In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates Monday, the lawyers ask the US military to protect a group of about 3,400 Iranian dissidents called the People's Mujahideen of Iran (MKO) who live in a camp inside Iraq about 60 miles from the Iranian border.
The US has insisted that a July raid on the camp is an issue of Iraqi sovereignty. But human rights lawyers in Washington Monday said the US had both a legal and moral obligation to prevent brutality at Camp Ashraf.
"The United States bears not only moral but legal responsibility for the events at Ashraf, and the 'sovereignty defense' is simply inadequate," said the Aug. 10 letter, signed by three human rights lawyers, including Steven Schneebaum who has acted as the MKO's counsel in the US for several years.
"We can't resume responsibility for the camp even if we wanted to," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell in an e-mail. "Under the Security Agreement, we don't have that authority; however we continue to remind the government of Iraq of their international obligation to treat those still residing in the camp as humanely as possible." [Story as been updated at 5:17 p.m. ET.]
On July 28, Iraqi forces staged a raid on the camp that the human rights lawyers say resulted in nine deaths, as many as 450 injuries, and 36 refugees kidnapped. Iraqi officials have admitted to about seven fatalities in the raid. A video of the crackdown lawyers played Monday showed Iraqi forces beating members of the MKO with sharp boards, hosing them with water, and running them over what appeared to be US-made Humvees. The lawyers claim the attacks occurred as some American forces stood by, filming the melee.
The US had for years protected the refugees in the camp, but it relinquished responsibility for their protection in January after receiving written assurances from the Shiite-led government that the group would not be harmed, nor would they be handed over to countries where they might face prosecution.
"[W]e have made it clear to the Iraqis that we believe those people who live within that camp should be treated humanely, regardless of what their designation is by the State Department," said Mr. Morrell, the Pentagon's press secretary last week. Under the current status of forces agreement, all US forces are to leave the country by 2011.
How the Iraqis handle the group of refugees is seen as one measure whether it bends to the influence of Tehran, which sees the group as subversive – they allied with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s – and wants them deported back to Iran.
Mr. Schneebaum believes the Obama administration's efforts to begin to normalize relations with Tehran is preventing US officials from getting involved in the incident at Camp Ashraf.
"The dialogue with Iran should not be done at the expense of crimes upon humanity," he said.
The MKO remains on a US terrorist group list that precludes its members from being brought to the US.
The long-term future of the group remains a question. But for now, human rights lawyers want the US military to assert control over the camp by removing Iraqi security forces and preventing further violence.
"Whatever it takes," Schneebaum said.