Thursday, June 03, 2004
A couple of readers have kindly pointed out the absence of news stories from Asia in recent posts – the focus on the Madrid bombings and Iraq (still a major issue in this post) in recent blogs took up a lot of space and crowded out other stories. This time, there is a bit more of an effort to look East, but fortunately my friend Nick Allott has decided to help us out by setting up his own blog covering events in East Asia which you can take a look at. Nick is substantially better informed on the region and has plenty of interest to say, so please visit. East Asian events will still be covered here but Nick provides more detailed scrutiny of this region.
Currently the majority of readers are either British, or living here in London, so there is a slant towards British stories, but if there is something or somewhere you think this blog should focus on, or if you have any other comments, send them along to email@example.com.
In this posting we have the following stories, vying for your attention:
• Back to school – some tales from my place of work and thoughts on education
• A gleam of light in Asia - defeat for fascism at the ballot box in India
• When prison is a crime – a fire in a Honduran jail
• Charlie sells his friends short - hot young things and London’s cocaine lifestyle
• British soldiers dying in the field (in Britain)
• The government of Thailand’s entry into British football
• The gloves off, the electrodes on – the US resorts to torture all over the world
• Don’t forget about Darfur, Africa’s latest tragedy
• Remembering Tiananmen Square 15 years on
“I’ve stopped reading the newspapers,” Donald Rumsfeld told cheering US soldiers in Baghdad. The statement of someone who does not want to know about the consequences of his own actions. Of someone who will not listen to criticism or bad news. Of someone who has no interest in the world that he lives off, while the rest of us have to live in it.
To listen to an anti-capitalist song by Toby Slater, with video, visit here (it's not bad!)
For more Dilbert cartoons, visit the Official Site
STOP THIS WAR - US AND THE REST OUT THE GULF
John Sherffius, St Louis
It's terrible that working-class teenagers join the Army to get college funds, or job training, or work--what kind of nation is this where Jessica Lynch had to invade Iraq in order to fulfill her modest dream of becoming an elementary school teacher and Shoshanna Johnson had to be a cook on the battlefield to qualify for a culinary job back home?
Katha Pollitt, The Nation May 20th 2004
I hate it when they say, ‘He gave his life for his country.’ We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them. They don’t die for the honor and glory of their country. We kill them.
– Rear Admiral Gene R. LaRocque
Peter Nicholson, Melbourne, Australia
After each war there is a little less democracy to save.
Iraqi civilians killed in rebel car bombing
There is no independence for the New Iraq after June 30th
THE OCCUPATION OF IRAQ DOES NOT END ON JUNE 30th
STOP THIS WAR 2 - ETHNIC CLEANSING IN THE SUDAN
Mass graves in Darfur
Amnesty - Darfur victims tell their story
HRW - Aid is not enough (but they need that too)
More information below
The World is selling out Darfur. Wherever you live, please demand that your government protest
NEWS IN BRIEF - some stories not given attention elsewhere in this blog
Bill Cosby plays to the prejudices of white America and smears blacks in poverty
Beginning of war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone
Finally! A resignation at the CIA
General Pinochet facing trial again
Rural schools neglected in South Africa
Vietnamese government under scrutiny for killings of Montagnards
Breakdown in truce between Turkish military and Kurdish rebels
Thoughts on Japanese/North Korean relations
Regime in Burma lying to international community, says UN
Russian television station fires last critic of regime
End of martial law in Indonesia's province of Aceh?
Britiah takeaways quietly lay off undocumented Chinese workers
Israeli operation in occupied Rafah leaves 58 people dead and 183 homes destroyed
Reporting on the aftermath in Rafah
MANY CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND
It’s been a little while since I regaled readers with events at our primary school here in the London borough of Haringey and I know some of you like to hear what goes on there, so here we are. As usual, the names have all been changed. Also, readers might bear in mind that I’m only offering glimpses into the lives of these kids and those who work with them – there is a story behind each of these children that neither you nor I am privy to.
One child readers have often asked about is Jasmine, the seven-year-old Vietnamese girl, who has caused destruction and chaos greatly disproportionate to her size. A few weeks ago, it seemed we were back to a very unpleasant square one. Bored and angry, Jasmine stood on the tables while gathering rulers and chucking them at other children. She ignored demands from myself and her teacher and jumped off the table looking for the first and most damaging thing she could do, which was to pick up a pair of scissors and throw them in James’ face. She was removed from the class and excluded for the next four days. James was unharmed, and like most of the kids in that class had responded to the whole thing with remarkable calmness.
Jasmine was back next week and soon on the war path again. This time the teacher and I were somewhat quicker to prevent her attacking anyone, but she scratched her teacher and chucked all the stationary she could reach at the nearest possible soft targets (as the US air-force describes children). It was a cold and calculating act of terrorism – you could see in her eyes what she was looking to do and she did it just for its own sake, not because the perfectly harmless girls at her table had done anything to provoke her.
Forward to the end of the half-term, however, and the situation is different. Last week, Jasmine’s teacher took her to make a phone call to her Mum, thanking her for working on Jasmine’s behaviour which had vastly improved, and letting Jasmine say hi. Jasmine has a sheet each day where she can put stickers for each part of the day she gets through without acts of mass destruction – nice, colourful stickers with florescent, holographic bits. And each time I’ve seen Jasmine since, she has usually been carrying a sheet covered with jazzy stickers. She has a personal assistant some of the time and gets a session each day in the nursery, doing activities with the 3-4 year olds. It is still an endless struggle to try and integrate her into the lessons of her classmates, but in recent days Jasmine has been better, and it seems we may have made a breakthrough after all.
Last week was as tough and oddly rewarding as being a teacher assistant ever is – with all the usual efforts to teach arithmetic, assist reading, prevent violence, keep the peace and end disputes among girls (the last of which I am particularly bad at). We've just had to give Standard Assessment Tests to the year 2 and year 6 children, a government policy of giving exams to 6 year-olds+ that the staff are unanimous in opposing. Ever come across a teacher who supports government education policy on SATs? Me, neither. US readers have something similar – the grossly misnamed “No Child Left Behind” policy that is absolutely guaranteed and designed to leave children behind.
Random picture of British schoolchildren
The SATs were part of a redesigning of the education system under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, spearheaded by the education secretary of the late 1980s, Kenneth Baker – in whose honour we have ‘Baker Days’ (non-pupil, staff training days at school). The situation of British schools was outlined by Nick Davies in his excellent book, ‘The School Report’:
“If a school takes in a substantial proportion of children who come from a disadvantaged background – if their parents do not read, if they have no books at home, if they are awake half the night and then half asleep all day, if they have been emotionally damaged by problems in their family or in their community, if they have suffered from an environment which, more than any other, is likely to expose them to drug abuse and violence and alcohol abuse and the collapse of social boundaries – then the school is more likely to fail academically.
A school which is based on a disadvantaged community will struggle with its children; one that is based in a more affluent area will prosper. This is not an occasional problem, but an endemic one. There are about 13.3 million children in Britain. On any available measure, some 4.6 million live in poverty – and they are all enrolled in schools. The evidence that poverty undermines education is overwhelming – and has been for decades. Yet governments deny it. The last government denied the poverty itself. This government admits the poverty but denies the impact. By obscuring this simple reality, the public discourse on our school system has entered the realm of the absurd and become lost there.”
The SAT results are published in league tables – the idea is, according to the conservatives’ euphemism, to allow parental choice. That is, the right of affluent families who can afford to move easily to choose to send their children to schools without working-class kids in them – or in the US, much more overtly to allow white parents to avoid letting their kids mix with poor black kids.
SAT results on their own take no account of how hard a school has tried, or how much progress children have made compared with how they started, or whether able, well-motivated children in what we call good schools have been sold short by a mediocre education. But they do tell you, with near 100% accuracy, whether the kids in the school come from affluent families or poor ones – those who did OK under Thatcher and those who paid for it. The current government has partly acknowledged this with new “value-added” league tables, but the initial results are still published devoid of context, and the school is disadvantaged as a result, to the great dismay of our Head, whose constant complaints have been ignored.
