October 24, 2017

Interview with Ex-UN official on Camp Liberty, Camp Ashraf

Iran News Update conducted an exclusive interview with former advisor to the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary- General, Tahar Boumedra. Boumedra’s interview comes in response to United Nation’s special representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler’s July 16, 2013 address to the United Nations Security Council. Boumedra discussed a variety of topics with Iran News Update, detailing specific situations he dealt with during his time in Iraq as well as details of specific conversations he had with his then colleague, Martin Kobler.

Q: Martin Kobler in his remarks to the Security Council, blamed leadership of the residents in Camp Liberty and not the Government of Iraq for all the problems in the camp including lack of freedom of movement, lack of access to medical care, to internet and other communication. Can you shed some light on this issue? What power does the Camp leadership have? Who are they? Did you have interaction with them? Why so much focus on the leadership of the residents? Why is SRSG making these allegations?

Tahar Boumedra: I have warned times and time again that this is a cynical plan designed by the United Nations Assistance for Iraq together with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office under pressure from the Iranian Embassy in Bagdad. This plan, which I have been warning about since last year is to close Camp Ashraf and expel its residents from Iraq. It was hoped at the time that the closure of the Camp will create an environment favorable for the residents to rebel against their representatives and distance themselves from the leadership. At this stage, it was hoped that it will be easy to convince the residents that the durable solution is for them to return to Iran, then the Iraqi army would move in to arrest the leadership. So the plan required the designation of two temporal transit locations (TTL). One for accommodating the “defectors” who wish to go back to Iran, Hotel Al-Yamama. The second, Camp Liberty, although referred to in the MOU as a TTL, it was mean to be a detention facility for those who do not wish to return to Iran as well as the Camp’s Leadership. Liberty is meant to be a place where those who refuse defection will remain for as long as it takes to break their resolve. This is why the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office refuse to allow the residents to undertake any works that are likely to improve the quality of life at Liberty. Meanwhile, the UNHCR was called in to undertake the refugee status determination (RSD) process for the residents of Camp Liberty, hoping that the final outcome of the RSD process will split Liberty into two categories of residents, those eligible for the refugee status will be recognized as such and will benefit from some protection and those who would not be eligible, mainly the leadership will be refused such a status. This was the plan and that is partly the reason for the SRSG to make those allegations against the residents’ representative and leadership in his report to the Security Council. He is laying the ground for the Iraqi government to take action and for the UNHCR to deny the refugee status to the leadership . Once this triage is done it would be easy for the Iraqi operatives to move in to arrest those who would be declared not meeting the criteria of refugee. If this happens, the UNHCR RSD Process would eventually turn into a license for the Iraq Police and Army to arrest those excluded. Since they are wanted by the Iranian regime, they will end up deported to Iran where they would face death penalty.

This plan was made two years ago, in October 2011. I did warn about it, I warned the UNAMI, I warned the UN. I have also been warning about the attacks in Camp Liberty and no action was taken to protect. This year Camp Liberty was attacked three times, UNAMI and the Government of Iraq could have prevented the loss of life resulting from these attacks as they were predictable and preventable, but nothing was done in this direction. I am warning again that there will be further attacks against Liberty as the Iraqi Prime Miniter’s Office vowed to use all means to make Ashraf/Liberty residents’ life hell till they depart from Iraq. This is documented and is announced by the Council of Ministers as the official policy.

On the leadership of the camps –

To my knowledge and obviously, these are my personal observations, the residents of Ashraf, and now Liberty, are a distinct group, well organized, well educated, highly disciplined, and distinctively enjoying all sorts of skills acquired from European and American Universities. They are also very much devoted to their cause.

Their devotions to their cause has been subject of criticism and used to stigmatize them as a terrorist group or a cult. Their efficiency, resilience and success have been used against them. When I use to talk to the Iraqi authorities about giving them access to utilities and services, I get the answer that these people have a better life than average Iraqi citizen. My reply to the Iraqi officers is that Ashraf/Liberty residents are not asking for charity or free services. They pay the market price and higher. You cannot blame them for the failures of the Iraqi Government. If the Government of Iraq cannot provide the same for its citizens you cannot blame it on this small population considered by many Iraqis as their honorable guests.

Q: In his testimony at the UN Security Council, Kobler also claimed that residents harass UN monitors and do not cooperate with them. You have been visiting them almost every week for one year. What was their attitude? Have you had such an experience? As Chief of UNAMI’s Human Rights Office, have any of the UN monitors told you any incident of this nature? What is your experience with them?

