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Asbestos saga proves our feeble press watchdog has no bark and no bite

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“Getting a PCC isn’t great but all it is, is just a little apology… you get a slap on the wrist… and the PCC is run by the newspaper editors” (5m 09s) – News of the World journalist secretly filmed by ‘Starsuckers’

From Guest post at The Lay Scientist, Guardian blogs

Back in February, the Daily Mail published an article denouncing “The Great Asbestos Hysteria”, and claiming that the health risks had been grossly exaggerated by “the BBC, profiteering lawyers, and gullible politicians”.

The article was a response to a study raising concerns about the ongoing dangers of asbestos in UK schools. Those dangers were, the Daily Mail assured us, “all but non-existent”. While many older school buildings still contained asbestos, almost all of it was “relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre”. The threat from such products was so “vanishingly small” that a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had concluded that the danger was “insignificant”, with “arguably zero” risk of lung cancer.

Good news all round, then. No need for schools to worry about that crumbling asbestos roof. No need, we might think, for maintenance workers to wear protective clothing when renovating old school buildings. No need, it would seem, to employ specialist contractors to assess whether to leave asbestos undisturbed or get it removed. Those guys are, in any case, according to the Mail, a “commercial racket” with a “vested interest in exaggerating the dangers of products which are, in effect, harmless”.

Last week, seven months after the article was published, the Daily Mail issued a carefully worded correction:

“…The HSE assessments related to specific levels of exposure to white asbestos fibres, not white asbestos products, and found a risk from higher levels. The article said that asbestos in UK schools is almost all white. According to the HSE the more harmful brown asbestos was also frequently used in schools…”

Not such good news. What many reading the Daily Mail article won’t have known is that the author, Christopher Booker, has a long track record of downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. Though not a scientist himself, Booker has written at least 42 newspaper articles on this subject since 2002, making claims that run counter to the views of most experts, but are remarkably similar to those of the asbestos industry.

Several of the claims in the Daily Mail article – including that an HSE study once concluded the health risks of white asbestos cement were “insignificant” – have previously appeared in Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column, prompting a series of direct rebuttals from the HSE. The available evidence, as assessed by – among others – the World Health Organisation, the UK and US governments, and the European Union, is that white asbestos poses a serious risk to human health that needs to be carefully managed.

If the experts are right about asbestos and Booker is wrong, then this matters for at least two reasons. Firstly, there’s a danger that people may take unnecessary risks when handling the stuff, with potentially deadly consequences a couple of decades down the line. In 2008, a survey by the British Lung Foundation found widespread ignorance about the health risks, with under a third of tradespeople – the group most at risk of exposure – aware that it could cause cancer, and 28% “mistakenly assuming that some levels of asbestos are safe”. Further misinformation surely won’t help.

Secondly, for those affected by asbestos-related disease, ill-informed media reports belittling the health risks can be offensive and upsetting. I got the smallest glimpse of what that must be like when I saw that my blog had been linked to from a Facebook group set up by mesothelioma sufferers in response to Booker’s Daily Mail article.

Several members of the group had decided to report the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission, for breaching section 1 of the PCC’s ethical code: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. I’ve been following Booker’s antics for a while – I researched his work in detail for my book Don’t Get Fooled Again, and still write about him from time to time on my blog. So I decided to support the Facebook campaigners – and test out the PCC’s claim to be “fast, free and fair” – by putting in a complaint of my own.

It wasn’t difficult to produce evidence debunking the Mail’s assertion that white asbestos was “relatively harmless”. Back in 2002, the HSE had published a summary, with references, of the peer-reviewed research linking the material to mesothelioma and lung cancer. The newspaper’s claim that an HSE study had found the dangers of white asbestos cement to be “insignificant” was also easy to disprove: Booker had made the self-same claim in the Sunday Telegraph back in 2008, and been rebutted in detail by the HSE.

Neither was it hard to show that the Mail had got it wrong in claiming that “it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre” from white asbestos cement. An HSE lab report from 2007 notes that “the claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer”.

In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. According to the PCC’s code, “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body.

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail’s executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker’s views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that “those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians”. For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you’re wondering) of being “allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby”, who “stand to benefit financially” from the “anti-asbestos campaign”.

Rather than take ownership of the process, assess the various bits of evidence and come to a judgement, the PCC instead asked me to go through this new set of claims and produce a further response. Here I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC. If a newspaper digs in its heels and simply denies all the evidence that’s been presented, there doesn’t seem to be much that the PCC can do except bat the issue back to the complainant.

It was at this stage that I learned that the asbestos campaigner Michael Lees had also submitted a detailed complaint. Michael, who has been working to highlight the dangers of asbestos in schools since losing his wife Gina, a teacher, to mesothelioma, had been singled out by name – the third time that Booker had done this. Michael took particular exception to the dismissive terms in which the article had referred to his wife’s death, adding to the offence of a previous piece in which Booker had dubbed the case “bizarre”. He was also concerned that – aside from Booker’s views on white asbestos – the article sidestepped the fact that many schools still contain large amounts of brown asbestos, whose dangers are beyond dispute.

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of. The newspaper agreed to make some amendments to the text of the article, publish a short correction, and write a private apology to Michael Lees over Booker’s comments about his wife. But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity. “Free”, perhaps – but hardly “fast”, or “fair”.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again – The Skeptic’s Guide to Life. www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

Secret UN briefing on 1994 Rwanda atrocities – full text of the “Gersony Report”

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Extracted from this PDF file. Background from Human Rights Watch here.

UNITED NATIONS
HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES

11 October 1994

Dear Mrs. Molina-Abram,

We refer to UNHCR’s briefing to the Commission of Experts on Monday, 11 October 1994.

