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Archive for the ‘Freedom of expression’ Category

Tony Baldry MP – a correction

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One of the more amusing libel threats I’ve had since starting this blog came in 2010, on behalf of Tony Baldry MP, who at the time was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Banbury (he is now Sir Tony Baldry, the Member for North Oxfordshire).

Mr Baldry had taken exception to a blog post I had written about his dealings with a notoriously-corrupt Nigerian politician, James Ibori. So concerned was the Honorable Member that he deployed the services of the media law firm Olswang to make his concerns known. Here’s the “Strictly Private and Confidential” letter they sent to WordPress, cc-ing me.

Since then, James Ibori has been convicted by the UK courts of money-laundering on an epic scale.

Following a Freedom of Information request to the UK Foreign Office, I recently obtained a copy of the letter that Tony Baldry had sent in 2009 to the then Foreign Secretary, in which he raised concerns about the “draconian” freezing of James Ibori’s assets by the UK courts.

Due to a failure of file-format savvy at my end, and a lamentable over-reliance on MS Paint, I had initially thought, wrongly, that the Foreign Office had only sent me the first page of the letter – and wrote a somewhat tetchy blogpost.

In fact, they had sent me the entire thing, barring a couple of redactions.

The letter paints an intriguing picture of Tony Baldry’s work on behalf of James Ibori. Sir Tony has been at pains to point out that he wrote it in his capacity as a barrister, not as an MP. He also insists that he was not “lobbying” on Ibori’s behalf, and that he acted entirely appropriately.

I’m publishing the letter in full here (PDF converted from TIF), so Mr Baldry’s constituents can decide for themselves what they think of their MP’s second-job activities.

Private Eye also have a copy of the letter, and have published their take on it in this week’s edition.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm

When even a primary school is threatening its critics with libel, you know it’s time for Libel Reform

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My latest piece for Index on Censorship

LIBEL IN THE SCHOOLYARD

Richard Wilson asks: Why would a London primary school employ the services of a political lobbying firm — and libel lawyers Carter Ruck?

A South London primary school is funding a libel action brought by current and former employees over three emails sent by the Chief Auditor of Lambeth Council. The school has ignored a freedom of information request for details of how much it is spending on the court action — but Index on Censorship believes that the costs may already have run into six figures…

[Read more]

Written by Richard Wilson

May 31, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Libel abusers seek to tighten their grip as government mulls reform

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From the misguided threats against Labour activist Sally Bercow by the right-wing lobby group Migration Watch, to the renewed attacks on cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst by the controversial multinational NMT Medical, it’s clear that the abuses of our libel law will continue until some robust reforms are implemented.

As is perhaps to be expected given the money involved, the libel industry has been running a classic lobbying campaign against moves for reform. In the  process they have enlisted the help of the notorious former speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, who recently found his way into the Lords. I think this says something about the character of these people.

It seems to me that the libel industry could very easily win this unless pressure is maintained on the new government to do the right thing.

I’m pleased to join today’s mass-blog in urgent support of the libel reform campaign:

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at
http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Written by Richard Wilson

November 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Massive Denial-of-Service attack on human rights group Survival International

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Help beat the torturers and their cyber-hacking buddies – please blog or tweet about the attack on Survival International

The video that someone, somewhere doesn’t want you to see

Survival International works to defend the rights of tribal communities under threat from repressive governments and rogue corporations.

Last week they published and distributed a shocking video of Indonesian soldiers torturing tribal people in West Papua. This week their website was attacked and taken out of action. Other websites that published the torture video were also reportedly attacked.

According to Survival:

Starting with a test attack at 5pm (London time) on Wednesday 27 October, and building to a very sophisticated ‘distributed denial-of-service’ onslaught that evening, many thousands of PCs around the world simultaneously bombarded Survival’s website, knocking it offline.

Other organizations that hosted the torture video have also had their websites attacked.

Similar attacks occurred during Survival’s campaign against the Botswana government, after the Bushmen were evicted from their traditional lands.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘This isn’t a couple of geeks in a shed, it’s an expensive and sophisticated attack amounting to cyberterrorism. The damage to Survival International may be substantial but is of course nothing compared to that inflicted on West Papuan tribes or Botswana’s Bushmen. This is not just a local struggle for the survival of the few hundred remaining hunting Bushmen in Africa, or the more than one million oppressed tribespeople in Indonesian West Papua, it also epitomizes the onslaught against those who dare to reject the domination of money and government over human rights. The forces ranged against us are colossal, and may have won this round, but we will never give up.’

