Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]
I am pleased to raise this debate about the residents of Ashraf City and the obligations of the United Kingdom, and other members of the so-called coalition, to them in terms of their protected person status under the Geneva convention. I am proud, for the purposes of the debate this morning, to wear the symbol of Ashraf City in solidarity with these people, who are brave patriots of Iran and are looking forward to the day when their country will be rid of a cruel totalitarian regime that not only persecutes their people within Iran, but is acknowledged by United Kingdom Ministers, along with many others, as the arch-exporter of terrorism around the world and, particularly, as destabilising the region of the middle east. That is the backdrop.
I acknowledge the helpful response that I received, as did those of us in the parliamentary campaign that represents the whole political spectrum at Westminster, and which has hon. Members drawn from every party and every persuasion. We acknowledge the endeavours of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and, because it is relevant to show a reason why we have to raise this debate, the noble Lord Malloch-Brown. My reading of the comments and reactions of those Ministers is that they have some sympathy with and concern about the issues involved and, I suspect, anxiety about the future of the people at Camp Ashraf, which is situated some 80 km north of Baghdad.
I name those Ministers because they show where the United Kingdom Government have not shown great coherence of policy and utterances. I separate those three members of the Government from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, in their respective roles as Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Home Office Minister, have sent mixed, ambiguous messages to the regime in Tehran, both in relation to the people at Camp Ashraf and in respect of the wider campaign and movement of people in exile trying to overcome the cruel regime in Iran.
Some of the mixed messages have been given in relation to what the United Kingdom says and does concerning the people of Camp Ashraf. Everyone in the parliamentary campaign Committee recognises that we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be, so we always understand the need for engagement with the cruel regime in Tehran; but we do not accept the need to appease it. In our view, regarding the people in exile and those in Ashraf City, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform have not understood that.
Why do we raise the question of the people in Ashraf today? These people have, for two decades, had this camp in Iraq, which is now called Ashraf City. They are Iranians who have stood firm for two decades in defiance, close by the territory governed by the cruel regime in Tehran. Of course, they have been a source of considerable irritation to that totalitarian regime. It is a matter of fact that they were given harbourage there during the time of Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq, but they have always been at pains to distinguish between the accommodation that they were granted by Iraq and the fact that they did not support the Saddam regime.
Just before the invasion of Iraq, my noble Friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale gave the United Kingdom Government the co-ordinates of the Ashraf camp in order that it would not be shelled or attacked by coalition forces. Those of us in the parliamentary Committee have to say with some regret that we are bewildered about what happened to that information supplied by Lord Corbett, because the people in Ashraf suffered and endured attacks by the coalition forces. We wonder whether those co-ordinates were transmitted to our UK coalition commanders. That is history, but it is raised as a relevant issue this morning, because in my view it heightens the obligation of the UK Government now to get it right.
All hon. Members welcome the handing back to the people of Iraq the sovereignty of their country. However, the view of the parliamentary Committee is that that change—particularly handing over the green zones in Baghdad just at the turn of the year—does not absolve the United States, the United Kingdom or other coalition partners of their humanitarian obligations to the people of Ashraf and their obligations under the Geneva convention, because these people have protected person status.
At the challenge of the UK Government the people of Ashraf demilitarised: their weapons were put beyond use. That was a noble gesture. It is a product of a carrot-and-stick policy, but since 2002 they have demonstrably and unchallengeably been disarmed. I deliberately use the word “unchallengeably” because this matter was tested in the UK courts. We in the parliamentary Committee—this is in the Register of Members’ Interests—were proud to pursue in the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission in London, which has the status of the High Court, an appeal against the attitude of the Home Secretary in relation to the supporters of the people of Camp Ashraf City: what is known as the PMOI, or the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. In that court, Lord Justice Ognall accepted that these people had been disarmed since 2002-03, although the British Government tried to imply otherwise.
For your information, Mr. Benton, this matter was tested by the highest standards of the United Kingdom courts. At one point, we members of the parliamentary campaign Committee were excluded from the court and special advocates looked at the secret information, but still the Court found that there had been demilitarisation and the standing-down of weapons. The case went to appeal with the Lord Chief Justice presiding, who said that the attitude of the British Government was perverse. I am told that this is a pretty high comment, coming from the Lord Chief Justice.
It is important that the House understand that the judgment of the British Government was found to be flawed. These people in Ashraf, and their supporters, have stood down from what could be described as military activity in a way similar to what Sinn Fein-IRA have done in Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman not also find it ironic that although one benefit of the Iraq war is that the people of Iraq have been released from one of the most hideous regimes, under the tyrant Saddam Hussein, one consequence of that—what now could occur—is that a group of people in Camp Ashraf could be taken from a new, democratic country and put into Iran, which is another hideous regime? If that happens, their safety is at risk and some of them could well be executed, because the current Iranian regime has form in that regard, having executed 120,000 people. If those 3,500 people are put into Iran they could find themselves dead.
To say the least, it is highly probable that they would be executed and/or suffer appalling persecution. It is important to remember that the Foreign Office, which is very much an hereditary Foreign Office, consists of people similar to those who made the judgment in 1945 to return the Cossacks and Tartars back to Joe Stalin, and we know the consequences of that. That is what hon. Members want to avoid for the people of Ashraf. We fear that they will become the Cossacks of our generation, unless the United States and the United Kingdom make it abundantly clear, primarily to the Iraqi Government but also to Iran, that those people should stay where they are and enjoy the protection of the coalition forces for reasons to which I have referred: our overriding humanitarian obligations and our duty to protect them, as well as our jealous protection of the Geneva convention.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Iraqi Government have said that they will remove the 3,500 people from the camp without force, perhaps to other countries. Does he know which other countries would take them, and whether the Ashraf people are prepared to talk or whether they want to stay?
