Olympic games as they are and could be

Tommie Jones and John Carlos, Mexico City Olympics, 1968I love watching the Olympics. But this week kickings (Li-Cheng wasn’t walking so well after losing the Tae Kwon Do final) and beatings (Katie Taylor), equine indignitysexualised, sometimes bandaged, contortionists, heptathlete and swimmer ambassadors for British Petroleum (the ‘Olympic family’ branding reminds me of the ones in ‘The Descendants’ who wanted to sell the wilderness and build a golf course), and an overweening sprinter who thinks he has a special relationship with God nauseated me off the couch to Farringdon’s Free Word Centre. Free Word is currently hosting a collection of captioned photographs on Politics & the Olympics including the body, national identity, extremism, the environment, security and protest.

Some things I now know. The reason there’s no branding in the stadium is not because London’s organising committee drew a courageous line (an impression you may have taken from the statements they put out when challenged about sponsorship) but because it’s in the Olympic rules.

Sexual inequality in the Olympics (see for example gymnastics) was built in from the beginning. On the admission of women to some sports in 1912, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, showed himself to be a fine internationalist but a tedious sexist:

“[women’s sport] is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games, in which I believe that we have tried, and must continue to try, to put the following expression into practice: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as reward.”

In 1932 and ’36 when medallists’ hands were raised in fascist salutes, nobody got  disciplined. In 1968 Tommie Smith of the U.S. won the 200m in Mexico City and John Carlos took bronze, also for the U.S. They were suspended and banned from the Olympic Village by the International Organising Committee for the black-socked feet and black-gloved fists, symbols of black poverty and pride, which they wore to their award ceremony. The film Salute was made about this.

Hopefully after the recent publicity campaign most people are already aware of the Israeli athletes murdered in the name of Palestine at the 1972 Munich Olympics, assisted by German neo-Nazis to the dismay of the German establishment. There were no commemorative minutes of silence, prompting Philo to delve into some of the International Organising Committee’s more unsavoury influences. For the London 2012 Olympics, Britain spent more on security than it did on the athletes (which isn’t to say it would have been better to let the clear and present security threat – consider Atlanta 96 – sink the Olympics).

The Cold War was sporty. In Melbourne 1956 with the Hungarian Revolution ongoing, a Soviet water polo player punched a Hungarian water polo player in what became called the Blood in the Water match. Poland’s Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz was delighted to stick it up the Soviet-supporting crowd in the 1980 Moscow games. Opening ceremonies got especially silly in those times, notably the aforementioned Moscow games with its patriotic human mosaics, and the Los Angeles games which followed in ’84 where Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was played by 84 men.

For anybody bothered by flag flying and talk of nations, in 1936 the People’s Olympiad, scheduled for Barcelona, was cancelled by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Its planning is well documented at the University of Warwick. There was one flag for all (if it was this one then no wonder that didn’t take off) and chess was included, though not the barbaric and back then uninvented sport of chess boxing.

And if you haven’t yet found last month’s spoof Olympics edition newspaper London Late, it’s here – a superior protest rag (gsoh) collaboratively produced by groups who are trying to bring various of the Olympic sponsors to justice, namely the London Mining Network, War on Want (not a fan but this is probably their finest hour), the Bhopal Medical Appeal for the victims of the 1984 Union Carbide gas explosion, the oil campaign group Platform and the Tar Sands Network. From the selection on its middle pages, something good by Mau Mau.

So now I plan to return to gape at the sporn in the knowledge that I’ve heard, even amplified, some of what wanted to be heard and amplified. Yes, it is a shame I didn’t get my act together in advance.

My favourite Olympic performance so far is Russia’s synchronised swimming duet on the theme of puppets, along with the Italian duet’s swum biography of Frieda Kahlo. Mo “Look mate, this is my country” Farah is a legend, of course. We have tickets to Paralympic athletics finals in September.

But I think I may well, with the skepticism you should always reserve for people referred to as French intellectuals, have a read of Marc Perelman’s diatribe against organised sport as a “project of a society without projects”.

