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UN warns of renewed genocide in Burundi – 12 years on from Gatumba

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Choir at the UK commemoration of the August 13th 2004 Gatumba massacre

On the 12th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the UN has warned that Burundi is again facing the prospect of genocide – amid “systematic torture directed towards certain political and ethnic groups”.

The UN has also spoken out against the worrying escalation in “genocidal rhetoric”.

There’s a more detailed briefing from Amnesty International here on the deteriorating situation.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

“Stand up if you’re England!” – why I’m voting #Remain

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On a warm summer’s day in Amsterdam, many years ago, I had a small moment of revelation about what it means to be English.

It was England vs Denmark – our fourth game of the 2002 World Cup. We’d beaten Argentina in the group stages, avenging the defeat that sent us crashing out in 1998. And despite the six more years of hurt that had passed since “Football’s Coming Home” became England’s unofficial national anthem, I still believed we could go all the way.

I was in a bar, watching the game with my girlfriend. Being Belgian, Heleen shared neither my enthusiasm nor optimism about the match, but gamely indulged me. We’d been together less than a year, still in the phase of happily tolerating each other’s foibles.

It felt like a good time to be English. If the 90s notion of “Cool Britannia” had lost some of its charm, I still had the sense of a nation that was far more hopeful, outward-looking and at ease with itself than during my childhood – an era punctuated by strikes, riots, and IRA bomb attacks.

And it was a glorious game – England were 1-0 up within five minutes, when Sorensen fumbled a header from Rio Ferdinand. Michael Owen made it 2-0 soon afterwards. Heskey scored a third just before half time.

The match finished 3-0. As we emerged into the sunshine, we found ourselves in a beautiful Amsterdam square filled with crowds of cheering, white-clad, England fans.

“Ingalund, Inglalund, Ingalund!” sang the English, raising their beer glasses in the summer air.

“Ingalund, Ingalund, Inga-laa-und!”

“Ingalund, Ingaland, Ingalund!”

“Ingalund, ING-GA-LUND!”

We smiled and nodded.

Then they turned their attention to the increasingly-uncomfortable non-English audience passing through the square.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!”, sang my compatriots, referencing – arguably somewhat simplistically – the role played by England during World War II.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!

“If it wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!”.

By this point, my Belgian girlfriend was pretty uncomfortable too.

“Stand UP… if you’re Ingalund!”, they shouted

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

As they looked around the square, trying to make eye contact and gesturing for us to stand with them, I knew I had far more of an affinity – far more of a sense of solidarity and kinship – with the awkward Dutch passers-by, and the beautiful Belgian I was with, than with my drunk English compatriots.

The June 23rd referendum on Britain’s EU membership looks likely to be very tight. For sensible, pragmatic reasons, much of the debate has centred around the argument that Britain – and England – will be safer and more prosperous within the European Union than outside it.

But I know that in practice – as with last year’s referendum on Scottish independence – for many English people this vote will partly be about how we see ourselves as a nation.

There is an idea of England, and Englishness, that emphasises our separateness – that will always define itself in opposition to the rest of Europe, distrusting the French and the Germans, and patronising the Belgians, Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Dutch. An idea of England defined, perhaps above all else, by the defeat of Germany in “two World Wars and one World Cup”.

This version of our national identity is expressed so loudly, brashly, and frequently, that it can start to seem like the only way. Either you “stand up” and join the white-clad drunks hurling chauvinistic abuse at random passers-by, or you vacate the square.

But there is another way of thinking about English identity – one that can be outward-looking, not insular, despite our island status. An idea of Englishness that, rather than augmenting differences, emphasises our closeness to – and solidarity with – our European neighbours.

Amid the jingoistic focus on vanquished Germans, it’s worth remembering that the starting point for British engagement in World War I was the commitment to support our allies in Belgium – while our role in World War II began with a decision to defend the Poles.

In myriad ways, Britain, and England, have been actively engaged with the rest of Europe for centuries. It seems to me that our EU membership can be seen as the natural – and happily now far more peaceful – continuation of this.

So on June 23rd I will “stand up”. But I’ll be standing up for a very different kind of England than that represented by my brash, beer-swilling compatriots, long ago in that square in Amsterdam.

In voting Remain, I’ll be standing up for an England at ease with its identity as a European nation – and for an idea of Englishness based on co-operation and respect, not division and chauvinism.

I’ll also be standing up for the beautiful Belgian who is now my wife – and for our two young children, who are as at home on the continent as they are here in London.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2016 at 12:10 pm

Deadly crisis in Burundi – will the European Union act to prevent more deaths?

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Eyewitness: “I’m afraid that today a lot of people could be killed in Burundi”

Yesterday I ran the London marathon with my sister Catherine. We were doing this in memory of our older sister Charlotte, who was killed in a vicious massacre in Burundi in December 2000. As I ran I was acutely conscious that, fifteen years on, many more lives are now at risk in Burundi today.

