Hungry for Justice – Dying to Tell?

29 09 2009

Posted on 28 September 2009 by Glyn Strong

ashrafBy Glyn Strong

A 77-year-old barrister has joined critically ill British hunger strikers protesting about the massacre of Iranian refugees in the ‘safe haven’ of Iraq’s Camp Ashraf.

On the eve of Yom Kippur Margaret Owen said “I was born of Jewish parents, whose own parents fled ‘pogroms’ in Eastern Europe over a 100 years ago, I don’t need to be told what the word means. And as the Jewish Fast Day approaches I am hoping that Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, might join the Catholic and the Church of England clergy in pleading with the UN and our government to take action. “

Owen, the Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy, stopped eating on September 25th, the 60th day of the hunger strike. Her action followed mounting despair that neither the UK Government, nor mainstream media, appeared to be interested in the fate of the silent demonstrators weakening daily outside London’s US Embassy, or the atrocity that they fear will soon be repeated unless rapid action is taken.

Owen’s move follows a call from the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the US Government  and the International community to  protect the 3,500 Iranian refugees isolated  in Camp Ashraf where, in a brutal assault by Iraqi security forces at the end of July,  12 people were killed, 500 wounded and 36 taken captive.

Despite three Iraqi court rulings the detainees have not been released. For more than eight weeks they, and their supporters around the world, have been on hunger strike.

They are pleading for help to avert another assault on their relatives and countrymen.

Owen has pricked the conscience of many politicians over the years. She is well aware of the legacies of war and human ‘casualties’ of political expediency. “Is the real truth that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown and David Miliband still, on this issue, need to “appease” Iran for the sake of oil and the nuclear energy negotiations? Shame on them!”

Just under one third of Ashraf’s beleaguered 3,500 residents  are women (many of them widows) as  are several of the Grosvenor Square hunger strikers.

Reverend Lindsay Meader, minister at St James Church in Piccadilly, said that she and her colleagues would call on the Anglican Communion Observer at the UN to ask Ban Ki-Moon to intervene and send monitoring teams to Ashraf.

She told those fasting that they had done enough and urged them to start taking nourishment, but although none want to die, they will not give up until they see action.

Owen’s challenge to the British Government was “Answer the following questions and we will all stop. What is the real reason for the ominous blanket of silence in the UK media about the brutal ‘pogrom’ at Camp Ashraf on the 28th and 29th July?  Why has there been no reference to these atrocities, perpetrated in flagrant breach of humanitarian law, clearly orchestrated by Iran in collusion with Iraq, even when every day now the iniquities of the Teheran regime are making front page news and generating a mass of comments?”

Watching Owen from makeshift cots, under the shelter that has been their home for weeks; the hunger strikers are weak and sick. One of them is Soudabeh Heideri a 19-year-old student in the early stages of kidney failure. Another, Sharif, has been bleeding heavily and vomiting blood. With little eyesight left he was taken to St Mary’s hospital last week. The prognosis for his recovery is not good.

As summer draws to a close and the nights get colder, the emaciated protestors shiver under their blue blankets.  They are wasting away slowly, publicly, in a fashionable London Square in the shadow of the US Embassy, for a cause few understand and even fewer care about. Nine are British citizens.

They are fasting to give a voice to their mute relatives and friends in Ashraf, a tiny enclave 120 km west of the Iranian border and 60 km north of the Baghdad. It is the status of these dissidents that has divided politicians and the media, with the former reluctant to intervene and the latter to publicise.  As few people know anything about Ashraf, and Iraq is yesterday’s war, the story behind the hunger protest is understandably far too indigestible for consumers of ‘lite-bite’ news.

“Why does no-one care? Where is their humanity?” a sobbing and deeply distressed woman who has lost most of her family to the Iranian regime asked me.  “She is ill,” campaigner Laila Jazayeri, Director of the Association of Anglo-Iranian Women told me. “She has lost many members of her family to the Iranian regime. Her suffering has damaged her mind”

Earlier in their fast I spoke to Fatemeh Khazri who told me “I am 45, from Shiraz in Iran, and I left in 1982. Now I live in London, Kensington Olympia with my son. I was in Rome on July 28th when I heard that the Iraqis had attacked Camp Ashraf and that’s when I started my hunger strike.

“I couldn’t accept the way Iraqi armed forces attacked Camp Ashraf. I knew there was no publicity being given to what was happening but I heard about it from my sister, she lives there, and I wanted to be her voice, and to tell all the world what’s going on.

“For the first few days after the attack I didn’t know whether my sister had been injured or not – then I heard she had, but it was not serious. She started her hunger strike the same day that I did. Her name is Farzana – she is three years younger than me. She never married but I have one son who is 27 years old and he is living with me.