Kenneth Baker was asked about the division of Britain’s schools along class lines by Nick Davies. He replied, sounding like a comic-book villain:
“Oh, yes. That was deliberate. … [Parental] Choice was the other weapon. I hoped it would open up and it would lead to the poorer schools literally having to close. I was not going to take on the comprehensive system head-on. I’d had the teachers’ strike… you can’t take on yet another great fight. So I believed that if I set in train certain changes, that they would have, er, a cumulative beneficial effect. Ah-huh-huh-huh. … I took away all negotiating rights from the union. It was quite brutal… Ah-huh-huh-huh. It was absolutely extreme stuff. Ah-huh-huh-huh… I … diminished the power of the teacher unions and the LEAs [Local Education Authorities]. They hate me. Ah-huh-huh-huh.”
Yes, this guy is for real. He was Secretary of State for Education and his policies are the basis of Britain’s present education policy. Ah-huh-huh-huh. These people ruled Britain for 18 years. Ah-huh-huh-huh.
Trying to help one girl with her arithmetic this week, a seven-year-old Turkish girl, let’s call her Akasma, lamented to me that she was stupid. Unfortunately, many children come to this view of themselves very early in life and will allow it to prevent them from doing anything challenging in the future.
Akasma, a delightful child, is at the bottom of her class but is not stupid and I told her as much, but as others continue to outperform her, it will become harder to convince her of this. Last year, I saw her attempting to spell the words of some shapes and was perplexed at the fact that she had made such a good effort at the spellings and yet got nearly every letter wrong. For ‘square’ she had written ‘zqwer’, for ‘triangle’ charangool and for ‘circle’ solcool.
But this is not an example of stupidity, but quite the reverse – you can see that she had tried hard using what she knew of phonics to spell each word. Other children might have refused to have a go without someone giving them the answer, but she had tried to do it all by herself. Zqwer is arguably just as good as ‘square’, and charangool and solcool are probably the result of mishearing the words, and represent pretty good approximations. Unfortunately, while Akasma does all this good thinking, she keeps on getting wrong answers and finding that her efforts merely result in mistakes, an experience that must be demoralising after a while - test scores in particular tend to reward memory over thinking. I hope, however, that it is not too late for her to discover that she really isn’t stupid, just learning, like the rest of us.
Occasionally I am in classes when the children are doing handwriting practice. Some kids like it, but most find it immensely tedious and doing handwriting all afternoon is sometimes used as a punishment for bad behaviour in recognition of this.
I am not a professional psychologist (or a professional anything actually), so I may be wrong in some of my guesses, but it seems to me that getting the children to copy out letters and combinations of letters is not the best way to do handwriting practice. Practising skills by themselves is always boring and the work has all the appeal of making adults dig holes in the ground and fill them in again as a form of exercise.
Occasionally the children finish their handwriting sheets and ask me to put in new letters for them to copy out. Usually, I write something like their names or their friends’ names to copy out – a task they are understandably more enthusiastic about.
A few weeks back, a girl, a very bright 8-year-old, let’s call her Layla, sat back in her chair, arms and legs crossed, and demanded that I do her handwriting for her in mock-dramatic tones. I took her work and pretended to do it for her but instead found a blank space and wrote ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ for her to copy – the longest word in the English language (referring to those who oppose the disestablishment of the Church of the England from the British state). After staring at it she protested to her friends, but then decided she wanted to have a go writing it out. Suddenly and oddly, I was in demand – the other children wanted me to write it in their handwriting folders too, particularly some of the boys who hate handwriting practise. I have tried this trick out with another class and it caused some excitement there too, and not just because it came as a distraction from monotony, but because some of the kids genuinely wanted to have a go.
This isn’t exactly my idea, mind you. Helping children to write by getting them to write words that really mean something to them or they find interesting has been done before, perhaps most famously by the New Zealand primary school teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner.
Ashton-Warner taught indigenous Maori children in New Zealand in the 1950s and early 1960s. Like most indigenous peoples in societies taken over by white settlers, Maoris were generally poor and marginalised, and the children in Ashton-Warner’s class were expected to be life-failures and few whites held any other ambitions for them.
Despite this, Ashton-Warner had great success in getting Maori 5 and 6-year-olds to read (and to pay attention to her in class). Her technique was to ask children what words they wanted to learn to write and then to put them on cards for them. If they couldn’t think of anything, she would ask them what they were most afraid of or what they had dreams about. And so, she gave them cards with words like: Daddy, Mummy, ghost, bomb, kiss, brothers, butcher knife, jail, love, dance, cry, fight, hat, bulldog, touch, wild piggy, jet.
As a result, the children would be learning to read and write using words that were very personal to them – and they got the idea that writing was a way of expressing themselves, not just something teachers told them to do. So when the children started writing, they wrote about their own, often unhappy, lives in a very intense way:
“Mummie got a hiding off Daddy He was drunk. She was crying.”
“Nanny’s in the coffin under the ground.”
“I went to the river and I kissed Lily and I ran away. Then I kissed Phillipa Then I ran away and went for a swim.”
“Our baby is dead. She was dead on Monday night. When mummie got it”
“I don’t like Mrs Henderson She wears black.”
“I love Mrs Henderson best in the world.”
All of this was a world away from the learn-to-read books produced for the white children – “See Janet. This is Janet. Janet has a ball. Look, John, look.” The story is recorded in Ashton-Warner’s book ‘Teacher’, published in 1963, which became the basis for a film ‘Sylvia’ in 1985.
Of course, the basic idea that children learn better when doing something that really engages them or something they have chosen for themselves is acknowledged in many ways at our school, but perhaps it can be extended.
A week ago, I spent part of the afternoon in a Year 2 class (6-7 year-olds) and worked with a Somali girl, whom I’ll call Selima. Selima was given the task of writing a poem about the sea, with lines beginning ‘By the sea…’ Selima is capable of great things but it is no easy task to persuade her to do them if she doesn’t feel like it – she prefers to go wild with a giggly kind of silliness. At the beginning of the year she would not pick up a pencil, and when she did she was barely able to spell her name. Nonetheless, she sat down with me and began writing one line. And then another. And then another, until she managed seven whole lines. I guess this is one of those stories where you had to be there, but there was really something quite joyous about it. Her poem has since been mounted and stuck up on the wall at her teacher’s instruction, hoping to encourage her further.
John Holt, the great figure of the tragically thwarted education reform movement in the US, once wrote: “Not to like little children, or find them interesting and enjoy their company, is no crime. But it is surely a great misfortune and a great loss, like having no legs or being deaf or blind.” And he was right.
Another arbitrary picture
I am especially keen to hear from people on the subject of education, so please go out of your way to reply with your thoughts...
SEEING CLEARLY NOW THE RAIN HAS GONE
A surprise piece of good news was last month’s elections in India, where despite the predictions of opinion surveys and exit polls (see this article!), the reigning BJP crashed to defeat at the polls. On May 13th the Bharatiya Janata Party looked set to win another term, and on May 14th they were gone. Or at least a bit anyway.
India’s prize-winning novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy wrote an article celebrating their defeat under the title ‘A Darkness has Passed’.
In a world of openly malicious and sordid governments, the BJP in India, led by atal Behari Vajpayee, with oversight over the lives and welfare of more than one billion people, was still a stand out. The BJP’s intellectual background consists of a mixture of European fascism (including undisguised admiration for Hitler - yes, that Hitler) and Hindu chauvinism, and the party has come to stand for almost everything that is bad about India – the rigid caste system, militarism, anti-Muslim racism, sectarian massacre, the fetishing of nuclear weapons, repression, the denial of self-determination to the Kashmir valley through violence and a programme of economic modernisation that crushes the poor.
None of these things begin or end with the BJP, but the Indian electorate’s rejection of their government is, in part, a vote against them. Arundhati Roy describes the new reach of state repression:
“In recent years, the number of people killed by the police and security forces runs into tens of thousands. Andhra Pradesh (neo-liberalism's poster state) chalks up an average of about 200 deaths of "extremists" in "encounters" every year. In Kashmir an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989. Thousands have simply "disappeared".