As requested by the Commission, we are forwarding herewith a written summary of Mr. Gersony’s oral presentation and copies of some field reports sent to UNHCR Headquarters by UNHCR Field Offices.

We are confident that, as agreed by the President of the Commission of Experts, these documents will be treated as confidential and only be made available to the members of the Commission.

Yours sincerely,

Franois Fouinat

Chef de Cabinet

Mrs. B. Molina-Abram Secretary to the Commission
of Experts on Rwanda Room 141.1 1 Palais des Nations

SUMMARY OF UNHCR PRESENTATION


BEFORE COMMISSION OF EXPERTS

10 OCTOBER 1994

PROSPECTS FOR EARLY REPATRIATION OF RWANDAN REFUGEES CURRENTLY IN BURUNDI, TANZANIA AND ZAIRE

Between April and August 1994, over one million Rwandans fled their country to refuge in Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. Some 100,000 reached Burundi and Tanzania in July and August alone.

On July 27, the High Commissioner appointed an Emergency Repatriation Team to conduct a thorough, systematic and comprehensive field assessment of the prospects for repatriation and to devise mechanisms which could accelerate the safe return to Rwanda of the refugee population. In conducting its assignment, the team received information which suggested that conditions were not yet conducive for such return, its findings are briefly summarized in this document.

Assessment Procedures

During a five-week period in August/early September, the team visited 41 (28%) of Rwanda’s 145 communes, and collected detailed information about ten additional communes. In nine UNHCR refugee camps in Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire, and in 91 locations inside Rwanda, the team conducted more than 200 individual, private interviews of about one hour each with local residents, former displaced persons, spontaneous refugee returnees and current refugees.

More than 100 additional persons were interviewed in small groups in a less private manner. Their first-hand eyewitness accounts — which comprise the main basis of this report – were detailed and credible, and they responded spontaneously to many follow-up questions, clearly describing events which they had seen. The most important elements and patterns of the Information they provided, particularly for the south/south-eastern regions, were corroborated independently by the team’s interviewees in several countries outside Rwanda and by those in different locations inside Rwanda. [These reports are also mutually corroborative with information gathered independently by UNHCR offices in neighboring countries and through contacts established in Rwanda. According to the more recent of these reports, the types of activities described later herein in the south/south-eastern region have continued during the first half of September.] These accounts, if accurate, compel certain unavoidable findings which are set forth later herein.

The Government of Rwanda permitted the team full, independent freedom of movement, without accompaniment and control, through the issuance at the outset of the mission of an official letter of authorization which, with few exceptions, was honored throughout the country.

Genocide of Tutsis

The Government of Rwanda, the UNHCR and the international community have placed considerable emphasis on the early return of all refugees, and particularly those who fled Rwanda during the past year. Of these, the refugees currently remaining in neighboring countries are in the main Hutu people. It was not within the team’s mandate, nor was it able to conduct a systematic inquiry into the killing in April 1994 of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi people and many Hutu people by soldiers, militia and surrogate forces of the former Government of Rwanda. The killings of the Tutsi people have been described” by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights in his June 28, 1994 report, as genocidal in nature.

Due to the nature of its mission, the team’s findings concern principally the conduct of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the military forces of the current Government, with respect to the Hutu residents of Rwanda. [Previously known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), this force has since been redesignated as the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and is referred to throughout this document as such.] However grave the team’s findings with respect to RPA conduct, they do not mitigate, nor should they be permitted to obscure, the genocidal violence unleashed against the Tutsi people in April 1994 by forces of and associated with the previous Government.

Principal Findings

Based on information gathered through the procedures described earlier, following are the principal findings of the Emergency Repatriation Team which affect the prospects for an early large-scale repatriation of Hutu refugees currently residing in neighboring countries:

WITH RESPECT TO BUTARE. KIBUNGO. AND PARTS OF KIGALI PREFECTURES…

1. Significant areas of Butare Prefecture, Kibungo Prefecture, and the . southern and eastern areas of Kigali Prefecture have been — and in some cases were reported to remain as of early September – the scene of systematic and sustained killing and persecution of the civilian Hutu populations by the RPA.

These activities are reported to have begun, depending on location, between April and July 1994, immediately following the expulsion from each area of former Government military, militia and surrogate forces. These RPA actions were consistently reported to be conducted in areas where opposition forces of any kind – armed or unarmed – or resistance of any kind – other than attempts by the victims of these actions lo escape — were absent. Large-scale indiscriminate killings of men, women, children, including the sick and the elderly, were consistently reported. The reported violence includes:

— Mass killings at meetings. Local residents, including entire families, were called to community meetings, invited to receive information about “peace,” “security” or “food distribution” issues. Once a crowd had assembled, it was assaulted through sudden sustained gunfire; or locked in buildings into which hand-grenades were thrown; systematically killed with manual instruments; or killed in large numbers by other means. Large-scale killings which did not involve such “meetings” were also reported.

House-to-house killings, and attacks on villages and displaced populations. — Pursuit of hidden populations. In response to the above actions, significant segments of the peculation flee into hiding in swamps, bush areas, banana plantations and other areas of difficult access to RPA soldiers. In many cases, they remain in hiding for extended periods of time. RPA soldiers’, in a few more recent cases accompanied by civilian Tutsi surrogates armed with spears and other manual weapons, were reported to actively pursue the hidden population through:

–Sudden, apparently well-coordinated attacks with gunfire;

–Silent attacks in which hidden groups are killed with manual weapons;

–Burning of swamp areas to prompt movement by civilians who are then killed;

–Periods in which operations are suspended, followed by invitations to the hidden families to return home in peace. Shortly thereafter the villages are attacked and returnees are killed.