The question is academic, because no country is lining up to offer immigration to the Ashraf people, although it is fair to say that they do not want to move. An immediate issue is the determination of the Iranian regime to have them back in its claws. I shall return to that to explain why.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, on 28 February, former President Rafsanjani of Iran visited Iraq and met the Iraqi President to make the Iranian’s Government’s position abundantly clear on the return of the Ashraf people to Iran. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the Iranian Government certainly have form. A few months ago, Iranian relatives of Ashraf residents attempted to leave Tehran to visit their relatives, and many are still languishing in Evin prison in Tehran, simply for attempting to visit their relatives.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reaffirming the Iranian regime’s form. People who wanted to visit their loved ones are being persecuted for trying to do so.
The hon. Gentleman referred to 28 February, which is an important date, because as well as the former Iranian leaders’ utterances and the visitation to which he referred, the Iranian supreme leader, Khamenei, said:
“The occupying military forces”—
American and United Kingdom forces—
“must leave Iraq as soon as possible”—
no doubt he was waving his finger—
“since every day that their departure is delayed, it will be to the detriment of people of Iraq.”
That is quite menacing. He told the Iraqi President:
“The mutual agreement regarding the expulsion of the Monafeqin”—
the term used by the regime to describe the PMOI—
“from Iraq must be implemented and we are waiting for it.”
Clearly, there is enormous pressure on the Ashraf residents, who feel beleaguered and surrounded, and other hon. Members and I will amplify how threatened they feel and the reasons for that. The backdrop is that the Iranian regime feels increasingly wobbly, which I welcome, and that has been reflected in recent provincial elections in Iran. Khamenei and Rafsanjani are putting pressure on the Iraq Government. Another name that I want to introduce is Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who is the Iraqi national security adviser—many of his utterances have a similar ring to those of Joseph Goebbels—and he said on 8 March:
“It is legitimate for Iran to have such a position”—
that is, to demand that the Ashraf residents are handed over—
“We therefore adopted a clear and precise policy of expelling this terrorist organisation out of Iraq and rapidly return Ashraf residents to Iran”.
“These individuals have been brainwashed and we must free them from this poison. This process will be painful in the beginning but there are no other alternatives than to resort to this painful measure.”
That has the ring of the early 1940s.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that President Talabani has said:
“The Monafeqin are criminals who have committed countless crimes against the people of Iraq too and the Iraqi government is determined to expel them and it will carry this out”?
Absolutely. The anxiety of my colleagues in the campaign is that the utterances by Iranian leaders are having an impact on the fragile and split Government in Baghdad. The national security adviser, al-Rubaie, goes on to say that the people of Ashraf
“do not enjoy the…humanitarian status of refugees. They do not have the right to political asylum. I can clearly state that they have no right to stay in Iraq”.
As recently as 11 March, he issued a strongly worded, 10-point directive that was addressed in menacing terms to the citizens of Ashraf. It stated that there is an absolute prohibition on entry of any material except water, food and medicine; that the building at the entrance of Ashraf will be forcibly occupied and the residents expelled; that any Ashraf resident may be arrested; that any Ashraf resident wearing uniform will be prosecuted; that there will be an immediate prohibition on any new construction or changes to the buildings, including those that make Ashraf City civilised, such as squares, boulevards, statues and so on; and that all buildings that are erected can and will be demolished. That menacing persecution diminishes the status and pride of the people who live in exile.
Al-Rubaie went on to say that the number of Iraqis who visit Camp Ashraf will be reduced. There is considerable support for Ashraf City among Iraqi citizens, but the Baghdad Government want to discourage that. Finally, an intelligence officer—someone who is close to the Prime Minister of Iraq—will control the gate of Ashraf. The citizens of Ashraf must allow Iraqi forces to inspect and control vehicles and supplies coming into Ashraf, and the Iraq flag must be hoisted on all watchtowers and in the middle of the camp. Al-Rubaie calls it Camp Ashraf; I call it Ashraf City. Those inspections by Iraqi soldiers take place around the clock.
On 13 March, Iraqi forces attempted forcibly to evacuate some buildings in Ashraf City that were occupied by women citizens in a women’s dormitory. That was painful, traumatic and menacing, and it took place for reasons that we cannot understand. We believe that there was no legitimate excuse, but that Iraqi forces wanted to assert their right to move in and to demonstrate their power.
Similar incidents have occurred during the past few weeks, and thank goodness for the presence of the United States military. I do not mean to trivialise the situation, but they came over the hill like the seventh cavalry in the nick of time to be adjudicators in the dispute to prevent what could have been a very dangerous situation, which could have been inflamed and escalated out of all proportion.
When the United States military are not around, however, the Iraqi forces—at the bidding, in my view, of the Iran Government—take advantage of that. I am referring to the tactics of moving in and aggravating the people of Ashraf. That needs to stop, and it can be stopped if the United States makes it clear to both the Iraq Government and Iran that it will not tolerate it and if the United Kingdom Government also say, “We’re standing by this. We will support the United States. We, too, believe that we have obligations to these people, both on general humanitarian considerations and in relation to the Geneva conventions.”
