When a who’s who of Washington heavyweights spoke at a panel two weeks ago on behalf of the MEK, an Iranian opposition group currently considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge made a claim that the members of the group who currently reside in Iraq enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention. But the State Department tells TPM that’s not true.
During his remarks, after reading aloud portions of the MEK’s ten-point plan for the future of Iran, which includes calls for a “pluralist system,” “separation of church and state,” and an Iran “devoid of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction,” Ridge made a plea:
That’s the Iran that the resistance, the People’s Mojahedin, MEK, have fought for, believe in. Remember they relinquished their arms. They’re protected under the Geneva Convention. We have to send a message to Al-Maliki and to the Iraqi government. The United States troops handed responsibility of protecting these individuals, who are protected under the Geneva Convention, to you. How can you tolerate those loudspeakers, and what about these incursions that precipitated some problems inside Camp Ashraf? You must heed the admonition. You promised to protect them under the Geneva Convention. Right now, one wonders the sincerity of that initial promise.
Ridge was referring to the 3,400 or so MEK members who currently live at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, and who were recently attacked. But the State Department says the Geneva Convention claim is wrong.
“MEK members are not ‘protected persons’ under the Fourth Geneva Convention,” a State Department official in the Counterterrorism Office told TPM in an email. “After the end of the occupation of Iraq, the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) continued to treat the MEK as ‘protected persons’ as a matter of policy, not as a matter of legal obligation, until MNF-I’s UN mandate expired at the end of 2008.”
In 2007, the department’s terror list included a sentence that the Camp Ashraf residents “have been designated as ‘protected persons’ under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” But in 2008, the list stated that Camp Ashraf residents “have been treated as ‘protected persons’ consistent with provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” And the 2009 list makes no mention of the Geneva Convention.
As State Department official explains it, “With the expiration of MNF-I’s UNSCR mandate, the Government of Iraq assumed security responsibility for Ashraf on January 1, 2009. The Government of Iraq assured the USG in writing that it will treat the MEK humanely and will not forcibly transfer them to any country where they will be tortured or be persecuted based on religious or political beliefs.”
MEK members went to Iraq in 1986, after they were forced to leave France. They were offered safe haven by Saddam Hussein, who armed them and deployed them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. According to the State Department, Hussein also used MEK forces to crack down on Iraqi Shia and Kurds in the early 1990s, and the group received millions of dollars in Oil-for-Food program subsidies from Hussein. Earlier this month, MEK supporters accused Iraqi special forces and Iranian agents of orchestrating an attack on Camp Ashraf and injuring 175 people.
At the D.C. event, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey also mentioned the Geneva Convention in regard to the residents of Camp Ashraf, but his take was more nuanced.
“In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, the residents of Camp Ashraf surrendered their weapons, the weapons they had to defend themselves, and accepted written confirmation from the then deputy Commander of allied forces in Iraq, General Jeffrey Miller, on behalf of the United States, that they were protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention,” Mukasey said. “From 2003 until 2009, the United States protected the residents of Ashraf and fulfilled the solemn obligation that we had undertaken in 2003. But in January 2009, as some of you may know, the United States turned over responsibility for safety and security to Iraqi security forces.”
And Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson mentioned “protecting the rights of those at the camp,” though he added it was “something that I was not aware of until this morning.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com