– Killing of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers – particularly those fleeing from Rwanda in a southerly direction towards Burundi are reportedly systematically intercepted, ambushed and killed in significant numbers. These actions are reported with particular frequency in the commonly-used routes via road and through the countryside which pass through Matongo and Musenyi in southern Birenga Commune, and in areas close to the river which defines the Rwanda/Burundi border.

– Killing of returnees. Hundreds of Rwandan refugees in Burundi have heard Government of Rwanda radio broadcasts inviting and calling on the refugees to return home, and some of the refugees tried to do so. Some attempted to return to Rwanda with their entire families; others sent one or two individuals as “advance scouts” to confirm that conditions are peaceful. Still others traveled to their home areas to find and/or bring their relatives back to Burundi, or to harvest food to bring back to Burundi for their own consumption or for sale. Regardless of the motivation for their return, those who attempted to return and who were able to flee back to Burundi report consistently eye-witnessing killings and seeing the relatively fresh bodies of their Hutu neighbors and relatives.

–Killing of sick and elderly. Some individuals who are too old or too sick to flee to a neighboring country or to hide in the swamps, remain at their homes. Reports indicate that at least some of these are killed by RPA soldiers.

The foregoing activities have not been reported to be carried out throughout the geographical areas described above, nor carried out simultaneously in the areas which are affected. Nonetheless, an unmistakable pattern of systematic RPA conduct of such actions is the unavoidable conclusion of the team’s interviews.

More than 80% of the interviewees in this region — both inside Rwanda and in six refugee camps in neighboring countries provided detailed, credible reports of the conduct summarized above.

As the team traveled extensively within Rwanda through some areas close to the borders with Burundi and Tanzania, no RPA military personnel or checkpoints reported or alerted me team to security danger in these areas which it might encounter, or made reference to the fact or possibility of armed conflict between the RPA and former Government soldiers or militia conducting incursions into these areas. During its journey, the team often took care to check with RPA military personnel and was always assured that it faced no security problems in the conduct of its travels.

[Two incidents of the killing of Tutsi returnees by Hutu men armed with machetes were reported by Tutsi interviewees in two locations. The interviewees characterized the events as isolated incidents. One incident involved the killing of a Tutsi returnee from Burundi who appropriated the house of the Hutu owner who was still hiding in a nearby area. The second incident involved the killing of a Tutsi family by six Hutu men armed with manual weapons said to have returned to their home area from Burundi.]

2. Manner of killings. According to the interviewee reports, a common manner of effecting these killings is through the use of hoes to the skulls of the victims, or of machete blows to their heads and necks. The burning of victims in rural houses which have thatch roofs was widely reported. Gunfire is reportedly used in large-scale massacres and attacks. Otherwise, according to the interviewee reports, it seems to be used judiciously, and principally against fleeing males, who appear to be the priority — but by no means exclusive -targets of these actions.

3. Disposal of bodies. When local residents remain in an area where such killings have taken place, particularly when they know the victims and the number of bodies is manageable for them, and after RPA forces withdraw from the area, the remaining local residents themselves undertake some burial or covering of bodies. Eyewitness reports indicated that RPA forces sometimes burn or otherwise dispose of large numbers of bodies of those killed in public buildings. Large numbers of bodies are reported to remain above the ground, where some are partially consumed by dogs. Some formerly displaced persons and others have reportedly been ordered or obliged by RPA forces to bury some of the remaining bodies.

4. Culpability of victims. It appeared that the vast majority of men, women and children killed in these actions were targeted through the pure chance of being caught by RPA. No vetting process or attempt to establish the complicity of the victims in the April 1994 massacres of the Tutsis was reported.

5. Number of deaths. It is estimated that from late April/May through July, more than 5,000, and perhaps as many as 10,000 persons per month may have been killed in the manner described above. During August, while some 60,000 new refugees were arriving in Burundi and Tanzania, the number killed may have been somewhat less than in previous months, but probably at least 5,000. By that time, the people in many cases no longer responded to calls to attend RPA meetings and fled their homes when RPA soldiers approached. Also by then, many were dead or in exile in Burundi and Tanzania.

Through extensive travel on secondary and tertiary roads, the team observed that significant geographical areas of southern Kibungo and southern and eastern Butare prefectures were virtually deserted, while others were partially populated with varying degrees of apparent stability and security. In order to not compromise the security of the interviewees, the team declined the frequent offers of local residents to visit locations which they asserted were within walking distance to observe what they described as the relatively fresh bodies of Hutu people killed in the incidents which they had reported. Nonetheless, the team directly observed 150 bodies which appeared to have been dead for about 7 -10 days and which included men, women and children. The strong smell of deteriorating bodies was often present in the areas visited by the team.

During the last few days of August and the first days of September, new refugee arrivals to Tanzania diminished somewhat, but remained substantial. The lower arrival rates could be attributable to the factors described in the preceding paragraph. The systematic interdiction and killing of asylum seekers, described earlier, may be discouraging those who feel compelled to flee from attempting to do so. The communal origins of the latest arrivals suggest that reported RPA actions may, at that time, have been concentrated in areas more distant from the border, for example inTeastern Kigali Prefecture. It could also be that such actions were, at that time, at least temporarily diminished. With the exception of the returnee cases reported within paragraph one, above, no significant return to Rwanda of Hutu people from Burundi or Tanzania was reported or observed during this period.

WITH RESPECT TO RUHENGERI PREFECTURE…

6. Ruhengeri Prefecture.- In striking contrast to the southern and southeastern regions described above, refugee returnees from Zaire (of whom there were more than 100,000) and local residents in parts of western Ruhengeri visited by the team (including many who had been temporarily internally displaced in July and had since returned to their homes) reported overwhelmingly that conditions in their area were secure, stable and peaceful at the time of the team’s visit in early August. A liberal border-crossing policy by local authorities permitted families to walk home for brief exploratory visits, confirm for themselves the security situation, and return to Zaire to bring back their families.