Another canard that is put around is that, somehow, the people in Ashraf City are being held and maintained or contained in the city against their will. That is totally untrue; it is a ludicrous claim. We all acknowledge that, in a population of 3,500 to 4,000 people, there will inevitably be people—one is not bothered by this—who, for a variety of reasons, want to get out of the situation. After all, you and I know, Mr. Benton, that people leave holy orders, even though they were committed at some stage for the long haul—for life. We all wanted to get into politics, but some of us are now beginning to consider our exit strategy. We do not do things for ever. Many of the people in Ashraf City have been there for two decades, so it is hardly surprising that there is a trickle of people who wish to leave—and leave they can. About 250 people have left, over quite a long period, but the vast majority want to stay where they are, and those who wish to leave can leave.
Hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have interviewed people in Ashraf City to reassure themselves that there is no compulsion on people to stay. It is nonsense to say otherwise, but that is sometimes spun by the Iranian regime and now by the Iraq Government, and what I fear from time to time is that the United Kingdom spokespersons pick up on that nonsense and repeat it, again giving succour and encouragement to the propaganda regime of Iran.
Many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, and I shall be pleased to hear their views. I have said that I acknowledge the spirit in which the United States military have kept an eye on the people of Ashraf. Through this debate and through the United Kingdom Government, we want to urge them to continue to do so, but we in the parliamentary campaign think that it is time that the United Kingdom Government went and had a look themselves. I do not know what modalities exist for that, but we are saying in this debate that we are quite certain about the persecution. We are quite certain about the jeopardy that the people are in. We are quite certain that they are not there for any reason other than their desire to be patriots and stand firm against the regime. They do not want to leave. However, we are inviting the British Government to test that themselves.
It is time that there was a mission or a visit made at official level. That in itself would also send a powerful signal to the Government in Baghdad and, through them, back to Tehran. For reasons of wider foreign policy, it is time that we were sending more robust signals of our aggravation about the stance internationally of the Tehran regime. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), because he looks as though he is poised to intervene.
I am merely listening intently.
I see; then I shall conclude, because I think that I have painted a pretty good canvas to show what the position is. We look to the British Government to respond. I hope that we can send this morning a signal from the United Kingdom House of Commons to people both in Ashraf City and around the world in exile who are looking for the day when the persecution will be lifted and they can restore parliamentary democracy and secular government to a very important, proud and historic country, which has a wonderful record of contributing to civilisation. That is what we wish to see returned, and we acknowledge this morning the great contribution that is being made to that task and the great bravery that is being shown by the people of Ashraf City.
I start by offering hearty congratulations to my friend the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has been a doughty fighter for this cause for many years and who, since I have been a Member of this place, has been at the forefront of this battle. His efforts deserve congratulations and need to be recognised.
Let me read out one of the most chilling statements that I have heard in recent history:
“The people of Ashraf have become brainwashed and we must act to cleanse them. This will be painful in the beginning but we have no other alternative.”
One might think that those words could easily have come from some of the dictators who created such havoc in the 20th century. One might think that they could not possibly have been uttered in the new century. The truth is that they were uttered only a few weeks ago by Dr. al-Rubaie, the national security adviser to the Iraqi Government. Many would argue that we face a real problem in dealing with the Iraqi Government in that respect. It is often said by others—I have no evidence myself—that that gentleman is on the payroll of the mullahs. I cannot give a guarantee that that is the case, but those chilling words suggest that it may well be, and we need to take great heed of people who speak in that way.
We also need to recognise what Camp Ashraf is. The hon. Gentleman explained that it is made up of about 4,000 people. Incidentally, that is 1,500 more than we rescued in the Falklands from the grip of Argentinian dictatorship. There are about 2,500 indigenous people in the Falklands and 4,000 in Ashraf. As my good friend rightly said, those in Ashraf were members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. They would argue that they were freedom fighters in that troubled country—a country that has been troubled for the past 50 years or so. You, Mr. Benton, will no doubt remember Mr. Mossadeq and the problems in the early 1950s. We are talking about a country that has faced troubles and tribulations for a long time, but they are nothing like the tribulations that it faces now: the treatment that is being meted out to women in Iran; the treatment that is being meted out to homosexuals in Iran; and the treatment that is being meted out to members of the Baha’i faith in Iran now. The same also applies to members of trade unions and students.
Iran’s record on human rights stands exposed. In a world where the concept of human rights has been much maligned in many nations, that nation stands out, and we need to take note of that when considering the problem of the plight of the people in Ashraf. My good friend reminded us that they are protected under the Geneva convention; they were granted protected persons status in 2004. They are also protected under international humanitarian law and the principle of non-refoulement. I am not being clever when I use that phrase; indeed, I did not know what it was, so I looked it up and found that it is the internationally recognised principle under which no refugee should be forcibly removed from a secure and safe haven. That, equally, needs to be taken into account.
On the basis of that protected person status, American forces have been protecting Ashraf since 2004, and we need to pay tribute to them for that. The Americans are a freedom-loving nation and they have shown that in practical terms as the protectors of the protected persons in Camp Ashraf.
Responsibility for that protection was handed over to the Iraqi regime at the end of December 2008. Initially, we were encouraged because we heard fine words from the Iraqis about understanding their responsibilities. Since then, however, the situation has deteriorated rather frighteningly. Lorries carrying supplies to the camp have been prevented from entering. As we have heard, a building, which mostly comprised a women’s dormitory, has been cordoned off. People have been threatened, and there are even reports of beatings.
Is my hon. Friend as mystified as I am that although this country has contributed billions to an operation to release the people of Iraq from a hideous regime, we have no influence over the new democratic regime in seeking to bring about proper, humane living conditions for one group of people? Why do we have no influence when we have spent all this money releasing the people of Iraq?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but we would not be here today if we did not think that the Government were prepared to bring some influence to bear. That is the very reason why we are debating the issue. I have every faith that the Minister, who we all know to be a good and fine man, will give us some words of hope in that respect when he speaks.
