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Archive for February 2009

Aid donors press Burundi to free Jean-Claude and Alexis

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alexis1

As I reported last year, two of the Burundians whose work informed my first book “Titanic Express” are now Amnesty International “Prisoners of Conscience”.

The journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested last September and charged with “defaming” the head of state after daring to write an article about the Burundian President’s expenditure at the Beijing Olympics.

The opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije was arrested in November during a political crackdown on his party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

free-alexis-sinduhuje

Supporters of Amnesty, and of the Movement for Security and Democracy, have been lobbying both Burundi’s government and its (mostly European) aid donors over the case. The MSD has raised pointed questions about the wisdom of aid donors continuing to give money to a regime in which corruption is endemic, and that prefers to spend its resources consolidating its own power than helping its people.

The UK government and others say that they are lobbying on this issue behind the scenes. Now the Belgian Development Minister Charles Michel, in a speech on aid, has called explicitly for Alexis and Jean-Claude to be released, along with another political prisoner, union leader Juvenal Rududira.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 26, 2009 at 9:50 am

Exclusive: 64% blame Bowie for global economic meltdown…

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trainwreck

Some weeks ago, readers of this blog were asked to vote on one of the most pressing issues of our time: whose fault is the global economic meltdown?

Seldom has an online poll been more fiercely contested – and seldom have the stakes been so high.

But the votes are now in, and it is clear that by a landslide 64%, the rock star and sometime actor David Bowie is known to be the man responsible, with Robert Peston coming in a distant second at just 29%, and Barack Obama almost nowhere to be seen.

Polls clearly show that it's all David Bowie's fault

Indisputable evidence that it's all Bowie's fault

The implications of this news have yet to be determined, but one thing already seems beyond doubt – neither “Diamond Dogs” nor “Black Tie White Noise” will ever sound quite the same way again.

Parliamentary aides offered perks by cigarette firm in advance of tobacco legislation debate

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the exposure of columnist Roger Scruton, who was revealed to have taken money from Japan Tobacco in exchange for placing pro-smoking articles in several major newspapers – and the attempts by another columnist, Terence Blacker, to mitigate his actions.

Now it’s been revealed that Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest tobacco company, may again have been seeking to exert hidden influence,  by offering entertainment perks to UK Parliamentary aides in the run-up to a debate on health in which a clampdown on cigarette sales will be considered.

From The Guardian:

The world’s third largest tobacco company is offering entertainment perks to parliamentary researchers as legislation that will ban the display of cigarettes is before peers and MPs.

Japan Tobacco, the firm behind brands such as Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, Camel and Winston, offered a “fun evening” watching the Strictly Come Dancing tour at the 02 Arena at the Millennium Dome in London.

The company invited at least two MPs’ aides, including the researcher for Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman…

Andrew Forth, Lamb’s researcher, and James Tobin, the researcher for Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, turned down the offer.

“They told us there were lots of researchers going,” Forth said. “It strikes me as pretty dubious for a tobacco company to be inviting research staff out to such an event which serves no real work purpose in advance of what is pretty controversial legislation which will have a big impact on them. Good working relationships between researchers and issue groups are both vital and useful. This seems to go too far.”…

Lord Liverpool, Lord Stoddart, Lady Knight, Lady Golding and Lady Goudie have objected to the ban on the display of cigarettes. Earl Howe, the Tory health spokesman, plans to vote against a number of the measures and has tabled an alternative policy calling for adults who purchase cigarettes for children to be prosecuted.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Kid Fear’s best video yet (or at least my favourite)

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My brother-in-law Lieven, aka “Kid Fear” has been making yet more giant steps forward with his musical career over in Belgium. Here’s the new video for his latest song, “Drink up my friend”. There’s a prize if you can identify the two people in the picture on the record…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 23, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Was this why the UK Ministry of Defence decided to smear Human Rights Watch?

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A couple of weeks ago, anonymous Ministry of Defence Officials were accused of smearing Human Rights Watch by suggesting, falsely, that the HRW researcher in Afghanistan had improperly obtained official secrets by becoming (to use the standard euphemistic term)  “close” to a British army officer.

