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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 March 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Ashraf (Geneva Convention)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

9.30 am

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am pleased to raise this debate about the residents of Ashraf City and the obligations of the United Kingdom, and other members of the so-called coalition, to them in terms of their protected person status under the Geneva convention. I am proud, for the purposes of the debate this morning, to wear the symbol of Ashraf City in solidarity with these people, who are brave patriots of Iran and are looking forward to the day when their country will be rid of a cruel totalitarian regime that not only persecutes their people within Iran, but is acknowledged by United Kingdom Ministers, along with many others, as the arch-exporter of terrorism around the world and, particularly, as destabilising the region of the middle east. That is the backdrop.

I acknowledge the helpful response that I received, as did those of us in the parliamentary campaign that represents the whole political spectrum at Westminster, and which has hon. Members drawn from every party and every persuasion. We acknowledge the endeavours of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and, because it is relevant to show a reason why we have to raise this debate, the noble Lord Malloch-Brown. My reading of the comments and reactions of those Ministers is that they have some sympathy with and concern about the issues involved and, I suspect, anxiety about the future of the people at Camp Ashraf, which is situated some 80 km north of Baghdad.

I name those Ministers because they show where the United Kingdom Government have not shown great coherence of policy and utterances. I separate those three members of the Government from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, in their respective roles as Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Home Office Minister, have sent mixed, ambiguous messages to the regime in Tehran, both in relation to the people at Camp Ashraf and in respect of the wider campaign and movement of people in exile trying to overcome the cruel regime in Iran.

Some of the mixed messages have been given in relation to what the United Kingdom says and does concerning the people of Camp Ashraf. Everyone in the parliamentary campaign Committee recognises that we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be, so we always understand the need for engagement with the cruel regime in Tehran; but we do not accept the need to appease it. In our view, regarding
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the people in exile and those in Ashraf City, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform have not understood that.

Why do we raise the question of the people in Ashraf today? These people have, for two decades, had this camp in Iraq, which is now called Ashraf City. They are Iranians who have stood firm for two decades in defiance, close by the territory governed by the cruel regime in Tehran. Of course, they have been a source of considerable irritation to that totalitarian regime. It is a matter of fact that they were given harbourage there during the time of Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq, but they have always been at pains to distinguish between the accommodation that they were granted by Iraq and the fact that they did not support the Saddam regime.

Just before the invasion of Iraq, my noble Friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale gave the United Kingdom Government the co-ordinates of the Ashraf camp in order that it would not be shelled or attacked by coalition forces. Those of us in the parliamentary Committee have to say with some regret that we are bewildered about what happened to that information supplied by Lord Corbett, because the people in Ashraf suffered and endured attacks by the coalition forces. We wonder whether those co-ordinates were transmitted to our UK coalition commanders. That is history, but it is raised as a relevant issue this morning, because in my view it heightens the obligation of the UK Government now to get it right.

All hon. Members welcome the handing back to the people of Iraq the sovereignty of their country. However, the view of the parliamentary Committee is that that change—particularly handing over the green zones in Baghdad just at the turn of the year—does not absolve the United States, the United Kingdom or other coalition partners of their humanitarian obligations to the people of Ashraf and their obligations under the Geneva convention, because these people have protected person status.

At the challenge of the UK Government the people of Ashraf demilitarised: their weapons were put beyond use. That was a noble gesture. It is a product of a carrot-and-stick policy, but since 2002 they have demonstrably and unchallengeably been disarmed. I deliberately use the word “unchallengeably” because this matter was tested in the UK courts. We in the parliamentary Committee—this is in the Register of Members’ Interests—were proud to pursue in the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission in London, which has the status of the High Court, an appeal against the attitude of the Home Secretary in relation to the supporters of the people of Camp Ashraf City: what is known as the PMOI, or the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. In that court, Lord Justice Ognall accepted that these people had been disarmed since 2002-03, although the British Government tried to imply otherwise.

For your information, Mr. Benton, this matter was tested by the highest standards of the United Kingdom courts. At one point, we members of the parliamentary campaign Committee were excluded from the court and special advocates looked at the secret information, but still the Court found that there had been demilitarisation and the standing-down of weapons. The case went to appeal with the Lord Chief Justice presiding, who said
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that the attitude of the British Government was perverse. I am told that this is a pretty high comment, coming from the Lord Chief Justice.

