THE first group of Iranian dissidents, who have been living in Iraq since 1986, has been moved to Camp Liberty, a former United States military base near Baghdad airport, as the first step in their eventual journey out of the country (News, 3 February). Nearly 400 refugees out of the estimated 3400 inhabitants of Camp Ashraf have been transferred.
But the new arrivals at Camp Liberty have been strongly critical of the terms under which they were moved, and of the conditions at the new location. At the same time, opponents of the Iranian regime have accused the Iraqi government of conspiring with Tehran to suppress the freedom of the refugees — supporters of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) that co-operated with supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini in toppling the Shah’s regime in 1979. After falling out with the ruling religious establishment in Tehran, they fled to Iraq.
Until last year, Camp Ashraf was protected by US forces. But when they withdrew from Iraq, the camp was attacked a number of times, allegedly by Iraqi forces.
The Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which enjoys close links with Tehran, had originally said that it wanted the camp closed down and the Iranians moved out of the country by the end of 2011. But, in the last week of December, the UN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Baghdad authorities that extended the deadline, and provided for the temporary transfer of the dissidents to Camp Liberty.
Here, the Iranians would be interviewed by officials of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, to determine their qualification for refugee status. UN representatives in Baghdad stressed that the agreement covered “voluntary relocation, and its implementation is based firmly on all sides acting peacefully and in good faith.” There was also “a clear commitment from the government of Iraq that it will ensure the safety and security of the residents at the new location”.
But the first group of PMOI members to move out of Camp Ashraf complained of harassment by the Iraqi security services during long searches that they had to endure both on departure from there and on arrival at Camp Liberty. They also said that promises that they would be able to take vehicles and all their possessions were not honoured. “The treatment we received was degrading, and the conditions inside the camp are degrading,” one of the Iranians said. “We have been moved from one prison camp to another.”
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, of which the PMOI is a part, said that Camp Liberty failed to meet “the most basic international humanitarian standards and human rights standards”.
The group also presented evidence of what it said were communications between the Iraqi and Iranian governments. The former is alleged to have said that confining the PMOI “in Camp Liberty under direct control of Iraqi forces will paralyse this organisation. It does not matter to the government of Iraq how long they stay in Liberty; what matters is that they should not be able to have any activities. In Liberty they would be like the dead.”
While the US regards the PMOI as a terrorist organisation, the plight of the refugees at Camp Ashraf has attracted widespread international concern. Late last year, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Alan Harper, and the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, joined 16 bishops and a committee of MPs in expressing concern for their fate (News, 6 January).