The top U.N. official in Iraq directed his staff to cover up the prisonlike conditions of a relocation camp for Iranian dissidents in reports to the world body, said a former U.N. official who has resigned in protest.
In his first interview since leaving his post, Tahar Boumedra told The Washington Times that Martin Kobler, U.N. special representative for Iraq, wanted the dissidents relocated quickly to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. Army base near Baghdad’s airport, and then moved out of Iraq.
Mr. Kobler “misled [the U.N.] headquarters in New York, Washington” and the dissidents about conditions at Camp Liberty in his rush to move them from Camp Ashraf, where they have lived since 1986, said Mr. Boumedra, the former human rights chief at the U.N. mission in Baghdad.
Mr. Boumedra said he “got the shock of my life” when he first visited Camp Liberty in December.
“I had visited a lot of prisons but that place was worse than a prison,” said Mr. Boumedra, an Algerian activist who has promoted human rights and penal reform in North Africa and the Middle East for many years.
Iraqis vandalized the camp after U.S. troops left, he said, and facilities were in utter disrepair.
Containers that had been used as soldiers’ living quarters were piled high with trash. Doors dangled from their hinges, and windows were smashed.
Mr. Kobler “asked us to go back and take pictures of the camp and the facilities, and make sure that the most appealing pictures are to be put in a file and presented to the residents and the diplomatic community that, ‘Here is a camp of high standards, meeting all the refugees’ requirements,’” said Mr. Boumedra, who left Iraq in May.
“He asked me, and I underline this, that we make sure that ‘sellable pictures,’ be used,” he said. “I found myself fabricating reports and doctoring pictures in order to mislead my organization, the international community and the Ashrafis.”
About 2,000 of Camp Ashraf’s more than 3,000 residents have been transferred to Camp Liberty under a deal brokered by the United Nations. The first group arrived in February.
The Iranian dissidents and their supporters, including a bipartisan group of lawmakers and former U.S. officials, have complained since January about substandard living conditions at Camp Liberty.
Asked about Mr. Boumedra’s allegations, Mr. Kobler’s office directed questions to the U.N. headquarters in New York.
“It is regrettable that such a distorted picture is being presented of the efforts of the United Nations in Iraq to resolve peacefully the situation of Camp Ashraf,” said Jared Kotler, a New York-based spokesman for the U.N. Department of Political Affairs, which oversees the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq.
Mr. Kotler said the U.N. mission under Mr. Kobler’s leadership has worked “diligently and impartially to facilitate a peaceful solution that respects the rights and concerns of both the residents and the government of Iraq.”
“These efforts are one of the main reasons why this very tense situation has not already spilled over into further violence,” he added.
Dispute over living conditions
Known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MeK, the dissidents sought the overthrow of Iran’s theocratic regime in the early 1980s, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein gave them refuge at Camp Ashraf, a base near Baghdad. After Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, U.S. military forces disarmed the dissidents, who renounced violence in 2001.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an ally of Iran, has sought to shut down Camp Ashraf, which Iraqi forces have attacked several times with deadly results. The dissidents fear that Mr. al-Maliki will turn them over to Iran, where they expect they would be imprisoned, tortured or executed.
The U.N. brokered a deal with Iraqi leaders to move the dissidents to Camp Liberty.
Mr. Boumedra, the lead U.N. official in talks with the Iraqis to close Camp Ashraf, said he advised Mr. Kobler not to accept a memorandum of understanding that came out of those talks because the Iraqis were dismissive of international human rights standards.
“I told him there are certain values of the United Nations on which we cannot compromise. Yet we did compromise,” Mr. Boumedra said.
He said Mr. Kobler replied: ” ‘Tahar, why are you so negative?’ So, protecting human rights is negative?”
The relocation has stumbled primarily over conditions at Camp Liberty.
After weeks of stalemate, the MeK leadership, which is based in Paris, announced Saturday that it was ready to move another 400 residents from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty as a “goodwill gesture.”
U.S. and U.N. officials who have visited Camp Liberty say conditions there meet international humanitarian standards.