Written by Richard Wilson

October 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Case documents from the Migration Watch vs Bercow libel case

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For my details on this, see my previous post

Migration Watch vs Bercow libel case documents

These documents consist of:

pp1-2 A letter from the Migration Watch solicitors, Geoffrey Leaver, to Sally Bercow

p3 A transcript of the television programme in which Sally Bercow made comments which Migration Watch claims are defamatory.

p4 A draft apology to Andrew Green written by the Migration Watch solicitors and included in their initial letter, with the expectation that Sally Bercow would “send an apology to Sir Andrew in the terms attached”.

It’s important to note that even though this letter was written by the claimant’s solicitors in Sally Bercow’s name, she neither approved it nor signed it.

pp5-8 A response to the Migration Watch solicitors from Sally Bercow’s lawyers, Preiskel & Co.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Ex-Director of Public Prosecutions brands UK libel law an international disgrace

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Cross-posted from Amnesty blogs

I’m just back from the launch of a gobsmacking new report by Index and English PEN, highlighting the abuse of the UK libel system by rich individuals and corporations around the world bent on suppressing criticism of their activities.

UK libel law denies most defendants a fair trial because a) The system works on the presumption of guilt, rather than innocence and b) Almost nobody can afford adequate legal representation to defend their case – legal costs in the UK are 140 times the European average. A trial of just one week can easily top a million pounds in fees alone.

On top of this, the UK judiciary effectively asserts “universal jurisdiction” for libel cases (at the same time as genocide suspects on UK territory go undisturbed). Anything negative written about a rich person on a website anywhere in the world can end up being the subject of a defamation case in a UK court. Things have got so bad that US states have begun passing laws preventing the enforcement of UK libel rulings within their jurisdictions, on the basis that our law violates the basic human rights protections outlined in the US constitution.

Last year, the UN human rights committee warned that UK libel law “served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work”, and highlighted the threat posed to freedom of speech worldwide by the UK’s willingess to indulge so-called “libel tourists”.

Speaking at today’s event, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, branded UK libel law a national “disgrace” – and its effect on other countries a “double disgrace”. Macdonald argues that the need for reform is not only an issue of justice, but also of national pride.

To find out more, and to sign up for this urgent and timely campaign, visit www.libelreform.org.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 10, 2009 at 11:41 pm

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

New blog dedicated to securing the release of Alexis Sinduhije

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Earlier this week, members of the Burundian diaspora and their supporters demonstrated in Brussels, calling on the European Union – a major aid donor to Burundi’s government – to help secure the release of Alexis Sinduhije.

Alexis, who as an award-winning journalist helped a great deal over the years with efforts to secure justice over the massacre in which my sister was killed, was arrested on November 3rd and charged with “contempt for the President” after seeking to establish a new, multi-ethnic political party.

Amnesty International is supporting the calls for his release, and a new website has recently been launched to increase the pressure on Burundi’s ruling party, CNDD-FDD, to allow Alexis to go free.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm

David Irving – Free speech defender?

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See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

It’s becoming something of a modern media tradition that whenever freedom of expression is discussed on TV, the pseudo-historian David Irving needs to be wheeled out to talk about the trials he has faced over his denial of the holocaust. Irving was famously jailed in Austria for a while after falling foul of the country’s laws that make denying the holocaust a criminal offence. Irving had given an inflammatory speech in Austria in 1989 which resulted in the case being initiated, and was arrested and put on trial when he returned in 2005.

I don’t doubt that there are some interesting (well, mildly interesting) questions around the wisdom and morality of locking people up for telling lies about the holocaust. The writer Deborah Lipstadt has argued that such measures are heavy-handed and counter-productive. Far more effective, she argues, to confront and expose a racist liar rather than giving him a chance to make a play for the moral highground by claiming martyrdom.

Lipstadt is in a good position to make this call. In 2000, Lipstadt’s legal team trounced David Irving in court, after he had sued her libel for describing him as a falsifier of history, a liar, an anti-semite and a holocaust denier. Armed with some of the most draconian and plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the western world, Irving had sought to impose a heavy penalty on Lipstadt for her criticisms of him. The move had backfired disatrously. Lipstadt had definitively proven her criticisms of Irving to be true, and helped in the process to destroy  what was left of his reputation as a historian.