7. Killing of returnee group. Based on credible reports gathered by the UNHCR office in Zaire from two seriously wounded survivors, it appears that on August 3 a group of up to 150 refugee returnees, including entire families of men, women and children who were walking from Zaire to northern Ruhengeri, were intercepted, questioned and killed by RPA soldiers just at the Zaire/Rwanda border north of Kinigi. To date it appears that, if the report is accurate, this mayihavo, been an isolated incident in this prefecture.

WITH RESPECT TO GISENYI PREFECTURE…

8. Unclear situation. In several Gisenyi communes visited by the team, less than 10% of the normal population appeared to be present. The proportion of population present in other communes was considerably higher, though in general lower than Ruhengeri Prefecture at that time.

Consistent reports in Gisenyi Prefecture described a systematic pattern of arbitrary arrests and disappearances of adult males, all of whom were alleged to be suspected of being militia elements associated with the former Government. Of an estimated 400 or more arrests, it appeared that half may have been refugee-returnees from Zaire, some of whom were intercepted as they attempted to cross the first checkpoints in the prefecture. In some cases, an informal (though unevenly administered) vetting process to determine if those arrested were, in fact, militia or had participated in the April 1994 massacres, was reported. The execution of at least dozens of those arrested was credibly reported.

Both arrests and physical abuse of local residents were credibly reported in some areas of Gisenyi prefecture to which refugees had returned from Zaire and in some sectors from which the population had never fled. Local residents stated that they were considering fleeing to Zaire. In fact, a small trickle of refugees was noted to have arrived in Zaire from southern Gisenyi during the team’s visit to the Goma area during the following days. Finally, the liberal border-crossing policy which permitted refugees to visit their homes to assess the situation and then return for their families was tightened up. An attitude of impatience with the fefugees who had thus far failed to return to Gisenyi was manifested by some local civilian surrogates of the RPA. Such attitudes had been entirely absent in Ruhengeri during the team’s visit.

WITH RESPECT TO REASONS FOR FLIGHT TO ZAIRE…

9. Reason for flight. Contrary to early working assumptions, Rwandan refugees interviewed in Zaire did not refer to calls by Radio Mille Collines for their departure from Rwanda as determining factors in their decisions to flee. Roughly half of the interviewees in Zaire indicated that they had been urged to flee by former Government civilian and military officials in their home areas, or that on their own volition they had decided to flee with or immediately ahead of former army soldiers because of a general fear of the RPA not necessarily linked to direct negative experience. Many simply cited panic as their motivation. Those reporting these motivations tended to come from western Ruhengeri Prefecture and from parts of Gisenyi Prefecture.

However, half of the interviewees in Zaire reported eyewitnessing at the time’of their flight or in earlier contact with the RPA acts of violence by the RPA against Hutu civilians which were similar in type — though far less in frequency — to those reported in Kibungo, Butare and southern and eastern Kigali Prefectures. They included meetings which evolved into massacres and attacks on civilian villages. Those reporting such violence tended to-come from eastern Ruhengeri and some parts of Byumba Prefecture.

WITH RESPECT TO REASONS FOR RETURN FROM ZAIRE TO NQRTHERN RWANDA…

10. Reason for return. Returnees to Ruhengeri Prefecture from Zaire cited their perception of its relative security, and the messages they had received from [illegible] effect, as their principal motivations for return. A survey on one day [illegible] August of eighty returnee families who were walking along the Gissnyi/Ruhengeri road bound for different destinationsln Rwanda revealed that in these families, one out of five of the Immediate family members with whom they had arrived In Zaire had died there. The mortality rate reported by the families still living In the refugee camps In Zaire was reported by them to- be significantly less. This appeared to substantiate assertions by refugees still in Zaire that those who were In the worst physical condition and who had the least food were a high proportion of those who had overcome their fear and decided to return to Rwanda.

The confiscation by force from refugee families In Zaire by soldiers and militia of the former Government of the food, blankets and plastic sheeting provided (In some cases by airlift) by the intemational community through UNHCR and Its implementing partners was reported as a widespread problem which was affecting the relief operations. The deprivation caused by such actions appeared to be contributing to the hunger and sickness which seemed to be driving at least some of the refugees to return home at that time.

Other observations

11. The overwhelming majority of refugees in Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire expressed a wish to return as quickly as possible to their homes. If they were in good physical condition, most could probably return home by foot in a journey of a day or so. They stated that their main –.and in most cases their only constraint to doing so was the fear of being killed in their home areas, either upon their return or at a later time. Many asked that the United Nations intercede with the current Government of Rwanda (and particularly with the RPA) to cease the killing so that they could return home promptly.

12. In order for both spontaneous and organized repatriation to proceed, the Government of Rwanda must create conditions conducive for the return in safety of the refugees. Progress will have to be closely monitored by the UN system both in towns along the main road and through deployment in a permanent and sustained manner particularly in off-the-road rural areas (such as specific commune capitals) to insure that the actions reported herein are promptly and durably stopped.

UNHCR Emergency Repatriation Team

Written by Richard Wilson

September 14, 2010 at 10:28 am

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Alexis Sinduhije: “The international community, obsessed with stability… chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected”

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From Alexis Sinduhije in The East African:

John, 35, the youth leader of UPD, the Union for Peace and Development, was arrested by Burundi intelligence in early June and accused of being a security threat to the state.

He was taken to their secret offices where he was tortured, his right ear cut off and his penis and testicles shoved into a gourd.