Members of the civilian population have been beaten. Those are not my words or the words of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, but the words of an Iraqi official, who made that admission in a statement to Reuters. The truth is that we cannot remain silent. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Ashraf under the principle adopted by the 2005 UN world summit. We should urge President Talabani and Prime Minister al-Maliki to respect the rights of Ashraf residents. They properly said that they would do that, but they have failed to do so in real terms since they became responsible for that protected group. They should vow to uphold that judicial protection, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that we will push as hard as we can to ensure that such a vow is given by the Iraqi Government, whom we spent so much money freeing from a dictator of some repugnance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said. I also ask the Minister to pressure the Iraqi Government to give a firm guarantee that they will take such actions, given that they accepted responsibility in the first place.
We should demand that the order that Mr. al-Rubaie issued in respect of Ashraf, which prevents basic commodities from reaching the camp’s residents, is revoked immediately for humanitarian reasons. I would also suggest that a man who makes the kind of chilling statement that I quoted in my opening remarks should never be in the position of advising Iraqis on national security if the west has any influence at all on the many millions of pounds that it has spent in their country.
We should ask the Iraqi Government to ensure that foreign journalists and international parliamentary delegations are allowed into Ashraf, because they are being hampered and stopped. If ever we need to be fearful, it is when a nation prevents journalists from entering an area and parliamentary delegations from truly understanding what is happening there. That must tell us all that frightening things are happening to a group of people to whom we have guaranteed protected person status.
We should urge the US Government to resume protection, on the finer premise that they are the only force in the area that is not susceptible to Iranian pressure, because there is no doubt that the Iranians are pressurising the Iraqis. The victims in the first instance could be the 4,000 people who have been granted protected person status, but whom we have failed to protect. If that happens—if the fear that I have comes to fruition—I would begin to fear for the well-being of my children and grandchildren, because such a development will impact on all our freedoms. It is in that sense that I ask the Minister to reply.
It gives me great pleasure to make a small contribution to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on successfully bringing the issue to our notice.
I am a member of the Council of Europe, and if we stand for anything in what we do, it is human rights. The more I learn about what is going on in Iran and about the conditions in which people are living in Ashraf, the more it makes my blood boil. We all have a duty to ensure that changes are made.
Let me pay tribute to Lord Russell-Johnston, who, sadly, died last year. He played an important role in promoting the rights of all those who believe in democracy throughout the world, but particularly in Iran. He would have been delighted to know that his campaign has been so successful, albeit, sadly, after his death. It has been a long battle to get the PMOI removed from the terrorist list, and I am delighted that that has eventually happened. I also pay tribute to my predecessor in Ribble Valley, David—now Lord—Waddington, who was instrumental in the campaign to bring that about. More than anything, however, I congratulate the ordinary democracy-loving people of Iran, who have waged a longer campaign to bring peaceful democracy to Iran, and we wish them well in their battle.
Much has been said about the rights under the Geneva convention and other treaties that we have signed of those who live in Ashraf. Irrespective of what we have signed up to, however, it is human decency more than anything else that should make us ensure that we do right by those people. One has only to look at the current regime in Iran to know what is likely to happen should the 3,500 people who live in Ashraf be moved there. The hon. Gentleman said that they could go to a third country, but there is no list of third countries waiting to take 3,500 people. Furthermore, if they were to go to another country—let us say that we opened the doors to 3,500 people—that would be to remove them from the region they love and where their relatives live. We would not do that to prisoners. When we put people in prison we ascertain where their relatives live so that they do not have far to travel. Putting those people into a third country would bring another huge problem. The best thing, surely, is to give the people who have lived in that place for many years—no doubt children have been born there, and all they know will be Ashraf—the support that we have given to the rest of Iraq and its people, so that they can live a decent life in the present period.
I refer to the present period because I have great hopes that the democratic desire of the vast majority of decent Iranian people will eventually win through, and that there will be a new, democratic Government in Iran, totally different from the current Government, who seem to enjoy executing people. I mentioned the figure of 120,000—I know that the Minister knows all this—but it is not just that so many people have been executed; it is that the manner in which it has been done, and the reasons for it, are appalling. One has only to do a Google search to see the most graphic pictures of people who have been publicly executed in Iran, some of them for the hideous crime of being gay. Yesterday in the House of Commons we pushed through legislation to ensure that people cannot even make jokes about people being gay, but in Iran people will be executed and tortured for it.
I was on a delegation at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and we spoke with some Iranian MPs. They were not a nice group of people; they were not my favourites among the groups I met that week. When I raised the subject of the execution of two young lads accused of being gay, one of whom I understand was under 18, the response was, “If they do those sorts of things in private no one will really know about it, but if it becomes public they will be tortured.” I intervened and said, “Tortured! Yes, you may torture them first; then you execute them.” The photographs are there for anyone to see. The issue first came to my notice when I read about it in a Sunday magazine. The piece said that the two young lads looked as if they were going off for a walk in the park, because they were dressed in casual clothes, but they were not—they were going to their execution.
The regime is one in which women are second-class citizens and stoning is still allowed; stoning takes place!
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree about the public façade adopted by the Iranian regime; the Iranian Parliament last year passed a penal code outlawing stonings, but the Government are incapable of enforcing their own rules. Does he agree that when we think of Ashraf City we think of a fully fledged community? He talked about children there who have never known anything different. It is a community of 4,000 sq km, and the prospect of juveniles going back to Iran to face such punishments as he has described for daring to challenge the regime is frightening.
