Camp Ashraf: A Human Tragedy for Christmas?
Publisher: the Huffington Post, USA
Author: Abbas Rezai, Human Rights and Foreign Policy Writer
Story date: 28/11/2011
Language: English

An official meeting of the EU parliamentarians last Tuesday in Brussels was a rare scene of confrontation of European lawmakers with Iraqi government diplomats which continued for some time outside the conference room after the meeting was formally ended.

The fate of 3400 Iranian dissidents – including a thousand women – in Iraq is increasingly uncertain as the Iraqi Embassy in Brussels last week reaffirmed its government's decision to close down their refugee camp 60 miles north east of Baghdad and force them out of Iraq by 31 December 2011.

The refugees in Camp Ashraf are members of Iran's fiercest opposition movement, the People's Mojahedin [Freedom fighters] of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

With the US invasion of Iraq, PMOI members were given written assurances – in return for voluntarily disarmament, to be under US protection until their final disposition. But with change of US administration in 2009, Ashraf's security was handed over to the Iraqi forces leading to severe inhuman conditions for the residents. At the behest of Tehran, access to food, fuel and medicines was restricted. Visitors including parliamentarians and NGOs were barred from entering the Camp. Ashraf turned into a de facto prison.

In July 2009 and April 2011 the Camp was twice raided by Iraqi army. Live ammunition was used to hunt unarmed refugees. Some were crushed under Humvees and tanks, leaving 47 dead and a total of 1070 wounded.

Two days after the April attack, in a blatant effort to void international calls for independent investigation into that crime, Iraq announced its unilateral deadline to close Ashraf by end of this year.

Subsequent international efforts to register the residents as refugees and resettle them in other countries remain blocked by Iraq as it calls the refugees "terrorists" who are not entitled to registration by the UN Refugee body, a label dictated from Tehran to physically eliminate the opponents, according to international observers.

"The Iraqi Government has made efforts to cooperate with EU, USA and others to resettle the residents of the Camp," Jwan Khioka, a counsellor of Iraqi embassy in Brussels, told the meeting of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq. "These efforts, however, did not lead to any results. Accordingly our Government was left with no choice but to evacuate the Camp based on principle of sovereignty!"

Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, President of the delegation reacted thunderously: "This to me is tantamount to a declaration of war on what we have been standing for here in the European Parliament."

"Now that we are within one month of the deadline being reached, they have issued this ultimatum which is equal to a Death Warrant to these people!"

"I can tell you now that we are sitting here, confronting a countdown to almost a certain massacre."

Jean De Ruyt, EU High Representative's special adviser on Camp Ashraf, told the meeting that EU had tried its best to convince the Iraqi government to extend the deadline but could not do much more.

Esther de Lange, Dutch Member of European Parliament and vice president of the delegation was outraged by De Ruyt's weak remarks.

"I react pretty allergic to people, representing the European Union saying literally that they can do 'not so much' in international relations. We are the biggest donor of development aid in Iraq why do we continue to be so incredibly modest when it comes to using that economic power and putting it into political influence.

"Please let us be a bit pro-active," she told De Ruyt. "We know we cannot solve this within five week. So is the call for extending the deadline going to be the main priority of the EU in the next weeks to come?"

Alejo Vidal Quadras, who for the past 12 years has served as a senior Vice-President of the Parliament, warned of consequences of a weak policy.

"We as the European Union have moral authority, but moral authority is not useful with people who have no morals, Mr Ambassador," he said criticising De Ruyt's optimism in dealing with the Iraqi government.

"They have already assassinated 47 of them by gunshots. Shooting to defenceless people! This is enough to understand the level of cynicisms towards the Iraqi government in this question."

"A deadline is a way to say that the Iraqi government does not want a solution."

"We have been working on this problem for years. It took us nine months to make Ms Ashton to move. She only moved, after the last attack where dozens of people were assassinated."

The issue of Ashraf is on the agenda of EU's Foreign Minister Council this Thursday, 1 December. What position they take will be crucial for the fate of the 3000 refugees in Ashraf who could see their last Christmas if Iraq fulfils its commitment to Tehran to eliminate them.

Libya ex-rebels still hold 7,000 prisoners, says UN
Publisher: BBC News
Story date: 28/11/2011
Language: English

Former Libyan rebels are still holding about 7,000 prisoners, the United Nations says.

The detainees are being held without access to legal process because the police and courts are not functioning, and some may have been tortured.

Many are sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being mercenaries hired by the Gaddafi regime.

The UN said the new Libyan government had responded positively when pressed to deal with the issue.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in New York says this was the first UN assessment of the situation in Libya since the end of the eight-month civil war.

The report, by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, estimates that 7,000 prisoners in Libya are currently held in prisons and makeshift detention centres, most under the control of revolutionary brigades.

Human rights

"While the (National Transitional Council) has taken some steps toward transferring responsibility for the detainees from brigades to proper state authorities, much remains to be done to regularize detention, prevent abuse and bring about the release of those whose detention should not be prolonged," the report says.

Mr Ban said: "I believe that the leaders of the new Libya are indeed committed to building a society based on the respect for human rights."

