland Islands, Hungary, Kosovo, Germany, Italy and Holland. She collaborates with broadcasters and distinguished photographers and contributes to national and international publications. Website: www.glynstrong.co.uk Blog: www.glynstrong.blogspot.com/
Republished with permission from the UK Progressive.