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 Whistleblowers Need Protection


Internationalizing Ashraf

By DAVID MATAS, Middle East Times
October 31, 2008

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1988 issued a fatwa ordering the execution of members and supporters of a leading opposition force, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the PMOI. Thousands were executed without trials or sentences while in jail because of politically motivated charges.

The PMOI was part of the national political movement which overthrew the shah in 1979. But it was marginalized by a purge and became an opposition force to a regime which would tolerate no opposition.

Today 3,500 members of the PMOI who fled Iran live in Camp Ashraf in Iraq under the protection of U.S. forces. The U.N. Security Council mandate given to U.S. forces in Iraq expires by the end of this year. The United States and Iraq are attempting to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to allow for the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond that date. The current draft of that agreement makes no mention of Camp Ashraf. But the assumption of both parties is that control over Camp Ashraf would shift from U.S. to Iraqi forces by year's end.

If the Iraq forces were to expel Ashraf residents to Iran, they would surely be tortured and executed. The Khomeini fatwa against the PMOI remains in full force.

The multinational forces under U.S. leadership have acknowledged that international law protects Camp Ashraf residents from forced return to Iran. Yet, the American forces will be in no position to prevent return once they cede control of the camp to Iraq.

The government of Iraq on Sept. 1 issued a statement that it is not their intention to expel Camp Ashraf residents to Iran. However, that intention could change at any time and, given the makeup of the government, might well.

On June 17, the council of ministers issued a decision that the camp residents "must be expelled." On Aug. 22, the Iraqi minister of justice said the same. On Aug. 31, only a day before the government's statement of intention not to expel, the interior ministry issued a statement saying that the residents of the camp would be expelled in six months. Even after the government's statement of Sept. 1, Seyyed Mohsen al-Hakim, a leader of the largest grouping in the Iraqi parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, as recently as Oct. 14, called for the expulsion of Camp Ashraf's residents.

Even if the intention not to expel remains the official Iraqi government position, the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the camp from local militias sympathetic to Iran or infiltrators is questionable. The minister of justice has said that if it were not for the presence of U.S. forces, "the people of Iraq" would attack and destroy the camp.

Complicating the picture is the designation in many Western countries of the PMOI as a terrorist organization. British and European Community courts have struck down the designation of the PMOI as "perverse," and "unreasonable," based on "manifestly insufficient" evidence.

The most recent such judgment was pronounced on Oct. 23 by the Court of First Instance of the European Communities in Luxembourg. As a result of these judgments, the PMOI has been removed from the U.K. terrorist organization list. However, formally removing the terrorist designations of the PMOI from other lists will not happen quickly enough to resolve the impending crisis.

In any case, for arbitrary execution, the terrorist designation is irrelevant. The international prohibitions against arbitrary executions are absolute, admitting no exceptions.

The only immediate solution to the impending catastrophe awaiting residents of Camp Ashraf is maintaining U.S. protection of the camp. Either the U.S. forces should maintain jurisdiction over Camp Ashraf within the framework of SOFA between the United States and Iraq. Or the Security Council should extend the U.N. mandate for the U.S. led multinational forces beyond the end of this year.

Given the heavy Iranian influence on the Iraqi government and the commonly held view within that government that Ashraf residents should be expelled, putting the fate of Camp Ashraf residents into the hands of the Iraqi forces threatens calamity.

Camp Ashraf residents could avoid this looming fate by renouncing their affiliation with the PMOI. But, they should not be forced to abandon their beliefs. No person who needs protection should be expected to renounce one set of human rights, the rights to freedom of association and belief, in exchange for another set of rights, the rights to life and security of the person.

American obligations under international law do not end with a handover of Camp Ashraf to Iraqi forces. If the Iraqi forces were to expel Ashraf's residents to Iran, torture and death, the United States would be as responsible as if it directly handed over the residents to Iran.

About the only justification for the U.S. presence in Iraq, absent evidence of weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein connections to al-Qaida, is the claim of improving the human rights situation in that country. That justification would be severely undercut if the United States were seen to be instrumental in the mass killing of the Camp Ashraf residents.

This is not just a matter concerning Americans and Iraqis. Like all threats of crimes against humanity, it concerns all of humanity. The relevant international treaties signed and ratified by the United States and Iraq are not just promises made by Iraq and America to each other. They are promises by each signatory state to all other states. As a result, when one of these treaties is violated, the interests of all states are engaged.

Every state, every international human rights and humanitarian organization should pay heed to this looming crisis. Camp Ashraf is a disaster in the making. We cannot afford to wait until the disaster happens and wonder what we could have done to avoid it. We must act now before a reprise and continuation of the 1988 massacre take place.


David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

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