Camp Ashraf had 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.
Camp Ashraf was created in 1986 after the PMOI (MEK) 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, otherwise known as Ashraf City, 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.
For any foreign observer who visited Ashraf, the most striking characteristic was the democratic nature of relationships that existed there. The democratic nature of relationships within the PMOI (MEK) gave Ashraf residents the ability to maintain their unity under harsh conditions of the past 25 years, which included aerial bombardment and missile attacks by the mullahs’ regime. Diverse opinions converged through dialogue, and evolved to what was acceptable to all members; thus, the enormous efforts by the Iranian regime to create rifts among the ranks of the PMOI (MEK) and to overwhelm Ashraf failed.
Foreigners were also astounded at the high morale in Ashraf. Such a level of liveliness under such difficult conditions came from the depth of the residents’ profound belief in freedom.
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.
Meanwhile, the mullahs’ regime spared no effort to annihilate the organized Iranian opposition in Camp Ashraf.
Some 5.2 million Iraqis signed a petition in June 2006 warning of the Iranian regime’s dangers in Iraq and describing the PMOI (MEK) 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 (MEK) members residing in Ashraf City. The Iranian regime put immense pressure through its proxies to have the PMOI (MEK) dismantled.
Camp Ashraf and the 2003 Iraq War
Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq, the PMOI (MEK) 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 (MEK) 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 (MEK). Finally in May 2003, as a result of negotiations between the PMOI (MEK) and US forces led by General Ray Odierno, the PMOI (MEK) 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 (MEK) in Camp Ashraf by seven different US government agencies that began after the US agreement, PMOI (MEK) 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 had given written guarantee respecting the rights of the residents.
Massacres at Camp Ashraf
On July 2009 and April 2011, the Iraqi Army under the direct order of Prime Minister Nuri 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.
From 2009, the camp came under a barbaric siege where delivery of food, fuel and medicine was hampered and visits by family members, human rights organizations, residents’ lawyers, and independent journalists were disallowed. For nearly two years the Camp residents were constantly subject to psychological torture by agents of the Iranian regime using some 320 powerful loud speakers threatening the residents with death and using abusive words all through day and night.
Transfer to Camp Liberty
Following an agreement between then-UNAMI chief Martin Kobler 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 then-Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq, misled the residents and the international community with repeated assurances about the residents’ welfare and protection at the new site which later proved to be blatantly false. In 2012, some 3,200 residents moved to Camp Liberty, but Iraq denied them freedom of movement, basic humanitarian needs, and the right to transfer or sell most of their property.
In 2013 some 100 residents remained in Camp Ashraf to look after the property. According to an agreement with the UN, also endorsed by the US, the residents were supposed to remain there until the issue of all the properties was settled.
September 1, 2013 massacre at Camp Ashraf
On September 1, 2013, a massacre was carried out at Camp Ashraf. Iraqi Special Forces under the command of al-Maliki raided the camp, brutally murdering 52 residents and abducting seven others, including six women. Al-Maliki was thus hoping to curry favor with the mullahs in Tehran to gain support for a third term as prime minister. Although the attack was condemned by the UN Secretary General, US Secretary of State and the EU foreign affairs chief, it was never investigated by the international community and none of the perpetrators were ever brought to account.
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) 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 lacked human rights standards and was considered a prison from every aspect. The area of the camp was half a square kilometer, and it was run by Iraqi Col. Sadeq Mohammad Kazem, who was 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 was a central police station and at least five other police posts and uninterrupted patrols in the small camp.
Surveillance cameras were installed by the Iraqi government in various areas of the camp to control all commuting inside. The signals from these eavesdropping devices and spying cameras were transmitted to the Iranian regime, leading to serious security threats to the residents and their families in Iran.
Residents had no freedom of movement, and Iraq banned them from having access to their relatives, human rights activists, parliamentarians, reporters and any foreign visitor in Camp Liberty.
Heavy medical restrictions were imposed on the camp residents. The medical siege imposed on Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty since 2009 led to the death of 27 residents. When the PMOI (MEK) moved to Camp Liberty, the ground was gravel, and there were no pavements. The GoI did not permit contractors into the camp to build stable ramp entries for the disabled.
Residents were not allowed to use machinery and the GoI prevented them from transferring their forklifts from Camp Ashraf to move items and do construction work in Camp Liberty. The residents were therefore forced to carry heavy loads by hand leading to numerous injuries.
The camp lacked any plant life and vegetation and the adjacent green area was annexed off by the GoI. The residents, however, tried to grow their own plants.