‘According to the Association of Parents of Disappeared People in Kashmir, more than 2,500 people were killed in 2003. In the last 18 months there have been 54 deaths in custody. The Indian state's proclivity to harass and terrorise has been institutionalised by the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota). In Tamil Nadu, the act has been used to stifle criticism of the state government. In Jharkhand, 3,200 people, mostly poor adivasis (indigenous people) accused of being Maoists, have been named in Pota cases. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, the act is used to clamp down on those who protest about the dispossession of their land. In Gujarat and Mumbai, it is used almost exclusively against Muslims. In Gujarat, after the 2002 pogrom in which an estimated 2,000 Muslims were killed, 287 people were accused under Pota: 286 were Muslim and one a Sikh. Pota allows confessions extracted in police custody to be admitted as evidence. Under the Pota regime, torture tends to replace investigation in our police stations: that's everything from people being forced to drink urine, to being stripped, humiliated, given electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts and having iron rods put up their anuses, to being beaten to death.”
The state-sponsored pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat was a particular low point. As yet the authorities have failed to bring anyone to justice for the killing of around 2,000 people – unsurprisingly given how far up complicity goes.
The BJP’s Human Resources Development Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, used his position to promote the supremacy of the Aryan race, which he identified with Indian Hindus, funding any project – such as archaeological projects - that assisted in the promotion of this sinister ideology. He was one of many senior BJP figures to lose their seats in the elections.
The BJP’s campaign slogan was ‘India Shining’ reflecting the growth of India’s urban economy. India’s hi-tech economy is expanding and the cities are flowing with consumer goods and the glitzy show of prosperity. Like in modern Britain, the bubbles of fabulous wealth allow both the mainstream media and the middle classes to forget even the existence of the poor and imagine that they aren’t there, or at least that they couldn’t cause any significant change. The opinion polls in India have still failed to correct their notorious bias towards the well-off in the cities, which is why they did not predict the change that was on its way.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported on some voters' experiences May 16th:
"On voting day in Delhi (May 10) we travelled 40 kilometres from the resettlement colony of Bavana, where we now live, just to cast our votes against Jagmohan [then minister for tourism and culture] in the special voting booths set up for us by the Election Commission," they told IPS.
Nearly 8,000 voters turned up at the booths set up amid a sea of rubble that till a week before the four-phased elections began on April 20 was the vast Yamuna Pushta slums - home to more than 150,000 impoverished settlers mostly from eastern Bihar and West Bengal states.
"We are happy that Jagmohan and his anti-poor party are both now out of power," said Salim and Amina, satisfaction showing on their tired faces.
Under the BJP the rural poor, the majority of the population, became poorer, and income inequality increased. The debts facing farmers are so great that suicide rates have rocketed. 40% of Indians subsist at the nutrition levels of southern Africa, while 47% of children under the age three suffer malnutrition.
India's new PM, Manhoman Singh
India’s stock market took a plunge on May 14th as India’s business class wondered how they would cope without a fascist government. The election gave victory to the political alliance led by the old Congress Party and to the Gandhi dynasty, whose latest daughter, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi had led them to victory. But in Congress’ train came a number of parties of the left, holding out the possibility that the new government would notice the poor.
As it happened, Sonia Gandhi never became Prime Minister – by May 15th she had stepped down in the face of a vulgar BJP-led campaign against her centred around her Italian birth. It was enough to put her off taking an office that other members of her family had been killed in. Her successor, Manhoman Singh, stepped in.
Business fears were significantly calmed – Singh is considered the author of India’s current economic course, helping to implement what are euphemistically named the reforms in the early 1990s before the BJP came to power.
Congress supporters celebrating
Many on the Indian left found themselves in an odd position last month – cheering the electoral victory of the Congress Party and the Gandhi dynasty whom they have long struggled against in decades gone by. And few have any illusions that the new government’s inclinations towards the rich.
But the defeat of the BJP is a huge encouragement to them. The whole atmosphere has changed, the politics of chauvinism have been set back and a whole range of new opportunities await.
Aznar in Spain, Vajpayee in India – one by one they are going, the Vengeance not Justice brigade of the international scene. Perhaps the falling dominoes will knock out John Howard in Australia, Junichiro Koizumi in Japan, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Tony Blair in Britain and George W. Bush.
New Indian government to remove BJP propaganda from text-books
"WE SCREAMED AT THEM TO LET US OUT"
Recently arriving in London cinemas was another superb movie from Brazil, Hector Babenco’s Carandiru, which tells the story of the prisoners at the Sao Paulo prison of that name. There is little risk of spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen the film – it will still shock you even if you know what is coming.
In 1992, fighting broke out among the inmates in Carandiru, for reasons that will never be known for sure, and the excitement led to a generalised riot and protest against the dreadful conditions in the prison. The authorities responded by sending in heavily armed riot police. Faced with an assault on the prison, the prisoners were persuaded to give up their weapons, calm down and wave flags of surrender from the prison windows. Only when the riot squad were sure that the prisoners would not resist did they enter – then they slaughtered 111 prisoners with total abandon, most of them shot in the back while trying to get back to their cells or massacred as they sat in their cells. Many of those who survived did so by hiding under corpses. There were no police casualties.
Amnesty researcher Fiona Macauley said that “the Carandiru massacre was one of the most horrific incidents ever documented by Amnesty International in Brazil”.
The commanding officer of the police, Colonel Guimaraes, went on to run for political office (successfully). A trial of 85 policemen was not brought until 2001 - through the efforts of human rights campaigners. Colonel Guimaraes was later brought to trial and received a sentence of 632 years for his mass-murder. But he never went to prison. Prisons are built for the poor, not for the rich.
Carandiru itself, which once housed 7,000 inmates was closed and demolished in 2002 “because they say it is a symbol of all that has been wrong with Brazil's prison system” in the words of one BBC report.
See the film if you get the chance – it explores the lives, loves and sins of the prisoners from the point of view of a doctor sent there to stop the spread of AIDS and it is much more than the story of a massacre. Another triumph for Brazilian cinema after last year's City of God.
The film’s release over here unfortunately coincides with another horror story from a Latin American prison, this time in the city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras. A fire broke out in the prison on May 17th this year killing 103 people.
The catastrophe has caused widespread shock in the country, though a similar incident in April 2003 left 69 dead in El Porvenir prison following fighting among rival gang members in the prison. The country’s president, Ricardo Maduro, cut short a tour of Europe and rushed back to oversee the fallout.
It remains unclear how this fire started – the police have cited faulty electronics in the cell refrigerators as the cause while some inmate reports suggest that arson by inmates during a fight between rival gangs was to blame. What has caused most shock – and a presidential reassurance of an investigation – however, has been the claim that prison guards left inmates to die in their cells. One survivor told Associated Press that “we screamed at them to let us out”, but they refused – he had survived only by kicking the doors down. Quite plausibly, inmates told the national paper, La Prensa, that: “They wanted to leave us to die... We heard them say ‘let’s leave these pieces of garbage to die’”. Some claims even suggest that guards opened fire on prisoners trying to escape the flames.
It is easy to see how overcrowding led to such a high toll, as local priest Monsignor Romulo Emiliani pointed out on his visit to the jail – in one cell block, 186 inmates were held in a space designed for 50. The prison as a whole had a capacity for 800 priosners, but an actual total of 1,960. The inmates themselves are mainly young male slum-dwellers form various gangs, las maras, which have an estimated 100,000 members in Honduras - criminal gangs being the most realistic form of employment and status for many poor people across Central America.
It is interesting to note that the authorities have responded not with apologetics but an acknowledgement that the state of Honduran prisons must change. This episode is just one of many in Latin America and around the world highlighting the tragedy of prison itself as an institution. In their present form, most of the world’s prisons do little to deal with dangerous anti-social behaviour and actually tend to exacerbate it, while also being the source of much unnecessary suffering, as often documented on this website. As Oscar Wilde wrote – “Every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame.”
Just as this blog was ready, over thirty people were killed in a prison riot in Brazil
IF YOU WANNA HANG OUT, YOU GOTTA TAKE HER OUT - COCAINE
Back in the dying days of Britpop, Blur singer Damon Albarn, spoke about a new trend sweeping our dear city of London:
“There’s a fucking blizzard of cocaine in London at the moment and I hate it. It’s stupid. Everyone’s become so blasé, thinking they’re so ironic and witty and wandering around with that stupid fucking cokey confidance. Wankers. I did it, but I can’t say I was a cocaine addict.”
