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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

Ex-MI5 head accuses UK government of exploiting public terror fears

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45 minutes from attack

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which politicians – and the media – exploit public fears about terrorism in order to sell newspapers and ill-conveived government policies. Now the former MI5 head Stella Rimmington has joined those raising concerns, arguing that “It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties”.

From The Telegraph:

Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has warned that the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state.

Dame Stella accused ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the hands of terrorists.

“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy,” Dame Stella said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:15 am

UK government implicated in torture

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From The Guardian

A policy governing the interrogation of terrorism suspects in Pakistan that led to British citizens and residents being tortured was devised by MI5 lawyers and figures in government, according to evidence heard in court.

A number of British terrorism suspects who have been detained without trial in Pakistan say they were tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by MI5. In some cases their accusations are supported by medical evidence.

The existence of an official interrogation policy emerged during cross-examination in the high court in London of an MI5 officer who had questioned one of the detainees, Binyam Mohamed, the British resident currently held in Guantánamo Bay.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:03 am

Alison Des Forges

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Earlier this week I had an invitation to a public meeting in London at which the renowned Human Rights Watch investigator Alison Des Forges would be speaking. Alison had taken a close interest in the December 2000 massacre which claimed 21 lives in Burundi, including that of my sister Charlotte. She had been enormously encouraging of our efforts to secure justice, and gave warm and generous feedback when “Titanic Express” was published in 2006. We’d been in touch a number of times over the years but I’d never met her in person.

In the months after Charlotte’s death, when I was desperately trying to understand the background to the brutal regional conflict which had claimed her life – and in the years that followed-  I also learned a huge amount from the wealth of material that Alison Des Forges has written, such as the extraordinary book (the full text of which is available online at the HRW website) “Leave None to Tell the Story”.

I wanted to go to Wednesday’s meeting but wasn’t able to make it. One always assumes there will be another opportunity. This morning I was devastated to read that, on her return from Europe, Alison Des Forges had been killed in the plane crash in New York State on Thursday evening. The news was announced by Human Rights Watch yesterday:

“Alison’s loss is a devastating blow not only to Human Rights Watch but also to the people of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people. Then she wrote the definitive account. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began working on Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country, to exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people and helping to bring about change. She was best known for her award-winning account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and won a MacArthur Award (the “Genius Grant”) in 1999. She appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. She also provided documents and other assistance in judicial proceedings involving genocide in four other national jurisdictions, including the United States.

Clear-eyed and even-handed, Des Forges made herself unpopular in Rwanda by insisting that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the murder of  30,000 people during and just after the genocide. The Rwandan government banned her from the country in 2008 after Human Rights Watch published an extensive analysis of judicial reform there, drawing attention to problems of inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary that resulted in trials and verdicts that in several cases failed to conform to facts of the cases.

“She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government’s forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain,” said Roth. “She was really a thorn in everyone’s side, and that’s a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth.”

Des Forges was not only admired but loved by her colleagues, for her extraordinary commitment to human rights principles and her tremendous generosity as a mentor and friend.

“Alison was the rock within the Africa team, a fount of knowledge, but also a tremendous source of guidance and support to all of us,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “She was almost a mother to us all, unfailingly wise and reasonable, absolutely honest yet diplomatic. She never seemed to get stressed out, in spite of the extreme violence and horror she had to deal with daily. Alison felt the best way to make things better was to be relentlessly professional and scrupulously fair. She didn’t sensationalize; her style was to let the victims speak for themselves.”

Corinne Dufka, another colleague who worked closely with Des Forges, wrote: “She always found the time to listen and helped me see outside the box. Alison inspired me to be a better researcher, a better colleague, a more giving mentor and a more balanced human being. She was also funny – her sardonic sense of humor, usually accompanied with that sparkle in her eye, lightened our burden.”

An historian by training, Des Forges wrote her PhD thesis on Rwanda and spent most of her adult life working on the Great Lakes region, despite an early stint in China with her husband, Roger, a professor of history and China expert at the University of Buffalo.

