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How to Help the People of Camp Ashraf

Removing group from terrorist list would do nothing to help reportedly abused rank and file.

[Opinion] The Obama administration will decide this month whether to remove the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MEK; also known as MKO and PMOI) from the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Proponents of the group, including former U.S. officials who have recently been paid large sums by the MEK, claim that delisting is needed to save 3,400 MEK members stuck in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, where the military wing of the organization has been based since 1986 — though they do not make clear how delisting is essential to achieving that goal.

Lost in the discussion is recognition of the dire human rights situation of Camp Ashraf residents. According to a RAND Corporation report, up to 70 percent of Ashraf residents may be there against their will. Human Rights Watch, independent Iran experts, and the U.S. government have all documented the cult-like and abusive practices carried out by the MEK against its own members. And while for the past three decades, governments hostile toward Iran’s revolutionary government have used the group as a political pawn against the Islamic Republic, the international community has turned a blind eye to the plight of those isolated inside the camp.

The international community should urgently address the situation of these rank-and-file MEK members. There are five steps the United States, the international community, and the MEK itself can take to resolve the situation at Camp Ashraf. These steps should precede any decision to delist the group from the FTO roster.

First, Camp Ashraf should be dismantled under the supervision of the United Nations, the International Red Cross, and the U.S. military. Clashes similar to those that took place earlier this year between Iraqi forces and camp residents must be prevented, and the rights of MEK members should be upheld.

Second, MEK leaders should be distinguished from rank-and-file members and should not be granted immunity from prosecution for any possible involvement in terror attacks or human rights abuses. There are concerns that MEK leaders are using the current negotiations with the Obama administration to ensure their own security while exploiting their members as bargaining chips. The RAND corporation reports that the MEK has frequently used the threat of mass suicide as a negotiating tactic. In RAND’s description, this is evidence of the group’s "cultic characteristics."

Third, law enforcement and psychological support services should be provided to assist camp residents who wish to leave the organization. This step will be difficult since the MEK — like most cults — has made its members emotionally, psychologically, and financially dependent on the organization and fearful of retribution if they leave.

Fourth, residents of Ashraf should be offered resettlement in third countries and reunification with their families if they meet the requirement of the United Nations to renounce violence. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the majority of Camp Ashraf residents have not yet explicitly renounced violence, which would make them eligible for refugee status. Most importantly, there should be no forcible return to Iran .

Fifth and finally, the MEK as a whole — not just its political wing, the National Council for Iranian Resistance (NCRI) — must renounce violence in an official proclamation, published both in English and Persian, and completely disarm before being considered for FTO delisting. American forces have never searched the camp, nor have they searched vehicles moving in and out it. Full access to the camp must be given to verify the MEK’s disarmament.

The rights of MEK members to express their opinions, to associate, and to peacefully assemble are guaranteed by international law and should be recognized. But those rights must be exercised in accordance with democratic principles and others’ human rights, and in the absence of violence or its threat.

The current debate over delisting seems premature to most experts, but it presents an important opportunity to restore the rights of hundreds of individuals trapped at Camp Ashraf. Removing the MEK from the U.S. terrorist list would do nothing to end the human rights violations faced by MEK members. Only by dismantling the camp, disarming the group, separating the leadership from the rank and file, and providing low-level members rehabilitation support can the human rights situation be resolved. If these urgent steps are not immediately implemented, residents of Camp Ashraf are in grave danger of falling victims to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Dokhi Fassihian is a senior advisor to United4Iran. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC); for more, see the NIAC blog.

by DOKHI FASSIHIAN and TRITA PARSI in Washington, D.C.

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