Stella Browne

“In 1937, the middle-aged “Miss” Stella Browne, when giving evidence to the UK Government’s Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion, delivered a thunderbolt – she told the committee that she knew from personal experience that abortion was not necessarily fatal or injurious. No record was made of the horrified silence with which such a personal statement must have been greeted. Abortion was illegal and certainly not something that a “respectable” unmarried, educated woman would need to resort to. But Stella Browne (1880-1955), a passionate advocate of birth control, legalised abortion and greater sexual freedom for women, was no shrinking violet.”

Read on at the Times Higher.

All 47 issues of The Freewoman, the journal she contributed to, are digitised and can be accessed at the Modernist Journals Project.

Fighting, fallen, virtual undergrowth

Paul Mason’s twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere piece is one of the reasons he’s a stand-out candidate on the Orwell Prize shortlist:

“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.”

I recommend reading 1-8 and 16-20. Find some of it hard to fit with what I already know and very thought provoking.

Worth reading, this International Socialism piece by Jonny Jones on Social Media and Social Movements (HT Evgeny Morozov) – I haven’t read it properly the following excerpt seems to contrast with the picture Paul Mason paints of the ‘mix and match’ activist – the ‘mix and match’ activist utlimately depends on an infrastructure of protest:

“The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.”

And on horizontalism:

“It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierarchical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums. The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive.”

That is food for thought.

There is also the issue of how information and communication technologies are used. For example, as Charles Shaar Murray puts it:

“Old-fashioned totalitarian societies control information by suppressing what they consider inconvenient for their people to hear, while the more sophisticated capitalist democracies control information by swamping the truth in a deluge of disinformation, through which it is virtually a full-time job to sift.”

Paul Mason gets to the 20th reason then proceeds to list complications, including reference to the Chinese state model for hiring social networkers to generate pro-government memes. Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada is quick to admit that US Government-aided social networking strategies catalysed revolution across the Middle East; I assume that they were generating memes of their own. I can’t find a reference, but there are artificially intelligent software agents out there which will create accounts on social network sites, befriend a feasible number of people there, and then manufacture political blog comments on a theme. So I’m not sure about Paul Mason’s confidence in incontrovertible facts.

I know that pessimism is a luxury for when things are going well, but we’re currently in another financial bubble related to Web 2.0 and when that bursts you also have to anticipate a scenario where a few very powerful companies are left and there’s a great enclosure of the open web, as happened with telephone, television, and many other things which started off open. I was also unable to tweet for a period during the March 16th demo, because of network overload. How do the masses organise themselves to accommodate this?

And, more fundamentally, you have to anticipate the lights going off during the great bloody struggle for resources to come. Enough people I know with advanced knowledge of computer systems administration have an interest in survivalism – morse code, self-sufficiency, that kind of thing – to catch my attention. It’s an anecdote I know, but coming from them I take it seriously. They know about systems vulnerabilities, and they understand the extent to which we rely on computer networks to exist. And I’ve got somewhat far from my point now, but when you hear a usually sober economist say that during the crash of 2008 she not only withdrew as much cash as she could, but also bought in as much food as she could, you do wonder how securely the technocracy is perched.

I think the right thing to do is to treat the speculation about the power of social media as contingent, and prepare contingencies accordingly.

Back to Paul Mason’s complications:

“…what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.”

From my Observer today (where the Middle East uprisings are now relegated to p27):

“Egypt’s deepening political crisis, which has followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, took a dangerous new turn yesterday as soldiers armed with clubs and rifles stormed protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing at least two.”

And in Yemen:

“…about 100,000 marched in the city of Taiz, where four protesters were killed and about 400 injured on Friday … More than 12people have been killed since protests against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in February.”

In Syria:

“More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began, human rights groups say. But the rallying cry was met with a warning by Syrian authorities that they would crush further unrest, raising the risk of further bloodshed.”

For more on Syria, Al Jazeera’s silence, and Bashar Al Assad’s free pass to murder his own people, read DaveM on Harry’s Place. We-the-people’ will never get a UN resolution to go in there and rout that bastard.

In Bahrain:

“Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained in a pre-dawn raid. His daughter, Zainab, said armed and masked men stormed her house aoutside the capital, Manama, and beat her father unconscious before taking him into custody.”

More on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the BBC site.

And elsewhere I read that in Zimbabwe:

“Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

The activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.”

Fluffy will be flattened.

