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Archive for November 2008

Craig Murray sceptial of Jack Straw’s protestations about Damian Green arrest

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From Craig Murray

Jack Straw, so called Justice Minister, denies that he had any foreknowledge of the arrest of Damian Green.

Jack Straw denied directly to the BBC in the documentary “The Ambassador’s Last Stand”, and denied to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, that he had any part in the false accusations laid against me or in my removal as Ambassador for raising human rights concerns. Yet, as detailed in Murder in Samarkand, I have obtained documents in Jack Straw’s own handwriting, directing the process, and he held at least three meetings with Sir John Kerr to organise it.

On being sacked, I very openly leaked a number of government documents concerning UK policy, the use of torture material by our intelligence services, and the government’s attempts to frame me. Most of these documents were classified more highly than the documents leaked to Damian Green, like this one for example:
http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/documents/Declaration.pdf

Yet when I leaked a number of highly classified documents, openly on the internet with my name and address, did the police come knocking at my door? No, they did not. They consulted Home Secretary John Reid, who consulted Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. They concluded that they should seek to kill the story, and not generate publicity by arresting me.

Does anybody really believe that Ministers decided whether someone as obscure as I should be arrested, but were not consulted on whether Damian Green should be arrested?

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2008 at 10:56 pm

Why was Sally Murrer singled out?

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Now that the government’s extraordinary judicial harassment of journalist Sally Murrer has finally been stopped, Ms Murrer is free to speak openly about the case for the first time. In an article in today’s Mail on Sunday, Murrer describes in detail the personal toll that her 19-month ordeal has taken.

The startling political implications of the case are further highlighted by Nick Cohen in the Observer. Though sympathetic, Cohen describes as a “conspiracy theory” Murrer’s belief that she was targeted because of her close friendship with Mark Kearney, the police whistleblower in the Sadiq Khan case, who was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted with her.

This description seems somewhat harsh. Sally Murrer is the only journalist in the entire country to have been singled out in this way, simply for doing what local journalists do all the time – taking news tip-offs from local police sources. But unlike other local newspaper journalists, one of Sally Murrer’s friends – and sources – happens to be the man at the centre of a high profile police scandal that caused the government enormous embarrassment – a man whose son and former business associate were also targeted for prosecution in the same case. It surely isn’t wildly speculative to suppose that these two facts might have had some connection…

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Booker attacks… Barack Obama

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From Christopher Booker in today’s Sunday Telegraph

If the holder of the most powerful office in the world proposed a policy guaranteed to inflict untold damage on his own country and many others, on the basis of claims so demonstrably fallacious that they amount to a string of self-deluding lies, we might well be concerned. The relevance of this is not to President Bush, as some might imagine, but to a recent policy statement by President-elect Obama.

Tomorrow, delegates from 190 countries will meet in Poznan, Poland, to pave the way for next year’s UN conference in Copenhagen at which the world will agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. They will see a video of Mr Obama, in only his second major policy commitment, pledging that America is now about to play the leading role in the fight to “save the planet” from global warming…

For 300 years science helped to turn Western civilisation into the richest and most comfortable the world has ever seen. Now it seems we have suddenly been plunged into a new age of superstition, where scientific evidence no longer counts for anything. The fact that America will soon be ruled by a man wholly under the spell of this post-scientific hysteria may leave us in wondering despair.

See also: Booker’s 38 bogus claims promoting white asbestos, Booker’s praise for the asbestos industry’s answer to “Doctor” Gillian McKeith, and “Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims, and The Headline That Wasn’t

The Sun says…

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It’s hardly news that pundits and columnists often talk at cross purposes and contradict themselves, but to do so within two paragraphs of the same article takes some talent.

Today’s Sun newspaper editorial begins in a familiar vein:

IT is shocking that Indian authorities believe British-born Pakistani terrorists took part in the Mumbai massacre. If true, it proves we have still not learned the lessons of London’s 7/7…

That is why we must give our security services the surveillance powers they require. And we must let police detain suspects for as long as they need.

Then in the next paragraph we are told:

The arrest of Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green is a terrible blow to our democracy. Mr Green was pounced on in raids involving 20 anti-terrorist cops. His homes and offices were searched and his private files and computers seized. His Commons room was turned over apparently with the consent of Labour Speaker Michael Martin. Why was MP Mr Green treated like an al-Qaeda bomber?

The answer, at least in part, is that newspapers like The Sun have, for years, slavishly supported every New Labour demand for “sweeping new powers” to bug, and detain indefinitely on vaguely-defined charges anyone who they say might be a terrorist.

All the while the government has been progressively widening the definition of “criminal” or “terrorist” activity – amid barely a squeak of protest from the supine tabloid media.

