|CREDIT: Woody WU/AFP/Getty Images|
|"If the Iraqi forces expel this group, they would likely be murdered. Camp Ashraf is a disaster in the making. We should not have to wait until disaster happens and then wonder what could have been done," says refugee lawyer David Matas.|
UNITED NATIONS - Leading human rights advocates in Canada warn of a "disaster in the making" for thousands of Iranian dissidents interned in Iraq's Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad.
They and Canadian-Iranians with family in the group are at the centre of calls for United Nations action to prevent the dissidents' expulsion to Iran, where a 1988 fatwa for their execution remains in place.
A new UN report highlights Iraq wants "in the near future" to replace the U.S. military as protectors of the 3,500 members and family of Ashraf's Peoples Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which is the main Iranian opposition group in exile.
But concern is high that religion-based ties between Iraq and Iran mean the changing of the guard could lead Baghdad to hand over Ashraf's residents to the Islamic republic, which brands them dangerous terrorists.
"I'm worried about my brother and sister. They're there and they're all that I have left," Toronto resident Maliheh Salehyar, who immigrated to Canada in 1999, said in halting English. "The ayatollahs killed my other brother, they killed my other sister."
Salehyar clutched a red leather-bound book bearing the pictures of 20,000 PMOI members among many more the group accuses the Islamic regime in Tehran of having killed. Among them is a picture of her sister, Sayedeh Salehyar, 47 at her death in 1989.
"I heard she was arrested, tortured and killed," the 53-year-old mother of three said, "but we don't know where her body is."
The group emerged in 1965 with a leftist-Islamic ideology, but fell foul of the mullahs following a power struggle despite taking part in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah.
Saddam Hussein allowed many who fled to set up shop in Iraq, but while the group now says it seeks a democratic secular Iran, its ties with Iraq's Sunni dictator are among ghosts that have returned to haunt it.
In 1991, PMOI's military wing is alleged to have helped Saddam put down Kurd and Shia uprisings after he helped arm its fighters during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War for cross border operations deep inside Iran.
Today Iraq's Shia majority holds sway in the country's elected government, and some see dealing with the Ashraf question as a way to improve relations with Iran's Shia theocracy.
"If the Iraqi forces expel this group, they would likely be murdered," say refugee lawyer David Matas and former MP David Kilgour in a letter to the UN's refugee agency.
"Camp Ashraf is a disaster in the making. We should not have to wait until disaster happens and then wonder what could have been done."
The pair says the Iraqi government's September 1 pledge not to expel the Ashraf residents is contradicted by numerous high-level calls to empty the camp.
"Even if the intention not to expel remains, the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the camp from local militias sympathetic to Iran or from infiltrators of Iraqi forces is questionable," the letter says. "The Minister of Justice himself said that if it were not for the presence of U.S. forces, the 'people of Iraq' would attack and destroy the camp."
Besides the fatwa, Iranian law from 1997 says PMOI activists are "guilty of waging war on God" and face punishment including internal banishment, amputation of the right hand and left leg, or death.
Carved out of the desert by the dissidents, Ashraf has long since evolved into a small town complete with amenities like a shopping centre.
In 2004, Washington granted the residents "protected status" under Geneva Conventions after determining they had not been belligerents during the U.S.-led invasion.
The group had earlier renounced military activity, and surrendered its arms to U.S. forces following Saddam's overthrow. The U.S. also says it has screened Ashraf residents in a bid to ensure the camp is free of terror suspects.
But the camp is not mentioned in the Iraq-U.S. security agreement approved Sunday by the Iraqi cabinet that dictates terms of the U.S. military presence beyond an expiring UN mandate.
"The assumption of both parties is that control . . . would shift from the U.S. to Iraqi forces by year's end," the Matas/Kilgour letter says.
The pair wants the UN to grant the Ashraf residents "group recognition" as refugees - a status that would prohibit their repatriation and grant them resettlement rights.
Their campaign is in tandem with similar calls by other groups, among them Washington-based Iranian exiles of the National Coalition of pro-Democracy Advocates.
But complicating the efforts is that some countries, including the United States and Canada, list PMOI as a terrorist organization.
"Yes, the PMOI has a past history of violence but never against the West, and only in defence of life and liberty in Iran," Kilgour said in an interview.
Matas argues the terrorism designation is irrelevant when considering whether repatriation should be prevented.
"I don't take a position about whether they were terrorists," he said. "My view is that no one should be killed arbitrarily."
Still, the group has challenged the terrorism label in European courts with some success.
U.S. military and intelligence officials, meanwhile, have praised the group for help that included providing evidence of Tehran's secret nuclear program.
More than three million Iraqi Shiites also recently signed a petition declaring support for the PMOI and Ashraf.
But Tehran's influence in Baghdad remains strong, Kilgour and other supporters of the Ashraf cause say.
Salehyar was one of a number of Canadians joining a rotating sit-in now entering its third month in front of UN headquarters in New York in a bid to highlight the Ashraf cause.
"Because they've given up their weapons they are not able to protect themselves without international help," said Sahand Khoshbaten, 22, a health policy student at Toronto's York University, who was a baby when his parents fled Iran.
Ryerson engineering student Ali Ziaei, 19, said he felt a "responsibility to speak out before it's too late."
The Canadian mission to the UN says Canadian ambassador John McNee "and the rest of the mission are all aware of the problems," according to a note Khoshbaten received after he called on the delegation to help.
Each year since the 2003 murder in a Tehran jail of a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, Canada has pushed through at the UN a resolution highlighting Iran's poor human rights record. While this year's draft makes no mention of PMOI's predicament, it expresses "deep concern" over Iran's "persecution of political opponents."