Cocaine is a big deal in London. In the offices of the BBC, the quantity of consumption has become notorious. As one programme-maker put it: “I cannot stress enough to you that snorting a line of coke is considered totally unremarkable behaviour at the BBC.” Caroline Ahern got the biggest laugh at the 1997 Brit awards by asking the audience: “Does anyone know where Charlie is? Everyone backstage has been asking for him.”
The Metrpolitan police claim that they have quadrupled the amount of cocaine they are seizing annually in England’s capital (from 96kg in the financial year 2002-3 to 360kg in 2003-4), but few would claim this as evidence that the police have become four times as effective – rather the white stuff is flooding the city and they are capturing about the same proportion as before. The National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates that the total amount of cocaine coming into Britain in a year to be between 35 and 45 tonnes. The price is dropping and more and more people are using it, with some commentators suggesting that cocaine has become more popular than ecstasy in many London clubs. A gram of cocaine, providing about twenty lines, costs today an average of £40, compared to £70 a few years ago.
Cocaine is the drug of choice for rich, young things – it gives a short, intense high that lasts about forty minutes, making it easier to control than many other narcotics and the sensation has been determined by neurologists to be significantly more pleasurable than sex (which is why many cocaine and crack addicts become disinterested in their partners). The drug also suffers from fewer negative stereotypes, unlike heroin, which is associated with the poor and decaying limbs, or ecstasy which is associated with counter-culture.
About 80% of cocaine users, at one estimate, do not experience significant health side-effects. But the increased volume of cocaine going noses up in London is not without a price – new figures just released and published in The Observer show that deaths among young cocaine users are getting high with the current drop in prices. 87 people died in the first six months of 2003, twice the figure for the whole of 2002.
By itself, occasional cocaine use does not normally cause much harm, though it is more addictive than many recreational users realise and can trigger heart attacks or strokes. It becomes more likely to cause deaths when taken with alcohol – as it almost always is – since cocaine and alcohol produce coacaethylene, which is very damaging to the heart. Mixtures of cocaine and other stimulants also increase the risk. More well-known, frequent cocaine use through the nose causes damage to the nasal septum – as in the case of Eastenders’ star Daniella Westbrook, whose consumption of cocaine was so phenomenal that she was left with a single nostril by the time she booked herself into a clinic (which you can do if you’re rich, but you’re not so likely to get a place if you’re poor).
What should we make of rising cocaine use in London and the subsequent death toll? The facts in this case could be taken in a number of ways, but there is little here to suggest that the present policy of prohibition is having much of a positive impact, or that it is likely to if yet more government resources and time are poured into the pursuit of this failed and destructive policy. The most sensible strategy is through education – teaching people what kind of cocaine use is most harmful and explaining that while safe, recreational use of the drug is possible, it is not without risk.
In this instance, the war on drugs is shown to be a failure. In another, it turns out to be barbaric. The war on drugs (actually a war on drug users) is constantly condemned on this site, and almost every day provides a new reason. On May 30th, The Observer carried the story of Pauline Campbell who is currently campaigning on behalf of female prisoners in Britain – whose tragedy was highlighted in part in the previous blog post.
Pauline is the mother of Sarah Campbell. Sarah, aged 18, was (sorry, past tense) a bright, active and successful secondary school student from Cheshire who became addicted to heroin after suffering from depression. While in Chester, a desperate Sarah approached a 72-year-old man and begged him for money. She began to harass him, and he had a heart attack and subsequently died.
Sarah was then convicted of manslaughter, her and her friend being the first people to be convicted for causing manslaughter through harassment. She spent six months in prison and managed to come off heroin. When sentenced she expected to be sent to a psychiatric hospital as a judge had told her she would be. Instead, in their wisdom, the courts chose to imprison her in Styal, Cheshire’s women’s prison in January 2003. Within hours of her sentence, Sarah found 100 pills – there is an abundance of such things in prisons – and gave herself an overdose, from which she died, three days short of her 19th birthday. Her last words to her mother were, “Mum, why aren’t they taking me to hospital?”
Pauline Campbell being arrested at a protest outside Holloway prison
Since Sarah’s death, her mother Pauline has been campaigning for other women in prison. Briefly, women in British prison account for 6% of total prisoners, but half of all self-harm incidents. Britain jails more women than any EU country, excepting Spain and Portugal. In the last decade, the female prison population has increased by 173% despite falling crime rates. Pauline adds:
“I have seen women who have used scouring pads and hairgrips to maim themselves. I have spoken to women who tried to choke themselves to death on toilet tissue and of others who garrotted themselves with ripped sheets. Prison is hell for male inmates too, but, unlike males, most female prisoners have not committed violent crimes. Their offences are mostly linked to theft, drugs or unpaid bills and they are less equipped to deal with being separated from their children. Nearly all will try to harm themselves and many will succeed."
Prison is clearly inappropriate for women with mental health problems. And there is no reason whatsoever to inflict it on drug addicts who are best treated either in clinics or through their GP, if necessary, with access to a safe, clean supply of the drug they are dependent on. As for jailing women with unpaid bills - the mind boggles at the idea of such mediaevalism in 21st century Britain.
AN ENVIABLE TRACK RECORD
The Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is making the news in Britain - the billionaire Thai PM has come to buy up our very own Liverpool FC, purchasing a 30% stake in one of England’s most prestigious and (bias, bias) most successful football clubs, with an investment of around £105 million. The money should provide a big boost to Liverpool, and help meet the costs of an £80 million proposed new stadium at Stanley Park. Shinawatra himself, who is said to have a deep love of the game by his spokesmen, benefits from associating himself with an English football team that is enormously popular back in Thailand, where football itself is a much-loved national indulgence. So everyone’s a winner.
The BBC describes Shinawatra as one who “certainly boasts an enviable track record”. Indeed. Shinawatra was born in the northern town of Chiang Mai in 1989, and started work in the family business young – a business that covered a diverse range of services including buses, silk and a cinema, which he ran aged 16. He served for 14 years in the police, becoming involved in telecommunications and TV in 1982 after signing a contract for computer software on behalf of the Thai police. In 1987, he left the police to help market a film and to set up Shinawatra Computer and Communications Group.
The company went on to deal in mobile phones, paging, the internet, Thailand’s first satellites and so on. Renamed Shin Corporation, Shinawatra accumulated a vast fortune and came to dominate telecommunications in Thailand. Success in the world of business translated into political success when he emerged victorious in Thailand’s elections three years ago.
Shinawatra, Thailand's enviable PM
The Thai Chmaber of Commerce is delighted with Shinawatra – its chairman Ajva Taulananda, tells us that “He came in with a clear vision to bring the country forwards. And whenever a problem arises, he's there. He's not hiding. He comes out to lead the team, together with the private sector”. Shinawatra has tried, with some success, to adopt a role as a regional leader, and is seen by many local ruling elites as a model statesman.
Attractive as the picture of Shinawatra and the Thai private sector marching on to a greater future together is, it is perhaps time to introduce some other features of the track record.
On April 28th Islamic separatist rebels launched a series of co-ordinated attacks before dawn on police stations and checkpoints in the Yala, Pattani and Songkhla provinces in the southern extremities of the country. Several policemen and soldiers were killed, and Shinawatra caused some upset when he said that those killed in the attacks “deserved to die” on account of their negligence.
But there are some unanswered questions here. As Human Rights Watch states in a briefing, the Thai military were aware that the attacks were going to take place, following a tip off. This somewhat broadens the spectrum of negligence.
Furthermore, while in some instances, the rebels used guns, most were extremely poorly armed – carrying machetes. It would have been possible for police and soldiers – particularly as they knew the attackers were coming – to arrest most of the assailants without difficulty, most of whom were between 15 and 20 years old. Instead, in some places they staged a series of ambushes against the attackers and killed over 100 of them. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require that police and army units use lethal force as a last resort, and non-violent means as far as possible.
