The Cable

U.N. Iraq chief: The countries of the world must take MEK ‘refugees’

The United Nations and the State Department have been struggling to convince the Iranian exile group the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) to move to a former U.S. military base in Iraq, but the real need is for third countries to accept MEK "refugees" on a permanent basis, according to the top U.N. representative in Iraq.

The MEK is a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime that has been living in a closed compound in Iraq called Camp Ashraf for years. The Iraqi government has pledged to close Camp Ashraf, using force if necessary, so the U.N. and the State Department are slowly but surely cajoling Ashraf's 3,200 residents to move to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.

But that's only a temporary solution. Unless other countries start accepting MEK members for relocation, they could face the prospect of being returned to Iran, where they could face retribution from the Iranian regime they have been fighting for decades.

"I have the feeling that the Camp Ashraf residents have made peace with the idea to go to Camp Liberty and they've made peace with the idea that there is no future in Iraq and they will leave Iraq," Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), told The Cable.

But finding homes for the MEK members when they leave Iraq "is the most difficult part of the story," he said. "The whole process only will succeed if all the 3,200 find countries who will take them into their borders."

The U.N. held a resettlement conference on March 27 in Geneva and the response was "not overwhelming, to say the least," Kobler said.

Part of the difficulty of dealing with the MEK group members at Camp Ashraf is that they have been cut off from the world for years and little is known about their individual histories or whether they would qualify for refugee status. Some reports say that MEK members are still conducting violent attacks inside Iran at the behest of the Israeli government.

The United States is legally barred from accepting any refugees from members of a foreign terrorist organization. There is also no plan for what happens to those MEK members who do not qualify for refugee status.

"We will find a solution then," Kobler said. "Everybody has Iranian nationality and on a voluntary basis can go back to Iran... The question is what happens to them then."

Kobler disputed the claims made by the MEK and its long list of American advocates that the Camp Liberty site is not fit for human occupation.

"Camp Liberty is a place where 5,500 American soldiers lived for many, many years... What worked for 5,500 people should also work humanitarian wise for 3,200 Camp Ashraf residents," he said.

Kobler declined to comment on reports that the MEK is involved in ongoing attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and its personnel inside Iran. He also declined to confirm that U.N. reports have stated that MEK members were intentionally sabotaging the facilities in Camp Liberty in order to make the camp look worse than it is, saying only, "There were big initial difficulties and a lack of cooperation. However this has improved over the last weeks."

Some advocates of the MEK, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have called Camp Ashraf a "concentration camp," a reference Kobler said is insulting and offensive.

"I am a German citizen. To compare the situation of Camp Ashraf residents to the systematic extermination of European Jews during Nazi dictatorship, this is not only historically totally absurd but is an insult to the victims," he said.

"My message to these supporters is, spend your energies not so much on attacking the United Nations or others. Spend your energies to convince your governments to take them into your countries," he said.

While in Washington, Kobler met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population, and Migration Anne Richards, and Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department official in charge of the Camp Ashraf issue.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

American human rights activists arrested in Bahrain

The Bahraini police briefly detained two American human rights activists Sunday along with about 20 Bahraini citizens who were protesting ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race scheduled for next weekend.

Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski and Nadim Houry, the deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, were picked up along with the Bahrainis when police raided a demonstration, HRW's Joe Stork confirmed to The Cable Sunday evening. They were treated fine and were all released, including the Bahrainis, Stork said. The Americans arrived in Bahrain Saturday night to observe the protests surrounding the Grand Prix and to document the government's response.

"Out of our very short detention in #Bahrain. Treated well," Houry wrote on his Twitter feed Sunday evening Washington time. "Thank you to all those concerned. We came to monitor events, not to be the story."

According to an e-mail update distributed by the Al Wefaq political party, Bahrain's largest opposition group, Malinowsky and Houry were observing protests when they were detained.

"When some of the mothers and wives of those detained gathered around the police station to see their loves ones, they were attacked by riot police who shot up to 15 stun grenades at them," the e-mail said.

After being released, Malinowski told The Cable in an e-mail that the demonstration he was observing before being detained was non-violent but was dispersed with tear gas, noise grenades, and pepper spray.

"This is a nightly happening all over Bahrain now. The unresolved political tensions are being manifested on the streets, with increasing anger on both sides. The only solution is to give people a peaceful outlet for expressing their opposition to the government and, more important, a process that will address their legitimate political grievances," he said. 

"Most of the young Bahraini protesters were beaten a bit upon arrest. We have heard from many others with recent accounts of torture in the hours after their arrest. These are brutal tactics which make the situation worse for everyone, including the government."

The Bahraini embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 2011 Grand Prix was cancelled in March, 2011 due to the protests on the streets of Bahrain's capital Manama and the objections of several Formula One drivers.  In the lead up to the 2012 event, scheduled for April 22, the government has been cracking down on protests. On April 13, thousands of protesters defied the government and attended the funeral of activist Ahmed Ismaeel, who was killed in a protest last week.

Last week, Stork explained that Human Rights Watch was not officially urging Formula One to cancel the event, but he said the racing organization was choosing sides by going forward with the event and signaling its support for the Bahrain government and its actions.

"I think that they [F1] will have some explaining to do. I can easily imagine that the security will be such that you won't have the race disrupted on the track and I imagine that they can keep that under control," Stork told Autosport.com. "But if you have a situation where there are demonstrations on a nightly, if not daily basis, clashes with security forces who aren't known for the most sophisticated crowd control techniques is not going to be good."

"It's not going to be good for Bahrain, it's not going to be good for F1 either if it happens either during the race or when it's clear that the demonstrations are primarily aimed at stopping the race. That's what the story will be," Stork said.

The Grand Prix also comes as tensions heighten over the fate of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist who human rights groups say may die soon due to an ongoing hunger strike.

Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said last week that the Bahrain government was ramping up arrests and detentions ahead of the race to try to ensure that protests would not disrupt the festivities.

"They have put profits and their interests before human rights. The situation [in Bahrain] has worsened. The number of people who were killed from the beginning of the year till now is more than people killed last year," Rajab told The Media Line.

Last week, the Guardian quoted an unnamed F1 team member who said there was widespread discomfort among race participants about the tensions surrounding the race.

"I feel very uncomfortable about going to Bahrain," the team member said. "If I'm brutally frank, the only way they can pull this race off without incident is to have a complete military lockdown there. And I think that would be unacceptable, both for F1 and for Bahrain. But I don't see any other way they can do it."

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