Des Forges graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received her PhD from Yale in 1972. She began as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch, but was soon working full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. Eventually, Roth had to insist she take a salary. She co-chaired an international commission looking at the rise of ethnic violence in the region and published a report on the findings several months before the genocide. Once the violence began, Des Forges managed to convince diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including the leading human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya.

As senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch since the early 1990s, Des Forges oversaw all research work on the Great Lakes region, but also provided counsel to colleagues across the region and beyond. She also worked very closely with the International Justice Program because of all her involvement with the Rwanda tribunal.

“The office of the prosecutor relied on Alison as an expert witness to bring context and background and detailed knowledge of the genocide,” Roth said. “Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide.”

Most recently, Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo.

Update – I was looking again just now at the online version of “Leave None To Tell The Story”. Since I first read it, back in 2001, Alison wrote an updated foreword, which gives one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the links between what took place in Rwanda, and the lesser-known conflicts in Burundi and the DRC:

In mid-1994 officials of the former [Rwandan] government, soldiers, and militia fled to the Congo, leading more than a million Rwandans into exile. They carried with them their ideology of Hutu supremacy and many of their weapons. They sought the support of local Congolese people as well as of the government, hoping to broaden their base for continued resistance against the RPF. They insisted that Rwandan Hutu and different Congolese groups were a single “Bantu” people because they spoke similar languages and shared some cultural traits. They said Tutsi were “Nilotic” invaders who, together with the related Hima people of Uganda, intended to subjugate the “Bantu” inhabitants. This “Bantu” ideology – and the RPF determination to counter it – informed the framework for much of the military conflict in the region for the next ten years.

In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, invaded the Congo. Rwanda wanted to eliminate any possible threat from the former Rwandan army and militia who were re-organizing and re-arming in refugee camps in eastern Congo. Uganda sought greater political influence and control over resources in the region. Together with their Congolese allies, the Rwandan and Ugandan troops moved rapidly westward, at first hunting down the remnants of the Rwandan Hutu from the refugee camps – combatants and civilians alike – but then setting another objective, that of overturning Mobuto and his government. They succeeded, but in 1998 the new Congolese government, led by Laurent Desire Kabila, turned against its former supporters. Kabila told the Rwandan and Ugandan troops to go home, thus provoking a new war. This second Congo war at one point involved seven African nations and a host of rebel movements and other local armed groups, all fighting to control the territory and vast wealth of the Congo. Casualties among civilians were enormous, from lack of food, medical care, and clean water as well as from direct attack by the various forces.

The real nature of this war, like that of the first, was for a long time disguised by the references to the genocide. In demanding a return to national sovereignty Congolese officials spoke in anti-Tutsi language and crowds in Kinshasa killed Tutsi on the streets. Rwanda sought to justify making war by claiming the need to eliminate perpetrators of the genocide who were operating in eastern Congo with the support of the Congolese government. Rwandan authorities continued to stress this supposed security threat from the other side of the border long after the numbers and resources of the former Rwandan army and militia had diminished and their members were widely scattered.

In 1997 and 1998, in the hiatus between the two Congo wars, soldiers and militia of the genocidal government, supported by thousands of new recruits, crossed from the Congo and led an insurrection in northwestern Rwanda. The RPF forces suppressed the rebellion at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, many of them civilians who happened to live in the area. A substantial number of the rebel combatants had not taken part in the genocide and seemed more focused on overturning the government than on hunting down Tutsi civilians, but others continued to harbor genocidal intentions and singled out Tutsi to be attacked and killed.

Events in Burundi, a virtual twin to Rwanda in demographic terms, first influenced and then were influenced by the Rwandan genocide. Burundi was already immersed in its own crisis with widespread ethnic slaughter in late 1993. These killings, as well as international indifference to them, spurred genocidal planning in Rwanda. After April 1994 Burundians viewed with horror the massacres of others of their own ethnic group in Rwanda, Tutsi identifying with victims of the genocide and Hutu identifying with those killed by RPF forces. Burundian Tutsi and Hutu feared and distrusted each other more because of the slaughter in Rwanda and each group vowed that its members would not be the next victims. Former Rwandan soldiers and militia at times joined Burundian Hutu rebel forces, bringing them military expertise and reinforcing their anti-Tutsi ideas. RPF soldiers on occasion came south to help the Burundian army prevent a victory by Hutu rebels.