Shinawatra’s line has been that the attacks on police and army units were carried out by bandits with no political aims. This seems implausible, to say the least. The Thai authorities have been engaged in a low-level conflict with Muslim separatist in the south of the country since January 2004 and Shinawatra himself has acknowledged that Muslims there face particular hardship. He has committed himself to development projects in the south, but as Human Right Watch points out, “these have yet to begin”. What the killing of over 100 rebels as a demonstration will lead to is anyone’s guess. Taking a wild shot in the dark, a lot more killing seems a possibility.
A police station after the attack
The war on drugs is cruel in Cheshire, but in Thailand it is really something else. The announcement of a crackdown on drug users and dealers in February 2003 led to a ferocious killing spree in which around 2,500 people were killed. Thai police were given blacklists of suspected drug dealers and users and used them either for extermination or as a means of extracting money by black-mailing the hapless people on the list. Those on the lists, justly accused or otherwise, could either give themselves over to the mercy of the police, pay their way out of the situation or expect to be executed in mafia style by the overtly corrupt authorities.
The extraordinary death toll, which included many unfortunates who simply happened to get caught up in gunfights or be in the wrong place at the wrong time, sparked an international outcry and even dissent from Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. But Shinawatra appears to have been enjoying himself, stating: “In this war, drug dealers must die. But we don't kill them. It's a matter of bad guys killing bad guys”.
The official line that the high death toll was produced by spontaneous killings among rival gangs that happened to coincide with the policy of mass repression was rarely taken seriously even by senior officials. The Minister of the Interior, Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, openly stated of those involved in drugs-related crime the previous January: “They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country”. Local officials who failed to make people vanish without a trace - nice euphemism - were accused of laxity and threatened.
Pradit Chareonthaitawee, the head of Thailand’s Human Rights Commission reported that “people are living in fear all over the kingdom”. But the Interior Minister’s judgement has born out – few people did care and Shinawatra’s public support remained steady throughout the carnage, though the avowed policy aim of ending all drug sales in three months was not achieved, as readers will be unsurprised to learn.
There are other episodes of fear in the kingdom too. Shinawatra has being trying to mend ties with the neighbouring regime in Burma – a thoroughly depraved totalitarian regime whose continued rule is an international disgrace. Part of this new friendship means ending Thailand’s past stance of offering hospitality to Burmese refugees.
By mid 2003, the Thai authorities were handing over refugees at a rate of 400 a month, sending them to a special holding centre run by Burmese intelligence. Readers can probably imagine what sort of thing goes on in such a place. Meanwhile, a total of around 10,000 informal deportations of refugees back to the Burmese abattoir took place each month in violation of international law.
Shinawatra was also enraged when Burmese democrats demonstrated outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok in May last year and police suppressed the demo, arresting 26 people, including two children. It was shortly afterwards that Shinawatra announced plans to transfer refugees in Bangkok itself to special camps on the border.
And on March 17th this year, human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit disappeared in Bangkok and has not been seen since. Neelapaijit is the chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand. There is a good chance that someone in authority knows where he is.
To the extent I follow these things, I’ve been a Liverpool FC supporter since childhood, but not as long as they’re taking money from Thaksin Shinawatra. Mohamed al-Fayed would have been preferable.
“IN SOME RESPECTS, THE FAMILIES HAVE NOT BEEN AS WELL TREATED AS THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN”
Britain’s Ministry of Defence scored another victory last month in its long-running struggle against the families of British soldiers, when the Armed Forces Minister, Adam Ingrams, announced to the House of Commons on May 24th that there would be no public inquiry into the deaths of four soldiers over a period of ten years at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey.
He justified this outrageous decision in the following words: “I have weighed all these factors carefully I do not underestimate the depth of feeling and the passion of the families who lost loved ones at Deepcut, but I am not persuaded, given the intensive investigations and inquiries and the new measures I have put in place, what more a public inquiry would achieve. I also recognise that in some respects the families have not been as well treated as they should have been. The Defence Secretary (Geoff Hoon) has apologised unreservedly for these failings. I repeat those sentiments today”.
The families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson have been campaigning for years for a full public inquiry into the deaths of their children and in June last year they were joined by Amnesty International which issued a report on their deaths.
Here is something I wrote on the Deepcut controversy this time last year, drawing on the Amnesty report:
Private James Collinson, a 16-year-old Scottish boy, joined the army and was posted to Deepcut after 18 weeks. Six weeks later, in March 2002, he was found dead, aged 17, with a bullet through his head.
He had an SA-80 rifle across his body – which was odd because he was too young to be given the weapon without authorisation and had gone on patrol at night with only a torch. The Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch asked where Private James might have got the weapon from and were told by the army, “we don’t know what these young lads get up to out there on their own.” Actually, I think they may have some idea.
Post-mortem evidence suggests that James was killed after a struggle and that the rifle was placed in his hands as a poor attempt to make a murder look like suicide. But both the Military Police and Surrey police decided that James had killed himself.
In the month James was killed an inquest was held into the death of 17-year-old Private Geoff Gray from the East End, who died in the same barracks in September 2001. He was found with two bullets through his head. The jury declared an open verdict, while the UK Army Board of Inquiry decided that suicide was the explanation, ewith little in the way of corroborative evidence.
Eight years earlier, Private Cheryl James, an 18 year-old Welsh girl, was found with a bullet through her head just outside Deepcut with a rifle beside her, on November 27th, 1995. The police and Ministry of Defence never even checked the rifle for fingerprints and the bullet has since disappeared, in the MOD’s long and notorious tradition of losing evidence just when it is needed. (The MOD destroyed weapons and film footage from Bloody Sunday after Lord Saville asked to look at them in the ongoing tribunal in Derry). Evidence has emereged that Cheryl was not only bullied at Deepcut but forced into a sexual relationship with a senior officer.
In June 1995, Private Sean Benton from Hastings, aged 20, was found dead with five gunshot wounds in his chest and a rifle next to his body. An inquest found that he had committed suicide. Suicide is conceivable, not least because Sean was subject to severe beatings by his colleagues and on occasion was thrown out of a second-floor window.
Amnesty highlights the Surrey Police and Army Board of Inquiry’s duplicity, the destruction of evidence, an investigation process so secretive that the families of the dead were not informed of when they started, when they finished or that they had taken lace, and of a general pattern of covering for murderers in the ranks. For those media voices who speak of their great affection for our boys – this is their big chance to show it, by joining Amnesty’s call for an investigation into these deaths.
Adam Ingrams informs us that he is not persuaded of the case for a public inquiry. Personally, I am not persuaded of the case for ever permitting the Ministry of Defence to make such a judgement. Indeed I am unpersuaded of the case for keeping the Ministry of Defence. The fact that anyone should be obliged to persuade the government to allow an investigation of its own conduct is a testament to the openly fake nature of British democracy.
It goes without saying that the families are devastated, excepting those who were not surprised.
Private Cheryl James
Deepcut barracks 'may be closed'
This is hardly the only case in recent weeks of MOD mendacity – there is quite a trail of sinister behaviour from Belfast to Basra.
One curious recent episode concerns the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland in 1994, the RAF’s biggest peace time catastrophe. The Chinook was carrying mostly senior intelligence personnel back from Northern Ireland and all 29 on board were killed.
Everyone is agreed on the facts, established by a parliamentary committee inquiry among others, that engineering problems were the cause of the disaster. Everyone, that is, except the Ministry of Defence, which is alone in its conclusion that the dead pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook caused the crash through their negligence. As Channel 4 News put it:
"A decade of investigation by this programme shows this claim to be demonstrably untrue".
Even now that former Prime Minister John Major, the Church of Scotland, senior RAF officers, a Channel 4 News investigation and even a reluctant Tony Blair have called on the MOD to reconsider, the Ministry has refused to budge. The MOD even argued that the bereaved families of the pilots would only be upset by a new investigation (that they were calling for). They may have well just issued a statement to the effect: “Look, we really don’t have any sense of shame, please stop bothering us”.
Memorial to the chinook crash victims
Underlining that point, Jean McBride was been in court again seeking justice for her son Peter. Peter was a 18 year-old from New Lodge in Belfast, who was murdered by two soldiers from the Scots Guards in 1992. James Fisher and Mark Wright intimidated Peter and then shot him in the back as he ran away from them, leaving him to struggle bleeding into his sister’s house where he died.
