The Siege of Camp Ashraf



Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former White House adviser Frances Townsend and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey flew to Paris to speak last Wednesday in support of the Iranian exiles. A surprise and a moving guest speaker, the leader of an entire government in exile recognized by both the UK and EU Parliaments, spoke eloquently about a group that still suffers silently in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

For 25 years, members of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) have lived in Iraq's dusty refugee Camp Ashraf, 60 kms north of Baghdad, mostly as political pawns. In chess, the pawn can either be sacrificed because of its seeming low game value or become a force in its own right for tactical blocking and support.

Exiled after attempting to overthrow the shah of Iran, the largely secular 3,400 Ashraf residents are involved in a high-stakes power game virtually invisible to most in the West. These refugees have been denied medical treatment, live under physical and emotional threat and daily face the possibility of genocide. Iranian intelligence and Iraqi government tormentors engage daily in around-the-clock psychological torture. They want the camp closed and its residents driven back into Iran - which would mean their certain death.

In a statement released Saturday, December 18, 2010, from the International Parliamentary Campaign in Defence of Ashraf (IPCDA), Lord Archer, the former UK solicitor general and president of the campaign said, "we aim to highlight the appalling siege of Camp Ashraf where several thousand Iranian dissidents are under persecution in Iraq." Continued Lord Archer, "We call on Iraq to lift its siege on the residents and allow the UN and US to take over protection of those inside." He further urged the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) "to set up a permanent representation at Camp Ashraf and take necessary measures to lift all humanitarian restrictions imposed by the Iraqi government."

The Road to Hell

From April 2003 through mid-2009, Camp Ashraf was under US coalition forces' control. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by the Iraqi and US governments in November of 2008, US troops withdrew in 2009 from Iraq's towns and cities. This included handing control of Camp Ashraf over to Iraqi security forces.

Upon their arrival in the camp during the initial invasion in 2003, coalition forces disarmed the camp's people, then conducted exhaustive terrorism investigations across the camp. In early 2004, they recognized the refugees' legal status as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention. That recognition carries international law protections and requires all governments to protect the camp and its residents.

Iraq has been a turbulent ethnic and religious melting pot for decades. As bad as the regime of Saddam Hussein was, various factions survived side by side, unified only by their hatred and fear of him. Now, Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence threatens civil war inside the country.

Moreover, the political situation in Iraq is "fluid" at best. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was sworn in Tuesday, December 21 for a second term and hangs onto power by a thread. His government's legitimacy is daily questioned, since his party did not win last year's election. He just barely formed a government and remains in control thanks to US protection.

With the troop pullback, Maliki has used the cover and protection of the US government to form unholy alliances, and allowed all sorts of internal mayhem. Most notably, he has quietly allied with radical Iranian cleric and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei for arms and support. Shortly after Camp Ashraf's handover to the Iraqi government, Iranian intelligence agents entered the country and Ashraf residents were systematically targeted, harassed and denied access to relatives, lawyers, doctors and members of Parliament (MPs).

Tensions mounted, and in July of 2009, a two-day assault on the camp by Iraqi (and Iranian) security forces left 11 dead, several hundred maimed and hundreds injured. After the attack, residents and supporters around the globe participated in several multiweek-long hunger strikes for improved conditions. This included a hunger strike outside the US Embassy in London.

Since February of this year, Iranian intelligence agents, with the assistance of Iraqi forces, have camped outside Ashraf and torment the residents day and night, chanting threats and abuse using 140 loudspeakers.

A Man of Conscience

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale has been a PMOI-supporting voice in the UK and EU Parliaments. He said, "Nouri al-Maliki's government has imposed a cruel, illegal and inhumane siege on the residents of Ashraf." He began a series of hearings and efforts to bring attention globally to their plight. On 25 November, 2010, members from all parties came together in a meeting to condemn the lack of medical treatment for Camp Ashraf residents.

Said Lord Corbett, "The Iraqi government has tried in effect to turn Ashraf into a prison and make life there unbearable for the residents. The Iraqi government have demonstrated that they do not have the will or capability to respect the rights of Ashraf residents. The US government has a responsibility to re-take protection of the residents and the British government as a coalition partner has a responsibility to press for this."