Within Rwanda the RPF used the pretext of preventing a recurrence of genocide to suppress the political opposition, refusing to allow dissidents to organize new political parties and eliminating an existing party that could potentially have challenged the RPF in national elections. Authorities jailed dissidents and drove others into exile on charges of “divisionism,” equated to an incipient form of genocidal thinking even when opponents sought to construct parties that included Tutsi as well as Hutu. During 2003, under RPF leadership, Rwandans adopted a new constitution that enshrined a vague prohibition of “divisionism” and made liberties of speech, press, and association subject to regulation – and possible limitation – by ordinary law. In presidential and legislative elections, the RPF came close to asserting that a vote for others was a vote for genocide – past or future. With such a campaign theme and with a combination of intimidation and fraud, the RPF re-affirmed its dominance of political life.

In the years just after the end of the genocide, many international leaders supported the RPF as if hoping thus to compensate for their failure to protect Tutsi during the genocide. Even when confronted with evidence of widespread and systematic killing of civilians by RPF soldiers in Rwanda and in the Congo, most hesitated to criticize these abuses. Not only did they see the RPF as the force that had ended the genocide but they also saw all opponents of the RPF as likely to be perpetrators of genocide, an assessment that was not accurate either in 1994 or later. So long as the parties were defined this way, international leaders acquiesced inÑor even actively supportedÑthe RPF activities in the Congo. Similarly international actors frequently tolerated RPF limits on civil and political freedom inside Rwanda, readily conceding the RPF argument that the post-genocidal context justified restrictions on the usual liberties.

As the ten years after the genocide drew to a close, the international community moderated its support of the current Rwandan government and exerted considerable pressure to obtain withdrawal of its troops from the Congo. Some international leaders began to question the tight RPF control within Rwanda; diplomats and election observers from the European Union and the United States noted abuses of human rights that marred the 2003 elections. Despite these signs of growing international concern, the RPF-led government appeared firmly seated for the near future. Whether it will be able to assure long-term stability and genuine reconciliation may depend on its ability to distinguish between legitimate dissent and the warning signs of another genocide.

Human Rights Watch reissues this book – substantially the same as the original printing – to ensure that a detailed history of the genocide remains available to readers. Since its first publication in English and French, the book has appeared in German and will shortly be published in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. The horrors recorded here must remain alive in our heads and hearts; only in that way can we hope to resist the next wave of evil.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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AIDS and HIV: Connie Howard follows in Neville Hodgkinson’s footsteps

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Vue Weekly’s Connie Howard, who I took issue with here over her Jan 15th article urging “respect” for Christine Maggiore’s position on HIV and AIDS, has made some comments on this blog in response.

She also recently penned another article for Vue, in which she claims that:

One friend, who asked to remain nameless (for obvious reasons), tells me he has watched all but one of his HIV-positive friends die over the years—friends who did as they were told, who took their antiretroviral meds. He, also HIV-positive and so far refusing treatment, is alive and well… As my friend said, what set Christine Maggiore apart was her willingness to be unflinchingly realistic about the risks and toxicities of treatment, the unanswered questions and the potentially relatively lower risk of non-drug approaches. Does that not sound reasonable?

The implication of Howard’s piece seems to be that taking AIDS medications carries a grave health risk, while the dangers to those with HIV of refusing conventional treatment are “potentially relatively lower”. This is quite a big claim to make, as it appears to run counter to what the overwhelming majority of experts on AIDS believe, and could have serious impacts on public health if taken seriously.

