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Iraq: Alarm at Forced Transfer of Basra Union Activists

by Richard Norton-Taylor

BASRA - Eight Iraqi trade union leaders have been forcibly transferred from Basra to Baghdad, where their lives are said to be at risk for opposing a planned law in which control over oil exploration and production would be placed in foreign hands.

The men, members of the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions, IFOU, have been moved to the capital apparently on the personal orders of Hussain al-Shahristani, the Iraqi oil minister, under anti-union legislation left over from Saddam Hussein's rule. Greg Muttitt, co-director of Platform, the human rights, environment and oil industry watchdog, described the men's transfer as "extremely disturbing". He met Shahristani a month ago to protest against the move.

The Iraqi oil minister said the eight men were involved with the militias and in criminal activities, such as smuggling. But Muttitt said: "There is absolutely no substance in these extremely serious allegations and he offered no evidence."

Even if there was such evidence, it should be a matter for the Iraqi judicial authorities and the courts, he added.

British officials in Baghdad and Basra have investigated the affair, said Kim Howells, the foreign minister. In a letter, he said Britain wanted to repeal Saddam's "restrictive" union laws and said Anne Clywd, the prime minister's special envoy on human rights, had recently "emphasised the fundamental need for free and fair trade unions in Iraq".

However, he added: "It appears that the government of Iraq is tackling illegal trade union activities with the South Oil Company."

John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, said: "The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions has been leading the opposition to the sell-off of Iraq's oil and these members are clearly being targeted for their political actions. We believe the British government should work for the safety of Iraqi trade unionists, not be complicit in their persecution."

In a letter to Howells, he said: "We would also like you to state whether the British government in any way condones the transfer of trade unionists into dangerous areas as a method of "tackling their activities, whether legal or illegal".

Hassan Juma'a Awad, an IFOU spokesman, claimed the transfer was ordered by Shahristani himself. "Those activists, through their hard work, are well known for fighting corruption and corrupt-ministry gangs in the oil sector," he insisted, adding that the transfer amounted to a "human rights crime".

© 2008 The Guardian

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