Unusually, Fisher and Wright were arrested, prosecuted and actually imprisoned for murder. Enraged at the jailing of soldiers merely for murdering an Irishman, the army and Britain’s highly unprincipled tabloids campaigned for the soldiers’ release and reinstatement. Fisher and Wright were released early and returned to their positions.
Soldiers caught in possession of marijuana are automatically dismissed from the army. The murder of a young man in Belfast is clearly regarded as a lesser offence than having a joint. Since then Jean has campaigned for Wright and Fisher not to sent back to jail, but merely to be discharged from the army. Instead the army has chosen to offer promotion, and sent the two along with the Scots Guards to the British sector in Iraq.
The Court of Appeal ruled last June that the army should not have reinstated Wright and Fisher and that in doing so it had violated its own rules. The Ministry of Defence, however, announced that they were not persuaded there was any need to look at the case again. Last month, Jean was back in court to engage in another chat with the MOD’s brick wall.
For more on Peter McBride and human rights in Northern Ireland you can visit:
British Irish Rights Watch
The Pat Finucane Centre
Steve Benson, United Media
"The global security agenda promoted by the US Administration is bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle. Violating rights at home, turning a blind eye to abuses abroad and using pre-emptive military force where and when it chooses has damaged justice and freedom, and made the world a more dangerous place."
Amnesty International annual report 2004 (emphasis added)
US soldier standing on the wire
I PUSHED MY SOUL IN A DEEP, DARK HOLE
The US government and the Syrian regime have been at odds with each other for some time and rarely has the tension been so great, with some in the Bush administration openly threatening Syria and toying with the idea of an invasion even as the US army staggers in Iraq. A bill has just passed through Congress, imposing new economic sanctions on Syria, increasing tension further.
But Washington and Damascus are not incapable of co-operation – in fact, the two countries have a very sophisticated arrangement on a matter they can both agree on. That is, the torture of suspected members of al-Qa’ida.
On September 26th, 2002 Maher Arar was arrested at JFK airport in New York where he was changing planes following a holiday in Tunisia on his way back to Canada – of which he is a citizen. Arar, a Syrian-Canadian and telecommunications engineer, was accused of memebership of al-Qa’ida and of knowing two other Syrian-Canadians who were accused of terrorism.
All of this was news to Arar, but there was little time to argue. In early October, he was put on board a luxury plane but in prison uniform and shackles, accompanied by two CIA agents, one of whom called himself Mr. Khoury. The CIA operatives told him he was being taken to Syria.
The plane landed in Jordan, from where he was taken by van to a jail in Syria’s capital Damascus. In the prison he saw a prisoner from Spain, and one from Germany. People from all over the world had been brought here – and all around him he heard screaming of those being tortured.
Maher Arar was held in a cell with no daylight, bar one tiny hole in the ceiling. He had no way of telling what day it was, except that once a week he was brought out to wash himself. Following protests back in Canada, Arar was released - after more than a year, in October 2003 when he returned to his family in Montreal. Canadian police have since admitted to complicity in his deportation.
“As [British PM] Blair sits down to chat to [Syrian president] al-Assad about progess on the war on terror and the need to support the US/UK plan to invade Iraq, Arar is reaching the end of his tether. For days he has endured beatings, constant questioning and demands that he confess. He is, in fact, ready to confess anything. He signs a false statement saying that he went for training in Afghanistan. But what he cannot do – because he knows nothing – is provide useful information that the Syrians can pass back to US intelligence.
In the depths of Far’Falastin jail, one floor below the Falastin road, Arar has no contact with other prisoners. All he can hear, during the ten months of his imprisonment is the sound of them screaming.
In the beginning, the jailers take him upstairs regularly to be questioned and beaten. Before sessions he is placed in a waiting room where he gets to hear the torture of other prisoners. They call out: ‘Allah-u-Allah’ – ‘God, oh God’ they cry. Once he hears the sound of someone’s head being slammed repeatedly against the metal interrogation table.”
This was just one small episode from what some commentators have dubbed the American Gulag – a vast, secretive and wholly unaccountable system of prisons, intelligence gathering and torture stretching across the planet from Cuba to Indonesia with as many as three thousand inmates. The revelations of torture in US custody in Iraq have helped to provide unprecedented scrutiny to an unpleasant reality – the US government has no plan for combating al-Qa’ida beyond torture and concentration camps.
Syria, though officially an enemy state that harbours terrorists in the view of the US State Department, and a repressive regime that must learn the ways of democracy when the Leader of the Free World is doing his vision thing as he calls it, is in reality a torture chamber of choice for the CIA. The British government, on the other hand, though willing to join in Washington’s threats to Syria, is actually quite supportive of the al-Assad regime and invites Syrian delegates to arms trading fairs in London.
While the US army and intelligence are certainly capable of implementing torture themselves, the likelihood of public exposure and political fallout make it difficult – this is the principal reason for the strategy of outsourcing torture to allied regimes that have less media scrutiny and a somewhat more old-fashioned approach to interrogation. Stephen Gray’s excellent report, ‘America’s Gulag’ for the London New Statesman, highlights the strategy, quoting former CIA agent Bob Baer, who worked on US Middle East policy in the 1990s:
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
Yes, Egypt is the place to go to arrange a disappearance - openly borrowing from the rhetoric of Latin American fascism. The Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, recipeient of the second largest stipend of US military aid in the world, openly scoffs at the idea of human rights and that suits Washington fine.
In Cairo is the Torah prison complex where some of the most famous figures in radical Islamic chauvinist polictics have been held, such as Sayyid Qutb, considered the intellectual founder of the movement (he was hanged by Nasser) and Ayman al-Zawahiri, second to Osama Bin Laden as a figurehead for al-Qa’ida. Inside Torah is an H-block cell named el-Aqrab or The Scorpion.
El-Aqrab was completed in 1993 and since then no visitor, lawyer or family member has ever been inside: “Former prisoners describe ‘welcome parties’, where soldiers line up to ‘welcome’ new detainees and prisoners with batons, electric shocks and beatings.”
Back in July 1998, when the US conflict with al-Qa’ida was a much more low-key affair, the CIA ran a joint operation with Albanian secret police in Albania’s capital Tirana. They followed a group of five Islamic chauvinist rebels from Egypt and successfully prevented their attempt to attack the US embassy with a truck bomb.
The five Egyptians were then “taken to police headquarters where, as the CIA waited outside, they were physically tortured. They were then bundled into an unmarked US Gulfstream jet... and flown to Cairo.
"After being handed over to the Egyptian government, Ahmed Osman Saleh was suspended from the ceiling and given electric shocks; he was later hanged after a trial in absentia. Mohamed Hassan Tita was hung by his wrists and given electric shocks to his genitals, suspended by his limbs and made to stand for hours in filthy water up to his knees. Ahmad Ibrahim al-Naggar was kept in a room with water up to his knees for 35 days; had electric shocks to his nipples and penis; and was hanged without trial in February 2000.”
Wahab al-Rawi is an Iraqi-born British citizen living in Acton in West London. He was off to visit his brother in Gambia in West Africa on a business venture when he was arrested in the airport in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. From there he was taken to the headquarter’s of Gambia’s secret police. There he met an American, who claimed to be a member of the US embassy staff (i.e. CIA).
Al-Rawi demanded to see the British consul in order to protest against his arrest. To which the CIA official laughed and replied, “Why do you think you’re here? It’s your government that tipped us off in the first place.”
Indeed, Britain’s MI5 keeps files on a lot of people – the majority of people in Northern Ireland have an MI5 file for instance, though few would argue that were all in the IRA. As part of its intelligence sharing, MI5 give whatever they have to the CIA who use it as they see fit.
Al-Rawi was the friend of a Jordanian preacher called Abu Qatada who is held in suspicion. His trip to Africa was enough to be considered a potential terrorist and British intelligence tipped off the CIA, just in time to prevent al-Rawi and his brother from working on peanut processing in Gambia.
Wahab al-Rawi has held together with his brother Bisher, and Jordanian friends Jamil Al-Banna and Abdullah El Janoudi. In Amnesty’s account the prisoners were interrogated by the CIA and one of them was threatened that if he was not more co-operative, he would be turned over to the Gambian NIA who would torture and rape him.