Irving, it seems, is a supporter of free speech only when it suits him. He has sought actively  to use Britain’s libel laws to suppress legitimate criticism of his work, and arguably has rather more in common with the litigious fraudster Robert Maxwell than with the likes of Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi…

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at David Irving’s pseudo-history as a classic example of “bogus scepticism”.

The Sun comes out for democracy

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For years, The Sun newspaper and its erstwhile political spokesman Trevor Kavanagh have firmly supported UK government demands for ever more “sweeping new powers” to bug, monitor and jail us without charge and with minimal oversight. Two days ago, the newspaper was still demanding – albeit with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance – that the police be allowed to “detain suspects for as long as they need”.

But the arrest of Sally Murrer, combined with the government’s suicide attack against the last remnants of its reputation seems to have brought about a change of heart.

“We are a police state here and now”, declares Trevor Kavanagh in today’s Sun.

I used to think ID cards were a good thing. What law-abiding citizen could object to these new weapons against terrorists, rapists and murderers? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Not any more… If Damian Green can be banged up for nine hours for telling the truth, what hope for you and me? …

The Government’s kneejerk abuse of anti-terror laws as a political weapon is increasingly sinister. It uses them on any pretext – even freezing the economy of friendly Iceland recently when its banks went bust… Soon, unelected snoopers will be able to pry into our mobile calls, text messages and emails. These are the alarming consequences of an authoritarian regime that sees the state as paramount and the people as pygmies.

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”.

US State Department calls for release of Alexis Sinduhije

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From the Washington Post

The State Department protested the Burundian government’s arrest Monday of an aspiring presidential candidate and former journalist who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people this year by Time magazine.

Burundian authorities arrested Alexis Sinduhije at his political party’s headquarters in Bujumbura on Monday, along with other party staff members.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We believe he should be released immediately,” Russell Brooks, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Friday. “It remains our hope the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.”

An ethnic Tutsi reporter who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije has become a national celebrity in Burundi, a small central African country that has been plagued for more than 15 years by violence between the two ethnic groups.

In 2001 Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine, an independent radio station that promoted reconciliation between the groups.

His reporting has drawn international praise. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored Sinduhije in 2004 with its International Press Freedom Award. He has also appeared as a guest on PBS‘s “Charlie Rose” show.

“We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized,” Sinduhije said in explaining his journalistic mission at the 2004 award ceremony. “We hired former fighters, both Hutu and Tutsi . . . to become fighters for peace and truth.”

Joel Simon, the committee’s executive director, said Sinduhije’s radio station “was a beacon” for those searching for an “alternative to the kind of politics of racial division which had brought Burundi to the brink of genocide.”

Simon said Sinduhije has been repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for his work as a reporter. Sinduhije left journalism in December 2007 to compete in Burundi’s 2010 presidential election. The government has refused to formally register his political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

“We don’t think this is a press freedom case,” Simon said, noting that the charges were nevertheless “trumped up.” He said, “We’re obviously very concerned about him, and this treatment illustrates the environment in which Burundi’s election is taking place.”

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Augustin Nsanze, declined to comment on the arrest.

Over the years, Alexis Sinduhije has been immensely supportive of efforts to get to the truth over the Titanic Express massacre, and secure justice for all Burundi’s victims. Click here for more background on his arrest.

US Embassy in Burundi urges release of Alexis Sinduhije

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Alexis Sinduhije outlines his political vision earlier this year

Four days ago, the acclaimed Burundian journalist Alexis Sinduhije was arrested for holding an “unauthorised” meeting of his new multi-ethnic political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy. It says something about the state of the world – and the internet’s potential for positive political action – that the message first came through to many of Alexis’ supporters through the MSD’s Facebook page.