Like the former Sunday Times medical correspondent Neville Hodgkinson (and the authors of Continuum Magazine), Howard’s argument centres on an HIV-positive individual who, she claims, remains in good health despite his refusal to take anti-retroviral medications, and has managed to outlive others who accepted conventional treatment.  Unlike Hodgkinson, Howard declines to give any identifiable details about the case, citing “obvious reasons”.

The risks of journalists basing a serious public health claim on an un-named, unverifiable source should also be “obvious”.

Jody Wells  – the seemingly-healthy HIV-positive medication refusnik presented in Hodgkinson’s article  – was dead within a few years of the piece being published.  So too, tragically, was Sylvie Cousseau, and many of the other cases cited in Continuum Magazine. Because these claimed counter-examples to the conventional science on AIDS and HIV were named, it was possible to verify the details, and follow what happened to them afterwards. But as the case presented by Howard is wholly anonymous, there is no way of independently checking the facts, whether Howard has reported them accurately, or even whether the person she cites actually exists.

George Monbiot responds to Hazel Blears’ attack on independent commentary

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From The Guardian

Courage in politics is measured by the consistent application of principles. The website TheyWorkForYou.com records votes on key issues since 2001. It reveals that you voted “very strongly for the Iraq war”, “very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war” and “very strongly for replacing Trident” (“very strongly” means an unbroken record). You have voted in favour of detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days, in favour of identity cards and in favour of a long series of bills curtailing the freedom to protest. There’s certainly consistency here, though it is not clear what principles you are defending…

You remained silent while the government endorsed the kidnap and the torture of innocent people; blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon and backed a dictator in Uzbekistan who boils his prisoners to death. You voiced no public concern while it instructed the Serious Fraud Office to drop the corruption case against BAE, announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war, signed a one-sided extradition treaty with the United States and left our citizens to languish in Guantánamo Bay. You remained loyal while it oversaw the stealthy privatisation of our public services and the collapse of Britain’s social housing programme, closed hundreds of post offices and shifted taxation from the rich to the poor….

The only consistent political principle I can deduce from these positions is slavish obedience to your masters. TheyWorkForYou sums up your political record thus: “Never rebels against their party in this parliament.” Yours, Hazel, is the courage of the sycophant, the courage to say yes…

You are temporarily protected by the fact that the United Kingdom, unlike other states, has not yet incorporated the Nuremberg principles into national law. If a future government does so, you and all those who remained in the cabinet on 20 March 2003 will be at risk of prosecution for what the Nuremberg tribunal called “the supreme international crime”. This is defined as the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression”. Robin Cook, a man of genuine political courage, put his conscience ahead of his career and resigned. What did you do?

It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration. It also guarantees collaboration in every atrocity in which a government might engage. The greatest thing we have to fear in politics is the cowardice of politicians…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 10, 2009 at 8:24 am

Rachel Reid on the UK media’s uncritical repetition of government smears

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From Human Rights Watch

Whatever the MoD has whispered into the ear of the Sun, Col McNally and I met only twice, both times in a purely professional capacity, both times at the Nato military HQ in Kabul. Both times we met to talk about civilian casualties from US and Nato air strikes.

What has happened in the last couple of days has been bewildering. I do not understand how these two meetings might have led the British government to accuse McNally of a serious crime that could lead to a hefty jail sentence, and why my government might want to see my reputation dragged through the mud, when I live in a country where a woman’s reputation can mean her life. The meetings seemed unexceptional. A QC retained by Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the kind of information I received is not covered by the Official Secrets Act.

If the ministry had been seriously concerned that one of their officers was leaking information, why leak it to the media? Why was my name released to the media by the MoD, with a (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) libel that our relationship was “close”? They would know exactly what impression they were creating, and presumably decided that my reputation was expendable in order to ensure coverage of their “story”.

Why did journalists from the Sun, the Times and the Mail write this as a story focusing on the MoD’s entirely bogus suggestion that I had some kind of “relationship” with McNally? Why is it that my photograph was published? Why have journalists not been asking questions about why the MoD has been encouraging them to publish a vicious, false slur about me in order stop me from doing my job for Human Rights Watch in asking for information from the Nato official in charge of monitoring civilian casualties?