World War

There’s a bloodless world war going on over Wikileaks (background from Modernity – search for Wikileaks). US government sympathisers are trying to run Wikileaks off the web. A hackers group called Anonymous is responding by attacking the various companies complicit in this. As of now, Amazon is coming down (and sometimes back up) across Europe.

Comment on the conflict from these academics (by the way, in the proposed English funding regime for higher education, these thinkers would not get state funding for teaching about this social side of the Web):

Nothing sensible from me at this time, except I am glad Wikileaks exists, and that I find it provoking that Wikileaks vigilantes have done more damage to capitalist enterprise in a week than anti-capitalists have achieved in the last year.

Update: I hear on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that Amazon say their downtime was due to a hardware fault.

Polices

I’ve had a few encounters with police recently.

The first was a stop and account while delivering newsletters round the back of the high street, dressed as a heroin addict (pale and unwashed in my weekend house clothes). I think it was appropriate.

The second time I was in the library at an event on Claybury Park and Hospital organised by Barkingside 21 and a gent fell ill (he did recover, I understand). As I dialled 999 I was told that somebody else had already made a call. I thought I didn’t press Call, then things got hectic and my phone was on silent because of the presentations. We heard sirens on the roundabout, but no ambulance came. Turns out the sirens had screeched to a halt outside my house. The emergency services had been calling and calling to find out if I was in trouble and when I hadn’t picked up the police had matched my number and driven hell for leather to my home. My neighbour, whose door I had shouted through as I left for the library, told them where I was and then called me. You can imagine I felt terrible – there are so many complaints about over-policing and I go and do that. But I was encouraged that if people in trouble dial 999 and then find themselves unable to speak, the police will look for them.

But although the author of this post on dragnets of London is more interested in his own posturing than writing solidly about what he claims the police are doing, it’s worth a salutary read in the light of this leaked memo to police chiefs, dated 5 August 2010 and signed by the chief of staff for French interior minister Brice Hortefeux:

“Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be evacuated within three months; Roma camps are a priority,” the memo reads. “It is down to the préfect [state representative] in each department to begin a systematic dismantling of the illegal camps, particularly those of the Roma.””

From today’s press briefing by Viviane Reding, Justice Minister and Vice President of the EU Commission:

“During a formal meeting with French ministers Eric Besson and Pierre Lellouche, the Commission – Commissioner Malmström and myself – received political assurances that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France. Our doubts remained. This is why last Tuesday, following discussion in the Commission college, I sent a further formal letter to French minister Besson to ask for additional details, which should be sent to the Commission swiftly.

I can only express my deepest regrets that the political assurances given by two French ministers officially mandated to discuss this matter with the European Commission are now openly contradicted by an administrative circular issued by the same government.

The role of the Commission as guardian of the Treaties is made extremely difficult if we can no longer have confidence in the assurances given by two ministers in a formal meeting with two Commissioners and with around 15 senior officials on the table from both sides.

And ladies and gentlemen, this is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance. After 11 years of experience in the Commission, I would even go further: This is a disgrace.

Let me be very clear: Discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe. It is incompatible with the values on which the European Union is founded. National authorities who discriminate ethnic groups in the application of EU law are also violating the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which all Member States, including France, have signed up to.”

Now is the time for strategic litigation.

Post-script: I am intolerant of hatred of the police from the kind of people who would look for diversity in any other group of workers. My father-in-sin used to be an East London sergeant. Other than a love for uniform and adventure in equal measure, he joined because he has a strong sense of right and wrong, a protective streak and a desire to see justice done. He policed the Brixton riots, the Iranian siege and the Libyan siege, among other incidents. He is a discerning and forbearing man, curious, sharp as a tack, with many unbelievably funny stories and some horrifying ones. Nothing would have persuaded him to target an ethnic group. I wish I could be so confident he wouldn’t be commanded to.

More on Farzad Kamangar and the political dissidents executed in Iran

Maryam Namazie is a member of the Central Committee member of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran. This group is generally foresaken by British communists with the exception of the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, because it sits uneasily with the mainstream (if I may call it that) far left’s position on Islamist Iran as resistance to Western imperialist hegemony. (Sorry no links to sources for that – soon I will lose all confidence of my readership).