Wahab and Abdullah were later released in December 2002 without charge. The other two were taken first to the US airforce base in Afghanistan, Bagram, and then to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay by the US Navy. Apart from Wahab, the other three men had been arrested before at Gatwick airport in London before being released without charge. Amnesty voiced the suspicion that they were allowed to travel to Gambia precisely so they would be in a place with fewer laws and less scruples in interrogation methods.
The Balkans have been a centre for a number of these dubious operations. One story from Macedonia in particular sticks out. A tiny report in the London Independent by Konstantin Testorides (May 1st, 2004) describes the fate of a group of immigrants from Pakistan.
In March 2002, Macedonian special police announced that they had eliminated a terrorist cell plotting to destroy certain embassies. Two years later the official story has broken down.
Today, Macedonian police admit that the men were immigrants with no connection to terrorist groups. A spokeswoman for the police said that the men had been lured into Macedonia with “promises that they would be transferred to Western Europe.” Instead they were taken by police to the Rastanski Lozja district in the north of the country’s capital, Spokje, where special officers encircled them and killed all of them, spraying them automatic weapon fire.
The spokeswoman added, “They lost their lives in a staged murder. That was an act of a sick mind. They ordered the brutal murder of seven Pakistani men.” The murderers may now face charges, including possibly even Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, the then chief of police – though parliament must first strip him of immunity from prosecution. Boskovski insists that he received a tip off from US intelligence.
Either way there is little doubt as to the motive for the killing – the Macedonian police wished to impress Washington and demonstrate their seriousness, possibly gaining further military aid in the process that could be used to suppress internal dissent, particularly from the Albanian minority in the North-West of the country.
The international US Gulag Archipelago extends into the United States itself. Writing in his political newsletter, Counterpunch, the maverick but good journalist Alexander Cockburn wrote that:
“Within in a few days of the Trade Towers going down in September, 2001, a vacationing FBI agent told an acquaintance of mine in Puerto Vallarta that torture was being used on detainees in the US. On May 3, 2004, two such detainees, a Pakistani called Javaid Iqbal and an Egyptian, Ehab Elmaghraby, filed a civil complaint with a US court describing their beatings in the Brooklyn Detention Center, being forced to walk naked in front of female guards, put in a tiny cell lit 24 hours a day without blankets, mattress or toilet paper. Both were expelled from the US, pleading guilty to charges unrelated to terrorism. The Detention Center was harshly criticized in a 2003 DOJ [Department of Justice] report for serious maltreatment of inmates.”
From Brooklyn to Baghdad. The release of pictures of US army torture in Iraq have come to a halt – but not because there are no more to show. Actually, we have yet to see the worse pictures. In a country that went into a period of panic and mourning after Janet Jackson’s nipple was briefly exposed on network television during the half-time Superbowl entertainment, US Senators were obliged to watch three hours of extremely violent and highly pornographic torture by their armed forces in videos and slides – journalists described them as leaving the room ashen-faced and visibly shaken.
Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker has done more than anyone else to sketch out the policy that led to the systematic torture in US military prisons across Iraq. Dismissing the self-serving claim of the Bush administration that the photographs from Abu Ghraib last December show nothing more than the antics of a few ‘bad apples’ – a group of reservists from West Virginia who just felt like subjecting Iraqis to sophisticated psychological torture techniques – he stresses that the torture was a policy choice, made at Pentagon level:
“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq.”
It is an interesting feature of Sy Hersh’s argument that he reports that the CIA were largely opposed to the idea of using the “stress and duress” techniques they liked to use elsewhere in Iraq - particular opposing handing the responsibility to unprofessional recruits who might “get creative” when told to use, say, sleep deprivation to break the will of prisoners.
The CIA’s discomfort was prompted by the widespread knowledge, confirmed by the Red Cross, that most prisoners held by US forces in Iraq are innocent of any offence. According to Hersh’s anonymous source, a former intelligence official:
“They [CIA said] said, ‘No way. We just signed up for the core programme – pre-approved operations against high-value terrorist targets – and now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets.”
The Red Cross has stated that 70-90% of prisoners in detention in Iraq are indeed people just pulled off the streets. A significant proportion are guilty of crimes such as theft, looting and kidnap, while a tiny minority of prisoners are connected to the armed insurgency.
Rumsfeld’s decision to extend the “core programme” to cab-drivers in Baghdad was an act of desperation. By the summer of 2003, the Pentagon was beginning to notice that the war in Iraq was going quite badly. They were faced with a small insurgency with only limited popular support but it continued to take a toll on the US army, and US intelligence knew next to nothing about those who were killing them. The few rebel prisoners they caught tended to be apolitical types who had attacked US troops merely because they had been paid to and had no real connection to or information on the group of wealthy Ba’athist Sunnis from the old regime that were funding the insurgency in its initial form.
So the Pentagon acted to extend the use of torture to Iraq through a group of military intelligence personnel, CIA officers, mercenary contractors and personnel from the specially created ‘special-access programme’ used to combat al-Qa’ida. These people helped to bypass the traditional command structure – which is why Brigadier General Janis Karpinski is probably telling the truth when she says she was not fully aware of what was going on in the prisons under her command. It also helped to keep the operation within a more restricted group – “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do you what you want.’”
“Do what you want” turned out to mean raping women and boys, beating prisoners to death, force-feeding Muslims pork and forcing them to renounce their religious beliefs. “I believe in Allah” said one prisoner. “I believe in torture” replied the US soldier, like some witless pantomime villain.
Mural of protest in Tehran (where torture is also rife)
Unsurprisingly, on May 20th this year, the US government tried to get immunity for its troops from prosecution for war crimes written into a UN Security Council resolution – a concession they had secured in Resolution 1487 last year. Human Rights Watch protested: “Given the recent revelations from Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. government has picked one hell of a moment to ask for special treatment on war crimes. The U.N. Security Council should not grant special favors to any country, including the United States.”
Now that we have been "read into" the heart of darkness, it falls on the citizens of the West to stop the torturers.
US Marines plead guilty to electric shock torture in south Baghdad detention centre
BBC: Iraq Torture "Widespread"
In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people...
PEACE AND JOY IN THE SUDAN
“Never again” always was a weak joke at the expense of the victims coming from these people - we are about to see whether there is anything in it at all.
That was from last month’s blog in reference to Darfur. Since then the international community has taken such bold steps to end ethnic cleansing in the west of the Sudan as Colin Powell’s statement that, “Sudan will not be at peace until the problem of Darfur is resolved”.
The best that can be said for that statement is that it is technically correct.
On Wednesday 26th May, the Islamic chauvinist military regime of Omar al-Bashir and the separatist rebels in the south of the country, John Gurang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, signed a peace agreement in Naivasha in Kenya under an internationally sponsored peace deal that ends 21 years of civil war. Or more precisely, ends 21 years of awesome killing and aggression by the regime in the North in its effort to suppress the self-determination of the black Christian and Animist South which contains the oil wealth of the Sudan, but whose population is effectively excluded from power by the Arab ruling class in the North.
The standard death toll estimate of this war is two million. It is little wonder that the peace accord brought scenes of ecstatic rejoicing among Sudanese.
The role of party-pooper is not a popular one but... The peace accord leaves the Sudan split between what amounts to two dictatorships rather than one. The settlement is based on an oil-sharing agreement that gives the North access to oil in the South. This arrangement can only last as long as the desire of the South for independence is suppressed or constantly put off – which is what the Western powers pushed the South into conceding, just as they pushed the Kosovar Albanians, the Palestinians, Black South Africa and others into lousy settlements that are inherently unstable. In six years time the South is due to have a referendum on independence, which southerners will almost certainly vote in favour of – which raises the serious possibility that the war will resume unless there is an international effort either to resolve these issues or more likely, as in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, to try and keep putting off the day of decision.
Then there is Darfur, whose black Muslim population is facing a murderous assault at the hands of the Sudanese regime and allied militias, in which 30,000 people have been killed and two million forced to flee their homes in just over a year.
