Camp Ashraf has for over 25 years been home to thousands of members and sympathizers of Iran's main opposition group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The camp is situated north of the Iraqi town of Al-Khalis in Diyala Province, about 44 miles from Iran's Western border.
Ashraf was created in 1986, after the PMOI leadership relocated from France to Iraq. It began as barren land with only a handful of deserted buildings and no facilities, paved roads, or running water. Over 25 years, however, Ashraf was built by its residents into a modern city with a complex of roads and buildings with many educational, social and sports facilities, and it became the PMOI's main enclave in Iraq.
Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf City as its residents know it, was named after Ashraf Rajavi, a famous political prisoner at the time of the Shah who was among the last group of political activists released from the Shah’s prisons in 1979.
Camp Ashraf is an unexpected site in the Iraqi desert. Christine Aziz, a British journalist who visited it, said on December 28, 2006:
“Ashraf is 14 square miles of impeccable tidiness. The first impression is of a holiday camp rather than a military base. Eucalyptus trees line long driveways, men and women tend gardens, and there’s the smell of bread from the bakery.”
The Los Angeles Times wrote about Ashraf on 19 March 2005:
“MEK members have built a bustling, idyllic sprawl of self-contained minivillages with barracks-style living quarters, dining halls, recreational facilities and carefully maintained gardens. Camp Ashraf has its own swimming pool, library, monument to fallen comrades and a museum where visitors can view gruesome videos of Iranian regime brutality.… Whatever their idiosyncrasies, MEK members also project a progressive streak and political ethos unusual in the world, much less the Middle East. They’re ardent feminists. Women make up 30 percent of the fighters but hold an outsized number of political and military leadership positions.… Far from the noise, traffic jams and ambient daily dread of Baghdad, Ashraf feels like a quiet rural retreat. Earlier this week, the entire camp mobilized for a raucous celebration of Red Wednesday, a pre-Islamic holiday that precedes the Iranian New Year.”
A conscious decision
One remarkable characteristic of Ashraf is the presence of thousands of people who have freely chosen to come to Ashraf with only one goal and desire—to dedicate their lives to their people’s freedom from the clutches of the mullahs’ terrorist religious dictatorship.
This free choice is the bedrock of the democratic relations in Ashraf and within the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Democracy, a flourishing feature of Ashraf
For any foreign observer who visits Ashraf, the most striking characteristic is the democratic nature of relationships that exist there, since in this city precious human values are respected the most. The democratic nature of relationships within the PMOI has given Ashraf residents the ability to maintain their unity under harsh conditions of the past 25 years, which includes aerial bombardment and missile attacks by the mullahs’ regime. Diverse opinions converge through dialogue, and evolve to what is acceptable to all members; thus, the enormous efforts by the Iranian regime to create rifts among the ranks of the PMOI and to overwhelm Ashraf have failed.
Foreigners also are astounded at the high morale in Ashraf. Such a level of liveliness under such difficult conditions comes from the depth of the resident’s conscious decision to remain in Ashraf and their profound belief in freedom.
Ashraf residents’ smiles defy the difficult political conditions and atmosphere. However, neither these conditions nor the unfavorable climate, nor the three decades of suppression and killings by the mullahs’ regime and over two decades of appeasement and support for the regime by Western governments, have been able to wipe their smiles away. This liveliness is part of their struggle against the mullahs’ regime.
The residents of Ashraf enjoyed excellent community relations with the people of surrounding towns and villages in Diyala province. Ashraf invested heavily in infrastructure projects in the region. A water purification plant provided water to tens of thousands of people in surrounding towns. Local Iraqi residents were welcome at Ashraf medical clinics which served the local communities. An electricity grid and roads benefited the entire region.
Some 5.2 million Iraqis signed a petition in June 2006 warning of the Iranian regime's dangers in Iraq and describing the PMOI as the main bulwark against the regime's interventions. More than 3 million Iraqi Shiites signed a declaration in June 2008 calling for eviction of the regime and its agents from Iraq and the removal of restrictions imposed on PMOI members residing in Ashraf City. The Iranian regime has thus put immense pressure through its proxies to have the PMOI dismantled.
Camp Ashraf and the 2003 Iraq War
Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq, the PMOI publicly declared its neutrality and played no part in the conflict. In the early part of the invasion, as a result of quid pro quo between Washington and Tehran, PMOI bases were repeatedly bombed by Coalition forces, inflicting dozens of casualties and enormous structural damage.
In April 2003, US forces signed a cease-fire agreement of "mutual understanding and coordination" with the PMOI. Finally in May 2003, as a result of negotiations between the PMOI and US forces led by General Ray Odierno, the PMOI agreed to a "voluntary consolidation" and disarming of its forces in exchange for US protection of Camp Ashraf and its residents.
Protected Persons Status under the 4th Geneva Convention
After an extensive 16-month investigation of every member of the PMOI in Camp Ashraf by seven different US government agencies that began after the US agreement, PMOI members were found not to have violated any US law [New York Times, July 27, 2004]. In addition, the US Government declared them to have been "non-combatants" during the 2003 war.
In 2004 the US led Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I) formally recognized all the residents of Camp Ashraf as "Protected Persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention [Coalition Statement, July 2004], and U.S. forces took up their protection.