Part of the problem, of course, is getting our minds around the idea of how society in Iran functions. We know that women who are inappropriately dressed in the street will be beaten, and put into cars and driven off. We have seen footage of that on the BBC. When we tried to show the Iranian MPs that they dismissed it and were not interested. Camp Ashraf is a community. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) mentioned the Falkland Islands. We are talking about a population in excess of that of the islands, and we should recognise that community, which has lived there for some time.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman’s intriguing tale of meeting Iranian MPs and his remarks highlighting the mistreatment of women, and wonder whether there were any women MPs in the delegation he met.
There was a token one; I use the word “token” because the IPU encourages delegations to bring women to conferences, because we want more women to be elected and to take positions of responsibility. I am afraid that there was just one, token, woman in the Iranian delegation. Our delegation was led by a woman, and I was very pleased by that difference.
If people going to visit friends and relatives in Ashraf are persecuted in Tehran, as has happened, my great fear is about what the consequences will be if the 3,500 people in question are taken to Iran. There are all sorts of reasons for wanting good relationships with Iran—for example, Iraq is its neighbour in the region—and we can understand that. I suspect we can even understand the possibility of secret negotiations involving our Government, the American Government and Iran; all sorts of deals are done behind closed doors. Indeed, Obama has already made a number of public proclamations about wanting a friendlier relationship with Iran. We want that; we would prefer dialogue to a stand-off and Iran’s continued progress towards making nuclear weapons. What a fearful prospect it would be if Iran could make and deliver them; we know that it has the capability to do that.
I want the Minister to acknowledge that he recognises the current situation and knows that the regime is, to use an understatement, unpleasant, and that if the people of Camp Ashraf are taken from there to Iran the likely consequences will be torture and execution. We cannot allow that to happen.
I finish as I started, by paying tribute to the many democracy-loving Iranians throughout the world who pray for the day when the regime that currently occupies their country will be removed and a proper full democracy will be implemented there, to everyone’s benefit. I pay tribute to them because we, as politicians, sometimes take a stand on difficult issues, but in the main we do not fear for our lives from a regime in our own country. When they speak out publicly about wanting change in their country they risk their lives. Many have paid the ultimate price, and those who live abroad who want democratic change still risk their lives and cannot return to the country of their birth or their parents’ birth, which they love. Some day, we hope, they will be able to do so, and be greeted by a truly democratic peace-loving Government.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing the debate; as ever, he put his case forcefully and with passion and gave an excellent introduction. Various hon. Members have outlined the problems of residents of Camp Ashraf, who numbered nearly 4,000 in 2003 and, after several hundred voluntary repatriations, number in the region of 3,500 individuals now. Last year in May and July, the danger of living in Camp Ashraf was seen when there were missile attacks, which were thought to come from the Iranian side. There were disruptions to the water supply, again, which made living conditions in the camp difficult. We have heard from hon. Members today that people living in Iran trying to visit Ashraf to see relatives—something that we would take for granted in this country—have been arrested and held and are suffering goodness knows what treatment in Tehran.
The hon. Gentleman gave a long list of the threats and dangers of persecution that the individuals from the camp will face if they are sent back to Iran. It is almost two months since 23 January, when the Iraqi Government said that Camp Ashraf should be closed within two months. It is clearly an urgent and pressing matter, which is why today’s debate is timely.
There has been some debate in the House; indeed, I read with interest the Hansard report of a debate on Iran a few weeks ago about the de-proscription of the PMOI. It seemed that there were heated views on both sides about the matter. However, the Court of Appeal has ruled that there is neither classified nor unclassified evidence showing the PMOI to have had any terrorist activity or intent, at least since 2001. The matter has been discussed also in the High Court, so whatever some Members may think about the rights and wrongs of the issue, we must accept the court ruling that it is not a terrorist organisation.
I think that the view is shared across the House that we want to see a pluralist Iran, with no persecution of the opposition and a thriving democracy. We are some way from that, but I caution against the automatic assumption that because the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation it is therefore the ideal champion of democracy. It is possible to believe that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation, yet to retain our concerns about it.
Some who have left Camp Ashraf have voluntarily reported
“brainwashing, forced indoctrination and rough treatment by the PMOI of those who wanted to leave the camp.”
Some have challenged that, saying that claims of brainwashing were spin by the Iranian authorities, but that quote comes from a House of Commons Library briefing note. Like other hon. Members, I have huge respect for the integrity of the Library staff; I would not expect them to succumb to Iranian spin. That note identifies the fact that there are genuine concerns about some of the procedures in Ashraf. We should not necessarily view the PMOI with rose-tinted spectacles.
That said, today’s debate is about human rights. Regardless of their political views or beliefs, all human beings deserve their basic human rights. The individuals in Camp Ashraf are protected under the Geneva convention. They were not participants in the Iraq war; in many ways, there were caught in the crossfire. In July 2004, they were declared by the United States as being protected persons, which means that they should not be transferred to a country where they would face persecution for their political opinions.
The Geneva convention applies for one year after military operations have closed, and they have not yet closed; there are still trips within Iraq, so the military are still there in force. As a result, the US is legally responsible for the protection of those individuals, but after seeking assurances they passed that responsibility to Iraq. However, any country that has been involved in the sorry state of affairs that we have seen in Iraq must be concerned about, and bear a level of responsibility for, the protection of those individuals.