Today on May 12th she posted an update on the May 9th executions:

“Four days after the heinous executions of Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heydarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alam-Houli and Mehdi Eslamian, five political prisoners, by the Islamic Republic of Iran their families have still not succeeded in getting the bodies of their loved ones back for burial. The families remain in Tehran going from office to office and building to building in order to get a response. The regime is demanding that the families of the executed give guarantees that there will not be any ‘troubles’ when the bodies are released to them.

Today 12 May, the families of the executed have been standing in front of the Islamic Assembly (Majlis) from early morning. Farzad Kamangar’s lawyer and relatives have informed us that they are still waiting.

Yesterday, in Maku, Shirin’s mother and sister were arrested and subsequently released. In Tehran and in front of Tehran University where protestors had gathered the regime brought out its security in full force and in Iranian Kurdistan it has imposed an unofficial military rule.

There is news from Iranian Kurdistan that tensions have heightened there. Thousands of leaflets calling for a general strike on May 13 have been distributed in various cities. Many of the schools in which Farzad was a teacher and in villages around Kamyaran are closed.

According to the latest news from Evin prison, the executed were told of their execution the night before and immediately taken to special cells. Shirin was studying when they came for her. Other prisoners said they heard her shouting and asking for permission to call and say goodbye to her mother, which was not granted. Others in her unit waited for her until morning when the guards came to collect her things and were then told that she had been executed.

On Saturday 8 May at 4pm Farzad spoke to his family though unaware that he was to be executed early May 9.

The regime brutally executed them and now refuses to hand over their bodies. It has even issued arrest warrants for Farzad’s mother and other relatives.

The International Committee against Executions and Iran Solidarity calls on people everywhere to step up their protests against executions and the Islamic regime of Iran and join the May 13 general strike in Kurdistan and elsewhere.”

Her previous posts:

For Farsi speakers, there is a commemorative video, including interview with Farzad Kamangar’s mother, which I don’t understand.

Dissident teacher Farzad Kamangar hanged by the Iranian government

It’s been many years that the Iranian government has been targetting teacher trade unionists.

Farzad Kamangar was one of five Kurdish dissidents – Shirin Alam-Houli, Ali Heydarian, Mahdi Islamian, Farzad Kamangar, and Farhad Vakili – hanged today by the Iranian government. Iran Focus reports this as the reason:

“They were convicted of ‘Moharebeh’, or ‘waging war on God’, in 2008 for membership in opposition Kurdish groups, including PJAK, and acting against State security.”

Amnesty (from 2008):

“Farzad Kamangar, a 32 year old teacher, was arrested by officers from the Ministry of Intelligence in Tehran in 2006. He was initially held incommunicado at a series of locations, including in the cities of Kermanshah, Sanandaj and Tehran, where he was tortured, including by being beaten, flogged and electrocuted. He was sentenced to death in February 2008 after conviction of “enmity against God” – a charge levelled against those accused of taking up arms against the state – apparently in connection with his alleged membership of the armed group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which carries out attacks in Turkey, after traces of explosive powder and a gun were found in a house he stayed in with his two co-accused and in a car that they had used. Farzad Kamangar denies any such membership. His trial was grossly flawed. Farzad Kamangar has been prohibited, on several occasions and for prolonged periods of time, from seeing his lawyer and family members. The two other men were also sentenced to death and to 10 years’ imprisonment, apparently for forging documents. Under Iranian law, they must serve their prison sentences before being executed. On 11 July 2008, Farzad Kamangar’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. However, his lawyer has submitted his case to a judicial review panel in an effort to have his death sentence overturned. Under Iranian law, death sentences cannot be carried out while under review. He is currently held in Reja’i Shahr Prison, in Karaj, west of Tehran.”

PJAK, the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan, is indeed in opposition to the ayatollas, and is outlawed by them. There are allegations that members carried out reprisal killings against the Iranian authorities. There are also allegations of PKK connections. However, to be held guilty of murder by association is a travesty of justice.

It’s reported that the Iranian authorities offered Shirin Alam-Houli a reprieve on condition that she publicly renounced her previous activities. Her response to that proposition culminated in her execution today.

Kamangar, political activist, teacher, social worker, human rights campaigner, died younger than me, and I feel young. His lawyer Khalil Bahramian told a radio station that he had been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court during a five-minute, closed-door trial and denied the due process of law.