It is important that the House understand that the judgment of the British Government was found to be flawed. These people in Ashraf, and their supporters, have stood down from what could be described as military activity in a way similar to what Sinn Fein-IRA have done in Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not also find it ironic that although one benefit of the Iraq war is that the people of Iraq have been released from one of the most hideous regimes, under the tyrant Saddam Hussein, one consequence of that—what now could occur—is that a group of people in Camp Ashraf could be taken from a new, democratic country and put into Iran, which is another hideous regime? If that happens, their safety is at risk and some of them could well be executed, because the current Iranian regime has form in that regard, having executed 120,000 people. If those 3,500 people are put into Iran they could find themselves dead.

Andrew Mackinlay: To say the least, it is highly probable that they would be executed and/or suffer appalling persecution. It is important to remember that the Foreign Office, which is very much an hereditary Foreign Office, consists of people similar to those who made the judgment in 1945 to return the Cossacks and Tartars back to Joe Stalin, and we know the consequences of that. That is what hon. Members want to avoid for the people of Ashraf. We fear that they will become the Cossacks of our generation, unless the United States and the United Kingdom make it abundantly clear, primarily to the Iraqi Government but also to Iran, that those people should stay where they are and enjoy the protection of the coalition forces for reasons to which I have referred: our overriding humanitarian obligations and our duty to protect them, as well as our jealous protection of the Geneva convention.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Iraqi Government have said that they will remove the 3,500 people from the camp without force, perhaps to other countries. Does he know which other countries would take them, and whether the Ashraf people are prepared to talk or whether they want to stay?

Andrew Mackinlay: The question is academic, because no country is lining up to offer immigration to the Ashraf people, although it is fair to say that they do not want to move. An immediate issue is the determination of the Iranian regime to have them back in its claws. I shall return to that to explain why.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, on 28 February, former President Rafsanjani of Iran visited Iraq and met the Iraqi President to make the Iranian’s Government’s position abundantly clear on the return of the Ashraf people to Iran. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, the Iranian Government certainly have form. A few months ago, Iranian relatives of Ashraf residents attempted to
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leave Tehran to visit their relatives, and many are still languishing in Evin prison in Tehran, simply for attempting to visit their relatives.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reaffirming the Iranian regime’s form. People who wanted to visit their loved ones are being persecuted for trying to do so.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 28 February, which is an important date, because as well as the former Iranian leaders’ utterances and the visitation to which he referred, the Iranian supreme leader, Khamenei, said:

American and United Kingdom forces—

no doubt he was waving his finger—

That is quite menacing. He told the Iraqi President:

the term used by the regime to describe the PMOI—

Clearly, there is enormous pressure on the Ashraf residents, who feel beleaguered and surrounded, and other hon. Members and I will amplify how threatened they feel and the reasons for that. The backdrop is that the Iranian regime feels increasingly wobbly, which I welcome, and that has been reflected in recent provincial elections in Iran. Khamenei and Rafsanjani are putting pressure on the Iraq Government. Another name that I want to introduce is Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who is the Iraqi national security adviser—many of his utterances have a similar ring to those of Joseph Goebbels—and he said on 8 March:

that is, to demand that the Ashraf residents are handed over—

He continued:

That has the ring of the early 1940s.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that President Talabani has said:

Andrew Mackinlay: Absolutely. The anxiety of my colleagues in the campaign is that the utterances by Iranian leaders are having an impact on the fragile and split Government in Baghdad. The national security adviser, al-Rubaie, goes on to say that the people of Ashraf

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As recently as 11 March, he issued a strongly worded, 10-point directive that was addressed in menacing terms to the citizens of Ashraf. It stated that there is an absolute prohibition on entry of any material except water, food and medicine; that the building at the entrance of Ashraf will be forcibly occupied and the residents expelled; that any Ashraf resident may be arrested; that any Ashraf resident wearing uniform will be prosecuted; that there will be an immediate prohibition on any new construction or changes to the buildings, including those that make Ashraf City civilised, such as squares, boulevards, statues and so on; and that all buildings that are erected can and will be demolished. That menacing persecution diminishes the status and pride of the people who live in exile.

