US House International Relations Committee Hearing on Camp Ashraf

Excerpts report on the oversight investigation subcommittee of the US House International Relations Committee on the Status of the Processing of the Camp Ashraf Residents held on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Witness of this hearing was Mr. Daniel Fried Secretary Clinton’s Special Advisor on Ashraf.

Chairman: This hearing is called to order. The Oversight Investigation Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. On February 17th, the first 400 Ashraf MEK members began to relocate from or to Camp Liberty, which is also now called Camp Hurriya, a former U.S. military base near Baghdad International Airport. This was in accordance with an agreement between the United States and Iraq signed on Christmas Day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was formally recognized and has formally recognized the residents of Ashraf as asylum seekers and persons of concern which entitles them to protection and humane treatment. Since February, over half of the Camp Ashraf residents have been shifted to Camp Liberty for UNHCR processing with the aim of moving them out of Iraq to safety in other countries.

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At a court hearing here in the District of Columbia on May 8th, a State Department lawyer trying to defend the continued listing of the MEK as a terrorist organization claimed that Camp Ashraf had never been inspected by U.S. Forces. His implication is that the MEK might not have lived up to its part of the 2003 bargain by which it disarmed in exchange for U.S. protection. The reaction at Camp Ashraf has been for the MEK to halt movement to Camp Liberty and demand an inspection to prove that they are not armed.

If the inspection does not take place until after Camp Ashraf is evacuated, false evidence can be planted in the empty camp by Iraqi authorities or Iranian agents, so it would have to take place now while the camp is still in MEK hands. I would like to know whether the State Department understood the possible effects of their lawyer’s argument. Earlier reports implied that matters might be improving and might actually be moving in the right direction towards a delisting of the MEK but now the whole issue is up in the air for no good reason.

As to the movement that has already taken place, the MEK members have complained that water is in short supply at Camp Liberty, electricity is also a problem as the camp is not connected to the national grid and the residents rely on small generators. And there are reports that their personal possessions are being looted by Iraqi troops who have not allowed them to move everything to Camp Liberty. Severe restrictions have been placed on the ability of those at Camp Liberty to communicate with the outside world or to see their lawyers. Living conditions are austere and Iraqi security forces have deployed armored vehicles and heavy weapons around and in the camp.

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As of May 10th only 323 MEK members had been interviewed by the UNHCR and will Iraq allow such a slow pace to continue and will Iran allow that? If this slow pace continues MEK people will be put in jeopardy. Iraqi hostility and Iranian plotting must be taken seriously in the wake of the April 8, 2011 attack on Camp Ashraf by Iraqi forces that murdered 34 unarmed civilians and wounded over 300 others. Iraq may have promised the UNHCR that there would be no forced return of the MEK members to Iran but can the Maliki government be trusted given its bloody record? For the record, I have been denied permission to hold investigative hearings on the massacre at Camp Ashraf and to explore why the MEK is still designated as a terrorist organization. It is of great concern that roadblocks have been placed to prevent this oversight and investigation subcommittee from doing its job when it comes to this aspect of American foreign policy.

Carnahan: Reports suggests that UNHCR’s process of conducting individual interviews is going slowly as are the refugee status determinations that need to be made in order to provide for their permanent relocation. It has become clear that this process is going to take longer than expected and longer than most RSDs conducted by UNHCR. It is imperative that there is sufficient time to ensure that this is done in an orderly manner and also guarantees the safety of the residents. I’m interested to hear what discussions are being undertaken to ensure that this process will be allowed to continue beyond any predetermined time deadlines. Certainly a long-term solution for the residents is of course needed once UNHCR completes its interviews and refugee status determinations.

It would be beneficial to hear some of the long-term possibilities including what conversations have been had with the residents. I’d also be interested to hear about what Camp Ashraf in the broader context of U.S. policy toward Iraq. While the safety of the residents of Camp Ashraf pose immediate concern, I’d also like to hear the witnesses discuss how our relationship with Iraq has been affected as well as how it’s impacted the Camp Ashraf issue. I look forward to hearing from you today. Thank you again for being here Ambassador.

Judge Poe from Texas: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Thank you for having this hearing. Ambassador Fried, thank you for being here. I also want to thank many friends from Texas and other parts of the country that are here today who are concerned about their families and their loved ones and other patriots in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty. Four years ago the MEK filed their petition against the State Department to delist them as a foreign terrorist organization. It’s been two years since the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the State Department violated the MEK’s due process rights. And so since 2011, June the 6th, the ball has been in the State Department’s court.

