In June this year freelance journalist Gabrielle Pickard spoke to Shahriar Kia, a political analyst expert on Iran since 1982 and spokesperson for Camp Ashraf, Iraq, about the role women have played in helping to improve the lives of Iranian exiles living in "poverty and squalor" in a refugee camp in Iraq, known as Camp Ashraf.
Determined to publicise the truth about the inhumanity and degradation this group of so-called "protected persons" are facing, Gabrielle Pickard spoke to Shahriar Kia once more, who was more than happy to reveal the whole truth on this shambolic and wholly under-reported story.
1. In spite of Iraq's many violations of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), in spite of camp Liberty's unacceptable conditions and the lack of essential necessities of life, by agreeing with the relocation of 2000 residents to camp Liberty prison, we have shown the outmost degree of cooperation and goodwill.
2. If the government of Iraq is, truly, seeking to relocate the residents to Liberty and resettle them in third countries, swiftly; why is it that it refuses to address the residents' most basic demands – i.e. water and electricity supply, transport of a few generators and vehicles which belong to the residents?
3. If the US State Department and Mr. Kobler are certain that conditions at camp Liberty are "above acceptable", why won't they allow reporters, politicians and human rights activists – eager to visit the camps and talk with its residents – into the camp to see everything for themselves?
4. Why is it that with five months into the process and with almost 2000 residents relocated to Liberty, not a single person has been resettled in a third country?
5. Why are the State Department and the SRSG exerting such an unreasonably high amount of pressure on camp Ashraf residents to evacuate the camp immediately, before acceptable conditions are provided for at Liberty? And who are they siding with?
6. The SRSG and the State Department's tendency to postpone resolution of present problems to a later date, is only setting the ground for a human tragedy.
I- The residents have shown a great level of flexibility and compromise and have presented practical solutions.
In spite of the fact that during the process to relocate some 2000 residents, a great level of flexibility was exhibited by the residents, their goodwill has constantly been rewarded with empty promises. The last of which was on July 26, when representatives of camp Ashraf residents, presented practical and compromising solutions to Mr. Kobler, fully at the residents' own expenses, for provision of basic needs before the six convoy leaves Ashraf.
These plans are such that if the government of Iraq does not interfere, all can be implemented at the residents' own expenses within a month and the sixth convoy will be ready to depart for camp Liberty after Ramadan (late August).
II- The truth behind efforts to close camp Ashraf and relocate its residents to Liberty prison and who really stands to gain?
The simple truth is that issues concerning Ashraf and Liberty are not only confined to these camps and its residents and are directly related to political ties between the government of Iraq and the Iranian regime. If the issue was only limited to a few vehicles, forklifts, water supply, or the daily necessities of life for a group of refugees, no one would ever need to appropriate so mush time and energy.
In the wake of the 2009 uprisings in Iran, and following that, with the "Arab Spring" in full swing and prospects for the fall of Bashar al-Asad in Syria, and the consequences it bears for the Iranian regime's existence, the dismantling of the Iranian resistance has become an absolute first priority for the regime. What's really at stake is the actual existence and entity of the PMOI, which is considered by the regime as the sole threat to its existence and that is why it is out to either physically destroy and dismantling it altogether or force its members to succumb and surrender.
What has transpired since 2009, when camp Ashraf security was handed over to the Iraqis, including two massacres, an inhumane siege, successive deadlines, Iraq's refusal to allow UNHCR interview and registration process to be conducted in Ashraf, all the limitations and pressures, an embargo on food and medicine, pressure to have the residents relocated to another site, known as Liberty, with deplorable and inhuman conditions, all fit into this context. This is the real truth behind all of these developments.
But at the end of the day, what truly matters to us is to safeguard the lives and political dignity of the residents of camp Ashraf and Liberty and to provide their humanitarian needs. Incidentally, these are the exact same things the Iranian regime has targeted.
If the residents of Ashraf were certain that by forgoing their minimum humanitarian needs and agreeing to relocate to Liberty, their security and political integrity will be ensured until the last resident leaves Iraq and essential protections, under international law and as outlined in articles 4 and 6 of Mr. Kobler's December 28 letter to the residents, will be guaranteed; we would have accepted. But as much as provision of these basic needs is important for the residents, Iraq's refusal to provide them is a clear sign of its ominous intentions to slaughter the residents and fulfill the Iranian regime's wishes.