He was later moved to the central prison but the damage has been done; he is now infertile.

//

Many members of different opposition parities have been arrested, tortured and threatened throughout the country.

The official count according to human-rights organisations is 200 but that is only those we know of; many more incidents are happening in military posts and police stations across the country.

Those that have been arrested, threatened and tortured are the lucky ones – others have been killed in broad daylight, in their homes.

On June28, Ladislas Ntiharirizwa and his wife Christine were at home in Muramvya province relaxing after their evening meal when grenades were thrown into their house and they were both killed, leaving behind a small baby of 3 months and a child of 3 years.

Their crime was to be members of MSD, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

The same night, in the same town, a grenade was thrown into the house of a Frodebu leader killing his 7-year-old son and leaving him gravely injured.

Later, in the far east of the country, in the small town of Gisuru bordering Tanzania, the Imbonerakure (the youth militia of the ruling party CNDD-FDD) with the support of the police, attacked several families, members of the FNL party, in their homes with clubs, pangas and jembes.

The result was the death of four and the hospitalisation of five others, most of whom are still in hospital.

//

Many young members of the opposition have fled their homes and jobs across the country. Their future is uncertain.

They thought they were growing up in a period of democracy in Burundi, after the years and years of war that their parents and grandparents suffered through.

However, they have learned that today, in Burundi, being a member of a political party that is not the one that is in power is a crime and your life will be destroyed.

They have learned that freedom of expression and opinion is a right held only by the party in power.

The opposition does not have much room to manoeuvre in.

The one choice open to them that they should not even consider is to cease to function.

The opposition in Burundi cannot afford to disappear or become puppets of the regime.

Although the political space is growing smaller and smaller as Burundi falls under the influence of the Kagame regime next door, political diversity is a must in this country that knows too well the impact of decades of military dictatorship.

The second choice is to flee the country and operate from exile as has happened across Africa under oppressive regimes.

Already this option is being witnessed as three leaders of opposition parties have fled the county fearing for their lives and many members of opposition parties have gone into hiding within the country.

//

This is hardly surprising given the large number of arrests and assassinations that have already taken place.

The third option is to return to the violence and permanent civil unrest that the country has known since Independence.

This is not a choice that the opposition, or any citizen would welcome.

However – given the fact that all attempts at dialogue requested by the opposition have been refused and that the international community has sat quiet while electoral fraud, abuse of human rights and violence has taken place this option – sadly may yet become a reality.

The international community, obsessed with stability has turned a blind eye to all these manoeuvrings and abuses of human rights and of freedom of expression; they chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected.

In June the opposition leaders called for support from the East African Community.

They naively thought that the leaders in the neighbouring paper democracies would insist on transparent electoral processes.

They had hoped that the region’s leaders would call upon the party in power to stop arresting, torturing and assassinating the political opposition.

//

But they forgot that the East African Community was an old boys’ club and no one was going to rock the boat in this period of multiple elections across the region.

They forgot that leaders across the region have the same attitude to democratic elections; that across the region elections are rigged and the results of the elections known before the populace even goes to the polls. The EAC has chosen to support the perpetrators of abuse and not the victims.

We realise that if democracy is to be saved, it is for us to do it.

Political opposition and civil society need to stay strong and courageous in Burundi. We cannot return to the dictatorships that have oppressed our country for decades. We, the political opposition of Burundi, need to be an example to the region. We need to show how political pluralism can build a country, not destroy it.

What is the value of the East African Community if its members hide their heads in the sand and support oppressive regimes that do not respect basic human rights?

If we are serious about democracy in Africa we need to stop this Mickey Mouse game.

We have power holders who create fake opposition parties merely to show that there is “competition” – while there is no real diversity of opinion.

The naiveté of the foreign ministers in the region was is revealed in statements such as the one Kenya’s Moses Wetangula made in June when he said, “The EAC will insist on the democratisation of all member states to avoid a situation that could lead to disharmony and to ensure that they contribute positively to the wellbeing of the region.”

What form of democracy is he talking about?

Is it a democracy where parties that speak out against the regimes in power are destroyed, their members arrested, killed and tortured?

We need to hold our leaders accountable so that all can have their basic needs met and their rights respected.

As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian political scientist says: “If Africans want democracy, they must be willing to pay the price. No one will pay it for them. Nor will they obtain it on credit.”

Alexis Sinduhije is president of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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The grim reality of the European Union’s “African success story”

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Burundi’s brutal government has been heavily bankrolled by the European Union for years, with donors falling over themselves to applaud their “African success story”. Complaints by Burundians of corruption and authoritarian behaviour by the ruling elite have been largely ignored.  Now we’re seeing the results…

Written by Richard Wilson

June 28, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Who shot Kayumba?

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Rightly or wrongly, Rwanda’s de facto one-party state has a reputation for brutality and lawlessness, and this latest episode will only increase it.

The BBC reports a botched assassination attempt, on South African territory, against the exiled dissident former Rwandan army chief Lt Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa.

Lt Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a critic of Rwanda’s president, remains in a critical condition after being shot outside his Johannesburg home.

Rosette Nyamwasa said it was an assassination attempt as the lone gunman had made no demand for money or goods before shooting her husband.

Rwanda’s government denies the claim, saying it does not condone violence.

Lt Gen Nyamwasa was shot in the stomach and has been undergoing surgery in a Johannesburg clinic.

BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut says that since leaving Kigali in February, Lt Gen Nyamwasa had been a thorn in the flesh of President Paul Kagame, whom he accuses of corruption

Once a close ally of  Paul Kagame, and a senior figure within the RPF forces which defeated the genocidal government of 1994 (whilst also committing a series of atrocities in their own right), Nyamwasa recently fled the country and became a vocal critic of Kagame’s harsh, authoritarian rule.