The State Department’s only reason for disregarding the law is that they apparently are too busy with other things. The latest excuse is that the Secretary is waiting for Camp Ashraf to close. I wonder what difference that makes. Now we hear a new excuse, that there are worries from the State Department about alleged weapons in the camp. But on June 18, 2003, U.S. General Ray Odierno said that the MEK has been completely disarmed, I further quote, “And we have taken up all small arms and heavy equipment.” That was our own U.S. Military General stating he was completely confident there were no weapons in Camp Ashraf. And just yesterday U.S. Brigadier General David Phillips said he, “Systematically searched every square kilometer of the 36 square kilometer facility with American troops in 2003 and found no weapons.”

Two generals on record that they completely searched the camp so why is the State Department now alleging that there are weapons in the camp? Produce one of those weapons, any weapon that has allegedly been found in that camp but yet they don’t appear, probably because they don’t exist. Does the State Department believe the residents rearmed while they were under U.S. control from 2003 to 2008 or that they rearmed after we left? That’s of course unlikely and absurd given twice when the camp was attacked by the Iraqis with automatic weapons and dozens of residents in Camp Ashraf were killed and murdered, no weapons were ever used by those residents to defend themselves. All they had were rocks and they threw rocks when they could to protect themselves and their families.

So are the rocks the weapons the State Department’s concerned about? We don’t know. And once the camp is closed will the State Department be given permission by the government of Iraq to inspect the camp? And who’s to say, as the Chairman pointed out, that the Iraqis’ or the Iranians even wouldn’t actually plant weapons in the camp when the camp is vacated. There are lots of questions and problems with State Department’s latest excuse not to make a decision on the FTO status of the MEK. Four years later the State Department is still denying the due process rights of the MEK.

It’s time for the decision, the time for delay, delay, delay, is over. No pistols, no rifles, no bazookas, no BB gun, no slingshot has been found in Camp Ashraf. Where are the weapons that they say exist? It appears to me the State Department is playing into the politics of the Iranian Mullahs and the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. The state must pick a horse and ride it. Hopefully they’ll pick the side of the citizens of

Camp Ashraf, Camp Liberty, and not the side of the little fellow from the desert, Ahmadinejad. And I’ll yield back to the Chairman.

Fried: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Chairman Rohrabacher, Ranking Member Carnahan, Judge Poe. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I wish to report to you on progress in the Administration’s efforts to support a humane, peaceful, and durable solution for the residents of Camp Ashraf, as well as on challenges that remain. When I appeared before this subcommittee last December, a humanitarian crisis appeared imminent. The government of Iraq had announced its intention to close Camp Ashraf by December 31st and there were valid concerns that this could result in bloodshed. Members of this committee appeared to share such concerns. It was under these circumstances that Secretary Clinton instructed me to work with Ambassador Jeffrey and the United Nations to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

I am relieved to report significant progress, while recognizing that the job is not yet done. On December 25th, the government of Iraq and the United Nations signed a memorandum of understanding that provides a way forward for the safe relocation of Ashraf residents out of Iraq. Secretary Clinton quickly announced support for this MOU. We called upon the Iraqi government to respect the terms of the MOU and upon the residents of Camp Ashraf to cooperate in its implementation. With the signature of the MOU, the Iraqi government lifted the December 31st deadline for Ashraf’s closure. Under the terms of the MOU, the residents of Camp Ashraf gained a temporary transit facility, Camp Hurriya, formerly Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Bagdad International Airport, to which to relocate under guarantees of security. The MOU also provides for in person monitoring by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, UNAMI, headed by the able and energetic Ambassador Martin Kobler, and refugee status determination process undertaken by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, that’s UNHCR.

Additionally, through the MOU, the Iraqi government made a commitment to the principle of non-refoulement. These were important steps forward by the Iraqi government. The first convoy to Hurriya took place on February 17-18, with nearly 400 people. A second and similar convoy occurred on March 8th, followed by a third convoy on March 19th, a fourth on April 16th, and a fifth on May, fifth convoy on May 5. Nearly 2000 residents have moved to Camp Hurriya, over half the total. Each convoy has been a significant logistic undertaking. The Iraqi government has provided dozens of coach buses and cargo trucks and thousands of Iraqi security forces have provided for convoy security on the road.

The preparation of each convoy is lengthy and disagreements, sometimes heated, have occurred between the Iraqi authorities and the residents about cargo screening procedures and other issues. U.S. Embassy and the Department of State follow the progress of each convoy closely. The progress to date is remarkable, especially given the history and emotions involved. But patience and compromise have been required and will still be required as the last convoys to close Camp Ashraf are organized.