Living in Afghanistan, where democracy, a free media, freedom of information and freedom of expression are still a faraway dream, I have developed a deep appreciation of the freedoms I grew up believing I had in Britain. I expect better from my own government and from the British media that I used to be a part of.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

HRW investigator smeared by UK government’s “unnamed sources”

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From The Observer:

Does “on the ground female human rights worker” equate with “slut” these days? Are they perceived as wandering around war zones in cocktail dresses slashed to the thigh, hungry for the next thrill, perhaps a hunky military man to devour, humming the old toe-tapper I Love a Man in Uniform? Or could it be possible that these women pour all their passion and intensity into their jobs?

I only ask because of the curious case of Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. Last week, it emerged that a senior army officer, Colonel Owen McNally, had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing classified information to a human rights worker. Unnamed sources were quick to inform the media that McNally was known to be “close” to Reid, who had divulged the secrets after she “befriended him”.

Writing in response, Reid says that, far from being “close” to McNally, she met him twice professionally at the military HQ in Kabul to discuss civilian casualties. (Interestingly, Reid had angered Nato by pointing out that these deaths had tripled between 2006-7.)

Now Reid is horrified that her reputation has been dragged through the mud when she is living in a country “where a woman’s reputation can mean her life”. She is devastated by the “vicious slur” leaked to the media, saying: “They knew exactly what impression they were creating.” Quite. And is anyone else getting deja vu?

As McNally’s investigation is still going on, the full facts have yet to emerge. However, to me, this seems eerily reminiscent of Andy Burnham’s description of MP David Davies and Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti’s “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” last year.

Intended or not, the impression given was that Chakrabarti and Davies were steaming up Westminster’s windows about more than the 42-day detention period. Briefly but indelibly, Chakrabati was no longer just a human rights professional, she was a femme fatale, pouting and wriggling through the corridors of power.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Christopher Booker embraces recycling

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Journalist Christopher Booker may affect to doubt the human impact on the environment, and the wisdom of recycling targets for our household rubbish,  but he appears to have fewer qualms when it comes to filling up space in his weekly Sunday Telegraph column.

In a warm review for the Spectator last month of the new book by fellow Sunday Telegraph pundit James le Fanu, Booker informed readers that “the greatest stumbling block” in Darwin’s theory of evolution was that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested — the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is psychologically fascinating about the mindset of the Darwinians is their inability to recognise just how much they do not know. As Le Fanu observes in a comment which might have served as an epigraph to his book, ‘the greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge’. Blinkered in their vision, armoured in the certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the ‘Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.

In his column for today’s Sunday Telegraph, Booker tells readers that “one great stumbling block” for Darwin’s theory of evolution is that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested – “the Cambrian explosion” of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the â Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise. It is revealing how they dismissively try to equate all those scientists who argue for ‘intelligent design’ with Biblical fundamentalists, as their only way to cope with questions they cannot answer.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I highlight Christopher Booker’s recycling of the asbestos industry’s pseudo-science in downplaying the health risks of white (“chrysotile”) asbestos.

God, Tony and Torture

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From The Observer

When I talk to people at very senior levels in government, I don’t find them willing to put a hand on heart and swear that British agents were never complicit in torture. British and American intelligence are closely enmeshed; it stretches credulity to snapping point that no one in the Blair government knew what was being perpetrated.

On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a “prayer breakfast” with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: “We pray that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.”

Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. “Bad things happen to bad people,” baldly declared Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. “An anomaly” was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.

The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. “We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others,” says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

More on the “Booker prize for climate change claptrap”

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From The Guardian:

So here it is: your first sight of the Christopher Booker prize 2009.

It is named in honour of the Sunday Telegraph columnist’s amazing ability to include misinformation and falsehoods in his pieces on climate change and other environmental issues.

Believe it or not, this stylish trophy is made entirely of recycled materials!

Lovingly fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales, it shows what can be done with items that are often treated as mere rubbish!