That paranoid state officials would end up using these arbitrary powers to harass critics and attack opposition politicians was completely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between politicians who stoke public fears about terrorism in order to extend their own power, and tabloid newspapers that make their money from enthusiastically regurgitating every torture-tainted government scare story.

Vindictive prosecution falls apart as journalist Sally Murrer is cleared of all charges

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Just one day after the shadow Home Office minister Damian Green was arrested by nine counter-terrorism officers on suspicion of “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” – an arcane charge stemming from his publishing embarrassing revelations from a government whistleblower, news was released that the local journalist Sally Murrer had been fully cleared of a similar charge, in a costly court case which has been dragging on since May 2007.

The case against Murrer fell apart earlier this week, after a judge ruled that the key evidence presented by police had been gathered illegally. A press gagging order had been in place until today, while the prosecution made up their minds over whether or not to appeal. Murrer’s car and phone conversations with her police officer friend Mark Kearney had been secretly bugged over a period of weeks, before she was arrested, strip searched, and told that she could go to prison for life simply for having heard information deemed “sensitive”.

It later emerged that Mark Kearney was at the centre of the scandal surrounding the bugging by Thames Valley Police of the Labour MP Sadiq Khan. Kearney had been put under pressure to co-operate with the secret surveillance of Khan, and had raised concerns that the practice was unethical, if not illegal, shortly before his fellow police officers began investigating his contact with Murrer.

“They tried to discredit the whistleblower and the journalist they thought he was going to blow the whistle to and destroy the story that way”, Murrer told the Press Gazette earlier this year. “It seems like a huge hammer to smash a very small nut and I think this could be one of the biggest cover-ups this country has ever seen. They were trying to ruin him, destroying me in the process.”

The police also arrested Kearney’s son, Harry, a serving soldier, on similar charges. Quoted in the Times, Kearney suggested that:

“To get at me the police have tried to bring my son down as well – we used to call it hostage taking, arresting a suspect’s family to make him crack. But the Army have stood by him.”

Speaking after her court victory, Murrer told the Press Gazette that she was too emotionally exhausted to feel triumphant, and that after her 18-month ordeal she was unsure whether she had the confidence to continue her work as a journalist.

Echoes of Sally Murrer case as senior UK opposition politician arrested by counter-terrorism police

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which government demands for “sweeping new powers”, ostensibly to protect public security, often lead to those powers being used in ways far beyond those originally intended. One among many recent examples was the use of anti-terrorist legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK.

Now counter-terrorism police have arrested the Conservative shadow Home Office minister Damian Green, after he published documents recently released by a government whistle-blower. Green was charged with “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public office”.

Following his release on bail, Damian Green said:

“I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours under arrest for doing my job. I emphatically deny that I have done anything wrong. I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret, information that the public has a right to know.

“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”

Interestingly, this charge closely resembles the spurious case brought against the local journalist Sally Murrer, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the police whistleblower Mark Kearney. According to the Press Gazette, Murrer was charged with aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring Kearney to commit the offence of “misconduct in a public office”.

Sarah Palin, Africa, and the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the mechanisms behind a number of media hoaxes, including the 2006 “Bye Bye Belgium” TV news report (which had a number of international diplomats fooled), the case of “Nurse Nayirah” and the notoriously bogus Hitler Diaries.

The source – and veracity – of the now-famous claim that Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country still remains mysterious.

MSNBC had reported that a McCain campaign adviser, “Martin Eisenstadt” had stepped forward to claim responsibility. But now the New York Times has reported that Martin Eisenstadt is himself a complete fiction, invented by two bloggers with the help of the equally fictitious “Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy”. According to the New York Times:

An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, explained the network’s misstep by saying someone in the newsroom received the Palin item in an e-mail message from a colleague and assumed it had been checked out. “It had not been vetted,” he said. “It should not have made air.”

But most of Eisenstadt’s victims have been bloggers, a reflection of the sloppy speed at which any tidbit, no matter how specious, can bounce around the Internet. And they fell for the fake material despite ample warnings online about Eisenstadt, including the work of one blogger who spent months chasing the illusion around cyberspace, trying to debunk it.

The Huffington Post carries an interview with the blogger in question, William K Wolfrum, who first exposed “Eisenstadt” back in June. Wolfrum says:

A Google search of “Michael Eisenstadt” brought up two people: an impressive foreign policy expert who works for the Washington Institute, and a crazy neocon with a bio suspiciously similar to the real Eisenstadt’s resume…

I left a message with the real Michael Eisenstadt, who called me back promptly. It became clear he had nothing to do with the Africa story. I also called the Washington Post, who said they had no reason to believe the real Michael Eisenstadt was currently working with the McCain Campaign…

“Team Eisenstadt” wasn’t being very careful. They used the same aliases over and over to post comments on popular liberal blogs like Huffington Post and Crooks & Liars, and at newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, to create the false illusion of a McCain staffer named Eisenstadt. The lesson here: Google screen names. You’ll be surprised what comes up…

It’s easy to blame the blogosphere, but MSNBC broke the story and they deserve the criticism. As Salon.com pointed out, it was a blogger who uncovered the hoax months ago. If MSNBC, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Republic had bothered to Google the name “Martin Eisenstadt,” the third entry to come up would have been my post calling him out as a hoax.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 27, 2008 at 9:32 am

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.