"Achieving this requires the earliest possible action, however difficult the circumstances, to end arbitrary detention and prevent abuses and discrimination, against third country nationals as well as against any group of Libya's own citizens," he added.

The UN's Libya envoy Ian Martin welcomed last week's appointment of an interim government in Tripoli.

"It is indicative of the difference from the attitudes of past regime that there is no denial that human rights are being violated and in most cases international organisations are granted access to detainees," Mr Martin told the BBC.

"The new minister of the interior told me he welcomed public criticism as strengthening his hand in tackling the issues," Mr Martin added.

But whatever the attitudes of new government members, Mr Martin told the Security Council the interim government faced enormous challenges:

disarming and integrating revolutionary fighters who have now taken over law and order functions in the absence of a police force

securing weapons stockpiles and stopping the proliferation of arms

building from scratch an electoral system able to hold elections by June.

UN: Syrian forces killed and tortured hundreds of children; regime warns of ‘economic war’
Publisher: AP, The Associated Press
Story date: 28/11/2011
Language: English

BEIRUT — A U.N. investigation concluded Monday that Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity by killing and torturing hundreds of children, including a 2-year-old girl reportedly shot to death so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.

The inquiry added to mounting international pressure on President Bashar Assad, a day after the Arab League approved sweeping sanctions to push his embattled regime to end the violence. Syria's foreign minister called the Arab move "a declaration of economic war" and warned of retaliation.

The report by a U.N. Human Rights Council panel found that at least 256 children were killed by government forces between mid-March and early November, some of them tortured to death.

"Torture was applied equally to adults and children," said the assessment, released in Geneva. "Numerous testimonies indicated that boys were subjected to sexual torture in places of detention in front of adult men."

The U.N. defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. The report was compiled by a panel of independent experts who were not allowed into Syria. However, the commission interviewed 223 victims and witnesses, including defectors from Syria's military and security forces.

The panel said government forces were given "shoot to kill" orders to crush demonstrations. Some troops "shot indiscriminately at unarmed protesters," while snipers targeted others in the upper body or head, it said.

It quoted one former soldier who said he decided to defect after witnessing an officer shoot a 2-year-old girl in Latakia, then claim he killed her so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.

The list of alleged crimes committed by Syrian forces "include murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence," said the panel's chairman, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian professor. "We have a very solid body of evidence."

At least 3,500 people have been killed since March in Syria, according to the U.N. — the bloodiest regime response against the Arab Spring protests sweeping the Middle East. Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds; while Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher, the conflict there differs from Syria's because it descended into outright civil war between two armed sides.

The U.N. investigation is the latest in a growing wave of international measures pressuring Damascus to end its crackdown, and comes on the heels of sweeping sanctions approved Sunday by the Arab League.

Syrian officials did not comment directly on the U.N. findings. However, the regime reacted sharply to the Arab sanctions, betraying a deep concern over the economic impact and warning that Syria could strike back.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called the Arab League action "a declaration of economic war" and said Syria had withdrawn 95 percent of its assets in Arab countries.

Economy Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar said "sources of foreign currency would be affected" by the sanctions, reflecting concerns that Arab investment in Syria will fall off and transfers from Syrians living in other Arab countries will drop.

Al-Moallem said Syria had means to retaliate.

"Sanctions are a two-way street," he warned in a televised news conference.

"We don't want to threaten anyone, but we will defend the interests of our people," he added, suggesting Syria might use its position as a geographical keystone in the heart of the Middle East to disrupt trade between Arab countries.

Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.

Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities. As they struggled with ways to respond to Assad's brutal crackdown, world leaders have been all too aware of the country's web of allegiances, which extend to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

The latest sanctions include cutting off transactions with Syria's central bank, and are expected to squeeze an ailing economy that already is under sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. The net effect of the Arab sanctions could deal a crippling blow to Syria's economy.

"We've always said that global sanctions, without Arab sanctions, will not be as effective," said Said Hirsh, Mideast economist with Capital Economics in London.

Some 60 percent of Syria's exports go to Arab countries, and analysts concede the sanctions' effectiveness will hinge largely on whether Arab countries enforce them.

Iraq and Lebanon, which abstained from the Arab League vote, may continue to be markets for Syrian goods, in defiance of the sanctions. Syria shares long borders with both countries and moving goods in and out would be easy.

Still, there is no question the uprising is eviscerating Syria's economy. Hirsh said forecasts indicate it will contract by 5 percent this year and could shrink by another 10 percent in 2012 if sanctions are enforced and the Assad regime stays in power.

The economic troubles threaten the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.

The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.

The Arab sanctions, however, could chip away at their resolve.

Since the revolt began, the Assad regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. Until recently, most deaths appeared to be caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. But lately, there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces — a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.

The Assad regime has responded to the street protests by sheer brutal force while at the same time announcing reforms largely dismissed by the opposition as too little too late.

On Monday, a spokesman for a committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution said it would recommend the abolishment of Article 8 which states that the ruling Baath Party is the leader of the state and society.

The article's abolishment was once a key demand of the protest movement. However, such overtures are now unlikely to satisfy opposition leaders who say they will accept nothing more than the downfall of the regime.


Heilprin reported from Geneva. AP Business Writer Tarek El-Tablawy contributed to this report from Cairo.

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