Mr. Kobler has, unfortunately, shown that he is on the Iraqi government's side and as has been the case till now, he continues to postpone fulfilling the residents' humanitarian needs to an unknown "later date" and after departure of the sixth convoy. It is clear that Mr. Kobler's only mandate is to close Ashraf and relocate its residents to Liberty prison at all costs – without any considerations for the dire consequence of such a move. Mr. Kobler leaves us with only two options – either choose to relocate to a prison or be prepared to die in Ashraf!!
But if the residents are to be attacked for insisting on their basic human rights, and after 2000 have already been relocated to Liberty, there is no doubt that by piling them up in Liberty not only the Iranian regime's and the al-Maliki administrations wishes will not be defused but, to the contrary, such a massacre will only be facilitated in camp Liberty and the death toll will be much greater.
Under such circumstances, this could only mean another attack and massacre, whether at camp Liberty or Ashraf, unless the US lives up to its responsibilities and forces the government of Iraq to honor its obligations and as a first step stop hindering and preventing the provision of the residents' basic humanitarian needs.
III- Relocation of camp Ashraf residents was unnecessary and merely an Iranian regime demand from the outset.
After residents of camp Ashraf and the PMOI accepted to resettle in third countries, relocation within Iraq was pointless and Ashraf was the best possible site for the UNHCR to begin its process of interviewing and resettling the residents. 15 months after the plans to relocate the residents was first presented by ambassador Butler, who represented the US State Department, a great deal of energy and resources of the residents, their families, the PMOI and even UN and US resources have been wasted to relocate the residents, which only serves the Iranian regime's interests, while it could have been used to resettle a large portion of the residents.
The government of Iraq, fulfilling the Iranian regime's interests, and unfortunately, with Mr. Kobler's full cooperation, has relocated residents of Ashraf against their will. The residents were never faced, as Mr. Kobler claims, with a voluntary relocation. They were evicted out of their home of 25 years, against their will and in violation of international laws.
The government of Iraq conditioned the initiation of the UNHCR interview process, which should have started last September and was an essential step for resettlement of residents, to their relocation to camp Liberty and as a result delayed the process for 6 months. As a result of their relocation, the residents had to leave their vehicles and many other movable and immovable possessions behind.
In a hearing before the US congress foreign relations committee on February 29, and in response to Representative Ted Poe, Secretary Clinton said: "I would have preferred having them processed at Ashraf. That turned out to be impractical for a lot of reasons." Today, it is undoubtedly clear that relocation to camp Liberty, which was initially presented as a Temporary Transit Location (TTL), was completely unnecessary and a total failure. From the very first day, camp Ashraf residents and their representatives wrote many letters to Secretary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and ambassador Kobler, informing them that camp Liberty is a prison and no one could possibly agree to go to a prison on his own accord. Now it is the UN Working Group for Arbitrary Arrests which clearly states that: "The situation of the residents of Camp Liberty is tantamount to that of detainees or prisoners. The Working Group considers that there is no legal justification for holding individuals in Camp Liberty, and that such detention is not in conformity with the standards and principles of international human rights law, and more specifically violates article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".
IV- The Iranian regime was the sole beneficiary of evacuation of camp Ashraf and relocation of its residents to Liberty prison.
During Maliki's recent (April 23) visit to Tehran, Khamenei thanked him for four great services and said that services, such as these, will never be forgotten.
1- The expulsion of US forces from Iraq
2- Expulsion of PMOI and closure of camp Ashraf
3- Support for Bashar al-Asad
4- Suppression of Sunni leaders (specifically Mr. Tareq Al-Hasemi).
The truth is that by relocating camp Ashraf residents to Liberty, Maliki has received the incentives and has served the Iranian regime the most.
V- Martin Kobler's remarks before the UN Security Council, a green light for another attack and massacre in Ashraf.
Is it just to pressure residents of Ashraf to forgo their basic humanitarian needs and agree to be crammed into Liberty prison? Is it right to leave the residents with the option of either accepting to go to Liberty prison or face the imminent threat of death and slaughter in camp Ashraf?
Are we wrong to assume that Mr. Martin Kobler's statements before the UN Security Council and the US State Department's July 25 statement are considered by the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime as a green light to continue on with the restrictions, to attack and once again use violence against the residents of Ashraf and Liberty? Threats by Faleh Fayaz and his elusion to another massacre in camp Ashraf, followed Mr. Kopler's remarks.