The Naturalist on the crucial difference between fact and fantasy

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From The Naturalist

About the most crucial distinction we can make as cognitive creatures is between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how they really are, between subjectivity and objectivity. We learn, often the hard way, that our impressions and cognitions are sometimes biased, truncated, or in the worst case simply missing. We reach what we assume is the bottom of a stairway, stepping confidently out onto the floor, only to find ourselves plunging yet another step down. We’re sure Congress will pass the (first) 700 billion dollar bailout bill, only to discover in the closing minutes that Republican constituencies will have none of it. For a century we blithely go about our energy consuming, carbon-emitting ways only to discover we’ve been heating up the planet. It seemed our way of life was sustainable; in reality it wasn’t. It seemed (at least to some of us insouciant investors) that unregulated mortgage-based securities could coexist with a stable financial system, that they represented real wealth, but in reality they didn’t. In countless matters great and small we stand corrected in our perceptions and assumptions by feedback from the world. With some notable exceptions to be discussed below, we are perforce commonsense empiricists, wanting to operate under the guidance of an adequate model of reality so that our projects come to fruition. The possibility that we could be mistaken in our modeling should always be present to us, prompting us to gather data in advance of action. If we’re smart we test the waters – depth, purity, temperature – before diving in.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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Burundi’s Christian evangelical President, Pierre Nkurunziza, may be having difficulty living up to the New Testament exhortation to forgive those he sees as his enemies, but he’s following the Old Testament strictures on homosexuality rather more rigidly. The Burundian Parliament has just rushed through legislation which will, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalise gay relationships, and President Nkurunziza is expected to endorse it shortly.

Burundi now appears to be following what we might call the “Ugandan model” of church-led jurisprudence, where those responsible for torture, mass-killings, and rape (so long as the victims are women, obviously) get pardoned by the state, leaving it free to expend its resources persecuting and publicly vilifying men who sleep with other men.

At moments like this it’s traditional for western media types to shrug their shoulders and say things like “Well, it’s their culture, isn’t it? Surely we have to respect their ways”.

So I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts from the veteran Burundian commentator and former statesman Gratien Rukindiza, who describes the new law as “retrograde, reactionary and fundamentalist”, and suggests that Burundi’s leaders “believe they are closest to God when they hurt the Burundian people”.

“The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay“, Rukindikiza points out. “He runs a city more populous than the whole of Burundi. The city is wealthier than Burundi. He is a respectable, honest man who will probably one day be President. Does the mayor of Bujumbura dare visit the mayor of Paris knowing that in Burundi, the law would send his host to jail?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am

Video: Alexis Sinduhije mobbed by well-wishers ahead of his court appearance for “insulting the President”

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Click here to see hi-res version of the video on Facebook – and click here for more background on Alexis Sinduhije’s arrest.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 22, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Groupthink, Self-serving bias, Space Cadets and the Stanford Prison Experiment – “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Beyond Words book festival

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Earlier this week I had a very enjoyable afternoon discussing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at University College School’s “Beyond Words” book festival, and looking at some of the more eye-catching bits of psychological research that I came across while writing the book. The audience had some challenging and wide-ranging questions, and I thought it might be interesting to post some more background links here.

I was about halfway through my research when I realised that a great many of the delusions I was looking at seemed to come down, at least in part, to what might once have been called “excessive vanity”: The conspiracy theorists who think that they alone are part of some special group with special knowledge about AIDS/the Illuminati/911 or the “great asbestos scam” while everyone else muddles along in their brainwashed ignorance. Or the crank who’s convinced that, just by using his uncommon “common sense”, he’s managed to find a fatal flaw in a well-established scientific theory that generations of world-renowned biologists have somehow contrived to miss.

But what I hadn’t known was the degree to which almost all of us seem to over-rate ourselves and our own abilities, at least to some degree. The average driver thinks that they’re a better driver than the average driver – and reason dictates that we can’t all be above average. Most people also seem to rate themselves at least slightly better than others in intelligence, and significantly better in warmth, generosity and – my personal favourite – likelihood of leaving the largest slice of pizza for someone else when there are only two slices left. The research link for that particular claim can be found here – and for a more general overview I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives”.

