Iranian dissidents in Iraq transferred to remote prison

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2009 

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi security officials beat and forcibly transferred 36 members of an Iranian dissident group to a remote southern prison despite an Iraqi judge's orders to free them, the judge and the group's leaders said Monday.

International human rights groups have called for government intervention to protect the Iraq-based camp of the Mujahedeen e Khalq, a militant group that's committed to overthrowing the neighboring Iranian government.

The Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government, which has close ties to Tehran, instead allowed its security forces to blockade the camp and carry out a July raid that left 11 MEK members dead and three dozen in custody. MEK members in Iraq and abroad are on their 70th day of a hunger strike to draw attention to the case.

The detainees were moved overnight Sunday from Baghdad to a makeshift prison in the southern province of Muthanna, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of groups that oppose the Iranian regime. MEK leaders fear they'll face persecution and abuse.

"The specialized judge ordered their release, and the executive authorities should have carried the order out," said Abdulsattar al Biraqdar, a spokesman for the Iraqi judiciary. "We have no knowledge what happened to them after that. Our official duty ends here, but, humanely, we are concerned."

A senior aide to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki refused to comment on the case, referring questions to security officials. The officials couldn't be reached Monday.

The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the MEK to set up a base about 65 miles north of Baghdad in a compound known as Camp Ashraf. Although the State Department considers the MEK a terrorist organization, the group was disarmed after the American-led invasion of Iraq and the residents there lived under U.S. protection until recently.

Now, however, Iraqi authorities are in charge of the future of the remaining 3,500 or so MEK members. Senior Iraqi officials with close ties to Tehran seek to deport the group to Iran, where its members could face imprisonment

Ghadhanfar Jassim Mohammad, a judge in Khalis, the main town near Camp Ashraf, said he ordered the release of the Iranian detainees in three separate rulings. Each time, security officials refused to free the prisoners.

"Their presence on Iraqi soil, according to the law, is legitimate," Mohammad said Monday. "There was no evidence forwarded to me that they had broken any Iraqi law."

The MEK's tactics, which in the 1970s included attacks on Americans who were working for the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, earned the group a spot on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Some U.S. politicians have lobbied to remove the MEK from the list and recruit it for intelligence gathering on Iran.

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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