There is obvious concern that the Iraqi Government are facing pressure from Iran to return the individuals being held at Camp Ashraf. Although co-operation between the new Iraqi Government and the Iranian state might be thought to be positive for regional stability, it should not come at the expense of human rights. Recent US moves to improve relationships with Iran—particularly and sensibly starting with the question of Afghanistan, where there is a clear area of mutual interest between the two countries—is most welcome. However, it should not drown legitimate concerns about the upholding of international law regarding the rights of those in Camp Ashraf.
Amnesty International has said that there is a grave risk of torture if those people are forced to return to Iran. Indeed, in August 2008 the Iraqi Justice Minister said:
“If it were not for the presence of coalition forces at Ashraf, you would have seen the people of Iraq attacking and destroying Ashraf.”
That does not bode well for the safety of those people in Iraq. That is why I am surprised that, so far, the Government have accepted US and Iraqi assurances on the safety of those people if they were expelled to Iran. I struggle to see how their safety can be guaranteed. As I said, the missile attacks on Ashraf in May and July 2008 are believed to have come from Iran. If Iran is prepared to launch attacks on another country, why should it not be expected to persecute those people, were they to be in Iran?
The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) told us about the wide range of groups already suffering a great degree of persecution in Iran, including the Baha’i, the Christians and other religious minorities—and, indeed, other groups such as students. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) outlined perfectly the plight of young gay men in Iran, and the horror of the torture and executions that go on there. Perhaps even worse was the relaxed attitude that the hon. Gentleman found among Iranian MPs to those shocking facts.
In that context, how can the Government be confident that if Camp Ashraf is closed and the individuals are returned to Iran, they will ever be safe? Both here and in the other place, the Government have insisted that it is not the UK’s responsibility but the responsibility of the US. We have often been a mediator between the US and Iran, and we have also waxed lyrical about our special relationship with the US. I therefore suggest that it is worth using that special relationship to influence the US to take the matter seriously.
When the US decided to invade Iraq, we did not say that it was the responsibility of the US and stand back. In fact, we were shoulder to shoulder with America. If we did so then, why should we not stand shoulder to shoulder when dealing with the present problem? It is undoubtedly a thorny issue with no easy answer, but that does not mean that we can get rid of our responsibility for the outcome. A potential humanitarian catastrophe is waiting to happen, and that should concern us all, both as UK citizens and as citizens of the world.
Questions were asked on this matter on 2 March in the other place. Speaking for the Government, Lord Malloch-Brown did not give a view on whether Camp Ashraf should be closed and what should happen to the individuals there. Indeed, he seemed to say that he was satisfied that the Iraqi authorities were making sufficient efforts to protect those people. In light of the chilling remarks of the Iraqi security adviser, how on earth can the Government have the confidence to make such statements? I hope that the Minister will clearly outline what steps the Government are taking and what concrete steps they will take to ensure that “protected person” status under the Geneva convention has meaning for the 3,500 people in Ashraf.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing this debate. He has long developed a reputation in the House as a doughty champion of neglected causes, of which this is one. I pay tribute to his tenacity in demanding answers from whichever Ministers of whichever party have happened to be in office at the time.
The first thing that we need to do this morning is to work out the respective responsibilities of the British, American and Iraqi Governments. Crucially, are the inhabitants of Camp Ashraf protected persons under the fourth Geneva convention? My reading of the convention—I am no lawyer—is that they are protected persons and that they fall within the categories described therein. If so, they are entitled to humane treatment for as long as they live there. Without breaching the convention, they may not be transferred to another country under any circumstances if they have reason to fear persecution on account of their political opinions or their religious beliefs.
I should be grateful if the Minister were to say what is the Government’s legal opinion of the status of the residents of Camp Ashraf? Are they protected persons under the Geneva convention? What has the Government’s legal advice been on which country, or countries, now have legal responsibility for ensuring that the convention’s provisions are properly observed? In the case of occupied territories, the convention provides that the responsibility should remain with the occupying power, or powers, for a year after the general close of military operations, and partially, thereafter, if the occupying power continues to exercise the functions of government.
I confess to no legal expertise, but that language suggests that the prime responsibility now lies with the Iraqi Government, following the transfer of sovereignty and the successful negotiation of status of forces agreements between the various coalition powers and the elected Government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Government, therefore, should be primarily responsible for ensuring that they comply with humanitarian law. Arguably, however, some enduring, residual United States legal responsibility remains, but I should have thought—but again I would welcome the Government’s expert analysis—that the United Kingdom has more of a moral, than a legal, responsibility. What is happening at Ashraf, and what options are available to us and the other countries involved? My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) spoke about the threatening language used by at least one spokesman for the Iraqi Government and about restrictions on normal supplies to those living in Ashraf.
It is very important that we focus this debate on Iraq’s and other Governments’ humanitarian and legal obligations, rather than be distracted by what we think about the PMOI and the political situation in Iran. I am happy to concur with all the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate about the Iranian regime’s barbaric human rights record. Members have had the opportunity to make those criticisms in many other debates, but if we are to understand why some senior members of the elected Iraqi Government are hostile towards the PMOI, we need to remind ourselves that the latter previously allied itself with Saddam Hussein, fought alongside his forces in the Iran-Iraq war and accepted guns, artillery and armoured vehicles from the Ba’athist regime. Those weapons were put out of use only when the United States’ forces reached Ashraf, after the intervention in 2003.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South quoted President Talabani, who was very critical of the PMOI. The Kurds say that the PMOI assisted the Saddam Hussein regime in its repression of the Kurdish people of northern Iraq, especially immediately after the 1990 Gulf war. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) alluded to this point. We must take seriously some of the criticisms made of how the PMOI has treated some of its own members. We need not only go the Library to find that out. Human Rights Watch, which we tend to treat with great respect when it speaks about international human rights issues, has published some very severe criticisms of the PMOI.