Kagame gets an extraordinarily good write-up in the British and US media, which I find surprising given his government’s track record since 1994. More than five million people are believed to have died in the vicious resource war in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a war in which Kagame and his forces are deeply implicated. The press in Rwanda is very tightly controlled, and it is difficult for any genuinely independent opposition party to operate freely. During Kagame’s time in power, a number of his critics have been murdered overseas, and many others inside Rwanda have been killed or “disappeared”.

Britain is one of Rwanda’s most generous international donors, and we have also supplied military support. During his time as Rwandan army chief, Kayumba Nyamwasa visited the UK for military training – I know this because I met him briefly during such a visit in 2001 and he talked about it.

I hope that Kayumba makes a good recovery. I can’t imagine that South Africa – another key UK ally in the region – will take kindly to terrorist attacks being carried out on their territory. Rwanda will, of course, deny all responsibility, but they do have form in this area. According to Kayumba’s wife, Rosette Nyamwasa:

“[Mr Kagame] said it in parliament that he will actually kill my husband, that wherever he is he will follow him and kill him,”

A rethink of the UK’s relationship with this dubious regime seems long overdue…

Written by Richard Wilson

June 20, 2010 at 9:06 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Save a life, slash the UK government’s subsidy of the libel industry

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While accident and emergency services face cuts,
frivolous libel cases receive a generous subsidy

The endemic abuse of the UK’s dysfunctional libel system to suppress inconvenient scientific evidence is now widely understood to be a threat to public health.

The enormous fees that libel lawyers are able to charge mean that a defendant can face crippling, unrecoverable costs even if they win their case.  The situation is now so bad that the media is routinely exercising self-consorship over contentious public health issues rather than face the risk of legal action.

But there is another issue here, which has also has serious implications for public welfare, and which merits more scrutiny. While the claimant and defendant in a libel case have to foot the bill for their respective lawyer’s legal fees (with the majority of the costs typically falling on whoever loses the case), there are many other costs involved in a case – from the judge’s salary to the cost of heating and lighting the courtroom – that they never have to worry about.

These “invisible” costs are generously met by the UK state, using money from taxpayers that many of us might prefer to be put towards a more worthy cause – saving our local accident and emergency unit from closure, reducing class sizes in an inner city school, providing better equipment for our armed forces, or simply returning the money to taxpayers so they can decide for themselves how to spend it.

A typical salary for a High Court judge is in the region of  £172,000. If the judge works for five days a week, 46 weeks of the year, this would equate to a  rate of more than £740 per day. The judge is supported, in turn, by a whole team of clerks and other administrative staff. The court room itself must be kept warm, clean, and in good repair. Meticulous records must be kept of the court proceedings, with those records being filed and maintained for many years afterwards.

Without all of these “invisible” costs being met, there would simply be no lucrative court case for libel firms like Carter Ruck and Schillings to cash in on.  So what’s actually happening here is that the UK taxpayer is indirectly subsidising the libel industry.

So what kind of cases are we subsidising? Well there’s the tennis player who sued the Daily Telegraph (unsuccessfully) for calling him the “world’s worst tennis pro”. There’s the Icelandic professor who got sued in the UK courts over a comment posted on the website of the University of Iceland. There’s the Ukrainian businessman who sued a Ukrainian news website in the UK courts over comments made on that website, in Ukrainian. There’s the now-notorious failed libel action by the British Chiropractic Association against science writer Simon Singh over his criticism of their scientific claims. There’s the two-year (and also famously unsuccessful) libel case by the blogger Joanna Kaschke against another blogger, Dave Osler, which was thrown out after two years on the basis that there was actually no case to answer.  There’s the defamation case brought by John Bridle against the Health and Safety Executive, over comments allegedly made over the phone by an HSE inspector – the case was also thrown out (after much deliberation), with the court ruling that Bridle had been pursuing a “vendetta” against the HSE.

On top of the considerable costs imposed on the defendant, all of these cases required a hefty subsidy from the taxpayer in the form of court staff time and other administrative expenses – while (in most cases) the claimant’s law firm raked in the profits.  It’s difficult to put a precise figure on how much money we are wasting each year on frivolous or trivial defamation cases like these – but it’s easy to think of better ways that this cash could be used.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2010 at 10:36 am

Independent breaks UK media silence over Trafigura trial in the Dutch courts

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With help from the newly-elected Green MP Caroline Lucas, The Independent  newspaper has taken a clear lead in the “Trafigura challenge” – the race to see which UK media outlet will be the first to report fully on the upcoming trial in the Dutch courts of the controversial oil company.

No UK newspaper or broadcaster has yet made any mention of  allegations made to Dutch prosecutors by Greenpeace – and widely featured in the Dutch media – that Trafigura and their law firm MacFarlanes sought to bribe witnesses in an earlier London court case. But the Independent has, by citing Caroline Lucas’ remarks, at least been able to reference the ongoing legal proceedings.

Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, “correct copies” of any Parliamentary publication may freely be republished without fear of legal action, including, crucially, any action under the UK’s notoriously expensive and one-sided libel laws, which Trafigura has been ruthlessly exploiting.

In a message on Twitter last night, Caroline Lucas promised an “EDM [Early Day Motion] and PQs [Parliamentary Questions] to follow”, so with luck the UK press may soon have more opportunities to cover this story freely.

From The Independent

Caroline Lucas used her maiden speech to raise concerns that the British media are unable to fully report legal proceedings involving the commodities trading company Trafigura.

The Green MP pledged to use her new position in Parliament to raise the issue after legal claims were launched in the Netherlands against the company, which chartered the ship whose toxic sludge was illegally dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006.