The indefatigable US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch quickly issued a statement calling for Alexis’ release – and drawing attention to the Nkurunziza-regime’s wider pattern of suppressing political opposition. This has reportedly now been followed by this message from the US Embassy in Bujumbura:

The United States regards the incarceration by Burundian authorities of Burundian journalist Alexis Sinduhije as unacceptable. Mr. Sinduhije was arrested on November 3 in Bujumbura, reportedly to be questioned for conducting an illegal meeting. To date, he has not been charged. We believe Mr. Sinduhije should be freed immediately. It remains our hope the Government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.

adolphe

Torture-happy General Adolphe Nshimirimana is rumoured to be behind the attack on Sinduhije

According to the veteran Burundian statesman Gratien Rukindikiza, Alexis was arrested at the behest of the appropriately-named secret police chief, General Adolphe Nshimirimana – Burundi being the only country I know in the world where any variation of the name “Adolf” is still in common use.

Nshimirimana, who has previously been implicated in the systematic torture of Palipehutu-FNL “suspects”, has, according to Rukindikiza, accused Alexis, without evidence, of recruiting fighters for the Congolese Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda – and also levelled the same allegation at Rukindikiza himself.

“That story made me laugh”, Rukindikiza says. “If I was recruiting for any cause, I would recruit thousands of agronomists to help fight famine with modern agricultural methods”.

This latest episode in Burundi’s ongoing political saga has echoes of the Nkurunziza regime’s abortive attempt, back in 2006, to implicate virtually the entire political opposition, both Hutu and Tutsi, in a fictitious plot to assassinate the President. Then as now, the Burundian authorities sought to tie Alexis Sinduhije to the nefarious conspiracy – yet he emerged more popular than ever.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that bogus conspiracy theories are not the exclusive preserve of dodgy men in pubs. Dodgy men in government are often at it too – and Adolphe Nshimirimana’s latest fabricated conspiracy smear against Alexis Sinduhije seems like a very good example.

The Burundi authorities’ 2006 attempt to squash all political opposition on the pretext of a bogus conspiracy fell apart under pressure from the international donors who continue to bankroll much of the country’s budget.

As the 2010 elections approach, it will be interesting to see how far Europe and the US will be prepared to go in insisting that the authorities do more than pay lip service to “good governance” – even if this means puncturing the bubble of wishful thinking at the international level about Burundi’s “forgiving” President, Pierre Nkurunziza.

Human Rights Watch condemns Burundi ruling party’s attack on Alexis Sinduhije

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Click here for more background on this story.

From Human Rights Watch

(Bujumbura, November 5, 2008) – The detention of political activist Alexis Sinduhije and 36 others by Burundian police on November 3, 2008, highlights the growing obstacles to the free exercise of civil and political rights in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today. Sinduhije, well-known as a former radio journalist, has been trying since February to form an opposition political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (MSD).

The detentions follow extensive harassment of leaders of several parties opposed to the dominant National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of the Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

“It looks like the ruling party is calling in the power of the state to silence the voices of dissent,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch.

Dozens of police armed with Kalashnikovs entered the MSD headquarters shortly after noon on November 3, indicating they had information that an illegal meeting was being held. A search warrant that they contended legitimized their entry was delivered two hours later, carried no docket number, and listed another premises – Sinduhije’s residence – as the place to be searched. It gave the charge against Sinduhije as “threatening state security.” Police officers searched and confiscated several documents, one of which they said contained “subversive material.” They proceeded to arrest everyone on the premises, including political activists, a receptionist, and a driver who was later released.

When a Human Rights Watch researcher present at the time of the search and arrests questioned police officers about irregularities, they responded that they were only “executing orders” given by Regional Police Commissioner David Nikiza, who had delivered the search warrant.

Asked to comment on the irregularities, the police spokesman, Pierre Chanel Ntarabaganyi, responded that the party itself was illegal and that therefore the search and subsequent detentions were justified.

Interior Minister Venant Kamana has refused to register MSD as a political party, claiming that a party cannot include “security” among its goals because security is the exclusive province of the state.

Taken into custody on November 3, Sinduhije and the others were still being held at several city jails as of the evening of November 4, without any charges having been formally entered against them. Police officers interrogated Sinduhije, in the presence of his lawyer, about statements in the confiscated documents criticizing President Peter Nkurunziza’s development policies. They suggested such statements might lead to a charge of “insulting the President.” They also interrogated him about efforts to recruit party members among young people, some of them former combatants in rival forces during 10 years of civil war.

Two other MSD members were arrested last week in Cankuzo province, one for allegedly distributing party cards, the other for having such a card in his possession.

