Lawyers fear massacre if Iranians in Iraq handed over
Reuters News, By Stephanie Nebehay
5 September 2008
[With additional comments by Iran-Interlink]
GENEVA, Sept 5 (Reuters) - The United States risks a Srebrenica-style massacre if its forces in Iraq hand over responsibility for more than 3,000 exiled opposition Iranians to Iraqi authorities, an international lawyers' group has said.
The International Committee of Jurists in Defence of Ashraf said the Iranians would be in danger as pro-Shi'ite elements of Iraq's government close to Tehran could expel them to Iran.
Camp Ashraf, 70 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, has housed Iranian refugees and the exiled opposition People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) for two decades. U.S. forces who toppled President Saddam Hussein have protected it since 2003.
But the residents' fate hangs in the balance as U.S. forces negotiate the transfer of territory to Iraq's government, which says PMOI is a terrorist group, the Paris-based committee said.
"We fear we will end up with a situation like Srebrenica," said Marc Henzelin, a committee member who visited Ashraf last month, told a news briefing on Thursday.
"It is like putting foxes in charge of protecting the chicken coop. We don't want to have a massacre which is foretold," the Swiss lawyer added.
He was referring to the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995.
Amnesty International has urged Iraq and the United States to treat the PMOI as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and not deport them to Iran. The 1949 pact bans extradition or forced repatriation of people who could face torture or persecution.
Expelling the Iranian rebel group, also known as Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MEK), has been one of Tehran's main demands.
Iraqi authorities want to "eradicate, to disband this resistance movement to the Iranian regime" and were "slowly taking control of Ashraf camp like a python", Henzelin said.
On Monday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced Baghdad's "intention to impose its full sovereignty in the Ashraf camp area in Diyala province, which includes elements of the Khalq Iranian organisation".
Iraq would work with humanitarian agencies to resolve their fate, he said. It did not plan to force Ashraf residents out of Iraq but did want them to leave the country.
The residents' families have protested outside the United Nations in Geneva all week, demanding humanitarian groups' help. [Hundreds of the residents' families have repeatedly tried to visit relatives in Camp Ashraf over five years, but have been cruelly denied free and unfettered access by the Mojahedin itself. - Iran-Interlink]
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited Ashraf in August for the first time since 2003, reminding all sides of the principle of no forced returns, a spokeswoman said.
The U.N. refugee agency says the Ashraf residents do not fall under its protection mandate until they agree to lay down arms and uniforms, and denounce armed struggle.
Over the years, some 200 residents have done so, but it has been hard to find countries of asylum for those granted refugee status due to their background, a UNHCR spokeswoman said.
The PMOI began as a leftist-Islamist opposition to the late shah of Iran but fell out with Shi'ite clerics who took power after the 1979 Islamic revolution. It is also banned as a terrorist group in the United States and the European Union.
Francois Serres, committee executive director, said Ashraf had endured "a lot of attacks [which the MKO alleged had been] carried out by Iran's regime".
These included the kidnapping of two residents in 2005, the deadly bombing of a workers' bus in May 2006, and the bombing of a water station in February 2008, the French lawyer said.
"We will continue our action so that clear action is taken to maintain protection of the population," he said.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Baghdad; editing by Elizabeth Piper)