His was one of the causes taken up by trade unionists in education all over the world. It was representative of the repression enacted on these people by the Iranian regime. Tortured, deprived of food, water, and sleep, you wonder whether death may have seemed like a release.

Street Journalist has an account of the final few years of Kamangar’s life, which makes grim reading. Stroppy has a piece.

People are dying on government whim in Iran:

“Amnesty International has documented repeatedly how vaguely worded legislation is being used to silence the most active sectors of the Iranian population. Charges such as “acting against state security”, “spreading lies”,“propaganda against the system”, “creating unease in the public mind”, “insulting the holy sanctities” and “defamation of state officials” are used to target members of Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities as well as human rights and other civil society activists. Such laws and practices violate Iran’s obligations under Articles 18, 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding freedom of belief, expression, assembly and association.”

Write to MPs and (given the current state of affairs) PPCs to remind them.

Rest in peace, dead activists.

Update: nothing mentioned on the benighted University and College Union Activists List, although my branch is currently supposed to go all out for an imprisoned Columbian; “No results found” for Kamangar Archer on the Iranian propaganda organ masquerading as free media, Press TV. Imagine being Iranian, being safe in Britain, having media skills, and still not speaking out against your deathly repressive government, but even accepting its lucre. Shudder.

  1. Farzad Kamangar, a 32 year old teacher, was arrested by officers from the Ministry of Intelligence in Tehran in 2006. He was initially held incommunicado at a series of locations, including in the cities of Kermanshah, Sanandaj and Tehran, where he was tortured, including by being beaten, flogged and electrocuted. He was sentenced to death in February 2008 after conviction of “enmity against God” – a charge levelled against those accused of taking up arms against the state – apparently in connection with his alleged membership of the armed group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which carries out attacks in Turkey, after traces of explosive powder and a gun were found in a house he stayed in with his two co-accused and in a car that they had used. Farzad Kamangar denies any such membership. His trial was grossly flawed. Farzad Kamangar has been prohibited, on several occasions and for prolonged periods of time, from seeing his lawyer and family members. The two other men were also sentenced to death and to 10 years’ imprisonment, apparently for forging documents. Under Iranian law, they must serve their prison sentences before being executed. On 11 July 2008, Farzad Kamangar’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. However, his lawyer has submitted his case to a judicial review panel in an effort to have his death sentence overturned. Under Iranian law, death sentences cannot be carried out while under review. He is currently held in Reja’i Shahr Prison, in Karaj, west of Tehran.

Gita Sahgal on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme

Amnesty International suspended Gita Sahgal, head of their Gender Unit, for publicly objecting to its partnering with Moazzam Begg and his organisation CagePrisoners, after a long internal campaign to persuade Amnesty to take into account the judgement of its own employees that CagePrisoners was and remains a bad choice of partner for a human rights organisation. Background in my previous post.

Gita Sahgal was interviewed today by Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme, 10th February 2010, from 08:40 for about 4 minutes 30.

Here is a transcript (during the preamble it was made clear that she couldn’t talk about the suspension).

GS: I asked Amnesty International two or three questions which should have been very easily answered. And when I say ‘Amnesty International’, I mean my own bosses – I was working inside the organisation, and raised perfectly legitimate question, and that was: How did we come to have such a close relationship with CagePrisoners – how did we decide that they were a safe and proper organisation for us to work with?

JW: So you sent these emails – these requests – to people within Amnesty – you’re saying that their reaction has been to suspend you.

GS: That’s correct.

JW: What is the substance of your concern about Moazzam Begg?

GS: [pause] You know, I’ve been concerned about what Moazzam Begg and his organisation stand for for a long time but I think the issue that I have is with my employer because we are a human rights organisation, we make very careful decisions about how and where we partner with people, we have long discussions around these things, and when I spoke to people in my office, who are experts on these matters, who investigate on group violations, who are regional experts, who work on counter terror policy and so on – all of them, they had recommended against this relationship. I then asked where the decision had been made to have such a close relationship, or whether we just drifted into it and, you know, whether we had any form of paper work which would explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. And none of that has ever been answered

JW: But this is a man who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, he wasn’t subjected to any trial, he was released in the end without charge, he does not personally advocate violence. Why on earth shouldn’t Amnesty be closely associated with him?