Ntarabaganyi, the police spokesman, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Sinduhije and the others had been arrested for holding an unauthorized meeting. A ministerial ordinance issued in early October 2008 requires political parties to obtain official authorization for meetings rather than simply informing officials of their intent to meet, as had previously been the case. Burundian law does not require groups other than political parties to obtain authorization for meetings.

Other parties have also faced harassment. Since late September 2008, police have arrested at least 25 members of UPD-Zigamibanga, a party opposed to the CNDD-FDD. Most were arrested in Ngozi province on charges of participating in an unauthorized meeting and released after paying a fine, but two others were detained in Kayanza province on charges of insulting President Peter Nkurunziza after they criticized his education policy during a private conversation.

Most local authorities on the provincial and communal levels are CNDD-FDD members. Even before the new ordinance on meetings was issued, some of them used their authority or that of the police to hinder political meetings or to shut down press conferences by opposition parties including the Democratic Front in Burundi (Frodebu), the Democratic Alliance for Renewal (ADR), and the CNDD (a party different from CNDD-FDD).

Burundi has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Both of these treaties require Burundi to protect fully the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and to freedom of association. To avoid arbitrary detention, persons detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offense must be informed of the charge against them as quickly as possible, allowed access to a lawyer and to visitors, and be brought speedily before a judicial authority with power to order their release.

“Using the police to limit dissent and to discourage peaceful political activity violates the rights of Burundians and weakens the rule of law,” said Des Forges. “Officials should promptly release Sinduhije and others arbitrarily detained and permit Burundians the full exercise of their civil and political rights.”

Crackdown in Burundi worsens – Nkurunziza’s thugs arrest Alexis Sinduhije

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I’ve just had a message from Burundi’s Movement for Security and Democracy, the political party founded earlier this year by the celebrated journalist Alexis Sinduhije.

In an email he sent on Saturday, Alexis reported that:

…there is more and more pressure against MSD from the government so that is a sign that we are a movement that is being taken seriously and a threat to the current power structure. In Kirundo and Ngozi they have been trying to arrest our colleagues out in the collines doing good work.

According to today’s message from the MSD, 30 party members, including Alexis himself, have now been arrested following increasing threats and harrassment by the authorities:

Today the police arrived at the permance de MSD with a search warrant. They then took 30+ of the MSD members that were there to the Jabe police station. Alexis remained in office and then was later taken in as well. He has not been allowed to see his lawyer and no reason for his detention. They claim they are under investigation for holding a meeting. Alexis has asked that the MSD members be realeased and only he be detained as he is the sole responsable.

Like Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the campaigning journalist arrested in September, Alexis Sinduhije has been a huge help in raising the profile of the Titanic Express case over the years, and the book would have been considerably diminished without the input he gave to the campaign.

This latest move by the Burundian authorities to suppress the political opposition makes a further mockery of the PR efforts of international religious groups bent on presenting Burundi’s corrupt and authoritarian Christian evangelical President as the model of the “forgiving” African leader.

More information about Alexis Sinduhije’s work can be found at the MSD’s Facebook page.

04/11 Update from MSD:

Alexis spent his first night in police detention. He had a small cell to himself. He had a mattress but did not sleep. He has not been beaten or tortured.

His friends and supports around the world are organising support. The American, Dutch, British, French, Belgian , German, South African and Norwegian embassies are all informed.

International press has been informed as well. However given the fact that today is election day in the US we do not expect much attention.

He has not been allowed to see his lawyer yet.

Jean-Claude still being held by Burundian government – Amnesty International lists him as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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It’s now one month since my friend Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who helped me enormously with “Titanic Express” (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), was arrested and detained on bogus grounds in Burundi.

Jean-Claude, a journalist and ardent critic of corruption and human rights abuse in his country, had the audacity to question the tens of thousands of dollars spent by President Pierre Nkurunziza during his visit to the Beijing Olympics. Jean-Claude’s news agency says it was $90,000. Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD government claims it was about half that figure, and has jailed Jean-Claude for “defamation” simply for saying otherwise. The average income in Burundi is $700 a year.

Amnesty International has taken up the case, listing Jean-Claude as “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”

Jean-Claude’s arbitrary arrest sits in sharp contrast with the PR campaign by religious groups seeking to portray President Pierre Nkurunziza – a born-again Christian and vocal supporter of greater church involvement in politics – as the model of the humble and ‘forgiving’ African leader.

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