National elections are due in the next few months, and the ruling party CNDD-FDD seems determined to suppress dissent, and prevent its rivals from contesting the election effectively. In the run-up to the elections, CNDD-FDD has been brutally attacking opposition parties, and harassing human rights activists and the independent media.

In recent weeks, thousands have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, reporting violence and threats from the ruling party’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Yesterday a number of deaths were reported at anti-government protests in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Today it has been reported that Burundi’s iconic human rights campaigner Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has been arrested (following a long spell in detention last year), and arrest warrants issued for other leading activists.

The European Union – and a number of EU member states, in particular the Netherlands – are deeply implicated in the crisis now facing Burundi. The CNDD-FDD-led government is heavily bankrolled by the Netherlands and the European Commission aid programme, to the extent that the government would struggle to cling to power if this support was withdrawn.

In theory, European Commission aid money is conditional on recipient governments respecting the “Cotonou Agreement” – which commits signatories to tackling corruption, respecting human rights, and upholding the rule of law.

In practice, the European Commission has continued to fund the Burundian government despite mounting evidence of torture, extrajudicial killings, attacks on the media, and endemic corruption.

As ever, the lack of global attention on Burundi is an exacerbating factor. The country receives little media coverage at the best of times – but with so many other crises taking place right now there is a danger that Burundi will slip even lower down the international agenda.

CNDD-FDD appears to be counting on the fact that – as has happened in Burundi so many times before – it can commit acts of violence and repression without any great international outcry.

The European Commission, too, seems unlikely to change course unless it is forced to do so by the weight of public opinion.

But pressure has started to increase. Last year, Members of the European Parliament issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing the Burundian government’s abuses, and calling for “a clear and principled EU policy vis a vis Burundi that addresses the on-going serious human rights violations”. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the EU’s “weak” stance on Burundi.

Both the US and UK governments have made strong and positive statements urging an end to the violence – but given the scale of the EU aid budget its voice is especially critical.

Burundians in Europe have been contacting their MEPs urging them to press the European Commission to use its influence to help end the Burundian government’s repression. If you have a moment to support this call, please write to your MEPs via www.theyworkforyou.com.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 27, 2015 at 11:55 am

Agathon Rwasa summoned to court to face justice over the Gatumba massacre

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Messy, chaotic – but a breakthrough nonetheless: Ten years after his troops massacred over 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a UNHCR camp in Burundi, ex-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa this week received a court summons to answer questions over the attack.

This follows a long and determined campaign by survivors and relatives of the dead, which included the submission, in August last year, of a criminal complaint against Agathon Rwasa and his former spokesman, Pasteur Habimana.  That in itself was a momentous achievement amid Burundi’s volatile and corrupt political landscape – where impunity is the norm and not one political leader has yet faced justice over the many massacres that took place during Burundi’s ten-year civil war. Over the past year, the Gatumba case has been stopped and restarted by the Burundian authorities, with the campaigners facing down pressure for them to drop the charges. The government’s shambolic handling of the case has continued this week, with Rwasa arriving at court to be told that the hearing had been postponed without explanation. Yet this is still the closest that the former FNL leader has yet come to facing justice over the mass-killings he has committed – and Pasteur Habimana has already appeared at the court four times.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a very personal interest in this issue – four years before the Gatumba massacre – in December 2000 – FNL troops under the command of Agathon Rwasa ambushed a bus close to the Burundian capital and killed 21 of the passengers – including my sister Charlotte and her fiancé Richard Ndereyimana. Like Gatumba, the attack was genocidal in character – Hutu passengers were released unharmed, with a message for the authorities: “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.

Yet the Gatumba campaigners have shown that there is something you can do when a crime like this is committed – even in Burundi.

Agathon Rwasa’s supporters and sympathisers have sought to portray the case as a politically-motivated conspiracy by the Burundian ruling party to undermine their leader’s electoral ambitions.

This conveniently paints out of the picture the huge efforts that the Gatumba survivors have made – the pressures they have faced and the obstacles they have surmounted – in getting this case to court. It also ignores, again, the central fact of this case – the 160 living, breathing human beings – half of them children – whose lives were extinguished by Agathon Rwasa’s men on August 13th 2004. They are the reason that Rwasa is now, at last, facing some measure of justice.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2014 at 6:57 am

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“They know who did it and they’re not acting” – the Gatumba massacre 10 years on

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From Amnesty UK / Blogs

On Saturday I listened while survivors of the Gatumba massacre recounted the horrors they witnessed on the night of August 13th 2004, when more than 160 Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsis were hunted down and killed at a refugee camp in Burundi. The most heart-wrenching stories were those of the little children, too scared to hide and too small to run away, who were shot, macheted or burned to death simply because they were Tutsi.

The refugee camp had supposedly been under United Nations protection, but neither they nor the Burundian army did anything to stop the slaughter. Ten years on, neither have done anything to prosecute the killers.