I listened to what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said about the Library note—I shall take a look at it—but now the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, too. The accusation that people cannot leave Ashraf is a canard—I use that word against not them but the Iranian regime. In the past eight weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross went to Ashraf and investigated the claim, but found only evidence proving that people can, and do, leave. Lord Avebury, Lord Corbett and I challenged Human Rights Watch to come up with the evidence, but it ignored our individual letters. It has been acutely embarrassed by its repetition of this accusation and has never shown any evidence to prove the Iranian regime’s accusation that people cannot leave Ashraf.
I listen with respect to the hon. Gentleman. It has been some months since I read the published criticism from Human Rights Watch, but my memory is that, shortly after it published it, it was subjected to published criticisms from various quarters and that it then responded and stood by its original allegations. However, it would be wrong to go too far into the details of that debate.
What can be done now? We must acknowledge that about 200 or 300 people—estimates vary—have returned to Iran under the auspices of the ICRC. I think that Lord Malloch-Brown said in the Lords that the British Government had no evidence that those people had been mistreated. Some members of the PMOI—I think that the Government said that they would tend to be fairly low-level members—might be able to return to Iran. As far as the others are concerned, the British Government should be saying that the Iraqi and United States Administrations should accept, and discharge fully, their obligations under international law.
I hope that the Minister can confirm that our Government continue to make direct and active representations to the Iraqi and US Governments on this human rights obligation. Above all, we must stand by Amnesty International’s recommendation that, before a final decision to remove someone from Ashraf, an independent, individual assessment should be made of the risk of serious violations of that individual’s human rights and that, under no circumstances, should somebody be removed to another country if they have reason to fear that their human rights will be abused.
I am pleased to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. He and a number of his colleagues have pursued this issue with passion and conviction, and I genuinely congratulate them on doing so. I am aware that several hon. Members and noble Lords have expressed considerable, regular and diligent interest in Camp Ashraf and its residents. On at least two occasions over the past six months I have met delegations of Members to discuss the matter and to listen to their concerns.
In considering the situation in Camp Ashraf, we should not forget the considerable progress that Iraq has made as a result of the improving security situation, to which my hon. Friend referred. It has transformed the situation out of all recognition from that which existed even 15 to 18 months ago, and national reconciliation is today a far brighter prospect than it has been for a number of years. I gave media interviews on the day of the recent local elections in Iraq, and I telephoned our ambassador, who described to me the feelings and emotions on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere. He spoke of the almost festive atmosphere in the country as Iraqis rightly went about asserting their democratic rights.
I visited Iraq last year, and it struck me that the country was slowly, but evidently, getting back on its feet. I should like to take the opportunity to congratulate Prime Minister al-Maliki and the people of Iraq on their progress towards achieving a more stable country in which people go about their daily lives in safety.
The Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in Basra in March 2008 did a great deal to improve the security situation. In downtown Basra, where people were once terrified to leave their homes for fear of being attacked or caught up in an explosion, the streets are bustling once more, with children on their way to and from school and local Basrawis back at work. That trend is positive and the Iraqi Government firmly believe that all Iraqis deserve to live free from the threat of violence or intimidation.
As a result of improvements to security, coalition troops have handed back responsibility for security to the Iraqis. That is an important point that underlies this debate. We have fully supported that process because we have increasing confidence in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain that security, while respecting the rights of the people.
The Government of Iraq have signalled their commitment to developing both the culture and the institutions required to embed within Government, the security agencies and society as a whole a fundamental respect for human rights. This debate has provided an opportunity for hon. Members to express their concerns, and for me to clarify the Government’s understanding of the complex legal position of the residents of Camp Ashraf.
Before I address those points directly, let me say that I very much share hon. Members’ concerns about the situation facing the ordinary people of Iran. There is a palpable lack of democracy there. On the nuclear issue, there is a complete unwillingness to respond to the legitimate concerns of the international community and to deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is a lack of respect for human rights, whether it be for Christians or Baha’is. Iran is one of the largest users of the death penalty anywhere in the world. Of particular concern is the continued execution of minors under the age of 18 despite a recent Iraqi ruling that such a practice should not take place. I find it staggering that a draft mandatory death penalty for the so-called crime of apostasy is before the Majlis. If anything underlines the degree of concern about human rights in Iran, that is very much it.
Notwithstanding all of that, it is right that we say to the Government of Iran and their people that we want a legitimate relationship, and that we want the regime to engage with the international community. I welcome the recent decision of the US Administration to make that very clear. I hope that we will see a response to that.
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends, have raised a number of questions to which I will try to respond. Before I do so, it may be useful for me to outline, in brief, the history of the camp to date. The People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran—or Mujaheddin-e-Khalq—was founded in Iran in 1965 with the broad aim of replacing the Shah and the political situation in which he dominated.
In its first years, the MEK’s main focus was on organisational and ideological work, but in the early 1970s, it carried out violent attacks against the interests of the Shah, his Government and their western allies. After the February 1979 revolution, the MEK continued to condone violence. In the course of 1980 and 1981, the MEK’s relationship with the authorities became increasingly hostile and again violent.
Having fled to Paris in 1981, the exiled MEK moved to Iraq and Camp Ashraf in June 1986. The Iraqi regime under Saddam provided land for bases and helped equip the MEK’s armed force in Iraq—the National Liberation Army. MEK forces fought on the Iraqi side during the Iran-Iraq war. They claimed responsibility for a series of attacks during the 1990s and a spate of attacks in the early part of 2001 against numerous Iranian targets, both in Iran and around the world. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MEK turned over its arms to US forces in Camp Ashraf.