Living conditions at Camp Hurriya have also had challenges. There were early issues with water, sewage, and electric power, though many have been resolved since. There were early concerns about the location and size of Iraqi police units at Camp Hurriya, though (here too) a resolution was worked out. Both Camps Ashraf and Hurriya have internet connectivity to the world. There are issues that remain. For example, the government of Iraq needs to pay greater attention to the repair or provision of air conditioning units and other basic welfare needs such as accommodations for the disabled. With the onset of hot weather and new arrivals, electric power and water needs will increase and the number of required utility vehicles will grow. Iraqi government can work with the UN to address these concerns. The residents need to engage the Iraqi government, the UN, and others on these issues in a focused manner.

It is important that the final convoys from Ashraf take place and that Camp Ashraf be closed. Our efforts do not end however with Camp Ashraf’s closure. Indeed we must not lose sight of our purpose. The relocation of Camp Ashraf’s residents out of Iraq and the way for those residents out of Iraq lies through the UNHCR process. With startup issues being resolved, UNHCR has intensified its efforts and increased resources to interview and review residents for refugee status eligibility. The next great task in this effort requires continued participation of the residents in the UNHCR process and the diplomatic work of relocating residents out of Iraq.

The United States has informed the UNHCR and our international partners that we will receive UNHCR’s referrals of some individuals. These referrals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, consistent with applicable U.S. law. Other governments have stated their intentions to take similar actions and some have begun the process of reviewing residents themselves. Let me be clear. Mr. Chairman, it will be critical for the United States to demonstrate leadership in this area. Our doing so will be essential to finding a solution.

We hope to have the support of the Congress and of all those who have expressed concern for the residents of Camp Ashraf. We will also need the continued cooperation of remaining Ashraf residents to relocate swiftly to Hurriya and continued cooperation of the residents of Camp Hurriya with the UNHCR.

The next stage of this process will be challenging. Some in Camp Hurriya may choose to return voluntarily to Iran. Others may find that they have credentials and connections to European or other nations and can resettle there. Still others will require resettlement as refugees or other permission to reside in third countries through the UNHCR’s good offices. Some of our European partners have indicated that they will interview residents to determine eligibility for resettlement within their respective countries. The United States will encourage prompt and secure relocation of the residents of Hurriya and again, we must be prepared to do our part hopefully with the support of the Congress.

I want to commend the extraordinary work being done by UNAMI and UNHCR missions in Iraq and the intense engagement of U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey and his dedicated team. Their diligence, creativity, and commitment have been essential to the progress so far. Mr. Chairman, Judge Poe, this is in the nature of an interim report. Much has been achieved since we met last December. Much remains to be done. But at last we are on a road to resolve this problem through the relocation of Ashraf residents out of Iraq. Thank you for this opportunity and I welcome your questions.

Chairman: Does the United States government in any way question that there are no weapons and have been no weapons in Camp Ashraf since the agreement that was made by the residents, by the MEK back in 2003?

Fried: Mr. Chairman, this issue that is the issue of Camp Ashraf and inspections came up as you said earlier and I believe Judge Poe said in the context of litigation in court, in D.C. court, federal court, and because it came up in the process of active litigation, I have to be extraordinarily careful in getting into this area. It is my understanding that the Department of Justice has sent a letter to the court, which has now been filed and I believe it is therefore available, which answers some of the questions that have arisen and it’s my understanding that in that letter addresses the question you just asked.

Chairman: Okay, so if I just mention to you that was it the General testified yesterday? Was that the? And I believe the General testified that there were no weapons and he was our man there, so if he’s [laughs] willing to testify that or he’s not testifying, briefing us on that, he testified yesterday and I believe under oath. You can’t give an answer based on a brigadier general who was in charge of the camp, acknowledging that?

Fried: It’s my understanding that the Department of Defense, which knows this issue in a way that the Department of State does not, had made the judgment that the camp was largely disarmed with no heavy equipment at that time. Now my mandate is not to go back and review the record of those years. Mandate of my office is to move forward and it’s my hope that the remaining convoys can move ahead.

Chairman: Let me ask you. Does your hesitation to answer the question in a direct fashion have anything to do with the fact that if we were to now go on record as the official government position is that Camp Ashraf was disarmed, that those people who went in and took the lives of over 30 residents of Camp Ashraf would then be guilty of a war crime?

Poe: Are you aware that in April of 2009 the Iraqi government searched Camp Ashraf with dogs and then signed a document saying that there were no weapons there, no ammunition there. Are you aware of that?

Fried: I’ve heard that.