“He is crying all the time as he is very concerned about my health. He’s worried and many times he asks me to finish my hunger strike but he knows on the other hand that I am on hunger strike for a good reason – for his auntie.

“I will stop when I get what is right for Camp Ashraf which is the release of the 36 hostages and removal of all Iraqi and non-Iranian forces. And when they let my Iranian sisters and brothers in Camp Ashraf have access to legal help and also medical supplies and food.”

Fatemeh sleeps a lot now. When we first spoke, after just  46 days of her fast, she said “ I am very exhausted, of course hungry, very weak and my vision is bad but my sense of smell and hearing is good. I’ve been to the hospital eight times and they tried to give me some vitamins which I refused; only hydration by drips which I accepted – and pain killers.”

I ask how she feels about the seeming indifference to the protest. “To say I am disappointed is not enough. I’ve been to No10 today to see Mr Gordon Brown but unfortunately I could not see him personally. So I handed over a letter, as we are doing every day and I did ask the security man how long it took to reply and he said 10 days, which in our case is not true because it has been more than 20 days we have been waiting. Not only was there no reply, but no confirmation that they had received the letters. You ask if I am disappointed – this word is not good enough!

“I’ve also been going to the Foreign Office and eventually, yesterday (Sept 10th) we received a letter that was like a confirmation that the UK Government was in the process of seeing what was going on and checking on the 36 hostages as well.  But I don’t know how long this will take. I can wait maybe up to two more weeks, but my sister and the rest of the people on hunger strike in Camp Ashraf, in Iraq, where the temperature is 50 degrees; they don’t have that much time.

“The Iraqis are still there (in Ashraf) they didn’t leave. We need some action –  medicine, legal people to see what is going on there, a team from the United Nations or UNAMI to take over Camp Ashraf and we need all Iraqi (and Iranian forces if they are there) to leave Camp Ashraf. These actions should be taken immediately.”

“There are people who will harm Camp Ashraf – they have done it once and there is no security or protection or guarantee that they will not do it again. We need security or protection from UNAMI or the UN so that people can feel safe.”

Fatima desperately wanted to go to Ashraf. “I tried but could not get a visa – but every day we got news that they had shortages or food, water, electricity. The weather is very hot but they cannot have air conditioning over there. Most of all the people on hunger strike are in a very critical situation – don’t forget some of them had been beaten before they started their strike and were badly injured – there are shortages of drips and medicine yet still they (the Iraqi’s) did not let food past the gate of Camp Ashraf so at the moment they are in a very bad situation.

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Verification of the assault on Ashraf comes mainly from word of mouth or mobile camera-phone footage. It’s on YouTube and makes grim viewing.  Fatemeh says “No-one can get in. Not journalists, not lawyers not anyone in high authority from other countries. I think Sweden tried to send a group and then Italy but they couldn’t get visas to go.

“The Iraqi attack came from four sides of the camp – in fact Ashraf is like a small town, surrounded by some metal fences – they attacked from all four sides with bulldozers and deadly weapons, wood with nails – we have video – guns, metal bars, and pieces of wood (clubs).”

“For the last four months we have been having demonstrations outside the US Embassy and also the Iraqi Embassy, because they are friends of the Iran Government. The Iranian Government doesn’t want the Ashraf people to be there, on the border of Iraq and Iran. They want to remove them and send them to Iran or for execution because they are the only opposition fighting for freedom in Iran. They are against the Iranian regime and that’s why these people have been threatened for the last five months.

“We had protection under the Geneva Convention so we didn’t believe that actually they would attack us in this way. It was unbelievable – that they could attack unarmed people like this in the 21st century with metal bars and clubs and guns.

“When we first heard about the attack we couldn’t believe it. For the last four months they have prevented food and medicine from getting in to Camp Ashraf.  There were two people who had cancer and they urgently needed surgery but they didn’t even let doctors in to visit them.”

In an act of bitter irony, Ashraf was invaded by members of the Iraqi forces tasked with protecting it. The insertion of troops has been described variously as ‘a massacre’ (by residents, and as ‘an attempt to establish a police station’ (by the Iraqis).

A bit like the truism that one man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr, the explanation can again be put down to perspective. But to those who launched a worldwide protest it was as improbable an arrangement as putting a cat in charge of a canary. It has caused anger among MPs, MEPs and activists, but despite Iran now being headline news this ‘small’ tragedy has failed to move leaders.

Owen, not a young woman – and  tired herself now after days without food – said “We and the US are physically still there , in Iraq, and our governments are well aware of what occurred and what may yet happen any time now in the following days. How can we wash our hands of responsibility as if, to misquote Neville Chamberlain “this is happening in a far-away country of which we know nothing?”

“I am taking tea and water, and hoping and praying that a broadcaster  or someone from the press,will think it worthwhile to write about why I am doing this, and so finally break through the conspiracy of silence and get the action now urgently needed. Our newspapers fully covered the breaches of humanitarian law in Burma, on the streets of Teheran – even in Sri Lanka. But about this, hardly a word.”