The legal position was a key issue for the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). As I understand it, the US Government’s position is that members of the MEK in Camp Ashraf are to be treated as protected persons for the purposes of the fourth Geneva convention. The UK position has been that as the fourth Geneva convention ceased to apply in Iraq after 28 June 2004, the designation of “protected persons” under that particular convention could no longer be applicable as 28 June 2004 signified the end of the occupation. However, that does not mean that the residents in the camp are entitled to no protection under Iraqi or international law.
Our view is that we stopped being the occupiers under the Geneva convention after 28 June 2004. Our obligations as occupiers continued for one year only after the occupation. I mention that because the hon. Gentleman raised that point directly with me. The year starts after 28 June 2004.
Our permanent membership of the UN Security Council has an impact on our responsibilities for upholding international humanitarian law. Therefore, are there not responsibilities in that respect?
I will come on to how we are trying to carry out our responsibilities notwithstanding the fact that we are now dealing with a sovereign state and a democratic country that has its own rights and responsibilities. Inevitably, in those circumstances, our relationship will be different from the one in which we are the occupier.
It has always been clear that, with the expiry at the end of 2008 of the UN Security Council resolution mandate for the coalition forces in Iraq, responsibility for the security and administration of the camp and its residents would have to pass from the US to the Government of Iraq. That transfer was carried out in phases and was completed on 1 January 2009. At that time, we understand that some 3,000 members of the MEK were present at the camp. Throughout its discussions with the Government of Iraq on the modalities of the transfer, the US rightly sought assurances that the Camp Ashraf residents would continue to be treated humanely, that their fundamental human rights would be maintained, and that they would be treated in accordance with the constitution of Iraq, in accordance with Iraqi law, and in accordance with Iraq’s international obligations. Such assurances were readily provided by the Iraqi authorities to the satisfaction of the US authorities.
Moreover, the Iraqi authorities agreed to allow access to the camp by appropriate international organisations to assist the camp residents in securing a safe future. In that regard, we are comforted in the knowledge that the International Committee of the Red Cross continues to visit the camp on a regular basis. It follows developments closely and we very much welcome its involvement.
In parallel, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights regularly visits the camp and has given assurances to a representative body of the residents. Plans were made to conduct a survey, through interviews with residents of the camp, in an effort to establish whether they wished to be voluntarily repatriated to Iran, or to seek residency in a third country. That survey would also enable the Ministry of Human Rights to verify the details of those currently residing in the camp.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock contacted my office last week concerning recent developments at the camp. I was able to inform him, through our Iraq group at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that we understood that the MEK had seized back a building that had been designated for the purpose of those interviews. We are unclear as to their motives for taking that action. We are also aware that the Iraqi security forces had taken measures to restrict visitors into the camp out of concern that they would not be permitted by the MEK to leave.
The Minister is trespassing on the question of visitors. In the past few weeks, two UK citizens wanted to visit loved ones. One of them, Mr. Tabrizi, who is known to us in the parliamentary campaign committee, was turned away. There was no question of him not being able to come out again. He wanted to see his loved ones and relatives and he was prevented from doing so. That is the pattern. When the Minister goes back to the Foreign Office, I should be grateful if he could look into the matter. It reinforces my point that there should be an official visit from the United Kingdom to Camp Ashraf to check out the issues of property being taken back, the census and visits to loved ones, and whether people can leave, which are the things that I want tested.
If my hon. Friend provides the details to my office, I will ensure that I look into that specific case. I will come to his suggestion. As he and I have discussed, I am minded to do something about it.
Notwithstanding the action, we believe that residents remain free to meet family members and other visitors outside the camp. The Red Cross is rightly monitoring such visits, and we are told that UN officials have also visited the camp as recently as 19 March this year. All of that is welcome. However, the British embassy in Baghdad is pursuing the possibility of a visit by a consular official to Camp Ashraf to confirm whether any of its residents are entitled to UK consular assistance. Importantly, that will also allow us to remind the Iraqi Government further of their earlier assurances regarding Camp Ashraf residents and of the amount of interest in the issue within the United Kingdom.
I am not aware of the statement by Dr. al-Rubaie. Nevertheless, I can say that the Iraqi Government have repeatedly maintained assurances to respect the human rights of Camp Ashraf residents. We shall certainly remind them of that obligation as we pursue the consular visit.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned de-proscription. There have been two court cases: the UK court case in respect of de-proscription of the MEK and the decision in the European Court of First Instance. In both cases, this Government—rightly, in my view, whatever opinion we might have of the MEK—sought to uphold the rule of law; certainly in the European Union case, we were instrumental in ensuring that.
However, I agree with the hon. Lady that upholding de-proscription is not the same as saying that the MEK best represents the interests and views of the Iranian people. We certainly have reservations about the MEK’s assertion that it represents a democratic opposition in exile. We see no evidence of popular support for the MEK in Iran, partly because of its responsibility for terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of many Iranian citizens and partly because it fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.
Nevertheless—this is the important point that cuts to the heart of the concerns expressed—the Government of Iraq have stated that no residents of Camp Ashraf will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution based on their political opinions or religious beliefs, or where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be tortured. We are satisfied that the Iraqi Government are working with international organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure a humanitarian solution that will allow camp residents either to return home or to be resettled, if they choose, in third countries. We will do everything in our power, consistent with the recognition that Iraq is now a sovereign democratic state, to encourage that process.
I congratulate hon. Members on raising these legitimate concerns. I hope that my responses have given some reassurance.