Somewhat less academic but still very interesting was the case of a reality TV show called “Space Cadets” where a Channel Four production company managed to convince a group of contestants that they were being sent into space and put into orbit around the earth. In fact they were sitting in a Hollywood space shuttle simulator at a disused military airbase in Suffolk.

The programme-makers had set out explicitly to recreate a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink”, where members of a close-knit social group become so focussed on a particular group belief or objective that they lose their ability to think critically. But what hadn’t been predicted was the effect that the experience would have on the actors who were in on the hoax, and whose job it was to pretend to be an ordinary member of the group.

“My poor brain is a scramble of half-truths, astronomical lies and unbridled lunacy”, Skelton wrote in the Guardian, shortly after the hoax was finally revealed.

“I’ve just scribbled a list of what I know for sure: I’ve been a mole on a fake reality show called Space Cadets; I have a Russian doll in my hand luggage; I’ve just spent the past five days in a flight simulator in a hangar on the Suffolk coast; and – last but by no means least – I’ve just spent the past five days in space.

My default brain position aboard Earth Orbiter One was that we were 200 kilometres up, travelling at about seven kilometres per second. Too many things were telling me that for me to think otherwise.”

The psychological manipulation had been so strong that even though Skelton knew, rationally, that
the whole thing was a hoax, he found himself believing it anyway.

The third case study I looked at was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in the early 1970s. Researcher Philip Zimbardo constructed a model prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, and got a group of students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. Within days, a significant proportion of the guards, who just days previously had been seemingly normal college students, had been transformed into brutal sadists, who relished the power that they’d been given and the opportunities for abuse that it gave them. In the end, the experiment had to be terminated early. Full details about the experiment and its wider implications can be found at Zimbardo’s excellent Stanford Prison Experiment website.

Interestingly, when the soldiers implicated in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal were put on trial, Philip Zimbardo was one of the key witnesses for the defence, arguing that the “situational pressures” on the guards, stemming from the way the prison had been mismanaged, made such abuses entirely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that human beings are rather more vulnerable to delusion and manipulation than we are usually be prepared to admit – but that confronting these vulnerabilities, and doing our best to understand them, is crucial in reducing our risk of being fooled in future.

“Misinformed”, “substantially misleading” and “absurd” – the UK government’s verdict on Christopher Booker’s claims

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The Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker has been taking some flack this week over his latest bogus claims on global warming. This in turn has triggered renewed scrutiny of Booker’s denialism on other issues – particularly his assertions about white asbestos, which I examine in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

I thought it might be useful to collate some of the responses to Booker’s articles over the years from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Most are letters to the editor, correcting false statements that Booker has made about the HSE and its work. Only the first appears to have been accepted by the Sunday Telegraph for publication – the newspaper usually refuses to print letters which contradict Booker’s bogus claims.

Christopher Booker’s articles on the dangers of white asbestos (Notebook, Jan 13, 27, Feb 10) are misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.

-Timothy Walker, Director General, Health & Safety Executive, February 2002

The articles in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker entitled “Fatal cracks appear in asbestos scam as HSE shifts its ground” and “Booker wins asbestos battle” (11 December) highlighted aspects of the current Health and Safety Commission consultation on changes to the asbestos regulations.

While we welcome the emphasis in the articles on evidence-based policy making, I need to correct a comment about our views. While risks from white asbestos may be significantly lower than the risks from blue or brown, HSE does not agree that white asbestos poses no medical risk.

-Jonathan Rees, Deputy Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, December 2005

The Health and Safety Laboratory’s research does not confirm that white asbestos in textured coatings poses “no health risk” (Christopher Booker, 6 August). In its report for the Health and Safety Executive, the Laboratory found rather that the level of asbestos fibres in the air from work with textured coatings will not exceed the proposed new lower control limit when carried out using good practice.

Chrysotile asbestos, as found in many textured coatings, is classified as a category 1 carcinogen hazardous by inhalation by both the World Health Organisation and the EU.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, August 2006

HSE does not exaggerate the risks of white asbestos cement fibres as claimed by Christopher Booker (Farmers face £6 bn bill for asbestos clean up’ 25 May). The article was substantially misleading…

The HSE paper quoted in the article in fact makes no specific statement about the risks of asbestos cement. It provides a summary of risk estimates for mesothelioma and lung cancer in relation to blue, brown and white asbestos across a range of exposures. Blue and brown asbestos are substantially more hazardous than white, but all three types can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Finally, HSE in no way promotes the interests of the asbestos removal industry and it is absurd to suggest otherwise.

-Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, May 2008

Amnesty International adopts Alexis Sinduhije as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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Amnesty International has added its voice to those highlighting the worsening human rights situation in Burundi – and in particular the arbitrary arrest of the journalist-turned-opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije. I met Alexis in person back in 2002, and he helped me enormously when I was researching Titanic Express. I’ve been following events closely since he was arrested earlier this month.