The Dutch-based oil trader caused outrage last year when a High Court injunction issued on its behalf had the effect of blocking coverage of parliamentary proceedings involving its activities. The “super-injunction”, obtained by the law firm Carter Ruck, was amended after it was accused of infringing the supremacy of Parliament by preventing the reporting of a question tabled by an MP. Politicians from all sides criticised the legal manoeuvre.

The law firm agreed to change the injunction and insisted there was no question that Trafigura had sought to gag the media from reporting parliamentary proceedings.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons, Ms Lucas said she was still concerned that proceedings in foreign courts were not being reported in Britain. She said: “Last year honourable members from all sides of the House helped to shine a light on the actions of the international commodities trading group Trafigura, and the shipping of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast.

“There was particular concern that the media in this country were being prevented from reporting the issues fully and fairly. This remains the case, for new legal actions concerning Trafigura have been launched in the Dutch courts and are being reported widely in other countries, but not here. And these are the kind of issues I would like to pursue.”

In unrelated proceedings, a court in Amsterdam is due to start hearing the trial next week of Trafigura for the alleged infringement of Dutch waste export laws relating to the Probo Koala, the chartered tanker whose waste was dumped at sites around the Ivorian city, Abidjan.

The company is accused along with the captain of the vessel, the municipal authorities in Amsterdam and a waste treatment company of breaking rules when the ship attempted to offload the waste in the Dutch city before it then departed for West Africa. The trial is expected to last five weeks.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 7:51 am

Trafigura goes on trial next week in Amsterdam – will the UK media dare to report it?

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The report they tried to ban…

The Anglo-Dutch oil company Trafigura goes on trial in the Netherlands on June 1st, over its role in the allegedly illegal exporting of toxic waste to the Ivory Coast. According to the Ivory Coast authorities, the dumping of this waste led to 15 deaths, with other reports putting the death toll at 17.

Trafigura is notorious for its willingness to use UK libel law – which is famously one-sided and prohibitively expensive for most defendants – to suppress critical coverage. As a result, while the Dutch, Norwegian and American media have reported the case freely, few UK newspapers will even cover it, let alone mention the alleged death toll (which Trafigura continues to dispute).

When Trafigura and their London-based law firm, MacFarlanes, were formally accused in the Dutch courts of bribing witnesses (a charge they deny), there was silence about it in the UK media.  According to MacFarlanes themselves, such behaviour “would have been illegal and it would certainly have constituted serious professional misconduct”. Under normal circumstances, the laying of such charges against a UK law firm would have been a major news story. The fact that it has gone unreported in Britain shows how much damage our libel laws have done to freedom of speech and public interest journalism.

When the trial itself begins on June 1st, it will be interesting to see if any UK media dare to cover it. This will be a key test of how much power Trafigura now wields over the British press – and how much courage our journalists and editors have in resisting this company’s sustained attack on press freedom.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 25, 2010 at 8:29 am

Blogger Dave Osler wins epic 3-year battle against bogus libel claim

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Just back from the Royal Courts of Justice. Here’s Dave’s response after his big win for bloggers. Here’s the background.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

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Lenny Bruce on TV debates

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From “Mistakes were made but not by me”, quoting Lenny Bruce on the 1960 TV Presidential debates:

I would be with a bunch of Kennedy fans watching the debate and their comment would be, “He’s really slaughtering Nixon.” Then we would all go to another apartment, and the Nixon fans would say, “How do you like the shellacking he gave Kennedy?” And then I realized that each group loved their candidate so that a guy would have to be this blatant – he would have to look into the camera and say: “I am a thief, a crook, do you hear me, I am the worst choice you could ever make for the Presidency!” And even then his following would say, “Now there’s an honest man for you. It takes a big guy to admit that. There’s the kind of guy we need for President.”

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh

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The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.

If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.

Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2010 at 9:32 am

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Skeptical voter off to a flying start…

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Now that the election has been called, Skeptical Voter really seems to be coming into its own, helped along by this excellent piece on Telegraph blogs by Tom Chivers:

Are you, like me, a nerd? Do you care about nerdy things like science and rationality? Are you wondering, ahead of the 2010 general election, which parties and candidates also care about basing policy on evidence, rather than media scaremongering, opinionated ignorance and/or kneejerk populism? If the answer is yes to all of the above, I would like to point you towards Skeptical-Voter.org.

Because it’s true what they say – this is going to be Britain’s first digital election. But not, you suspect, in the way that the parties might think, or hope. For every vote swayed by WebCameron or the Labour Party’s official Facebook page, there will be thousands who change their mind because of the faster spread of information that the internet allows.

Skeptical Voter is a tool, similar in broad intent if not design to our own Vote Match, that allows voters to find out which parties and candidates match their views on rationalist topics. Worry that your MP wants creationism taught alongside evolutionary theory in schools, or to give Sharia legal status in the UK? Maybe you think homeopathy (I know I go on about it) should be subject to the same standards of scientific rigour as other NHS treatments, and want to know which candidate agrees with you. As the Bad Science blogger and Guardian writer Ben Goldacre put it in a typically acid Tweet, “Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”

Full article here

Written by Richard Wilson

April 10, 2010 at 6:52 am

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Three weeks before a General Election, Parliament refuses to disclose details of which MPs are being probed by standards watchdog

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Less than a month before a General Election, you are not entitled to know whether the MP seeking your vote on May 6th is currently under investigation for corruption.

On March 25th I made a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Parliamentary standards watchdog, asking:

a) How many MPs are currently under investigation for suspected breaches of the rules (this could be anything from failing to disclose a second job to taking cash from lobbyists)

b) The names of any MPs currently under investigation.