Iraq refused to connect the camp to the national electricity grid, and the few power generators that were in the camp were dilapidated. By December 2012, Camp 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 Camp Ashraf’s file in 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 obstructed the sale of the residents’ movable and immovable properties in Camp Ashraf and 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 tried 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 was 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 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 were respected under international law.
Missile attacks on Camp Liberty
Camp Liberty also came under five deadly missile attacks by Iraqi militias affiliated to the mullahs’ regime. In the deadliest assault, 80 rockets rained down on the camp on October 29, 2015, killing 24 residents and wounding dozens.
Relocation of Camp Liberty residents to Albania and other parts of Europe
During a four-and-a-half-year-long resettlement process, the residents of Camp Liberty were relocated to European countries, in particular Albania, but also including Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Spain. Close to 2,000 residents left Iraq since the beginning of 2016. On September 9, 2016, the final group of Camp Liberty residents (more than 280) departed Iraq for Albania. That final round of departures marked the successful conclusion to the process of relocating members of the PMOI (MEK) outside of Iraq despite the Iranian regime’s conspiracies, obstructions and threats, which continued until the very last day.
In this process, the religious dictatorship ruling Iran provided red notices to Interpol and used fake arrest warrants issued by the Iraqi Judiciary in a bid to prevent the departure of 1,000 PMOI (MEK) members, and arrest officials and other well-known figures.
Exploiting the post-invasion atmosphere in Iraq, the ruling clerical regime did its utmost to destroy the PMOI/MEK. Three massacres at Camp Ashraf, five missile attacks on Camp Liberty, two cases of abduction of residents, and the imposition of a full-fledged eight-year siege, which left 177 residents dead, constituted parts of this inhumane, albeit futile, plan.
The goal of the Iranian regime was not to see the departure of PMOI (MEK) members from Iraq; rather, it sought to annihilate or force them into surrender. The victorious transfer of the PMOI (MEK) members and the regime’s major defeat in this regard, which took place simultaneous with growing calls seeking justice for 30,000 political prisoners massacred in 1988, opened a new chapter for the Iranian people and Resistance.
In its annual declaration, adopted a few days prior to the final relocation of the PMOI (MEK) members, the National Council of Resistance of Iran commended the tireless efforts of its President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi to ensure protection for the safe transfer of Camp Liberty residents outside Iraq. The NCRI said the support extended to the Iranian Resistance by distinguished American, European and Arab personalities provided a political shield for the resettlement of PMOI (MEK) members, noting that otherwise, the Iranian regime and its Iraqi proxies would not have allowed the safe departure of even a single PMOI (MEK) member from Iraq.
Since 2015, owing to the efforts of the Iranian Resistance, the United States Congress introduced resolutions and passed legislation, obligating the U.S. Government to undertake the necessary measures to protect the residents of Camp Liberty and to safely transfer them out of Iraq. Similar resolutions and declarations were also adopted in the European Parliament, and in parliaments in the United Kingdom, as well as in other European and Middle Eastern countries.
On July 19, 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated, “UNHCR is supporting a steady and growing stream of movements out of Iraq in coming months. It is hoped that the process will be completed well before year end. This progress has been achieved with the cooperation of the residents who have proceeded with the relocation process despite difficult circumstances, including the attack on 4 July 2016, which fortunately did not result in any casualties.”
The UNHCR added, “Ongoing success in the implementation of solutions has also been assisted by the residents’ commitment to meeting the bulk of the associated costs, particularly for long term support of all residents relocated out of Iraq who have no access to state-sponsored assistance.”
In the course of the process to resettle Camp Liberty residents, Iraqi intelligence agents, acting at the behest of the Iranian regime’s ambassador to Iraq (a commander of the terrorist Quds Force), prevented the residents from taking with them their personal belongings, such as computers, radios, cell phones, and even electric shavers.
On the other hand, despite its previous commitments, the Iraqi side prevented the sale of over 90 percent of the residents’ property. The residents had signed a contract with a government-approved Iraqi merchant to sell their property for $10.7 million. But, in the end, Iraqi agents only allowed the sale of 10 percent of the property at one-fourth of the market price.
In the weeks prior to the final relocation, the clerical regime’s Quds Force provided an assortment of missiles to, and tasked three of its Iraqi proxy groups, Kata’eb Hezbollah, Asa’eb Ahl Al-Haq, and Harakat al-Nujaba, to launch missile attacks on Camp Liberty at the earliest possible opportunity. On August 19, 2016, Kata’eb Hezbollah stationed a missile-equipped truck at a location near Camp Liberty. But the plan to attack was discovered and thwarted by Iraq’s Federal Police.