Tahar Boumedra: When I was in Baghdad, I was the person in charge of the files of Camp Ashraf and its residents, this began in January 2009. I was the person who visited Camp Ashraf and later Camp Liberty on a weekly basis and was in contact with them 24/7. It was my job to monitor and follow up closely the Camps’ situation. I never had any problems accessing any place I wanted to visit or to inspect. I never had any problems with visiting any place without any advance warning. I interviewed most people who left the camp previously (my interviews are on record), nobody ever told me that they were mistreated or deprived of their freedom of leaving the Camps. So, these allegations are actually intended to creating conducive environment for the Iraqi authorities to move in to arrest the leadership. The reality has nothing to do with cooperation or lack of cooperation. As I said earlier, it is part of the plan aiming at disbanding the organization and the arrest of its leadership. After reading the SRSG’s declarations to the Security Council, I could see the implementation of the plan well in progress.

Q: Were you exposed to these sorts of allegations when you were handed the Ashraf dossier? Did you ever try to corroborate them? Did you ever come across a case of human rights abuse in the Camp? What did you come up with at the end and what was your impression when you left Baghdad?

Tahar Boumedra: When I went to Baghdad in 2009 I was briefed like everybody who arrives to new position. I was told that I will be dealing with a dangerous terrorist group and that I had to be careful. At the time I did not have any reasons not to believe my colleagues when they briefed me. So at the beginning of my mission in Iraq, I was very hostile to the leaders of the Camp. But through the months and the years I spent interacting with them, I came to realize that the briefing I received was totally misleading. I found out for myself that all that reaches me from the Ashrafis was credible and most I receive from the Iraqi Security apparatus was unverifiable and at long term it turns out to be falls. I have loads of stories I could tell you in this context, but there is not time. I left Baghdad with the deep conviction that hard days are still ahead of Iraq. The judicial system is dysfunctional and unreliable, the security system, arrest and detention systems built on sectarian divide, corruption is paralyzing the country and the Iranian hegemony is coming to the open.

Q: Was the Iranian regime implicated on the case of Ashraf and its residents? Was Martin Kobler in communication with Iranian government and did you ever accompany him in any meeting with Iranian officials?
Answer: UNAMI interacts with all actors in Iraq, all diplomatic missions, including the Iranian Embassy. We periodically visited the Iranian Ambassador in Iraq. First it was done in the context that there is an Iranian population in Ashraf that needs help and assistance to exit Iraq. Later on with the arrival of SRSG Kobler, consultations turned into coordination of efforts to close Camp Ashraf and the eviction of its residents to Camp Liberty for tighter control. The Iranian diplomats always stressed the fact that they are willing to amnesty the residents but will not tolerate the presence of the leadership in Iraq. When UNAMI asked the Iranian Ambassador to provide a written document to guarantee that whoever returns to Iran will not be persecuted. He refused to do so.
When there was some delay in the relocation process, SRSG became so apologetic and would spend long time justification the delays with the Iranian Ambassador. When the SRSG asked for a visa to visit Iran, he was told we will consider it when the residents start leaving Camp Ashraf. Indeed, as soon as the third group of residents left Camp Ashraf, the SRSG Kobler was compensated. His visa was approved and he visited Tehran before even the second group left Ashraf

Q:  Can you shed some light on how these reports are prepared and sent to the UN headquarters? Did your reports go to the UN top brass, while you were in Baghdad – meaning was there a way to alarm the top brass of what is happening under the name of UN or everything had to go through Kobler?
Answer: This is a procedure to be followed in the UN public reporting. You cannot send a report directly to New York. You have to go through the hierarchy. The hierarchy does the political checks and balances and ensure that the Government of Iraq is not overtly contradicted particularly when the matter relates to the rule of law and human rights. In a way, the reports have to be molded and shaped to be politically correct before they reach their destination in New York. For example in reporting about Ashraf, the word attack is to be replaced by confrontation, summary and extra-judicial executions become excessive use of force. In the first instance, the objective is to throw the blame equally on the victim and the aggressor while in the second, it is to diminish the gravity of the offence and down grade it from being the case of possible crime against humanity to a disciplinary matter.

Q: None of the things Kobler promised to residents panned out. Was this a hoax from the onset and was there no sincere interest to bring them about or could the UN not implement its commitments?