GS: Because I believe that the organisation CagePrisoner has an agenda that is way beyond being a human rights organisation -

JW: – and this is the organisation for which he speaks?

GS: Exactly.

JW: And what do you think they do want?

GS: Well, yesterday I was on radio with Assim Qureshi, who is another prominent figure in the organisation, and he said – well, he didn’t deny when read out to him – statements that he made supporting global jihad, which he said was protected under international law.

JW: What Amnesty has said in a statement is that they consistently document and condemn abuses by the Taliban, Islamist armed groups, whenever they occur and especially Afghanistan and Pakistan.

GS: Amnesty International has never done any research on the networks developing in Britain or Europe or the US, as far as I’m aware. In a personal capacity I do that kind of research, and it’s slightly alarming if we don’t connect what’s happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan or any other countries to developments over here.

JW: Why do you think they don’t do that research – what do you think is at the heart of it?

GS: Well, I think you should pose that question to them, because they refuse to answer any of the questions that I’ve posed.

JW: But what’s your suspicion?

GS: [pause] My suspicion is that they need perfect victims. In other words, we need to defend somebody who might not have done a wrong – and I’m not saying that Moazzam Begg has – I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not saying that he has committed a crime or a human rights violation. And that’s why I find the statement after statement that Amnesty International has put out in his support somewhat surprising, because the issues that I am concerned with are addressed to Amnesty International.

JW: But you’re making a wider point aren’t you – that Islamic radicalism is treated, what, softly by liberals.

GS: Something like that – but we are not liberals, we are a human rights organisation and we should not be falling into the traps that many people do fall into.

[ENDS]

On Socialist Unity, Andy Newman has sought to tarnish Gita Sahgal as a pusher of something he calls ‘western liberal values’, which he (to use his own favourite word) disingenuously sets in opposition to genuine human rights, as if CagePrisoners were being denied a human right to go on tour with my donations to Amnesty. He pipes up for Amnesty, saying that they suspended Gita for giving them a bad name. Probably true – and this is what compromised organisations up and down the country do when they are confronted by a whistle-blowing insider. They tend to wish them oblivion c.f. Nevres Kemal*.

So it seems to be with Amnesty and Gita Sahgal. Gita Sahgal pursued the matter with her employer, as is proper. Why should she have to confront jihadi sympathisers on her own?

Recording from BBC Newshour, 9th Feb 2010 is below, an interview with Gita Sahgal and Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoner in which Qureshi does not deny, when asked, supporting violent jihad. Sahgal points out that the weight of expert evidence within the organisation was against associating with CagePrisoners. She also takes a correct view on the significance of the authority and approval conferred by a web link and a mention on an authoritative web site.

Andy Newman also accuses her of prejudice because she said she felt unsafe talking to Begg and Qureshi. I think it would be inconsistent if she didn’t feel unsafe. Besides which the correct response to somebody who tells you they feel unsafe in your presence is to ask them what they can do to make you feel better about things. The correct response when asked whether you, as representative of a human rights organisation, support jihad (holy war waged by Muslims to establish a Muslim land or to reassert Islam where it is threatened; frequently implicating an entity termed ‘the West’ as a target) is a straightforward “No”.

A little more:

  • On Gita Sahgal’s site, a selection of comments from Amnesty’s LiveWire site.
  • Rahila Gupta in The Guardian – via Mod’s ‘keeping up’ post – criticises Amnesty’s handling of this.
  • She should be reinstated (somebody on the Facebook support group who says they are in touch with her says she does want this) and the endorsement of CagePrisoners should end.
  • In Standpoint Mag Shiraz Maher’s analysis (Nov 09) – Al-Awlaki’s British Supporters Parts 1 and 2.
  • David T has it exactly right (quoted by a supporter on the Wall of the Facebook Group):

“The parallel is this.I am strongly in favour of freedom of expression. I think that it is a fundamental right. I think, in particular, that laws that criminalise Holocaust Denial are an absolute disgrace, and should be repealed. As a consequence of that view, I think that it was wrong that Davi…d Irving was imprisoned. I have said so.

Now, would I send David Irving out on a speaking tour, to talk about his experiences in prison? About how not being allowed to speak him mind affected him? Would I put up a video of Irving reading his own poetry?