The day after the Gatumba attack, a Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL admitted responsibility, citing other unpunished massacres in justification – as if the moral abhorrence of one atrocity could somehow be cancelled out by another.

In 2005, the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, was given immunity from prosecution. He is now living comfortably in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, and is tipped to run as a candidate in next year’s Presidential elections.

As Amnesty reported last month, while the authorities in Burundi have been vigorously harassing and jailing their critics, impunity for those committing serious human rights abuses has been near-universal.

Survivors of Gatumba are bewildered – and angry – that the international community has done so little to bring the murderers to book, despite strong calls at the time by the African Union and UN Security Council for justice “without delay”. A promise by the Burundian government to refer Gatumba to the International Criminal Court has never been fulfilled.

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Written by Richard Wilson

August 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm

#Gatumba anniversary – statement from Ubuntu

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PRESS RELEASE 13/08/2013

THE GATUMBA MASSACRE TEN YEARS ON: VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE

Ten years have passed since 164 Congolese citizens were savagely killed, some burned alive, on 13 August 2004. The victims were slayed while under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Hundreds of others were injured. The overwhelming majority of victims – many of them women and children – belonged to the Banyamulenge community. They had sought refuge in Burundi to escape from political oppression in South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

A report dated 18 October 2004 jointly produced by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attack was clearly directed against the Banyamulenge refugees and apparently, ethnically and politically motivated. Various sources, including the above UN report as well as a report by Human Rights Watch, compiled credible evidence leaving little doubts over the responsibilities in the massacre. The evidence clearly indicated that the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL), the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese army (FARDC) and Mayi Mayi militia were directly involved in the Gatumba massacre.

The UN report asserted that many of these foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi border region harbour resentments against the targeted group and others such as FARDC and Mayi Mayi militia may have political motives for preventing the refugees from returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. PALIPEHUTU-FNL, then a rebel movement led by Agathon Rwasa, openly confessed its responsibility in this massacre. The ideology underlying the commission of the genocide in Rwanda one decade earlier was evident in the perpetration of the Gatumba massacre in August 2004. The UN report documented the fact that the attackers chanted such slogans as “we will exterminate all the Tutsis in Central Africa”; “kill these dogs, these Tutsis”; “today, you Tutsis, whether you are Rwandese, Congolese or Burundian, you will be killed”.

The massacre was widely condemned by several countries from around the globe as well as by supranational institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Many of them pledged to support endeavours aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice. The United Nations urged countries in the sub-region to cooperate in investigating the massacre and bringing perpetrators to justice. Ten years after the event, no single step has been taken to deliver justice for the slain and surviving victims of the Gatumba massacre. The uproar that accompanied the commission of the crime has faded and victims face the sad prospect of never seeing justice done. The peculiar circumstances of a crime committed against Congolese citizens, on Burundian territory, reportedly by Congolese national army and armed groups reportedly originating from three different or neighbouring countries of the region complicate, if not annihilate any prospects of domestic prosecutions against perpetrators of the crime.

Victims are nonetheless still crying for justice. The inaction of Burundian, Congolese and other sub-regional authorities imposes a duty on the international community to get actively involved in delivering on the promise of justice made to them in the aftermath of the crime. This tenth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time when the Kivu provinces of the DRC are still characterised by instability and social tensions. Sources of the continued tensions include the unresolved socio-political and legal issues including elusive promises of justice and redress. Crimes committed in the DRC over the last decades have claimed numerous victims from the various communities living in the country. All victims deserve justice. Owing to the particular circumstances of the massacre and to the involvement of numerous actors, domestic and international initiatives aimed at delivering justice to the victims generally ignore the victims of the Gatumba massacre. This is evidenced by the non-coverage of the Gatumba massacre in the 2010 UN Mapping Report. On this tenth remembrance of victims of the Gatumba massacre, UBUNTU notes that since the crime was committed, no active steps have been taken to bring perpetrators to justice.

UBUNTU therefore urges:

-The international community to deliver on the promise of justice made to survivors of the Gatumba atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
-The United Nations to use all appropriate means to bring Agathon Rwasa and other perpetrators of the massacre to justice.
-The Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-regional countries to cooperate in rehabilitating the victims.

For Ubuntu: Kinyoni John Mutebutsi

UBUNTU is an organisation created by individuals from eastern DRC for purposes of contributing to initiatives aimed at preventing violence and working towards sustainable peace and conflict resolution in their native land and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa. UBUNTU membership includes individuals who survived the Gatumba massacre. UBUNTU is one of only few actors who have constantly tried to remind the international community of the unfulfilled promise of justice for victims of the Gatumba massacre. It is an international peace-building and non-profit organization based in Brussels.