From Amnesty International:

UA 318/08 Arbitrary arrest/ prisoner of conscience

BURUNDI Alexis Sinduhije (m)

Alexis Sinduhije, the President of the Movement for Security and Democracy (Mouvement pour la Sécurité et la Démocratie, MSD), a political opposition group, was arrested on 3 November during a MSD party meeting. Thirty-six others were also arrested, but have since been released. Alexis Sinduhije is currently detained in Mpimba Central Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. He is a prisoner of conscience, held solely for expressing his political views.

The ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, (Conseil national de défense et de la démocratie-Forces de défense et de la démocratie – CNDD-FDD), has recently denied opposition parties the right to peaceful assembly by preventing them from holding meetings without government authorization. Human rights monitors initially thought the arrests were made because the meeting had been held without authorization. The MSD had also had problems registering as a political party.

On 11 November, Alexis Sinduhije was brought before the deputy prosecutor at the Prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura. He was subsequently charged for showing “contempt for the Head of State” (“outrage au chef de l’etat”). The charges were based on documents seized during the arrests which were apparently critical of the President’s development policies. His file should go before the advisory chamber (chambre de conseil) within several days when the acting Judge will decide whether or not to grant him provisional release.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The arrest of Alexis Sinduhije has raised considerable concern amongst members of civil society and the international community about the protection of civil and political rights in Burundi. The United States, the European Union and the UK strongly condemned Alexis Sinduhije’s arrest. The CNDD-FDD has shown increasing intolerance towards political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders perceived as being critical towards them.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible, in French, English or your own language:

- expressing grave concern that Alexis Sinduhije has been detained on a charge of“contempt for the Head of State”, simply for being critical of the President’s development policies;

- urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;

- reminding the authorities that Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

APPEALS TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza

Président de la République

Présidence de la République

Boulevard de l’Uprona

Rohero I

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Président/Excellence

Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals

Monsieur Jean-Bosco Ndikumana

Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

BP 1880

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 21 86 10

Salutation: Monsieur le Ministre

First Vice-president

Monsieur Yves Sahinguvu

Premier Vice-président

Présidence de la République

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Premier Vice-président/Excellence

The Prosecutor of the Republic

Monsieur Elyse Ndaye

Procureur Générale de la République
Parquet Général
BP 105

Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax : +257 22 25 88 44

Salutation: Monsieur le Procureur / Dear Procureur

COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of Burundi accredited to your country.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat, or your section office, if sending appeals after 31 December 2008.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Broxtowe NG16 – the most racist postcode in Britain?

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I have to admit mixed feelings about the apparent leak of the British National Party’s full membership list. It seems almost inevitable that publishing the addresses of 12,000 followers of this widely despised racist group is going to lead to some bigoted old fascist getting attacked in their home, and I tend to feel that there are better ways of dealing with the problem.

I also think there’s some truth in the argument that, within modern British culture, the BNP serves a symbolic purpose that far outweighs its real political significance – as a convenient symbol of everything that’s nasty, despicable, and archaic about our country – and that sometimes, perhaps especially for guilty white lefties like me, having a go at the BNP can just be a quick and easy way of defining one’s self as a good, modern, liberal-minded sort of person, without having to confront any of those messy, less-than-liberal psychological impulses that lurk within us all.

Equally, having grown up with the echoes of World War II continuing to resonate – my grandmother still has stories about narrowly escaping death in Nazi air raids – and having gone to school with people who openly bragged about supporting the BNP and its racist policies, it seems tempting to agree that we can’t afford to take any chances, and that anyone who backs this neo-fascist outfit deserves to be publicly vilified.

Either way, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the list, and what it tells us about the political party that everyone loves to hate. A quick bit of number-crunching reveals that the most popular BNP first name is “John”, and the most common surname “Smith” – though “Peter Smith” appears to be the most common full name among BNP members, by my reckoning.

The top 45 BNP first names all appear to be men’s names (though “Colin” and “Darren” came in at a disappointing 24th and 27th place respectively), with men making up more than 75% of the BNP’s membership. The most common BNP women’s names were Julie, Susan and Patricia, and two thirds were a “Mrs” rather than a “Ms” or a “Miss”…

There are more BNP members in Leicester (409) than in the whole of London (316) – but the single most popular BNP postcode was Broxtowe NG16, in Greater Nottingham, with 57 closet racists peeping out from behind the net curtains.

The top ten most BNP-afflicted towns in the country appear to be:

Town/city BNP members
Birmingham 423
Leicester 409
Nottingham 393
London 316
Leeds 276
Newcastle 262
Blackburn 259
Derby 232
Coventry 228
Peterborough 227

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:26 am

“Way of the Woo” questions Booker’s latest claim on global warming

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From “Way of the Woo”:

Did you hear NASA announced that last month was the hottest October on record? No? How about now:

The world has never seen such freezing heat
On Monday, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore’s chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.

