THEY are Iraq’s forgotten terrorists, more than 3,000 fighters of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) languishing at one of their former military camps some 100km north of Baghdad.
‘They are definitely in a legal limbo. No one wants them,’ said Mr Said Boumedouha, a researcher at Amnesty International in London. No one, that is, except Iran.
The MEK, also known as the MKO or the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, is described as an Islamic Socialist group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s government. Founded in Teheran in 1965, it opposed the rule of Iran’s shah, but was violently suppressed after the Iranian revolution as it was viewed as a threat by Ayatollah Khomeini’s newly established regime.
With its headquarters relocated to Iraq in 1986, the MEK fought with Saddam Hussein’s forces in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. They were organised as a conventionally armed brigade with an estimated fighting strength of 6,000 to 8,000 personnel. In mid-1994, Iraq’s Ministry of Defence announced that these fighters had been formally integrated with the country’s armed forces.
The MEK is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States, the European Union and several individual countries – in part, it seems, because of anti-Western attacks and assassinations before the Iranian revolution. Teheran also views the MEK members as terrorists and has sought their extradition from Iraq.
There have been efforts to lift the yoke of this designation, including a 2002 call to end the US proscription signed by 150 members of Congress. In fact, some have suggested that Washington originally tagged it as a terrorist group in 1997 as a gesture to Iran’s newly elected reformist president.
The US proscription nevertheless remains in place, and the EU Council continues to blacklist the MEK despite a December 2006 ruling by the European Court of Justice that overturned Brussels’ edict freezing MEK funds.
There are currently some 3,360 MEK members at Camp Ashraf, located in Iraq’s Diyala province. About 110 others are defectors seeking refugee status and residing at the Ashraf refugee camp. Some have been voluntarily repatriated to Iran, claiming they were forced to join the MEK after being taken prisoner by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it has helped in the repatriation of 255 former fighters, most recently just this month, but the US-led Multinational Force in Iraq provides a figure of 380.
Though part of the Iraqi army, the MEK effectively declared itself neutral when coalition forces invaded the country in March 2003, and surrendered without a fight after suffering a few air attacks. But there is some confusion concerning its subsequent status.
‘The MEK were never captured or classified as prisoners of war (under the Third Geneva Convention). ‘Protected person’ status (under the Fourth Geneva Convention) was granted as part of a ceasefire agreement negotiated between the US and MEK,’ explained Major Winfield Danielson, a press officer with coalition forces in Baghdad.
‘Each member of the MEK was required to sign a document renouncing violence and agreeing not to take up arms. The MEK was also disarmed.’
However, this is contradicted by earlier statements that MEK members’ status was changed from ‘prisoners of war’ to ‘protected persons’ in June 2004.
‘The change in their status is linked to the change of authority (on June 28, 2004, when an interim government assumed control of Iraq). It was also prompted by a process that saw each individual disarm and renounce violence,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Johnson, a US spokesman for detainee operations in Iraq, told me at that time.
The shift is curious in either case. ‘Protected person’ status applies to civilians, whereas the MEK personnel were uniformed soldiers in an established army – and affiliated with a proscribed terrorist group at that. ‘It is not the responsibility of the ICRC to independently determine their status,’ said ICRC official Dorothea Krimitsas in an e-mail from Geneva. The ICRC has never visited Camp Ashraf due to security concerns. But the coalition would contend that this may be unnecessary as the MEK members are not being detained.
‘Neither the active MEK members nor the former MEK refugees are being detained,’ said Major Danielson. ‘The Ashraf refugee camp refugees have every right to depart and travel in Iraq using an Iraqi-issued laissez-passer. They can also repatriate to Iran if they desire, or they may stay in the camp.
‘The active MEK members who live in Camp Ashraf have ‘protected persons’ status. As part of the ceasefire agreement, they may travel outside the city of Ashraf but must do so under the protection of coalition forces.’
Nor are MEK members at Camp Ashraf facing criminal charges, with Major Danielson noting that ‘they are not charged with criminal offences’. This appears peculiar in view of existing laws in the US and elsewhere that criminalise support for terrorist organisations.
According to the US State Department, for example: ‘It is unlawful for a person in the US or subject to the jurisdiction of the US to knowingly provide ‘material support or resources’ to a designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation.’
As prisoners of war, the MEK personnel would have to be ‘released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of hostilities’, according to Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention. For ‘protected persons’ under the Fourth Geneva Convention ‘internment shall cease as soon as possible after the close of hostilities’, according to Article 133.
The ICRC maintains that the Iraq war ended with the transfer of sovereignty to the country’s interim government in June 2004, with the fighting since then characterised as ‘an internal conflict internationalised by the presence of multilateral forces’.
The coalition argues that the MEK personnel at Camp Ashraf are not being detained. But nor are they wandering about or relocating.
‘Our position is that they shouldn’t be returned to Iran due to the fear of torture and the death penalty. And they shouldn’t be handed over to Iraq for the same reason,’ said Amnesty’s Mr Boumedouha. ‘Their immediate future looks bleak.’
In this context, Mr Boumedouha sees the US-led coalition’s oversight of MEK personnel at Camp Ashraf as something of a humanitarian act in keeping with the ‘protected persons’ provision. If that is the case, the coalition is upholding the spirit of the Fourth Geneva Convention but perhaps not its legal mandate, as Article Six states: ‘In the case of occupied territory, the application of the present Convention shall cease one year after the close of military operations.’
However, some have suggested an alternative interpretation of the coalition’s treatment of the MEK people.
Unconfirmed allegations have surfaced in Teheran and elsewhere that the US Central Intelligence Agency is using the MEK for covert operations in Iran. Teheran failed to respond to a request to substantiate these claims.
Straits Times, Robert Karniol, Defence Writer