The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, said that he had only 20% of the resources he needed to keep large numbers of people from succumbing to hunger and disease:
"It is the most dramatic race against the clock that we have anywhere in the world at the moment. If we win this race, we will be able to provide food and non-food to all of these internally-displaced refugees. If we lose, hundreds of thousands of women and children, mostly, will perish."
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been somewhat more outspoken than Colin Powell, not least because he spent much of last April apologising for his conduct during the genocide in Rwanda and the parallels have not escaped him. But if Kofi Annan is ignored by Security Council members now it won’t be the first time. And the UN Human Rights Commission scandalously acted to suppress their own investigation into ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
The International Crisis Group issued its own statement on May 23rd, entitled “Now or Never in Darfur”:
A month after the international community solemnly marked the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in April 2004 with promises of "never again", it faces a man-made humanitarian catastrophe in western Sudan (Darfur) that can easily become nearly as deadly. It is too late to prevent substantial ethnic cleansing, but if the UN Security Council acts decisively -- including by preparing to authorise the use of force as a last resort -- there is just enough time to save hundreds of thousands of lives directly threatened by Sudanese troops and militias and by looming famine and set in train a serious negotiating process to resolve the underlying political problems and reverse the ethnic cleansing.
Since it erupted in February 2003, the conflict has claimed some 30,000 lives, but experts warn that without a rapid international response, what UN officials have already called the worst humanitarian situation in the world today could claim an additional 350,000 in the next nine months, mainly from starvation and disease. Many more will die if the direct killing is not stopped.
The international response thus far has been divided and ineffectual. The Sudan government has gained time to pursue a devastating counter-insurgency strategy against two rebel groups and a wide swathe of civilians by playing on those divisions and the desire of leading states not to put at risk the comprehensive peace agreement that is tantalisingly close between Khartoum and the SPLA insurgency on what for 21 years has been the country’s main civil war.
An international military response is probably not desirable and this website does not advocate military solutions, but an immediate international response – that is, a clear statement that ethnic cleansing in Darfur is unacceptable, the involvement of the dormant International Criminal Court, and pressure from every available diplomatic channel from the EU to the Arab League would be a start.
Unburied body after government attack in Darfur
One day, there may be a time for rejoicing in Sudan but it isn’t yet. Ending the war in the south will be only a partial achievement if it means the international sell out of Darfur. Let's not let genocide pass us by again.
THE EMOTIONS OF THE MOMENT
In Hong Kong, pro-election protestors have been preparing for the 15th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army's massacre of people trying to liberate themselves in Beijing in 1989. In the rest of China, protest is somewhat more difficult. For those whose computers have a sufficient pixel range, you should be able to see one of the most famous and inspiring moments from the crushing of China's 1989 revolution, a student confronting a column of tanks, at the very top of this blog.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong remember June 4th, 1989
The massacre is usually referred to as the Tiananmen Square massacre in the West and we have become familiar with the idea of PLA soldiers gunning down students in Beijing's famous plaza, but, as a report by Robert Marquand for the US news magazine, the Christian Science Monitor highlights, much of this imagery is incorrect. There is very little evidence of much killing in the Square itself - the slaughter actually took place in the back streets of Beijing.
US historian Jonathan Spence describes the movement emerging from students and reformist Communist Party cadres at the Party history department in Beijing university who were inspired both by the reformist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang and Mikhail Gorbachev to campaign for liberal political reforms. In addition, their movement was swelled by popular support in Beijing itself and also by massive rural discontent.
The situation grew problematic for the regime as it struggled to contain the reform movement, and the dismissal of Ziyang, followed by a visit from Gorbachev in May 1989 prompted the occupation of Tiananmen Square by protestors.
The Square became a festival of free speech and millions of people passed through it at one point or another, representing all manner of different interests across China. When Gorbachev arrived, the square was so packed he couldn't walk through it. Most people in Beijing strongly identified with the student movement:
"The people loved the students because they could see the students loved China," one school teacher who lived near the square remembers now. "That was the thing. We didn't think of them as anticommunist. We could see they were patriots who were for democracy. But after[the massacre of] June 4, we could no longer say this."
As the students carried on their protest and held hunger strikes, they received support from the city's workers who provided water, assistance with sanitation, medical supplies and gestures of solidarity.
By this time, the regime, with Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping most especially adamant, was preparing to smash the movement through extreme violence. Troops were moved out of barracks and units were brought in to China's capital from outside - an acknowledgment that Beijing soldiers might be unprepared to kill their citizens as required.
By early June, the protestors occupying the square had become confused and divided. Many were already fatigued and wished to leave and their numbers were steadily dropping. Some wanted a confrontation with the regime, others were determined to avoid one and others still just did not believe that the PLA would kill them. Most foreign reporters had left by this point, many withdrawn to Hong Kong and Tokyo. Many of the original students had left and been replaced by students from outside Beijing.
During the night the confrontation began as students put up blockades around Beijing, setting fire to vehicles. Robert Marquand's investigation informs us that the massacre began on June 3rd as troops began killing protestors outside the square: "It took place at street intersections, in Hutong neighborhoods, in the alleyways around the square, and in the western part of the city, where resistance to the deployment of the Army was strongest." Citizens of Beijing were enraged at the deployment of troops against the students and courageously challenged the army in their tens of thousands.
In Tiananmen Square itself, at 4 o'clock in the morning, the army surrounded the protestors from three sides, from the Forbidden City of the emperors, the Great Hall of the People and the History Museum - and those in the square began to realise what was coming. Nonetheless, around 2,000 protestors gathered round the monument to democracy they had built and sang the socialist anthem, the 'Internationale'. Protestors wore headbands with the message 'Ready to Die'. Then the lights on the square went out.
According to Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch - who was there - the leader of the Peking Students Autonomous Federation declared, "We will now pay the highest price possible, for the sake of securing democracy for China. Our blood will be the consecration." But the student leader Hou Dejian dissented, calling out over a megaphone, "We have already won a great victory. But now we have to go."
The student leadership negotiated and arranged an orderly withdrawal and between 2,000 and 3,000 protestors filed off from the square in the early hours of the morning. They walked out peacefully and the protest came to an end.
This behaviour is quite typical of governments trying to destroy popular movements. They rarely wish to face thousands or millions of people on the march head on. So they create a standoff and negotiate a truce and let the movement walk away.
Then they start killing, without mercy. It's an old trick and it works (and people ask why politicians are mistrusted). Estimates of the death toll between June 3rd and June 6th range between 900 and 2,000+. June 1989 marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign of repression of popular movements that lasted right through the 1990s.
Gorbachev's visit in May helped to focus international media attention on Beijing ensuring that when the massacre took place, it did not pass unnoticed (unlike the Caracazo in Venezuela that year in which as many people died but is completely ignored).
And much international outrage followed, including loud public condemnations from the US government and media. Privately, however, the Bush Senior administration had a somewhat different response. Henry Kissinger, a foreign policy establishment stalwart with business interests in China stated bluntly his own view:
“China remains too important for America’s national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment. ...No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators."
Oh, the effrontery of it! Those students were occupying the government's capital city!
Bush Sr. then dispatched his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to represent the US government in discussing US-China relations. Scowcroft is a business asscoiate of Kissinger's - it is unlikely that their views greatly diverged. What sanctions were implemented against the Chinese regime were swiftly removed in 1991 to obtain Beijing's support for the first Gulf War. The Bush family's own business ventures in China remain undisturbed.
Britain's own former PM and virtual ambassador to Britain from Beijing responded to a question from the BBC's Jeremy Paxman about the massacre by spluttering, "Well, of course this just like the British. It's the only thing you can bring up and we're the only country that still does bring it up." (Actually, we don't - Blair is notoriously supportive of the regime in Beijing).
On another occasion Heath said: "There was a crisis in Tiananmen Square after a month in which the civil authorities had been defied and they took action about it very well (pause) We can critise it in exactly the same way as people criticise Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland."
Indeed. Now which Prime Minister was behind the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry? Oh, Edward Heath.
The Chinese government has never admitted to any wrongdoing during this episode. Bring on the revolution...
And there I leave it for now, thanks for visiting and reading, remember you can talk back to the blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Best wishes in the world,
Tottenham, London, England
Italian peace protestors arrested by plain-clothes police