Brad Sherman, from California: Somewhere between highly unusual and utterly unprecedented would be the way I would characterize it. Now during that proceeding the lawyer for the State Department said the MEK did not permit an inspection; they did not permit a door-to-door inspection looking for caches of weapons or to actually disarm door-to-door. Since then, a letter has been signed by the soldiers actually involved in that searching effort, the Brigadier General, the Colonel, and the Lieutenant Colonel, all basically saying that the State Department lawyer lied to the court. Has the State Department taken action to make sure that the court has been advised that this lawyer that had no direct knowledge of what actually happened on the ground at Camp Ashraf said some statements to the court that might mislead the court as to the actual events?

Fried: Sir this is a matter under active litigation and so I have to be very careful. I said earlier in response to a similar question that it is my understanding that the Department of Justice has sent a letter to the court answering some of the questions. I believe that letter has been filed and is available but because it is active litigation I have to restrain myself and not go any further.

Chairman: We realize just from your answers, you know, there’s limitations about what you can say, but my belief is, is that, and I’m not condemning you for this, I’m saying that you are, you are a good soldier. You are a troubleshooter that comes in, tries to help our country get out of messes that somebody else created and I understand that. But I think that our State Department is being overly sensitive to the feelings of murderous regimes that are now in power in Iraq and Iran. And I say murderous regimes because I was kicked out of Iraq along with my codel after bringing up the Camp

Ashraf murders to President Maliki, who just didn’t want to hear about that. I think that ignoring the slaughter of innocent people is not going to make things better when you’re dealing with regimes like Iraq and Iran. And I understand they’re still in power there and thus we’ve got other thousands of people to be concerned about.

The thousands of people at Camp Ashraf, you know, if we hurt their feelings maybe they’ll go and slaughter those people too. So I understand you’re trying to save lives, but I think that people who are engaged in such activity don’t really respect it when you’re overly sensitive to their feelings. It seems to me that what we’re talking about, Ms. Lee, is that there’s been a dishonorable deal made somewhere along the line in our n- this administration, who knows?

Last administration, who knows? Who knows when, but there’s been a dishonorable deal somewhere along the line with the Mullah regime in Iran that we will not support opponents of the regime. And I think that was very indicative or very demonstrable when the Arabs spring demonstrations in Tehran were taking place, our government was noticeably silent in support for those demonstrators in the streets of Tehran against the Mullah dictatorship and I think that same kind of, that that indicates that there was some sort of understanding reached with the Mullahs and of course now part of that understanding could well be that we will not be supporting the MEK in any way, which the Mullahs look as very symbolic to people who are resisting their dictatorship. If indeed such a deal has been struck, which people are trying to enforce now while saving the lives of these MEK people, it was a dishonorable deal to begin with and I know how difficult it would be then at this point to try to save the lives of these people and still keep that deal if the Mullahs look at the MEK as they do as opponents to the regime. And as you know, what’s the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? Well, there is a difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.

Freedom fighters want to institute freedom and democracy and fight soldiers and terrorists kill innocent people in order to terrorize populations into submission. A little bit about before we (ring) up here, we’re talking about the fly in the ointment here, from what I’m understanding from your testimony, is that the people of Camp Ashraf who are still there, have said they don’t want to leave unless there’s an inspection to verify that there aren’t any weapons there. Now, why in the world would someone you know, like that, in that situation make that demand? Well, I think that’s totally rational. And maybe you can tell me where I’m wrong, but we have a situation where, well first of all, if once they leave they have to realize who then would verify that there aren’t any weapons, it would have to be the Iraqis or the Iranians who would be verifying that, which of course would be unacceptable.

I mean you can’t believe whatever they would tell you. They may well plant weapons. The other thing is that the residents of Camp Ashraf remember full well when our government had made an agreement to protect them and they remember full well that our troops were asked to retire and leave the area just prior to a genocidal attack of Iraqi troops, in which you had innocent people slaughtered, over 30, 35 people were murdered, 300 were wounded, and our troops withdrew right before that attack. Now that would kind of eat at people’s ability to maybe just trust us that we’re going to do the right thing and then maybe that’s the reason they wanna make sure that this is verified while they still have a chance to verify it. And by the way, this subcommittee has been denied permission to investigate that incident. We’ve been denied the ability. This is the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, who’s been denied the right to investigate this slaughter of people who were under the protection of the United States government. And we’ve been denied that as well as a number of other aspects of the MEK listing as a terrorist organization.

You may watch five parts videos of this hearing by clicking on the URLs below:

Shahriar Kia is a member of the Iranian opposition (PMOI /MEK). He is a human rights activist and political analyst on Iran and the Middle East.