UBUNTU – Initiative for Peace and Development
Rue Creuse 60, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium, Enterprise no: 891.545.509, Approved by the
Belgium Royal Decree of 26th.07.2007. E-mail: ubuntukwetu@gmail.com
http://www.ubuntukwetu.org/

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2014 at 9:08 pm

From “France, 1917” by T P Cameron Wilson

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From “France, 1917”, by TP Cameron Wilson

The guns were there in the green and wounded wild,
Hurling death as a boy may throw a stone.
And the man who served them, with unquickened breath,
Dealt, like a grocer, with their pounds of death.
Thunderous over the fields their iron was thrown,
And beyond the horizon men who could laugh and feel
Lay in the wet dust, red from brow to heel.

The bodies of men lay down in the dark of the earth :
Young flesh, through which life shines a friendly flame,
Was crumbled green in the fingers of decay. . . .
Among the last year’s oats and thistles lay
A forgotten boy, who hid as though in shame
A face that the rats had eaten. . . . Thistle seeds
Danced daintily above the rebel weeds.

Old wire crept through the grass there like a snake,
Orange-red in the sunlight, cruel as lust.
And a dead hand groped up blindly from the mould. . .
A dandelion flamed through ribs — like a heart of gold,

And a stink of rotten flesh came up from the dust . . .
With a twinkle of little wings against the sun
A lark praised God for all that he had done…

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2014 at 9:51 pm

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UK-based Burundians mobilise to protest worsening repression in Burundi

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 28, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Meet the new Bosco, same as the old Bosco…

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A new piece from me in the New Humanist

Thousands of lives are at risk in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a new and brutal rebellion, with a leadership described by the United Nations as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations… in the world”, has flared up in a region where millions have died since the 1990s.

The “March 23” insurgency began as a mutiny earlier this year by former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army after a previous peace deal in March 2009. The mutiny was ostensibly triggered by violations of that agreement. But there are mounting allegations by the UN and human rights groups that the rebels are being directed, trained and supported by the government of neighbouring Rwanda. On 30 November, the UK government became the latest international donor to suspend aid to Rwanda as a result.

M23’s leaders reportedly include the notorious Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda, whose bloody track record in previous conflicts has earned him the nickname “The Terminator”. Despite being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bosco was given a senior role in the Congolese army as part of the 2009 peace deal.

“Bosco Ntaganda is the most notorious but he’s by no means the only one”, says Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, who talks of a strong sense of déjà vu around the current crisis. “Quite a few of his mates are and have been doing the same kinds of things for years… No one has ever done anything to arrest them so they just carry on, they become emboldened… the use of violence and those atrocities start being rewarded.”

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Written by Richard Wilson

February 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

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Why I’m supporting the #armstreaty campaign

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As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.

“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.

Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.

A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder.  But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me,  the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.

Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.

The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term)  has had so little media coverage.

This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.

Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.

Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.

This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 27, 2012 at 12:17 am

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

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Gove’s Folly? The mystery of Durand and Saint Cuthman’s

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Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.

Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .

Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.

The school’s plan was to  give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.

“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .

To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:

“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.

According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.

According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”

“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”

Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.

It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.

Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.

1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and  “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records  appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:

2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.

State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.

According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.

When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:

“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.

I got the following reply:

1.    Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.

ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)

2.    Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.

NOT HELD.  See above

3.    The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.

ZERO

4.    The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.

See above

When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.

But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.

I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.

They issued a strong denial, stating that:

“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.

“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.

“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.

“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”

Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).

I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”

So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.

Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.

It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.

But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.

Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:

“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.

2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.

3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”

The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”

So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.

On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.

It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).

It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.

I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.

In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Trevor Kavanagh learns a hard lesson about human rights and due process

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“The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.” – Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2007

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted“, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2012

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper has long been hostile to the idea that people suspected of wrongdoing should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, that no-one should be locked up for extended periods without a fair trial and due process, and that even if someone is tried and convicted of a criminal offence, they are still entitled to basic human rights.

When, in 2005, 47 Labour MPs joined opposition ranks to throw out the Blair government’s attempt to award itself the right to detain for 3 months, without charge or trial, anyone it claimed was a “terrorist”, the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh branded them “traitor MPs” who had “betrayed the British people”.

When, in 2007, Gordon Brown’s government requested the release of five UK residents who had been held for years without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh declared that “The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.”

“It’s just about possible the five… are totally innocent… But not very likely”, he suggested.

Yet despite these “overwhelming odds”, four of the five men – Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna and Sameur Abdenour – were subsequently freed after the US government failed to produce any evidence that could convict them of a crime. The fifth, Shaker Aamer, has still not been charged or tried, ten years after he was first detained.

Mohamed, Deghayes and El Banna were subsequently awarded millions of pounds in compensation after a court heard evidence (or as the Sun might describe it, a “sob story”) detailing the UK government’s complicity in their “rendition” and subsequent torture.