Answer: Let me tell you – we actually did manipulate reports, we even doctored pictures of Camp Liberty. Martin Kobler instructed my team to go and take pictures in Camp Liberty, select the presentable sites of Camp Liberty and share them with the international community and Ashraf citizens. That was before the closure of Camp Ashraf. The doctored pictures were used to mislead the Ashrafis and the international community. I am saying this and whoever questions the credibility of my statement should dispatch an independent commission of inquiry.

Q: You were the first UN official who visited Camp Liberty. What was your impression and your observation? Did you find it suitable for the residents to be transferred there? Was Liberty ever reviewed fr om security perspective? Was it appraised to be suitable fr om a security perspective?

Tahar Boumedra: I was the first to lead a mission to Camp Liberty early December 2011. I reported that the Camp was not ready to accommodate 3200 people. The SRSG rejected the report and asked the UNHCR to commission a shelter expert to assess the humanitarian conditions at Camp Liberty. When the expert of Swiss nationality arrived in Baghdad, SRSG Kobler repeatedly told him you are commissioned to certify. After two weeks assessment work, the expert drafted a report saying the UNHCR cannot certify. SRSG Kobler dismissed the report and made a press release where he declared that Camp Liberty has now been certified as compliant with the required humanitarian standards for refugees . Another assessment was made to verify whether Camp Liberty was compliant with the security requirement down by UNAMI security personnel. The report found that the Camp is highly vulnerable to missile attacks and recommended measures to attenuate the security risks. Again this report was dismissed and action was taken to recruit about 60 security officers to re-enforce the protection of UNAMI and UNHCR staff. But nothing was done for the safety and security of the residents. On the contrary, the Iraqis proceeded with the removal of the existing T-Walls around the housing units so that the movement of the residents inside the Camp is closely monitored.

Q: How Kobler was able to get the certification that Liberty meets the UN standards?

Tahar Boumedra: People worked to maintain their positions or to receive promotions. They do their job to satisfy their supervisors for wrong and for right. There are others who do the job because they were recruited to do it. I went to Baghdad to do the promotion and protection of human rights in a UN environment that primarily work to protect their jobs and seek promotions. In this environment you understand why reports are doctored and shaped according to the wishes of the supervisor. This is how SRSG Kobler got away with manipulated reports. All heads of UNAMI sections were fundamentally in disagreement with SRSG Kobler but were not in a position to stand for what they believe is right. UNAMI is a political mission where the voice of the boss always prevails whether he is right or wrong.

Q: Did you ever accompany Kobler in his negotiations with MEK leaders on the situation? If not, what was the reason? You were the person in charge of the dossier – it was natural that you would accompany him.

Tahar Boumedra: Even though I was his advisor, he does not invite me to accompany him. He prefers to go to such meetings with junior officers who would say yes to everything he does. He knows I would never support his suggestions that are illegal or immoral.

Q: Are you saying that there is a cover up here? Why have there been no fact-finding missions yet?

Tahar Boumedra: I am concerned that cover-up is part if the UNAMI policy. I made statements in this direction and requested, time and time again, that if the UN should questions my allegations, they should either take me to court for breach of confidentiality and defamatory statements or dispatch an independent commission of inquiry to look into the matter. They refuse to do one or the other and are keeping silent. And I am telling them silence is not an option. Because we are dealing with a situation that is costing lives, that is hurting people, creating a lot of unnecessary pain and sufferings. Absolutely unnecessary. Killing and maiming is absolutely unnecessary. What the UNAMI and the UN are doing is absolutely immoral, illegal, and it undermines the core values of the UN charter. This is the reason that pushed me to distance myself fr om UNAMI’s actions and resigned.

Q: Final question, what about relocation outside Iraq? Based on your experience did you ever had the impression that the residents do not want to leave Iraq or that they were not prepared to cooperate with UNHCR as Martin Kobler has on many occasion asserted?

Tahar Boumedra: It is my judgment today and it was when I was in Iraq that although the residents were and are being treated unfairly, but they extended full cooperation to the UNHCR. They were prepared to be interviewed by UNHCR since September 2011, but Government of Iraq would not let UNHCR interview them until they were moved to Liberty, because as I said they had other agenda. The SRSG actively cooperated with the Iraqi government to implement forced relocation, and unfortunately UNHCR submitted to this procedure.