And this isn’t all. I am suggesting that the winner of the Christopher Booker prize 2009 take the holiday of a lifetime: a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole. Following in the footsteps of the great Pen Hadow, the award winner could use the trip to see for him or herself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. The Guardian will support this intrepid venture by supplying THREE BARS of Kendal mint cake towards the costs of this expedition.

So here’s how you help the winner on his or her way to this prestigious and valuable award:

The award will go to whoever in my opinion and assisted by climate scientists and specialists manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. This work must be available online. You score a point for every mistake, though one point will be deducted for every retraction or correction published by the author or the original outlet within a reasonable length of time.

Please use this special nominations page to make suggestions for this illustrious award – and don’t forget to include a link to the piece in question. This page will remain open until 31 December 2009 and I will keep you updated on the blog about some of the choice nominations throughout the year.

US government threatens to withdraw intelligence co-operation with UK if torture evidence is publicised

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the evidence of systematic torture within the “War on Terror”, and the arguments used to justify it. Since the book was published, yet more evidence has emerged of the extent of the abuses, the complicity of UK forces, and the efforts to cover this up.

Today it was revealed that the US government threatened to withdraw intelligence co-operation with MI5 if the UK High Court published evidence detailing the treatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and tortured in a number of different locations before being taken to Guantanamo. The Times has more:

The United States government has threatened to withhold intelligence cooperation with the UK if evidence of the alleged torture of a ‘terrorist’ detainee at Guantanamo Bay is made public.

Details of how a British resident held in the detention camp was allegedly tortured and what UK intelligence knew about it must remain secret because of the US threats, the High Court ruled today.

Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones said lawyers for the Foreign Secretary had told them that the threat by the United States still applied under President Barack Obama’s Administration.

The startling disclosure that the US has threatened to re-evaluate sharing intelligence with Britain came just a day after Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, lavished praise on the “special relationship” between the two countries.

In spite of noting that it is completely contrary to the rule of law not to release the evidence, the judges said it must remain secret otherwise “the public of the United Kingdom would be put at risk”

Update – Further comment from Clive Stafford Smith in today’s Guardian:

When history reviews the past eight years, the most lasting concern will not be ill-advised experiments such as Guantánamo Bay. Rather, it will be the creeping tendency of democratic governments to use “national security” as an excuse to keep the truth from those who have elected them. After all, if the US and the UK can conspire to suppress evidence of torture, what other dark secrets can they hide?

George Monbiot launches the Booker prize for pseudo-science…

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It had to happen sooner or later…

From George Monbiot at the Guardian

Today I am launching a new and much-coveted award. It is called the Christopher Booker Prize. It will be presented to whoever manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. It is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, although that is also a prize for fiction.

The prize consists of a tasteful trophy made from recycled materials plus a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole, enabling the lucky winner to see for himself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. Later this week, I will publish the full terms and conditions and unveil the beautiful trophy, which is currently being fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales.

The fraudster, the perjurer and the pyromaniac

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firestarter

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that lying in public office should be made a criminal offence. But it seems that within the existing system, an ennobled British politician convicted under such a law (or indeed any other) would still be able to vote in the House of Lords. The current stock includes a convicted fraudster, a perjurer and an arsonist. George Galloway in the Daily Record has more:

And then there’s “Lord” Mike Watson, a former New Labour MSP. Not only does he still sit in the Lords following his prison term for arson – setting fire to the curtains of a hotel full of people because the staff had refused him any more strong drink.

But Lord Watson turns out also to be a Parliamentary lobbyist!

Now leave aside what kind of companies would want to hire a drunken ex-convict arsonist – the Acme fire alarm company, perhaps – the point is the House of Lords is full of crooks.

Lord Conrad Black, former owner of the Daily Telegraph, is still a Lord even though he is currently banged up in a US penitentiary.

Lord Jeffrey Archer is another ex-con on the red benches.

New Labour once stood for the abolition of this farce; now it stuffs its mediocrities in to stuff their faces and keep their mouths shut, except when they have to say Yes.

See also – Buy back democracy – for just £5 a head!