The knee-jerk reaction of many news outlets is that the PMOI are terrorists or members of a cult. Owen sighs. “The “terror-tag” was formerly lifted from the PMOI last year, the ruling of the POAC (Proscribed Organisation Appeal Commission) confirmed by the Court of Appeal throwing out our Home Secretary’s appeal against their verdict as “capricious and speculative”. But do David Miliband and Barack Obama still want to regard the PMOI as terrorists in order to “appease” Iran?

To Jazayeri the citizens of Ashraf represent highly progressive, democratic, advanced Islam. “They are the cream of Iranian society, highly educated; they all speak various languages – people look up to them. They have a lot of support in Parliament. Trevor Kavanagh is a good friend. We have the support of all parties in the UK, in the United States Congress and Senate, but when it comes to the governments we come up against this appeasement policy!

“They put us on the terrorist lists for years and years. Jack Straw himself, on the BBC Today programme, said ‘Well, Iran asked us to put them on the terrorist list and they promised us that they would stop enrichment of uranium, stop sponsoring terrorists like Hamas – we did our bit but the Iranians didn’t!’

Jazayeri adds “Jack Straw has confirmed that this organisation had never, ever been involved in any violence outside Iran – yet what he did gave the Iranian regime the green light to execute people.”

The story begins in 1965 with the founding of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, latterly known as the PMOI. Its declared aim was to end the despotic regime of the Shah and, after the revolution; the PMOI emerged as a major political party. Paradoxically, the post-conflict pendulum swung towards another kind of dictatorship and the PMOI found itself in confrontation with the radical forces of Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism.

Another wave of violence followed and the Iranian regime arrested thousands of PMOI sympathisers; between 1981 and 1988 it is estimated that thousands were executed in Iranian prisons or forcibly ‘disappeared’.

The rest went into exile; first to France, then to Iraq. Because of their political activism against the Iranian regime many people regarded the PMOI as terrorists but the organisation formally ended its military activities eight years ago.

Before the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 PMOI members pledged that they would remain neutral and stay in their camps. American forces disarmed them and residents of the camp have been protected under the Geneva Conventions. The camp, which remained under American control from 2003 onwards, was handed over to the Iraqi authorities on 1st January 2009. Ashraf’s residents were recognised as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

During this period the enclave thrived, developing into a community often described as Ashraf ‘City’ rather than ‘Camp’ because of its cultural development and establishment of schools, hospitals, libraries and parks. But in 2008 things began to unravel.

Owen said “Built into the January 2009 agreement that the US would withdraw from its occupation role in Iraq and release sovereignty to the Iraqi government, was a guarantee that the Iraqis would respect the Geneva Convention and continue to protect the people of Ashraf. Alas, in June of this year, Iraq, in a bilateral treaty with Teheran, undertook to deport the refugees back Iran. In the meantime, the Iraqi Foreign Minister assured Teheran, ‘we will make their life intolerable’. ”

A Report and Legal Opinion prepared by lawyer Mark Stevens, a senior member of Finders, Stevens, Innocent LLP, records what happened.

“Following the Status of  Forces agreement in 2008 the Iraqi Government made assurances to the US that the  people of Ashraf would continue to be protected, in accordance with international obligations of the US and Iraq, following the transfer of security to Iraq on 1 January 2008.”

This did not happen and Iraqi security forces attacked the camp at the end of July. Stevens report concludes: “The Iraqi Government has breached its obligations to the people of Ashraf under international human rights law  . . . and committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions by violating the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, unlawful confinement and failure to grant a fair trial.”

It acknowledges that there is a serious risk of the Ashraf residents being forcibly displaced to Iran where they will face certain persecution, torture and even execution.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman told me “Camp Ashraf is under Iraqi jurisdiction and the Camp is part of sovereign and democratic Iraq.  We call on those involved to show restraint, act within the law and reach a peaceful solution to issues at the Camp. ”

Certainly the FCO is aware of the hunger strike, as are members of the Government. Many MPS and MEPs support the hunger strikers. But the silence from official sources is resounding.

Is anyone actually doing anything I ask the FCO?  “We are following events at Camp Ashraf, and British Embassy officials have met with the Iraqi authorities, the US and UN to discuss the situation.  The situation at Ashraf is calm at this time. We understand that deliveries of essential supplies are being allowed to enter Ashraf unimpeded.

“We are concerned about the reports of casualties following violence on 28 July.  Our Ambassador in Baghdad has written to the Iraqi Government to ask for a review of events on 28 July in which the Iraqi authorities tried to establish a police post in Camp Ashraf.  Embassy staff will visit the Camp soon to gather more information.  ”


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