“The U.N. has insisted that Camp [Liberty] meets basic humanitarian standards as a precondition to the transfer of the residents and its involvement in the process,” Mr. Kotler said. “The camp does meet these standards and is ready and equipped to receive the remaining residents of Camp Ashraf.
“There has been continuous progress in the work to further improve the living conditions” at Camp Liberty, he added.
A State Department official, who spoke on background, said officials from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad make weekly visits to Camp Liberty.
“We are aware of the MeK claims considering the conditions at Camp [Liberty]; however, while there are some ongoing issues, the residents’ basic humanitarian needs are met,” the official said.
The ongoing issues include setting up a water treatment facility and the transfer of residents’ personal belongings to Camp Liberty.
“What was planned and what was expected for [Camp Liberty] pretty much has been met,” the State Department official said.
Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department’s special adviser on Camp Ashraf, visited Camp Liberty in July and said he saw air-conditioned living quarters, gardens tended with recycled water and clean water in the taps.
“I would characterize conditions there as spartan but livable, and public claims to the contrary did not appear accurate to me,” Mr. Fried told reporters on his return to Washington.
The State Department official who spoke on background said Camp Liberty residents each receive more than 53 gallons of water a day, which does not include the bottled water that is provided, and they have electricity around the clock.
The camp “does meet humanitarian standards. It also far exceeds what average Iraqis get,” the official said, adding that most Iraqis get 18 to 24 gallons of water per day and Baghdad residents have about nine hours of electricity daily.
Camp Liberty residents say much of the water they receive is wasted because the infrastructure is in shambles.
U.S. policy on MeK
Mr. Boumedra said he was marginalized after he complained about the deceptive practices. “I became sort of an obstacle to progress,” he said.
He eventually resigned and has spent the past couple of months pondering his situation. “I say, ‘Was that a nightmare? Was I really involved in those things?’ I lost respect for all these institutions and also for myself because I was part of it,” he said.
Mr. Boumedra’s account of the conditions at Camp Liberty hews to that provided by the MeK and its supporters, including former U.S. officials, some of whom have acknowledged being paid for their speeches in support of the MeK.
Bruce McColm, an MeK supporter and president of the Virginia-based Global Initiative for Democracy, said his nonprofit advocacy group is paying Mr. Boumedra’s airfare and hotel bills in the U.S.
Mr. McColm said he first met Mr. Boumedra in July and brought him to the U.S. because “it was worth having someone with his background in the field of human rights and his past position with [the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq] to give a fresh perspective of the situation of the people in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty.”
Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a former assistant secretary of state who has studied the MeK and has no financial ties to the group, met and talked at length with Mr. Boumedra last week.
“While many U.N. missions face challenges and host-country pressures, Mr. Boumedra’s account of why he resigned suggests that the senior U.N. leadership in New York and, quite possibly, U.S. policy officials in Washington have been seriously misled by [the U.N. mission in Iraq] over the past year as to the true situation on the ground at Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty,” Mr. Bloomfield said.
Mr. Boumedra criticized past and current U.S. policy on Camp Ashraf, and described it as a total shambles.
The Clinton administration placed the MeK on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997 as it was attempting to open negotiations with Iran. The Obama administration has linked the dissidents’ cooperation in the relocation to taking it off the blacklist.
A U.S. appeals court in June ordered Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to decide within four months whether to remove the MeK from the terrorist list.
Britain and the European Union took the MeK off their lists in 2008 and 2009, respectively. But the group’s presence on the U.S. list has deterred other nations from taking in the Iranian dissidents.
“The [terrorist listing] is not helping the U.N. progress in monitoring or protecting the fundamental rights of this community,” Mr. Boumedra said. “Keeping them on the [list] will embolden the government of Iraq and encourages what is going on.”
Mr. Kotler, the U.N. spokesman, said that under the agreement with the Iraqi government, the dissidents will not be repatriated forcibly to Iran or to any other country.
However, U.S. and U.N. officials remain worried about the prospect of a crackdown on the dissidents by Iraqi authorities. On July 31, Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih Al-Fayadh, threatened to forcibly shut down Camp Ashraf.