This weekend, another five men were arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence. Unlike Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna, Sameur Abdenour and Shaker Aamer, these five men were given prompt access to a lawyer, questioned, and then freed on bail.  Unlike Binyam Mohamed, they were not bundled into a plane, flown to Morocco and tortured with a scalpel, forced into stress positions or subjected to deliberate and prolonged sleep deprivation. They were not – as would have been the case for anyone accused of terrorist offences under the 2005 Bill championed by Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun – held without charge for 90 days while the Police scraped around for evidence.

Has British Justice Gone Soft? Given Trevor Kavanagh’s previous comments on human rights and due process, we might have expected him to be outraged that these five criminal suspects have been treated so leniently. But here he is discussing the case in today’s Sun:

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.”

Here he is on Radio 5: “the evidence that’s been suggested to those who have been arrested so far, is pretty flimsy stuff… people are wondering what on earth is happening… I feel very sorry for them and I know it’s causing them and their families a great deal of anguish”.

What could possibly explain this change in tone? Perhaps the fact that *these* five criminal suspects were Sun journalists, suspected of making corrupt payments to police and other public officials.

The problem with attacking basic democratic principles like human rights and due process is that you never know when you – or someone you care about – might be in need of them. Trevor Kavanagh’s Damascine conversion to the cause is surely to be welcomed. His friends at the Sun do, of course, have a right to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. It will be interesting to see if they will now extend that same courtesy to the rest of us.

See also: Thaksin Shinawatra: “They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process!”

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2012 at 12:41 am

Burden of proof: Should evidence determine policy?

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My latest piece for the New Humanist

A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts

In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.

In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”

To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.

Read more at the New Humanist

 

Written by Richard Wilson

January 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Slaying the super-injunction dragon and dismantling the secret courts

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Today I was one of four bloggers giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Privacy and injunctions. Also on the panel were David Allen Green (Jack of Kent / New Statesman), Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) and Jamie East (Holy Moly).

Trafigura

My main focus in the discussion was the notorious Trafigura super-injunction which I helped to unravel back in 2009, by posting a “banned” Parliamentary Question on Twitter.

A super-injunction is a gagging order that both prohibits the publication of a specific piece of information, and forbids any mention of the gagging order’s existence.

Trafigura’s super-injunction banned any reference in the UK media to a leaked company memo known as the “Minton Report”. When,  in October 2009, the MP Paul Farrelly raised the issue in Parliament, Trafigura’s controversial lawyers, Carter Ruck, tried to prevent the press from reporting Farrelly’s question.

This had come at the end of a year that also saw a draconian libel ruling against the science writer Simon Singh.  The year before, Ben Goldacre and the Guardian had successfully defended a vexatious libel case by the AIDS-denialist quack Matthias Rath – yet the newspaper nonetheless lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in unrecovered costs. I myself had spent time fighting off an unfounded libel claim over Don’t Get Fooled Again, and had seen up close the chilling effect that such threats could have.

To me and many others who took action the same evening, Trafigura’s super-injunction felt like the last straw after a series of attacks on freedom of speech. The bid by Carter Ruck to ban the reporting of Parliament seemed like imperial over-reach by a “reputation management” company far too used to getting its way from pliant High Court judges. It seemed extraordinary that a judge sitting in an English court – on a handsome salary funded by ordinary taxpayers – might allow such an effort.

The situation also seemed absurd. The “banned” Parliamentary Question had been published by Parliament on its own website. The Minton report itself had been available on Wikileaks for over a month. Yet anyone who repeated the same information themselves could face prosecution for Contempt of Court.

Secret courts and freedom of speech

But the fundamental problem was the very idea of a secret court hearing to ban the free exchange of information. When a court case is heard in secret, the public has no way of checking whether the judgements made in their name are decent, honest, and fair. Because we don’t even know that the case is going on, we have no way of holding the court to account if – as is inevitable from time to time, given human nature – a judge makes a decision through corruption, cronyism or incompetence rather than through the fair application of the law. Public scrutiny is an essential safety valve in any democracy, and it seems extraordinary that our political class would seek to dispense with it so lightly. This is not a new idea.

Likewise, any constraint on freedom of expression risks being abused by those seeking to cover up evidence of corruption or incompetence, as we have seen time and again with UK libel law.

We might nonetheless accept this risk in certain narrow circumstances. We might agree that some categories of information should in principle, in all or most cases, be kept confidential. Some examples might be:

– Children’s medical records

– The name and address of a person under a witness protection programme

– Information likely to be prejudicial to a criminal trial

We might accept that the courts have a role in enforcing this.  But even in these cases, court decisions have to be open and public if we are to minimise the risk of abuse. And for a government official to extend such restrictions to information which merely has the potential to embarrass a large and powerful corporation seems, frankly, reckless.

“How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

Two years after Trafigura it feels as if progress has been made. There seems to be a general acceptance (other than from Carter Ruck and Trafigura, obviously) that Carter Ruck’s attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament was misguided. There is also a recognition that the current system of privacy and “confidence” injunctions is in a mess, and needs reform.