VI- The legal status and rights of camp Ashraf and Liberty residents.
The government of Iraq has announced on numerous occasions that residents of camp Ashraf and Liberty have no legal status and their presence in Iraq is against the law!! Unfortunately, the US government has remained silent and has never refuted this claim which has been used to justify many atrocities against the residents. Pending final settlement of their situation, the US government remains fully responsible for protection of camp Ashraf and Liberty residents.
In 2004 and following a thorough investigation which lasted 16 months, and every single resident of Ashraf was screened by 9 American agencies, the US government confirmed the status of the residents as protected persons under the 4th Geneva Convention and signed an agreement with each resident; that in return for their disarmament, it would protect them until final settlement of their case. Since that day, nothing has terminated the US government's legal responsibility to protect the residents. In addition, many legal institutions such as the Spanish national court, the UN Working Group for Arbitrary Arrests, and many international jurists have stated that nothing has annulled the residents' status under the 4th Geneva Convention and the US government's responsibilities stand as they were.
VII- Can we possibly imagine a higher level of cooperation than what has been exhibited by the residents for "the successful and peaceful closure of camp Ashraf"?
The residents' level of cooperation was so remarkable that immediately after the 5th convoy departed Ashraf, Mr. Kobler received a visa to visit Iran, which was conditioned on his success in closing camp Ashraf, from the Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Danaifar. 2000 residents agreed to be relocated to a prison (Liberty) only after receiving promises and assurances from Secretary Clinton and UN Secretary General, ensuring their security, well-being and integrity. Provision of their basic humanitarian rights at camp Liberty, however, was postponed from one convoy to another.
VIII- What are the residents' minimum humanitarian requirements for the sixth convoy and are these demands, as Mr. Kobler puts it, excessive and non-essential?!
On many occasions, the US State Department and Mr. Kobler have claimed that the residents' minimum requirements for completion of the relocation process to Liberty are non-essential and excessive. But their assessment is contrary to the truth and only provides the Iraqi government with an excuse for another attack and massacre.
During the past year and half, the residents of Ashraf have agreed to forgo many of their rights. They have given up their 25 year immigration rights to reside in Iraq and have agreed to resettle in third countries and have filled out individual refugee applications. They have accepted the US and UN plan to evacuate Ashraf. For their relocation to camp Liberty, the residents have agreed to settle for basic humanitarian rights within the context of international humanitarian standards and only ask that a small portion of their personal property be transported (which has been postponed from one convoy to the next). If after five convoys, and now before the sixth convoy leaves, 8 of the mutually negotiated humanitarian requirements are not provided, there is absolutely no guarantee that they'll be provided at a later time.
Which one of the eight demands forwarded by residents of Ashraf, as prerequisites for the sixth convoy, are unnecessary or impractical, i.e. connecting Liberty to the city water supply grid or allowing the residents to pump water from the nearby river; allow the residents to take their generators, specially the main power generators – to be used to supply Liberty's power and to pump water; transport of 6 specially made caravans for the handicapped; transport of service vehicles, transport of one vehicle for each group of 40 residents; transport of 5 forklifts; and the least amount of construction needed to accommodate handicapped and injured residents at Liberty. These are the same requirements which have been agreed upon months ago and had been approved by Mr. Kobler and the US State Department.
VIIII- Should the residents be forced into exile, once again?
Most of the people, who are in Ashraf right now, have left their lives, families and property behind in Iran and have chosen to come to exile to struggle for democracy. Is it right that they be forced into exile, once again, but this time by a government which has been installed with America's complete political, economic and military support?!
If the answer is yes, then instead of recognizing Iraq's current government as an example of democracy in the region, it should be recognized for what it really is: a fascist regime. Notwithstanding the fact that this government has even closed all escape routes to the residents and has imprisoned them in Liberty.
X- What is the US government and UN's responsibility?
There is no doubt that the US government, Secretary Clinton and the UN Secretary General must all intervene and use their influence on the Iraqi government and convince it to backtrack from the dangerous road it is marching in carrying-out the Iranian regime's plans, and do not hinder the provision of basic humanitarian needs and give the peaceful process a chance to go ahead.
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