The MNF-I reiterated its obligations towards Ashraf residents under the 4th Geneva Convention on numerous occasions. This can be seen in a February 16, 2006 letter by the then-Deputy Commanding General, and it is also specified in the October 7, 2005, letter by Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg which says: "The residents of Camp Ashraf have the right to protection from danger, violence, coercion, and intimidation, and to special protection for the dignity and rights of women."
In January 2009, despite strong opposition by the residents and several legal opinions by distinguished jurists, the camp's security was transferred to Iraq without necessary credible guarantees. The US stated that the Government of Iraq has given written guarantee respecting the rights of the residents.
Massacre at Camp Ashraf
On July 2009 and April 2011, the Iraqi Army under the direct order of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched deadly attacks on Camp Ashraf. The first attack left 11 Ashraf residents dead and nearly 500 wounded.
The 2011 attack - described by then U.S. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a "massacre" - left 36 dead and hundreds wounded. The attacks drew widespread condemnation from the international community.
Since 2009, the camp has been under a barbaric siege where delivery of food, fuel and medicine has been hampered and visits by family members, human rights organizations, residents' lawyers, and independent journalists have been disallowed. For nearly two years the Camp residents were constantly subject to psychological torture by agents of the Iranian regime using some 300 powerful loud speakers threatening the residents to death and using abusive word all through day and night.
Transfer to Camp Liberty
Following an agreement between Ambassador Martin Kobler of UNAMI and the Government of Iraq, and at the behest of the Iranian regime, Ashraf residents were subject to a forced eviction and involuntary relocation to Camp Liberty, a former U.S.-base in Baghdad. Martin Kobler, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq, misled the residents and the international community by repeated assurances about the residents welfare and protection at the new site which has until now proved to be blatantly false. In 2012, some 3,200 residents moved to Camp Liberty, but Iraq has denied them freedom of movement, basic humanitarian needs, and the right to transfer or sell most of their property.
Currently there are 100 residents in Camp Ashraf to look after the property. According to an agreement with the UN, also endorsed by the US, the residents would remain there until all properties are settled.
Conditions at Camp Liberty
Martin Kobler, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq (SRSG), gave the residents repeated assurances about their welfare and protection at the new site. But the Government of Iraq (GoI) has imposed a siege on the camp and denied them the right to transfer or sell most of their property.
In violation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Iraq and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Camp Liberty lacks human rights standards and is considered a prison from every aspect. The area of the camp is half a square kilometer, and it is run by Iraqi Col. Sadeq Mohammad Kazem, who is wanted by a Spanish court for ordering his troops to open fire on Ashraf residents in the massacres of July 2009 and April 2011. There is a central police station and at least five other police posts and uninterrupted patrols in the small camp. Surveillance cameras have been installed in various areas of the camp to control all commuting inside. The signals from these eavesdropping devices and spying cameras are transmitted to the Iranian regime, leading to serious security threats to the residents and their families in Iran.
Residents have no freedom of movement, and Iraq has banned them from having access to their relatives, human rights activists, parliamentarians, reporters and any foreign visitor in Liberty or Ashraf.
Heavy medical restrictions are imposed on the camp residents, and this has led to the death of two residents by the start of 2013. The ground is gravel, and there are no pavements. The GoI does not permit contractors into the camp to build stable ramp entries for the disabled.
Residents are not allowed to use machinery and the GoI prevents them from transferring their forklifts from Ashraf to move items and do construction work in Camp Liberty. The residents are therefore forced to carry heavy loads by hand leading to numerous injuries.
The camp lacks any plant life and vegetation and the adjacent green area was annexed off by the GoI.
Iraq refuses to connect the camp to the national electricity grid, and the few power generators that are in the camp are dilapidated. By December 2012, Liberty residents had paid $3.5 million for fuel for generators at the camp to provide electricity and $2.5 million for a water supply project.
UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on 23 November 2012 described conditions at Camp Liberty as synonymous with that of a detention center and in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was the second opinion adopted by the Working Group detailing abuses at the camp. Another opinion issued on 17 July 2012 found similar abuses taking place.
UN official resigns over abuses at Camp Liberty
Mr. Tahar Boumedra, SRSG's advisor on Ashraf affairs, who was responsible for Ashraf at the UNAMI for three and a half years resigned in May 2012 in protest to Martin Kobler’s attempts to cover up violations of human rights at Camp Liberty. In two shocking testimonies at the U.S. Congress on 13 September 2012 and the UK Parliament on 11 December 2012, Mr. Boumedra revealed how Ambassador Kobler would doctor reports to cover up the abuses.
The GOI obstructs the sale of the residents’ movable and immovable properties in Camp Ashraf and has blocked all their commercial activities. In 2012 the residents signed a deal with a British company to sell their moveable and fixed property for approx. $525 million, but this deal was blocked by the GoI which is trying to steal and misappropriate all the property.
Temporary Transit Location or UN Refugee Camp
Instead of designating Camp Liberty as a refugee camp, the camp has been illegally designated a “temporary transit location - TTL” to cover up the appalling lack of minimum standards for a refugee camp and violation of laws and regulations related to refugees and asylum seekers. The term TTL applies to a camp which has a several-day or several-week passage for transferring refugees to third countries.
Many distinguished international jurists, Parliamentarians, former government officials, human rights advocates, and human rights organizations have urged the UN to urgently recognize Camp Liberty as an official Refugee Camp and accept responsibility for the residents’ protection and to ensure that their rights are respected under international law.
Interview with former Iranian political prisoner Mostafa Naderi