A summer of protest. Is anyone listening?


BRUSSELS — When Mehdi Nobari, an Iranian-born businessman in Belgium, learned that Iraqi forces stormed an enclave of Iranian exiles known as Camp Ashraf in late July, killing nine of the 3,500 inhabitants and wounding or arresting hundreds more, he decided it was time to give up his comfortable summer.

"I have a good life here," said Nobari, 42, who came to Belgium 20 years ago. "When I saw what was happening to my brothers and sisters, I thought it’s my responsibility to do something for these people.” 

Long active in sporadic anti-Tehran protests, Nobari helped mobilize Iranian exiles immediately after the raid. For three days they demonstrated in front of the American embassy, protesting the U.S. handover of control of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government, which happened in January. 

Disappointed in Washington's hands-off response, Nobari and his fellow protesters this week changed their focus to the European Union, demanding the EU pressure both the Americans and the Iraqis to protect the camp. Nobari knows the members of the European Parliament and most other EU decision-makers are on vacation this month, but he says the issue is far too urgent to just wait quietly until the bureaucrats get back. So even though the bars next to the parliament are busier than the legislature itself, he and the other protesters have been spending 10 hours a day at a makeshift memorial to the Ashraf victims in a park across the street.

Whether the protests are falling on deaf ears or just empty offices, the result has been the same: no action. Nobari admits it’s frustrating. “Where is international law? Where is the Convention of Geneva? Everybody’s ‘closed’!” But undeterred, he is now beginning a hunger strike, as others have done in London, Washington, D.C., Ottawa and other cities to make an even stronger point: that the United Nations needs to intervene to save the lives of the Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf, and that the U.S. should reassume control over the site until a U.N. force can arrive.

The exiles claim the Iraqi army is detaining and beating more people, while blocking food and medicine from entering the compound. Human rights groups have launched appeals in recent days as well, with Amnesty International urging supporters to join their call on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to investigate the violence. Legal scholars have repeatedly asserted that the residents of Ashraf are unquestionably entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention, which the international community is obligated to uphold.

Asked for a response to the pleas, European Commission Spokesman Ton van Lierop said Friday that “the Commission is aware of the situation of the Iranian group, People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), in the Ashraf camp. The EU always calls for refugee populations not to be victims of political problems.”

But no government has stepped forward yet to either navigate or ignore the complex political situation surrounding Camp Ashraf and address the humanitarian concerns.

The politics are as complicated as it gets. Nobari, his fellow demonstrators and the residents of Camp Ashraf are supporters or members of the PMOI, also known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the largest of the Iranian dissident groups that form the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), based mostly outside Iran. For more than two decades, the headquarters of PMOI has been based in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, welcomed there by Saddam Hussein as a place where the group could launch attacks across the border — just about an hour away — on their mutual nemesis, the regime in Tehran.

For this armed struggle and other activities against the Iranian government, some of which cost U.S. lives in the 1970s, the PMOI/MEK and the umbrella organization to which it belongs, NCRI, have been branded as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. Until a court ruling removed the designation this January, the groups were also on the EU’s blacklist. 

Though legally cleared of being a terrorist group, PMOI is by no means free of controversy in Europe. Even as the European Parliament passed a resolution in April that called on Iraq to maintain protection of Ashraf — and on the EU to increase its oversight of the situation — opponents spoke up. Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes, for one, said PMOI-linked dissidents were neither “heroes or a true alternative to the Iranian regime.” During the debate over the resolution, Gomes gave voice to accusations that PMOI itself acted to repress Ashraf residents, punishing those who wanted to leave the compound. PMOI denies those claims, saying all are free to leave and that the vast majority chooses to stay.

It’s the continuing U.S. designation as a terrorist group, however, that leaves the NCRI and its member groups both furious and incredulous. They believe it’s as simple as this: Since the government of Iran is considered by much of the world to be hostile and dangerous, these opposition members who wish to establish a democratic regime in Tehran should be supported.

NCRI supporters in Washington and in European capitals believe the organization should be not just de-listed but supported and strengthened. If the group is taken off the U.S. terror list, they argue, countries in Europe or the U.S. itself could let the residents of Ashraf immigrate. Nonetheless, a 2008 State Department review made no change. 

The group has reason to complain that the U.S. government treats it hypocritically. For example, thanks to its members inside Iran, PMOI was able to reveal the extent of the Iranian government's nuclear pursuits at the secret sites of Natanz and Arak in 2002. Even as it ruled out official contact with PMOI, the U.S. government welcomed the information, which was later substantiated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, they initially attacked the PMOI’s military capabilities. A ceasefire was soon reached, after which the group agreed to disarm in exchange for being given the status of “protected persons” under the Geneva Convention. The U.S. took responsibility for guarding the Ashraf compound until it handed over the responsibility to the Iraqis on Jan. 1, 2009, saying it had been given assurances the protected status would be respected. 

But the Iraqi government quickly said it wanted Ashraf cleared, moved away from the border. This is seen by many as an effort to improve relations with Tehran, which welcomed the statement. Ashraf residents fear they will be forcibly repatriated, which for many of them means certain torture or death. 

Then came the raids at the end of July, when, as the State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley described Thursday, the Iraqis tried to set up a police station inside the camp and “it was not executed well.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time that while she remained “engaged and concerned” about the situation, “it is a matter now for the government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with its laws.” Crowley said the U.S. continues to discuss the issue with the Iraqi government and remind it of the obligation to protect the Ashraf residents.

So it’s no surprise that, after giving up their weapons to the U.S., the Iranians feel abandoned. Mehdi Nobari knows that his hunger will not protect them either, but he hopes his friends and relatives in Camp Ashraf somehow get the message about what he and others are doing. “I want them to know they are not alone,” he said.