That was from the opinion pages of The Telegraph, “Britain’s No. 1 quality newspaper website”. The Investor’s Business Daily says in their Editorial/Opinion section:

Cold, Hard Facts
Despite record snows and low temperatures around the world last month, a major Al Gore supporter says October was the hottest on record.

And Barbara Sowell of the Digital Journal piles on:

Another Dagger in the Heart of Global Warming Advocacy
When GISS made the announcement last week it was shocking. All over the world were reports of unseasonal cold temperatures and record snowfalls. Even the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month of October.

Were you shocked by last week’s announcement? NASA announcing that “October was the hottest on record” is certainly a headline grabber and I have to admit that I was shocked…shocked that my Google newsfeed didn’t pick up on this story. I checked the major news outlets…ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, etc. I was shocked to find that none of them carried any mention last week of this historical data point in the Global Warming timeline. Of these, only FOX news has posted a quick paragraph on the matter by Britt Hume:

In Hot Water
Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies — one of the four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures used by the United Nations — announced last month was the hottest October on record. That was because the institute’s maps showed a 10-degree increase across parts of Russia.

So why didn’t responsible news organizations write a story about NASA’s announcement? You’re not going to believe this but there was no announcement. Christopher Booker, who wrote the original Telegraph article, made it up. Call it a lie, a fantasy, or Booker’s dream story…but it never happened. What did happen was that NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) posted an erroneous data point in their monthly tabulation of global temperature data. A glitch or a program error (or whatever) caused large sections of Russian temperature data from September to be carried over into October. That is, their particular data was duplicated, causing the overall global average temperature to be artificially high. The new data point would suggest that last October was indeed the hottest October on record.

NASA did not issue a press release, did not hold a press conference, did not send out news bulletins…they did not even so much as attempt any kind of ballyhoo around this new figure. Understand that James Hansen would practically drool over such a figure because it would, in the midst of our current economic turmoil and the transition of government power, bring the topic of manmade Global Warming back to the fore.

See also: “The Bias and Logical Fallacies of Christopher Booker’s ‘Freezing Heat’” and “Global warming data blunder: Worth the fuss?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 18, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Doing business the Lord’s way: “Christian Voice” shuts down poetry book launch

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The religious extremist group Christian Voice is claiming a victory “for the Lord” after pressuring a Cardiff shop into cancelling a book launch by the Welsh writer Patrick Jones. Christian Voice Director Stephen Green has declared Jones’ new poetry collection Where the Stars Are to be “obscene and blasphemous”, and called for it to be withdrawn from sale.

According to Green:

We have not even had to go down to the battleground, let alone fight (2Chr 20:17). Just the knowledge that we were on our way has put the fear of God into the opposition.

But the fact is, we were prepared to go and do something, and it is that which I believe caused Almighty God to take our prayers seriously and perform a miracle.

Interestingly, Patrick Jones says that he actually went out of his way to email Christian Voice, in advance, to let them know about the event. Jones also sent them some examples of his poetry; Stephen Green appears to have taken particular exception to the line “Just like Mary Magdelene / I f****d Jesus”.

Jones says that he was “asking for a debate – that is all… for that to be seen as a provocation for violent threats etc by christian voice is beyond my understanding”

Perhaps I’ve just spent too much time recently immersed in tales of spin and manipulation, but I can’t help but wonder whether Patrick Jones may have been rather less naive about all of this than he now suggests.

Stephen Green’s reaction (or God’s, depending on your point of view) seems to have ensured that Jones’ book has received considerably more media coverage than a poetry collection would normally get – and has led to the author being invited to read from his work at the Welsh Assembly in December. Google news has a further 9 articles on the subject.

(According to Christian Voice, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who issued the speaking invitation, are therefore now officially the “Insult Jesus Party”.)

As marketing strategies go, Jones’ approach doesn’t seem like such a bad one. But I’m nonetheless relieved that Christian Voice never got wind of all the outrageous and obscene things that I say about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in “Don’t Get Fooled Again“…

(With thanks to the excellent Butterflies and Wheels website for the link.)

Written by Richard Wilson

November 14, 2008 at 11:17 pm

Burundi activists launch campaign to free Alexis Sinduhije and Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

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The Burundian activist Frederic Gateretse has launched a campaign to free Alexis Sinduhije, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu and the other political prisoners arrested in President Nkurunziza’s latest crackdown on dissent.

Both Alexis and Jean-Claude were enormously helpful to me while I was researching and writing Titanic Express (and I quote extensively from Alexis in the book’s final chapter), so I’m happy to support them now.