The hearing also featured a video message from Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), who has been living in exile in Paris since fleeing Iran in 1982, and is revered by Iranian exiles across the globe. The hearing room we all sat in buzzed with beaming Iranian faces speaking, chanting and applauding as she spoke. She and her husband lived in the camp after escaping from Tehran, and she has an almost "cult-like" following of fiercely loyal supporters. Mrs. Rajavi strongly urged the British Parliamentarians to "launch an international campaign to save the lives of cancer sufferers and other patients at Ashraf who are being prevented by Iraqi forces from travelling to hospitals in Iraq."

While several EU Parliament and House of Lords measures have expressed outrage and kept some pressure on the al-Maliki government, little has been done to stop the abuses because no one is in charge and Ashraf has not been a priority.

Even in the US last March, US Congressman Bob Filner (D-California), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were joined by ten of their colleagues in a press conference to announce a declaration of support by a bipartisan House majority for the humanitarian rights and protection of residents of Camp Ashraf. The resolution (H.Res.704) deplored "the ongoing violence by Iraqi security forces against the residents of Camp Ashraf; called upon the Iraqi Government to live up to its commitment to the United States to ensure the continued well-being of those living in Camp Ashraf; and called upon the President to take all necessary and appropriate steps to support the commitments of the United States" to ensure protection of Camp Ashraf residents.

US and coalition forces, having handed power back to Iraq, have little interest in risking further troop losses by expanding deployment back into any part of that country, so 3,400 lives lay in the balance.

The Humanitarian Crises

The biggest problem facing the camp is a lack of medical attention for residents. Amnesty International reported:

Since the transfer occurred, residents needing medical care have found it extremely difficult to have access to medical treatment in and out of the camp because the camp is surrounded by Iraqi security forces. An Iraqi security committee, responsible for all matters relating to the camp, is now said to be responsible for making decisions regarding medical treatment. The committee members decide who can travel outside the camp for specialist treatment, and they control the influx of supplies into the camp. Moreover, Iraqi security forces are increasingly making life difficult for the residents, including by using loudspeakers to broadcast messages and play loud music at them.

Due to lack of adequate treatment for certain illnesses in the hospital next to the camp, some residents need to seek treatment in specialised hospitals in Baghdad and in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. However, Amnesty International has received reports confirming that patients with appointments in hospitals in Baghdad could not attend their appointments because the Iraqi forces apparently refused to allow others to accompany them, including interpreters. Most of the patients at the camp do not speak Arabic as Farsi is their native language and therefore without an interpreter they can not communicate with doctors in Iraq. It is reported that patients who have travelled to other facilities for treatment have returned without a diagnosis or treatment because of the lack of an interpreter. It has also been reported that patients with mobility issues have been barred from travelling due to the lack of wheel chairs or special beds. The Iraqi authorities have refused to provide such equipment.

The delay in treatment has caused serious long-term consequences for many people. It has been reported that Elham Fardipour, a female patient with thyroid cancer, could not receive the treatment she needs in Baghdad because she was not allowed to be accompanied by a nurse or interpreter; consequently, leading her to remain in the camp rather than travel alone to keep her appointment. Her current outlook is unknown but without prompt treatment her cancer is likely to spread. Additionally, about 60 residents are in need of assessment by a cardiologist for diagnosis and treatment of various heart conditions. Several need surgery to prevent or reduce damage caused by heart attacks.

Ill-treatment of patients by the Iraqi forces has also been reported. Soldiers have forcibly removed patients from hospitals or entered patients' rooms against their will, in some cases verbally harassing them. In one case a soldier allegedly beat a patient who had just had surgery causing him to go into a seizure.

Last week Mehdi Fathi, 50, died of kidney cancer in Ashraf. Doctors told him that his cancer was curable when first discovered, but the five-month delay in allowing him to be operated on allowed the cancer to spread - making his a terminal case.

He is not alone, IPCDA's Lord Archer "holds the Iraqi government responsible for Mr. Fathi's death." Further, he states, "there are more than a dozen other cancer patients and at least 97 other medical cases in Ashraf who face similar restrictions on their medical treatment."