Now it’s been revealed that HRW are shortly to release a report giving detailed evidence of complicity in torture by UK government officials in neighbouring Pakistan.

From the Observer:

Among the 10 identified cases of British citizens and residents mentioned in the report is Rangzieb Ahmed, 33, from Rochdale, who claims he was tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by two MI5 officers. Ahmed was convicted of being a member of al-Qaida at Manchester crown court, yet the jury was not told that three of the fingernails of his left hand had been removed. The response from MI5 to the allegations that it had colluded in Ahmed’s torture were heard in camera, however, after the press and the public were excluded from the proceedings. Ahmed’s description of the cell in which he claims he was tortured closely matches that where Salahuddin Amin, 33, from Luton, says he was tortured by ISI officers between interviews with MI5 officers.

Zeeshan Siddiqui, 25, from London, who was detained in Pakistan in 2005, also claims he was interviewed by British intelligence agents during a period in which he was tortured.

Other cases include that of a London medical student who was detained in Karachi and tortured after the July 2005 attacks in London. Another case involving Britons allegedly tortured in Pakistan and questioned by UK agents involves a British Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter.

Rashid Rauf, from Birmingham, was detained in Pakistan and questioned over suspected terrorist activity in 2006. He was reportedly killed after a US drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal regions, though his body has never been found.

Hasan said: “What the research suggests is that these are not incidents involving one particular rogue officer or two, but rather an array of individuals involved over a period of several years.

“The issue is not just British complicity in the torture of British citizens, it is the issue of British complicity in the torture period. We know of at least 10 cases, but the complicity probably runs much deeper because it involves a series of terrorism suspects who are Pakistani. This is the heart of the matter.

“They are not the same individuals [MI5 officers] all the time. I know that the people who have gone to see Siddiqui in Peshawar are not the same people who have seen Ahmed in Rawalpindi.”

Last night the government faced calls to clarify precisely its relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which are known to routinely use torture.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Justice not therapy…

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Vintage stuff  by Ken Roth and the late great Alison Des Forges, in defence of the basic principles of international justice, and individual responsibility. From the Boston Review:

[Helena] Cobban argues that criminal prosecutions are a “strait-jacket” solution imposed from outside Rwanda. But the Rwandan government itself initially requested the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (though it later opposed it) and decided on national trials for the more than 100,000 jailed in Rwanda on charges of genocide…

Cobban’s analysis is most troubling when she resorts to medical metaphor. She acknowledges the planning and organization of the genocide by state authorities, detailing how killers coolly and regularly slaughtered Tutsis as daily “work.” Yet in her view, these were not horrible crimes but a “social psychosis,” not acts of volition but a “collective frenzy”; the architects of the genocide are not more culpable than ordinary killers but “sicker.”

Cobban’s analysis resembles that of the perpetrators themselves. They argued that the slaughter was “spontaneous,” committed by people driven mad out of fear and anger. Rwandan killers have indeed been traumatized but their ailment resulted from their conduct rather than causing it.

Mob psychology cannot explain choices made during the genocide: why some individuals killed for reward or pleasure, or from fear of punishment, while others did not. To judge the killers as merely “sick” devalues the courage and decency of the millions who resisted this inhumanity, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

Cobban’s medical metaphor allows no place for individual responsibility. A person plagued by cancer is a victim of unfortunate circumstance, but is not at fault. Murderers, let alone orchestrators of genocide, are different. When they corral victims into churches and stadiums and systematically slaughter them with guns and machetes, the killers are not the latest hapless victims of the genocidal flu. They are deliberate, immoral actors. Treating them as no more culpable than children who refuse to wear coats and catch cold is both wrong and dangerous. Wrong because it does a deep disservice to the victims, as if their deaths were a natural accident, not a deliberate choice. Dangerous because it signals to other would-be mass murderers that they risk not punishment but, at most, communal therapy sessions.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”

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From The American Psychological Association

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 18, 2009 at 12:34 am