Frederic Gateretse says:

The CNDD-FDD led government has failed to deliver on its promises and is doing all it can to silence its critics by having a tight control on all that is happening in the country. Several opposition leaders have been arrested including Jean Claude Kavumbagu, Pasteur Mpawenayo, and Alexis Sinduhije to name a few.

It appears the government has decided to focus on winning the upcoming 2010 general elections at all cost for the alternative will be disastrous to the current leadership which has a lot to answer to in terms of corruption, mismanagement of public funds, human rights violations and the scrapping of political freedom.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 13, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Harvard academic urges release of Alexis Sinduhije

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From the Boston Globe

A Burundi opposition leader was charged yesterday in Bujumbura with contempt for the president, despite strong condemnation of his arrest last week by State Department officials and human rights groups in the United States.

Alexis Sinduhije, a former radio journalist who has defied threats to his life for years, was a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1997 and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people this year.

“This is a purely political matter. It has nothing to do with the law,” Sinduhije’s lawyer Prosper Niyoyankana said yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported. “Alexis Sinduhije, like other political prisoners in this country, is being punished by the government for their criticism” of the regime.

Sinduhije was arrested in Bujumbura on Nov. 3 with 37 other founding members of the Movement for Security and Democracy, a newly-created opposition party dedicated to reaching out to both Hutu and Tutsi citizens in a country plagued by civil war and ethnic violence. The State Department called last week for their immediate release.

The others were freed last week, according to news reports. But the case against Sinduhije, a contender for Burundi’s presidential election in 2010, appears to be going forward. It is based on documents allegedly criticizing Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza that were found in his home, according to press reports citing his lawyer.

The news has sparked anguish and dismay at Harvard, where several specialists on journalism and human rights have followed Sinduhije’s career.

“I very much hope that wisdom and cooler heads will prevail and he will be released quickly,” said Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School. “He is very highly regarded as a journalist. His core values are ones of telling the truth.”

Sinduhije, 43, became a celebrated national figure – and an international hero – when he founded an independent radio station in 2001 that encouraged reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi Burundians. At his radio station, Radio Publique Africaine, he put former soldiers from both the Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities to work as journalists covering the country’s attempt to heal from years of civil war.

Sinduhije has been threatened, beaten, and arrested repeatedly throughout his years as a journalist. The government banned his station in 2003 for airing an interview with a spokesman for an armed rebel group. But the ban was lifted days later, when other stations boycotted government news until it was lifted. The same year, unidentified assailants fired at his home, killing his night watchman in an alleged assassination attempt, according to a 2004 State Department report on human rights practices.

In 2005, the government suspended his radio station for 48 hours for “offending public morals” by reporting the rape of an 8-year-old girl and threatening public security by “deforming” the words of Tutsi politician and former president Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a 2006 State Department human rights report said.

Sinduhije frequently spoke of the time he spent interviewing African-Americans in Boston and New York as the most challenging thing he had ever done, former colleagues said. He was stunned by their lack of knowledge of his homeland and called the research into what African-Americans know of Africa as “the most difficult task of my career,” according to a research paper he wrote for the Shorenstein Center.

In 2004, Sinduhije received the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year, he left journalism to found a new political party, and announced his intention to run for president. The move earned him a place on Time magazine’s list of influential people.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 13, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President”

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PresidentNkurunziza.jpg

Criticizing Burundi’s “forgiving”
President (r) can land you in jail

I met Pierre Nkurunziza in London in the autumn of 2004, a few months after I’d started writing Titanic Express. At the time, CNDD-FDD was still a rebel movement, and Nkurunziza had just been appointed Burundi’s “Minister for Good Governance”. This particular choice of post seemed cruelly ironic, even then, to many of those who had lost loved ones in CNDD-FDD attacks. Given Nkurunziza’s subsequent track record as President it seems even more so now.

Nkurunziza was elected by a landslide in the summer of 2005, amid high hopes that the predominantly Hutu CNDD-FDD rebel group had succeeded in transforming itself into a genuinely multi-ethnic political party, committed to a peaceful and democratic future for Burundi. As I wrote in December of the following year, these hopes were quickly dashed. Nkurunziza’s time in office has been characterised by corruption, political intransigence, and increasingly brutal attacks on the political opposition.

Matters have been complicated by Nkurunziza’s success in portraying himself as the model of the “forgiving” Christian post-conflict African President, with all the positive associations that this carries internationally. Conflict Resolution NGOs and some international donors have repeatedly hailed Burundi as a success story, even though corruption has been rife and violence ongoing, with still no conclusion to the seemingly endless “peace process”.

When the popular independent journalist Alexis Sinduhije last year launched a new political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy – with a multi-ethnic leadership and, unusually for a Burundian political movement, no armed wing – the government refused to allow it to register, and has been increasingly hostile as the months passed.