But it looks as if there’s a way to go yet. Prior to today’s meeting, the panelists were sent a list of somewhat loaded questions, including:

“Most of you have blogged about injunctions; some of you appeared to know or think you were breaching injunctions whilst you were blogging. What were your motivations for doing this? What made you think you wouldn’t be prosecuted?”

“Do you think that you are able to judge the appropriateness of an injunction when you haven’t heard the full case (compared with a judge who has)?”

“What is your definition of the public interest? How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

In one form or another, all of these questions came up during the session. I clarified to the Committee that when I chose to publish the Trafigura question I was by no means sure that I wouldn’t be prosecuted. I took the risk because I felt so strongly about the issue, and believe that many of the others who did the same thing were making a similar calculation.

The second question may seem reasonable at first glance. But the implication seems to be that when a judge passes a free speech restriction that appears completely unjust, or absurd, we simply have to nod deferentially and trust that they must have had lots of good reasons that we just don’t know about. This again, seems like a prescription for corruption and incompetence.

The last question was particularly interesting. While the Committee wanted to challenge us on our understanding of the “public interest”, it seemed to me that their definition of the “rule of law” was just as much open to question.

The United Nations defines the rule of law as:

a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities… are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced… and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law… avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.

The International Bar Association, meanwhile, sees the rule of law as establishing “a transparent process accessible and equal to all”. The IBA spells out that “Confidence in the system of governance in any society cannot be maintained unless the process is open and transparent.

On this basis, it would seem that High Court judges who pass secret edicts restricting freedom of expression – and the Parliamentarians who allow them to continue – are doing far more to undermine the rule of law than the bloggers who circumvent them.

Rich man’s justice

Lord Gold and Gisela Stewart MP seemed concerned – if somewhat bemused – by my suggestion that I would quickly go bankrupt if I was ever dragged into a libel court over something that I’d written. Surely this was incredibly unfair to any potential litigants who might end up losing money by taking me to court? His Lordship noted, disdainfully, that it wasn’t worth anyone’s while suing me, was it?

It was difficult to know what to make of this point, so I thought I’d expand on it here: A typical UK libel case can end up costing upwards of £100,000 to defend. This is a figure far beyond the means of most ordinary people, including most bloggers, and that is why, for most of us, being sued for libel would entail bankruptcy.

The main reason that such cases are so expensive in this country – reportedly around 140 times the European average – is that the “reputation management” firms that bring them are willing and able to charge more for an hour’s work than many of us earn in a week.

This is, in other words, a situation that the legal profession, aided by a Parliament unprepared, so far, to reign in the activities of such firms, has actively created. So it seems odd for Parliamentarians – many of whom, like David Gold, are also lawyers themselves – to wring their hands when confronted with the consequences.

I’ve no idea what the Committee will have made of our testimony. It is, at least, encouraging that these issues are starting to be debated properly. But it is nonetheless disturbing to see such a blithe acceptance among our elected officials of this fundamentally undemocratic system. It’s difficult to see how the current mess will be sorted out, and public confidence restored, until we dismantle these secret courts.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 15, 2011 at 2:13 am

Rwandan government’s $50,000-a-month PR strategy revealed

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Racepoint Group worked to promote “Rwanda’s visionary leader”

A detailed PR strategy prepared by lobbyists for the Rwandan government has been published by the US authorities. Under US law, lobby firms working on behalf of other governments are required to register their activities publicly.

The memo, which was prepared by “Racepoint Group” in 2009, is addressed to the Rwandan Information Minister from company bigwigs Larry Weber and Peter Prodromou – whose previous experience includes “working with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Libya to positively impact global public perception and support negotiating positions with key allies”.

The strategy aims: to “build a strong and sustained Image campaign communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities” and “Offset the negative and factually incorrect information of those parties with vested interests in mis-portraying Rwanda’s advancements”.

Campaign themes include “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership” and “The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation”. The company’s fees are listed as $50,000 per month plus $2,500 – £3,500 per month for “out of pocket expenses”. The average Rwandan has an income of $510 per year.

Racepoint suggests that Rwanda has a “significant image problem”, in part because “Certain NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, continue to advance a story of an unstable Rwanda” . Racepoint seems dismissive of this picture, alleging that Human Rights Watch and others are presenting it merely “as a means of continuing to attract donors and wield influence in the region”.

The PR firm then outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.

Racepoint singles out  the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.

“At the same time, we will blunt the online impact of our opposition by initiating a wall of defense debunking their accusations… we will identify and selectively respond to the most egregious… we will erect, on free social networks, ‘walls’ of pro-Rwandan data that debunks myths and links to Rwanda’s national web site. This will enable us to establish captive audiences on the web…”

Further elements mooted include a “Celebrity Visitor Program” a “Global College Tour” for President Kagame, and “challenging heads of NGOs that are the country’s largest detractors to public, televised debates on networks like CNN, BBC and al-Jazeera. This will provide Rwandan officials with the opportunity to debunk mythology being propagated by hostile NGOs and other detractors.”