No, I don’t think I would. You can better promote the principle of freedom of expression without Irving’s direct involvement.”

“What worries her is the assumption among some of her Amnesty colleagues that Begg is “not only a victim of human rights violations but a defender of human rights” (my italics). Sahgal raised the issue in two memos before her concerns became public at the weekend. But what she has identified is too important to be dismissed as an internal matter, namely an intellectual incoherence which isn’t confined to the higher echelons of a single human rights organisation.

The thinking goes like this: someone who has suffered terrible human rights abuses must necessarily be opposed to similar abuses against others. It’s a nice idea but history tells us it’s wrong; today’s prisoners of conscience may turn out on release to be doughty campaigners for human rights, but they might just as easily become tomorrow’s apologists for extremism.

Amnesty protests that “any suggestion that cooperation with any group or individuals has influenced our work on behalf of victims of religiously inspired abuses and violations is simply false”. But that isn’t the charge against the organisation. What worries its critics is that Amnesty’s name is being used to provide a platform, and legitimacy, for a cause inimical to its core values. Qatada, Hamza and Khyam are not prisoners of conscience. The Taliban isn’t a little bit misguided about women’s rights. Amnesty should consider its reputation – and keep its distance. “

*Nevres Kemal was a Haringey social worker sacked and subjected to character and professional assassination by her employers – sadly Michael Buerk’s BBC Radio 4 ‘The Choice’ interview of 1st Dec 2009, 09:00 is no longer available but her ordeal is an excellent illustration of what whistleblowers can expect to experience from their organisation. Not forgetting Paul Moore, former head of Group Regulatory Risk at HBOS who was sacked, agreed to the terms of a gag, and was later hailed as a herald of the financial crisis.

“The parallel is this.I am strongly in favour of freedom of expression. I think that it is a fundamental right. I think, in particular, that laws that criminalise Holocaust Denial are an absolute disgrace, and should be repealed. As a consequence of that view, I think that it was wrong that David Irving was imprisoned. I have said so.

Now, would I send David Irving out on a speaking tour, to talk about his experiences in prison? About how not being allowed to speak him mind affected him? Would I put up a video of Irving reading his own poetry?

No, I don’t think I would. You can better promote the principle of freedom of expression without Irving’s direct involvement.”

Defend Gita Sahgal (from her employers, Amnesty International)

Amnesty International is one of the most serious and rigorous human rights agencies we have. I’m rooting for Amnesty.

I am deeply nervous about the way Amnesty is going.

They have suspended the head of their international secretariat’s gender unit Gita Sahgal, ostensibly because of this interview with The Times. Sahgal objects to Amnesty’s involvement with the apologist for terror, Moazzam Begg, in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.

Update: Stroppyblog has Gita Sahgal’s statement. From it:

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others? For in defending the torture standard, one of the strongest and most embedded in international human rights law, Amnesty International has sanitized the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg and completely failed to recognize the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners.”.

It makes me really angry these days that it takes centre or right journalism* to expose fundamentalist Islamism in British institutions – Guardian, Independent where were you? True to form, The Times does a bad job of exposing Begg – for them it is enough to be campaigning for the rights of suspected terrorists – as if suspected terrorists weren’t due their human rights.

More on Begg and his associates at CagePrisoners, working to present properly convicted murderers as ‘prisoners of conscience’.

One thing Begg is not is a human rights advocate. To be a human rights advocate entails universalism. Begg is simply partial to jihadis. Sahgal:

“As a former Guantanamo detainee it was legitimate to hear his experiences, but as a supporter of the Taliban it was absolutely wrong to legitimise him as a partner”.

Modernity pulls this quote from the post of Faisal’s I link to below:

“Sahgal’s accusations are based on a fundamental point of principle, which is this: It is correct for Amnesty hold human rights positions on fair trial, torture, diplomatic assurances and work against renditions and the closure of Guantanamo Bay. However, these positions should also require us to hold salafi-jihadi groups and other religious absolutists accountable. Human rights abuses of torture, for example, should not be used to justify, legitimise and finally partner with proponents of violent jihad such as Moazzam Begg.”