In September, the journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested and accused of “defaming” Pierre Nkurunziza after reporting on his personal expenditure at the Beijing Olympics. Today, the BBC reports that Alexis Sinduhije has been jailed on similar charges over his activities as an opposition leader, following his arrest last week. The Movement for Security and Democracy report that their activists across the country are being rounded up and detained. Clearly Nkurunziza’s “forgiving” approach doesn’t apply to those who question his conduct in office. Many Burundians I know are pessimistic that the upcoming 2010 elections will be anything remotely approaching “free and fair”.

A lot of this was quite predictable. I have Burundian friends who did, in fact, predict broadly this state of affairs as soon as it became clear that CNDD-FDD was on course to take power. Nkurunziza’s supposed commitment to democracy and a genuinely multi-ethnic approach was nothing more than window dressing, I was told. The international community was kidding itself if it thought that an armed group with such a track record of brutality and extortion would even be capable of changing its ways once it had its hands on the levers of power, especially when its many crimes had gone unpunished (a 2003 deal granted CNDD-FDD fighters “provisional immunity” from prosecution. Five years on, this supposedly temporary measure still stands).

I knew all this, and yet I wanted to believe. When I met Nkurunziza in London he seemed cordial enough. My friend Desiré took him and his entourage shopping after the meeting. How could a man who goes to buy toys for his kids on Oxford Street be such a bad dude? Next to the psychotic excesses of the Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL, the CNDD-FDD Hutu rebels looked positively moderate.

But they weren’t, and they never had been. The qualities that it takes to become a successful warlord are very different from those needed to be an effective and successful statesman. Recent history is littered with examples of those who failed to make the transition. Brutal civil wars tend to breed a certain kind of mentality, and armed groups like CNDD-FDD attract a certain sort of person – the kind of person who’s comfortable taking and giving orders, and is prepared to engage in acts of extreme violence in order to get their job done.

When CNDD-FDD signed a peace deal, many such people gained lucrative positions in the government and the security forces, safe in the knowledge that they were effectively immune from prosecution for the abuses they’d previously committed – and would be for as long as they could hold onto power. It shouldn’t really have been a great surprise that Burundi’s new elite continued to behave as ruthlessly as they had whilst fighting in the bush – or that they are proving reluctant to cede power peacefully now that their popular support has begun to dwindle. It shouldn’t really have been such a surprise, in short, that Nkurunziza’s Burundi would start to look more like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe than Mandela’s South Africa. When we set aside the hopeful rhetoric, the cold reality is that ex-warlords generally tend to lean more towards despotism than democracy.

So why did we fall for it? I suspect that a certain kind of insidious relativism can set in when we’re looking at a situation as extreme as Burundi. Politicians such as Pierre Buyoya, whose style is more to orchestrate targeted assassinations of his opponents and rivals than to actively incite genocide, come to seem like “moderates”. Rebel groups like CNDD-FDD, who at least talk about the need to turn their back on ethnic divisionism and embrace a multi-ethnic membership, seem reasonable and democratic, even as their leaders continue to bully the general population and line their own pockets.

But one further factor that I think deserves much more scrutiny than it has hitherto been given is the extent to which – both in Burundi and elsewhere – international mediators often have a clear agenda of their own, which may not necessarily be in the best interests of the people they are ostensibly trying to help. “Peace” is now something of a lucrative business – from the NGOs raking in millions to Do Conflict Resolution in troubled regions of the world, to the career diplomats and politicians looking to declare “mission accomplished” and buff their resumé with plaudits for “bringing peace to [fill in country of choice here]“.

When, in 2003, Nkurunziza came out of the bush and declared his commitment to peace, democracy, and “forgiveness” there were a lot of people with a vested interest in promoting the idea that it was genuine. The fact that the terms of the peace deal sowed the seeds for future abuse and instability was not something that most NGOs (with the notable exceptions of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), “security analysts” or international mediators seemed to want to talk about.

Doubtless a part of it was simple, honest-to-goodness, wishful thinking. But the fact that so much money, and – perhaps even more importantly – so many personal reputations, were at stake in Burundi’s peace process could only have made things more complicated.

Burundi had seen so much horror that it’s perhaps understandable that people would get carried away with the euphoria when things finally seemed to be improving. It should also be said that many things do seem to have improved; the level of violence has gone down and the economy was beginning to recover – but the question is for how long.

Since the violence that exploded after independence in the 1960s, the bloodshed has come in cycles, punctuated by periods of relative stability. Successive generations of politicians have been willing to manipulate tensions, and incite ethnic massacres when faced with pressure to relinquish power. Burundi’s new CNDD-FDD ruling elite have already shown that they are prepared to kill, torture and arbitrarily detain their critics in order to protect their political interests. We can only hope that they pull back from the brink before the situation becomes any more unstable.