Al-Rubaie went on to say that the number of Iraqis who visit Camp Ashraf will be reduced. There is considerable support for Ashraf City among Iraqi citizens, but the Baghdad Government want to discourage that. Finally, an intelligence officer—someone who is close to the Prime Minister of Iraq—will control the gate of Ashraf. The citizens of Ashraf must allow Iraqi forces to inspect and control vehicles and supplies coming into Ashraf, and the Iraq flag must be hoisted on all watchtowers and in the middle of the camp. Al-Rubaie calls it Camp Ashraf; I call it Ashraf City. Those inspections by Iraqi soldiers take place around the clock.

On 13 March, Iraqi forces attempted forcibly to evacuate some buildings in Ashraf City that were occupied by women citizens in a women’s dormitory. That was painful, traumatic and menacing, and it took place for reasons that we cannot understand. We believe that there was no legitimate excuse, but that Iraqi forces wanted to assert their right to move in and to demonstrate their power.

Similar incidents have occurred during the past few weeks, and thank goodness for the presence of the United States military. I do not mean to trivialise the situation, but they came over the hill like the seventh cavalry in the nick of time to be adjudicators in the dispute to prevent what could have been a very dangerous situation, which could have been inflamed and escalated out of all proportion.

When the United States military are not around, however, the Iraqi forces—at the bidding, in my view, of the Iran Government—take advantage of that. I am referring to the tactics of moving in and aggravating the people of Ashraf. That needs to stop, and it can be stopped if the United States makes it clear to both the Iraq Government and Iran that it will not tolerate it and if the United Kingdom Government also say, “We’re standing by this. We will support the United States. We, too, believe that we have obligations to these people, both on general humanitarian considerations and in relation to the Geneva conventions.”

Another canard that is put around is that, somehow, the people in Ashraf City are being held and maintained or contained in the city against their will. That is totally untrue; it is a ludicrous claim. We all acknowledge that, in a population of 3,500 to 4,000 people, there will inevitably be people—one is not bothered by this—who, for a variety of reasons, want to get out of the situation. After all, you and I know, Mr. Benton, that people leave holy orders, even though they were committed at some stage for the long haul—for life. We all wanted to get into politics, but some of us are now beginning to
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consider our exit strategy. We do not do things for ever. Many of the people in Ashraf City have been there for two decades, so it is hardly surprising that there is a trickle of people who wish to leave—and leave they can. About 250 people have left, over quite a long period, but the vast majority want to stay where they are, and those who wish to leave can leave.

Hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have interviewed people in Ashraf City to reassure themselves that there is no compulsion on people to stay. It is nonsense to say otherwise, but that is sometimes spun by the Iranian regime and now by the Iraq Government, and what I fear from time to time is that the United Kingdom spokespersons pick up on that nonsense and repeat it, again giving succour and encouragement to the propaganda regime of Iran.

Many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, and I shall be pleased to hear their views. I have said that I acknowledge the spirit in which the United States military have kept an eye on the people of Ashraf. Through this debate and through the United Kingdom Government, we want to urge them to continue to do so, but we in the parliamentary campaign think that it is time that the United Kingdom Government went and had a look themselves. I do not know what modalities exist for that, but we are saying in this debate that we are quite certain about the persecution. We are quite certain about the jeopardy that the people are in. We are quite certain that they are not there for any reason other than their desire to be patriots and stand firm against the regime. They do not want to leave. However, we are inviting the British Government to test that themselves.

It is time that there was a mission or a visit made at official level. That in itself would also send a powerful signal to the Government in Baghdad and, through them, back to Tehran. For reasons of wider foreign policy, it is time that we were sending more robust signals of our aggravation about the stance internationally of the Tehran regime. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), because he looks as though he is poised to intervene.

Mr. Binley: I am merely listening intently.

Andrew Mackinlay: I see; then I shall conclude, because I think that I have painted a pretty good canvas to show what the position is. We look to the British Government to respond. I hope that we can send this morning a signal from the United Kingdom House of Commons to people both in Ashraf City and around the world in exile who are looking for the day when the persecution will be lifted and they can restore parliamentary democracy and secular government to a very important, proud and historic country, which has a wonderful record of contributing to civilisation. That is what we wish to see returned, and we acknowledge this morning the great contribution that is being made to that task and the great bravery that is being shown by the people of Ashraf City.

9.55 am

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I start by offering hearty congratulations to my friend the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has been a doughty fighter for this cause for many years
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and who, since I have been a Member of this place, has been at the forefront of this battle. His efforts deserve congratulations and need to be recognised.

Let me read out one of the most chilling statements that I have heard in recent history:

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