A massacre of Iranian refugees occurred at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, and it could happen again. The world must not look the other way.
On July 28, Iraqi security forces attacked unarmed refugees at Camp Ashraf. Using guns, axes, clubs, and American-made Humvee armoured vehicles, they killed nine people and injured 500. Thirty-six refugees were taken hostage. American soldiers were present, but did nothing more than film what was happening. The Iraqis are still in Ashraf with nothing to stop them from committing further crimes.
The camp, located 100 km northeast of Baghdad, is home to 3,400 members of the main Iranian opposition, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), including about 1,100 women. The residents surrendered their weapons to U.S. forces in 2003 after signing an agreement that stipulated in part that the Americans accepted the responsibility to protect them until the determination of their final status.
In February 2009, Ashraf’s protection was transferred to Iraqi forces, despite the warning by parliamentarians, jurists, and human rights organizations that strongly opposed the transfer. Ashraf residents pleaded with American forces in August 2008 that they would have no security if their protection was transferred to Iraq. These warnings were not heeded.
Journalists are now barred from entering Ashraf. Lawyers who want to visit clients are not being given visas to go to Iraq. Two weeks after the attack, Iraqi officials will not allow residents to bury those who were killed. This is inhuman given the extremely hot weather.
Amnesty International voiced its concerns in an August 11 statement, which highlighted the killings and said that the 36 Iranian residents of Ashraf that are being detained by Iraqi forces risk being forcibly returned to Iran where they could face torture or execution. The detainees were reportedly told to sign documents written in Arabic, but refused to do so. They have sought access to lawyers, so far unsuccessfully.
American soldiers present filmed the events but did nothing else. They did not object during the attack or after, nor did they make a public statement about what they had witnessed. Their footage has not been released.
At a press conference on August 11 at the Press Club de France in Paris, David Matas, one of Canada’s best-known lawyers and my colleague on the International Commission of Jurists in Defence of Ashraf, said that ”The United States, elsewhere in the world, condemns violations of human rights. It should do no less in Iraq when the violations occur in front of its own armed forces.”
Matas further said that ”I expect and hope that the U.S. would take note of and censure grave violations of the human rights of the residents of Camp Ashraf. But now that is not happening. We have to find others in the international community who are able and willing to do what the United States is not doing.
“Because the Iraqi police have attacked the residents of Camp Ashraf with impunity, an international presence is necessary to put a brake on their cruelty. An international presence, which can report publicly and objectively on what is happening in the Camp, will, I believe, serve to restrain the behaviour of the Iraqi police.”
The attack on the residents of Ashraf, who are all “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, was clearly carried out at the request of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Matas has voiced what any fair-minded Iraqi, Canadian or resident of any country that respects the rule of law would have to say about the nightmare continuing at Ashraf.
A number of steps should be taken. The first needs to be the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Ashraf and the resumption of U.S. protection for residents. Lawyers, international human rights organizations, and journalists need to be given access to the camp and a UN Security Council or Secretary General representative should be there. Those who ordered or perpetrated the brutal attack must be prosecuted by an international tribunal for crimes against humanity.
The time to bring the rule of law, representative democracy, and human dignity to Iranians everywhere is now.