The Guardian last year profiled Racepoint’s PR work for the Rwandan government, and highlighted critical comments by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in a report last year, found that Rwanda has “excellent public relations machinery” which has succeeded in “persuading the key members of the international community that it has an exemplary constitution emphasising democracy, power-sharing, and human rights which it fully respects”. It concluded: “The truth is, however, the opposite.”

Rwanda’s constitution, the report said, was “a facade which hides the exclusionary and repressive nature of the regime”, “basic human rights are in an unsatisfactory state”, “censorship is prevalent” and there are “serious concerns about the level of political freedom”.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm

The Witch-Hunt Saboteurs

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My latest piece in The New Humanist:

Two Decembers ago, an elderly widow called Zuwana Kampalira went on trial for practising witchcraft. The judge heard evidence that Kampalira had taken a young girl on a magic plane to the village where her grandfather lived. There she pressured the girl to kill her grandfather with a magic hammer. When the girl refused, Kampalira allegedly sought to persuade her to murder her father. The defendant initially denied these charges, but later changed her plea on the advice of the police. The court took a dim view, sentencing her to 30 months imprisonment with hard labour.

In a related case, 70-year-old Namalinda Josephy was charged with teaching witchcraft to a group of small children. The court learned that Josephy had the ability to transform herself by night into a black log or a big snake, and that she had done so in the presence of the children. Despite warnings from the police that she should admit the charges to get a more lenient sentence, Josephy denied the allegations. She was also sentenced to 30 months in prison.

In January this year, Tryson Jere, Mabvuto Jere and their wives Nyabanda and Nyachunga were accused of teaching 17 children witchcraft at night, and flying with them in a basket plane to South Africa and “within the local district to play football”. The group were charged with disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, and are now awaiting trial.

These are just three of over 80 case-files compiled by the Association for Secular Humanism (ASH) in Malawi, where dozens of people have been jailed on imaginary evidence for the imaginary crime of “witchcraft”. Most are poor, elderly and from rural communities. ASH has campaigned successfully against efforts to recognise “witchcraft” as a crime. But some magistrates have been pursuing cases regardless, prosecuting people for an offence that isn’t even on the statute book. Others have been imprisoned for “pretending witchcraft”, or the catch-all crime of “disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace”. This despite the fact that Malawian law actually makes it a crime to accuse another person of being a witch.

[Read more]

Written by Richard Wilson

May 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Human, all too human…

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My latest in the New Humanist

If there’s someone on your radio right now telling you there are no big ideas in politics any more, or that our risk-averse society is lowering ambition and infantilising adults, or that the outpouring of anguish over Darfur says-more-about-the-anxieties-of-the-western-liberal-elite-than-the-realities-on the-ground, there’s a good chance they’ve got something to do with an organisation called the Institute of Ideas.

The Institute’s purpose, according to its founder, Claire Fox, is to “interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities”. It does this in the face of “politically correct etiquette” and an “illiberal liberalism” which “silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom”. The IoI’s annual debating festival, the Battle of Ideas (sponsored by Shell, The Times, Price Waterhouse Coopers and brewing giant SAB Miller), is a “public square within which we can explore the crisis of values”. The Festival “is very much a PUBLIC conversation”. Its motto is “FREE SPEECH ALLOWED”.

When a coalition of humanist, secular and equality groups rallied against the Pope’s state visit to Britain earlier this year, the IoI issued a press release (PDF) describing itself as a “leading British humanist thinktank”, denouncing the “hysterical” arguments of the Vatican’s critics and accusing “fellow-secularists” of conducting a “New Atheist witch-hunt”.

The Institute of Ideas has a close, if ambiguous, relationship with the online magazine Spiked, an outspoken scourge of environmentalism whose memorable slogans include “Bomb the Bans” and “Humanity is under-rated”. Both are orphan children of the magazine formerly known as Living Marxism (subsequently LM), which went bankrupt at the turn of the decade, following a disastrous libel defeat. Both are dominated by ex-members of the UK’s long-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party. Spiked contributors regularly feature in the Institute’s debates, and the magazine often echoes IoI concerns. Ahead of the Papal visit, Spiked ran articles attacking the reaction from secularists, including New Humanist, as a “fear-driven campaign of demonisation”.

Critics have accused the Institute of Ideas and Spiked of knee-jerk contrarianism, of empty sloganeering, of trading the garb of the far-left for that of hard-right libertarians, of being guided more by the interests of their corporate sponsors than by any coherent underlying philosophy.

But whatever else one thinks, Spiked and the IoI have a talent for getting noticed. Claire Fox gets a weekly slot on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussion programme. Spiked’s “editor at large”, Mick Hume, has a regular column in The Times. The Institute of Ideas is active in UK schools, as is a related organisation, Worldwrite. Whole websites have been devoted to tracking the influence of ex-RCP figures in the UK media.

