(New York) - Iraqi authorities should conduct an independent investigation into the deaths of at least seven Iranians during a police raid on Camp Ashraf, where several thousand members of an Iranian dissident group, Mojahedin Khalq Organization, have lived for over two decades, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that police used excessive force against the camp residents during the raid on July 28, 2009.
On July 30, Iraqi officials acknowledged that the seven Camp Ashraf residents had been killed, some by gunfire, when Iraqi forces took control of their camp in an effort to assert the government's authority by establishing a police station on the grounds. A Mojahedin Khalq spokesperson had said that Iraqi security officers stormed in and shot people, killing at least seven and wounding more than 300. Iraqi officials have disputed the details surrounding the deaths, blaming rioting and Mojahedin Khalq snipers.
"Camp Ashraf's residents were isolated and, as far as we can determine, unarmed," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Seven dead and scores of wounded is a high price to pay just to make a point about Iraqi government authority over this piece of land, which is why an impartial investigation is needed."
The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein allowed the Mojahedin Khalq to base itself in Iraq in 1986. An estimated 3,500 members remained in Camp Ashraf, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, after they surrendered their weapons to US forces following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many Iraqis have alleged that the group's members participated in campaigns against opponents of Saddam Hussein's government, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government had indicated its intention to shut down the camp.
"This group has made lots of enemies among Iraqis with their support for Saddam Hussein," Stork said. "The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting them from revenge attacks or forcible return to Iran, and it has acknowledged this responsibility by taking over the camp."
Mojahedin Khalq videos from the raid viewed by Human Rights Watch appear to show Iraqi security forces using batons, riot shields, and water cannons in their assault on the camp against what appear to be unarmed residents. A Mojahedin Khalq spokesperson said that bulldozers destroyed fences and walls on the camp's perimeter as security forces on foot forced their way into the camp, clashing with hundreds of residents who had formed a human chain. An Iraqi security commander wounded in the raid told the media that camp residents fiercely resisted security forces with stones, knives, and sharp tools. Iraqi security forces have prevented journalists from entering the camp, according to journalists covering the story.
Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesperson for the prime minister's office, told media that a police station has now been established inside the camp and that an investigation into the deaths was under way. Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure that the investigation is independent and impartial, to make the results public, and to discipline or prosecute as appropriate officials who authorized or used excessive force.
The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that "law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials "shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force" and may use force "only if other means remain ineffective." When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must "exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence."
Camp Ashraf had been surrounded by US forces until a security agreement between the US and Iraq took effect on January 1. The raid followed repeated statements by Iraqi officials that the government intended to take control of the camp and evict the residents. The most recent statement was on July 27, the day before the raid.
Where the camp's former residents will end up remains unclear. Human Rights Watch urged the Iraqi government not to return the exiles to Iran against their will, saying they may risk torture or other serious abuse. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the prevalent use of torture in Iran, particularly against opponents of the government.
Iraq, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is bound to apply the principle of non-refoulement. The UN's Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has explained this as, "States parties must not expose individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement." The US State Department said on July 28 that the Iraqi government assured Washington that it would not forcibly transfer any member of the group to a country where they face a risk of torture.
The Mojahedin Khalq was founded in 1965 as an armed Islamist group to challenge the shah's government. In 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution, the group went underground after trying to foment an armed uprising against Ayatollah Khomeini. After a period of exile in France, most of the group's leaders relocated to Iraq in 1986. During the Iran-Iraq war, Mojahedin Khalq forces regularly attacked Iranian troops along the border and made several incursions into Iran. After the war ended in 1988, Iranian courts issued summary execution orders against thousands of political prisoners in Iranian custody, including many Mojahedin Khalq members.
The fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003 put an end to Iraqi financial and logistical support to the group. After the US-led invasion, the US military said it had disarmed Mojahedin Khalq forces operating in Iraq.