All Voices – By Antonio Stango Rome, Italy April 05, 2012
The phone kept ringing non-stop in the early hours of April 8 last year. At the other end of the phone was an Iranian friend I have known for years. It was very unusual for him to call that early. In a broken voice and as he was sobbing, he said Camp Ashraf was attacked by the Iraqi armed forces. I understood it would be a human rights disaster.
As a human rights activist who has monitored situations the world over, I have been familiar with the human rights situation in Iran for years and I analyzed the egregious conduct of Tehran rulers against its citizens, in particular its arch opponents. In particular, I have followed the ordeal regarding the residents of Camp Ashraf, home to thousands of members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the principal Iranian opposition movement.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ashraf residents voluntarily disarmed to the U.S. and every Ashraf resident signed an agreement with American officials, representing their government, according to which – in return for voluntary disarming – the U.S. would guarantee their protection until the final disposition.
In November 2008 I was among the last group of international observers who could visit Camp Ashraf, which the Iranian dissidents had turned from a barren piece of land into a vibrant, self-sufficient town. In January 2009, the U.S. handed over the protection of Ashraf to the government of Iraq, despite the protests of human rights organizations who warned that this would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Immediately afterwards, the Government of Iraq imposed a complete blockade on Ashraf and all visits by international observers were deemed impermissible.
On April 8, 2011, as the Iraqi government started to shoot Ashraf residents at behest of Tehran, my worst fears became reality. The number of fallen Iranian dissidents grew by the hour. When the raid stopped, 36 defenceless residents, including 8 women, were shot to death at close range or were crushed to death by the Iraqi armed forces. Hundreds were severely wounded. The international outrage and calls for an independent inquiry by the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and the U.N. went unheeded and no one has been held accountable.
Later on, the Government of Iraq vowed to close Camp Ashraf and set the arbitrary deadline to do it at the end of 2011. While another more dreadful massacre loomed on the horizon, as a result of a massive international campaign the deadline was postponed. Dozens of the most prominent U.S. officials in the current and past four administrations campaigned relentlessly for guarantees on the protection of Ashraf residents.
Subsequent to signing a Memorandum of Understanding between the U.N. and the Government of Iraq on December 25, and after Secretary Clinton and the U.N. committed to guarantee the safety and welfare of Ashraf residents, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of the Iranian Resistance, agreed for the residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base in Baghdad where they would be interviewed by the UNHCR as a prerequisite of their transfer to third countries.
So far, 1,200 of the residents have moved to Camp Liberty, while the government of Iraq at the behest of Tehran is trying to turn the camp into a prison. But the crisis is far from over. The dissidents have not been assured of their minimum rights and incomprehensible restrictions have been imposed on them.
Next week, when the U.N. Security Council gets a report on state of affairs in Iraq from the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Iraq, Ambassador Martin Kobler, it is time for the plight of Iranian dissidents to be put in the spot light.
The Special Representative should make it clear to the world body that Ashraf residents have forsaken a lot of their rights and shown great sacrifice by accepting to go to Camp Liberty, despite all the shortcomings and profound deficiencies. They showed their commitment to their part of the agreement, even though they were fully aware that they would be deprived of their most rudimentary rights including freedom of movement. Their minimum expectations have to be met and they should be able to make Camp Liberty habitable. The U.S. should continue with its commitments to them and the Security Council should demand from the Government of Iraq to respect the rights of the residents in practice and the U.N. refugee agency should expedite the process of interviewing them and relocating them to third countries.
A year after the massacre in Ashraf, the world should be more vigilant towards Iranian dissidents and their cry for freedom; a reflection of the call from millions in Iran.
Antonio Stango, a political scientist and a university lecturer, is the founder and the Secretary General of the Italian Helsinki Committee, member of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. In 1996-2003 he was a consultant of the Italian Inter-ministerial Committee for Human Rights. From 2002 to 2003 he worked on human rights education projects for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. In 2003 he served also as an expert for the EU / TACIS Project “The Legal Protection of Human Rights in the Russian Federation.” From 2003 to July 2006 he lived in Kazakhstan as the Project Director of Freedom House’s Kazakhstan Human Rights Support Program.