So what kind of humanists are they? Do they have a genuine commitment to open debate or is this just a rhetorical conceit? And who’s really defending the legacy of the Enlightenment? I went along to this year’s Battle of Ideas festival to try to find out.

[Read more]

Written by Richard Wilson

January 11, 2011 at 10:01 am

Background and links on the Titanic Express massacre

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On December 28th 2000, twenty-one unarmed civilians, including my sister Charlotte Wilson (a British aid worker), and her Burundian fiancé Richard Ndereyimana, were murdered. They were killed after their bus, bearing the ill-fated name “Titanic Express”, was ambushed in Bujumbura-Rurale, close to the Burundian capital Bujumbura.

According to survivors, the attackers opened fire on the bus at around 3.30pm local time (1.30pm in the UK), shooting out the tyres and forcing it to crash. A large, well-armed group then surrounded the vehicle, ordered the passengers out,  robbed them, and separated them according to their ethnicity. Several Hutus and Congolese were released unharmed. The remaining passengers were stripped to their underclothes, made to lie face down on the ground, and shot. Most of the victims were Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis. Charlotte Wilson was the only European on board.

Who carried out the attack?

The Titanic Express massacre took place in an area dominated by a Hutu-extremist rebel group known for its hatred of Tutsis, Palipehutu-FNL (aka “the FNL”). One survivor recounts that the attackers specifically identified themselves, saying “We are the FNL, not your FDD” (FDD was the FNL’s largest rival at the time). Others have simply described them as “rebels”.

In March 2001 Amnesty International listed the Titanic Express attack among several believed to have been carried out by the FNL. In May 2001, the International Crisis Group attributed the Titanic Express attack to FNL “troops under the order of… Agathon Rwasa”. A Human Rights Watch report from April 2000 lists a number of  carried out a number of similar attacks in the same area earlier in 2000.

In 2002, a document emerged which appears to be a detailed report by the FNL, signed by Commandant Albert Sibomana, of the Titanic Express attack, listing what was looted from the bus, how many people were killed and how many bullets were expended in killing them. Dozens of smaller attacks were listed in the same report.

Sibomana’s track record is bloodthirsty even by the standards of Burundi’s conflict. In February 2000, he reportedly oversaw the massacre of hundreds of his own comrades, after a split within the FNL.

At the time of the Titanic Express attack, Agathon Rwasa was FNL “Chief of Operations” around Bujumbura. In early 2001, he ousted the FNL’s then leader Kossan Kabura, and assumed overall control of the whole group.

Following years of negotiations, the FNL agreed to end hostilities in April 2009, and began disarming. But amid ongoing instability, the UN recently reported that Rwasa was remobilising his forces for a “new holy war” from bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Later I’ll add some links to further reading on Burundi’s recent history, and the long-promised plans for a UN-backed “Special Chamber” and Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 28, 2010 at 12:05 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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December 28th 2010: Justice for Charlotte – Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

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Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008

Charlotte Wilson, a British citizen, was killed in a bus massacre in Burundi on December 28th 2000. It was one of many brutal ethnic attacks by the Hutu-extremist “Forces Nationales de Liberation” (FNL). Despite repeated promises, the Burundian government has made no serious effort to investigate the killings, or prosecute those responsible.

On the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death, her family are urging the UK government to press Burundi to keep its promises, and bring the perpetrators of this massacre to justice.

If you have thirty seconds – please show your support by joining the Justice For Charlotte Facebook group.

If you have five minutes -please contact your MP via this website, asking them to raise Charlotte Wilson’s case with the UK Foreign Office.

Charlotte’s family are asking the UK government to press the Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to fulfil his longstanding promise to set up a special UN-backed court to investigate the many abuses committed during the country’s long civil war, and prosecute the worst offenders. Human rights experts argue that this approach offers the best hope of achieving both justice and peace in this troubled country. Charlotte’s family believe that the establishment of this special court will be a major step towards justice for the victims of the December 28th 2000 “Titanic Express” bus massacre.

If you have ten minutes please Fax a or post a letter to Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza urging him to release the journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu.

Tragically, while the war criminals remain free, one of the Burundian journalists who has done most to highlight the Titanic Express massacre,  Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, has been languishing in prison since July. He is facing a criminal trial for “defamation” and “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s army.

Amnesty International have listed Jean-Claude as a Prisoner of Conscience and issued the following appeal:

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in French, English, Kirundi or your own language:

  • expressing grave concern that journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been detained on charges of treason and defamation for criticizing the Burundian security services;
  • urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;
  • reminding the authorities that, as a state party to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Burundi is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 17 JANUARY 2011 TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza, Président de la République, Présidence de la République, Boulevard de l’Uprona, Rohero I, BP 1870, Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 24 89 08

Written by Richard Wilson

December 27, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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