Amnesty has no business hosting Begg. In fact, it’s disgusting. This statement released by Amnesty’s Widney Brown is an inadequate response to the main criticism. The main criticism has nothing to do with whether terror suspects have rights – they do, and they need advocates. It has everything to do with whom Amnesty recruits for this advocacy.

Nick Cohen / Martin Bright (my emphasis):

The Sunday Times blew the lid on Amnesty International’s relationship with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg and his organisation Cage Prisoners, who act as apologists for the Islamist totalitarianism. Amnesty responded by suspending Gita Sahgal, presumably because they believe she dared to speak to the press. She is the head of the gender unit at Amnesty International’s international secretariat, and has been campaigning on women’s issues for decades. She is rightly sick of the lazy alliance betweenthe supposedly liberal human rights world and the decidedly illiberal world of radical Islamists. She has therefore blown the whistle on the disgraceful arrangement between her own organisation and Begg, who has visited Downing Street as a guest of Amnesty, but refuses to condemn the Taliban.

Begg is now an integral part of an Amnesty campaign entitled Counter Terror with Justice. In an email to her colleagues at Amnesty on January 30 she wrote: “I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights.” she wrote. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”

It is difficult to make a stand on these issues and keep one’s friends on the left and in the human rights community as she is now finding. She has been deeply frustrated by the way the British liberal intelligentsia gives house-room to right-wing Islamists. She was one of the first people in Britain to warn of the dangers of the politics of Jamaat-i-Islami, the south Asian blood-brothers of the Muslim Brotherhood. She was instrumental in the making of a Channel 4 documentary on alleged Bangladeshi war criminals who had found safe haven in Britain (We can’t say more or Carter-Ruck will sue us).

It is Gita Sahgal who should be the darling of the human rights establishment, not Moazzam Begg.

Like I say, Amnesty is one of the most serious and rigorous human rights agencies we have. But this will not stand. And it’s not entirely out of the blue. They host Chomsky, apologist for atrocities which don’t fit with his world-view. They give inexplicable prominence to Israel in their mag (which we get because we give to them, and this is why I write). I’m getting the general impression they are the latest progressive organisation subject to colonisation by the post-Left. Get it together, Amnesty. Reprieve, whom I gave a largish wodge of money last year, are implicated too. Fuck this shit.

Update: More from Faisal at The Spittoon, Stroppy, Alec, Terry Glavin, links out from Harry’s Place. Join the Facebook group whose members are trying to figure out what to do next.

Update 2: Over on Harry’s Place, Rosie‘s comment is right, I think:

“Yeah – people have been saying, “cancel your subscription” or “threaten to cancel unless Gita is re-instated”. I’m loath to do that unless I know that Amnesty is totally compromised. If 95% of what they do is what they should be doing, and 5% is monkeying around with the likes of Begg, well that’s 95% good work. You get the same about the BBC. A dim-witted, biassed programme gets made and everyone starts howling that the BBC should be carved up and the pieces handed over to Rupert Murdoch.”

Update 3: Moazzam Begg responds; Harry’s Place responds to his response. More on CagePrisoners’ mixed messages – where’s the credibility in saying you love human rights if you also promote and associate with jihadis?

Update 4: Sahgal and supporters have a site – Human Rights for All.

Update 5: Gita Sahgal on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme and Newswire, 9th Feb.

*This is not about left and right. Anybody who doesn’t burn with anger at the double insult of Amnesty’s appalling choice of representative and its treatment of its employee is under a delusion. I just checked – I’m not right of centre, I’m here – still here:

Anglican vicar uses police to intimidate blogger

Stephen Sizer, a blogging Reverend who espouses anti-Judaic theology, who associates with Holocaust deniers and antisemites, and consequently who I’m not going to link to, managed to persuade the police to pay a visit to one of his blogging political opponents, Seismic Shock, as he relates on Engage.

The Sarge made it clear that it was an “informal chat” but the Reverend has suggested otherwise:

Dear Vee,

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.

Blessings
Stephen

With blessings like these who needs cusses?

To echo the incongruous but rousing cry of another opponent of free speech, Michael Cushman: “We will not be intimidated!”

Read Alec on Stephen Sizer’s recommendations for preaching about blogging. They don’t reflect well on the author. Read also Modernity on why it is important to respond in this way to intimidatory attempts at censorship. Rosie probes around the policing.