The Political Crisis

Camp Ashraf has been a thorn in the side of the current Iranian government because it sits outside of Iran, yet, its people represent the opposition government in exile. Many in Tehran also fault the relatively cozy relationship Ashraf residents had with former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, Iranian government officials have long tried to establish a connection between Mrs. Rajavi's government and Hussein's gassing of the Kurds in Northern Iraq without success. The camp became a further target during the violent campaign and post-election protests following the sham re-election of Iranian President Ahmadinejad in 2009. Many view the current encroachment on the camp as a way for Tehran to eliminate a huge PR problem and send a message to other dissidents.

Too, residents live under constant threat because the al-Maliki "government" does not want the responsibility under international law to protect the camp and the NCRI have repeatedly charged that al-Maliki is very cozy with Tehran and sees an opportunity to be rid of an expensive and resource-draining "problem."

Prime Minister al-Maliki has no mandate to govern in Iraq, having failed to win a majority in elections. He is, consequently, eager to win over any and all factions, especially those supporting the Iranian clerics.

Said Lord Corbett, "we would like to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe at Ashraf since it is a symbol of resistance against the fascist regime in Iran. We support the call by Mrs. Rajavi to put international pressure in order for the siege of Ashraf to come to an end. We have to show that they do not stand alone." Added Lord Archer, "This is a major humanitarian disaster in the making." The camp is under constant pressure and clashes are becoming more regular.

Said Laila Jazeera, of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom: "Camp residents are unarmed and fight back against heavily armed tormentors with voices and raised fists ..."

While the Parliamentary Campaign condemns the unlawful siege of Ashraf in the strongest terms, another problem is the glacial pace of the UN response. At a recent Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, Mr. Ad Melkert, special representative of the UN secretary general for Iraq, responded to widespread concern amongst European MPs. "We are monitoring the situation in Camp Ashraf and regularly meet with government representatives in order to help sustain the humanitarian situation there, on the basis of a number of key principles that we remind the Iraqi government time and again that they should adhere to," he said.

In reply, two committee members pointedly responded:

"The people there are suffering serious difficulties. Supplies cannot come in. Medicine does not come in. People who are seriously ill with cancer are not being treated. There is psychological torture with these loudspeakers. Family visits are not allowed. Members of Parliament are not allowed in. If there is another attack there, it would be a massacre." - Dr. Alejo-Vidal Quadras MEP, VP of the EU Parliament from Spain

"The UN's status as a protector risks being totally compromised and mocked if nothing is done effectively. In what way does the UN intend to avoid a new Srebrenica or Darfur tragedy with an eventual gross humiliation for the UN itself?" - Mr. Vytautas Landsbergis MEP, former president of Lithuania.

For residents of Camp Ashraf, real action is needed to prevent this humanitarian catastrophe. The residents have very few options. Staying there under the protection of the UN and coalition forces is currently the best opportunity to maintain the status quo and get medical attention. Unless there is regime change in Iran, they cannot go home. Ideally, already stressed neighbors as well as coalition countries could be asked to repatriate several of the camp's residents. but these countries are already suffering under the strain of refugees.

The US delegation is, as usual, late to the game with lots of star power and show. If Rudy and his US roadshow are serious, they need to join the UK and EU Parliamentary efforts and spend less time on window dressing conferences.

This group along with the Obama administration needs to join with Congress to maintain the pressure on the Iraq and Iranian governments, otherwise, it was just a nice side trip for dinner in Paris. It could also be interesting for future campaign bids to rehabilitate his image with real progress on a solution for his signature issue (terrorism) and find a humanitarian solution for those stuck inside Camp Ashraf.

Alas, he was so late to game in his last campaign, it was over before he got started. Let's hope for the 3,400 stuck in the middle of the desert that this is one bit of history that does not repeat itself.

BREAKING/UPDATED: Camp Ashraf was attacked Sunday, 26 December, at 2:00 PM local time. Twenty-five Humvees and baton-wielding Iranian and Iraqi agents stormed the gates of the hospital, injuring an as yet independently confirmed 25 people, some seriously. This attack was timed over the holiday period and appears to be in retaliation for the conference held on 22 December in Paris as well as earlier international declarations in support of the camp's residents.

by: Denis G. Campbell,
TruthOut

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