It seemed to me that in the run-up to the General Election, it was important that the public should be aware which of the MPs currently seeking their votes are at the same time being investigated for dodgy dealings.

Given the well-publicised complicity of the House of Commons authorities in the abuse of Parliamentary expenses by MPs – and their role in the subsequent cover-up – along with the cagey and defensive attitude of the person I spoke to when I phoned the Parliamentary Standards Office a few weeks ago, I was expecting a fair bit of obstruction and evasion. They haven’t let me down.

Today I got an email from Bob Castle, who carries the impressive job title of “Head of Information Rights and Security” at the House of Commons.

According to Mr Castle,

The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).

Conveniently for those MPs under investigation (and for all we know this could be all 646 of them), “early summer” in this context almost certainly means after the General Election on May 6th.  Last year’s annual report on MP abuses was published on 29th June 2009, the previous one on 17th July 2008, and the one before that on 25th October 2007.

Bob Castle goes on to say that:

While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received.

This means, as far as I can tell, that in the opinion of the Commons bureaucrats, a 4o-page report published just once a year tells us, the public, all we deserve to know about the investigations being carried out by the body whose job it is to stamp our corruption by our elected representatives.

It would surely not cost the Parliamentary authorities very much simply to disclose the number of MPs currently under investigation. As a commenter on this article helpfully points out, releasing that information would almost certainly have taken less time than typing out their lengthy excuse for not doing so.

We are also not allowed to know the names of any of the MPs under investigation, as this would apparently infringe the “priveleges of Parliament”.

What this is really about is an attitude. Despite being paid out of the taxes we earn, Bob Castle certainly does not seem to be behaving like someone who believes he is actually accountable to the British public. More than any of the details in this particular case, it’s that attitude that seems most worrying, because it seems to show that the same mindset that allowed the expenses to scandal to happen is very much alive and well in Westminster.

While many of our most corrupt and tainted MPs are stepping down at the next election, and while many others will be fired on May 6th when the voters have their say, Bob Castle and his unelected colleagues will all still be there on May 7th, doing, presumably, what they’ve always done.

As it turns out, Castle played a starring role in the expenses cover-up:

…the preliminary decision in favour of detailed [expenses] disclosure was made by [information commissioner] Mr Thomas.

Signed by Graham Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and dated October 2, 2006, it stated:

“The Commissioner requires that the House of Commons shall provide the complainant with the requested information with the following redactions made. “

The redactions included identification of any third parties e.g. traders; personal and third party addresses; and details of bank accounts and mortgages.

A leaked email from Bob Castle, a data protection and FOI officer at the Commons, sent to Nicole Duncan at the commissioner’s office, protested that the wording of the decision was “inaccurate and unfair”.

Further leaked emails show Ms Duncan continually tried to extract information about the expenses claims of the named MPs.

However, in November 2006, Ms Duncan emailed Mr Castle to “confirm that for the purposes of the [final] Decision Notice in this case we will not be reproducing the exact details of what information the House holds in relation to each of the MPs.”

A reply from Mr Castle at the Commons stated that “the House considered that it would be a breach of the fairness provisions of the first data protection principle to provide any personal data relating to an individual MP’s claims including information as to whether part of their allowances claim is in respect of mortgage or rental payments”.

He added that “until the case is finally determined” the Commons believed it was “released from its obligations” under key sections of the FOI Act.

I’ve appealed this latest FOI refusal, but conveniently, again, for the MPs under investigation, given the timescales involved for FOI appeals, it’s inconceivable that any kind of ruling would be made this side of the General Election.

My personal view is that clearing out the corrupt MPs will not be enough (although it is a very good start). We need a wholesale clear-out of the officials who, for so long, have been doing such a lamentable job of protecting the integrity of our Parliamentary system.

The exact questions I asked were:

I would like to know:

1) The number of MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

2) The names of any MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

And here are the exemptions cited in full by Bob Castle:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is inquiring into these matters under the procedures set out in Standing Order No 150. The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication). While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received. Therefore, the balance of the public interest rests with maintaining the exemption while this information is being prepared and finalised for routine publication.

The procedure approved by the Committee under SO No 150 does not currently provide for the disclosure of the remaining information requested (a list of the names of MPs under inquiry).  As this procedure has been approved by the Committee in accordance with the Standing Order, the exemption under s34 is necessary to avoid infringing the privileges of Parliament, which include the rights of each Committee to interpret its own orders of reference. I must therefore refuse your request.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 9, 2010 at 11:17 am

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Simon Singh wins make-or-break libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association

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1. From Dr Evan Harris MP (via Twitter), outside the Royal Courts of Justice:

“The judgment is simon…. Wins!”

2. Further updates from blogger and libel reform champion JackofKent.

3. Further background on the case here.

4. Via Index on Censorship – photo of Simon Singh speaking immediately after the ruling.

5. Via James o’ Malley. Audio of Simon Singh and his lawyer speaking about the case immediately after the ruling – link here.

6. “Love and Garbage” reports that the full ruling should be available on this page later today.

7. The British Chiropractic Association have reportedly issued a statement responding to the ruling…

8. A brief report on the ruling from the BBC.

9. A report on the ruling from the Independent.

10. Lay Science publishes statement from the BCA

11. BCA statement (PDF) now on their website (pdf).

12. Full court ruling now on Index on Censorship website.

13. Live audio from the Simon Singh press conference from James O” Malley.

More to follow…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2010 at 8:40 am

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A response from Tony Baldry MP

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I’m grateful to Tony Baldry MP for providing the following response to a number of questions I put to him last week:

Dear Mr. Wilson,

Thank you for your email.

I think it may be helpful if I make a number of points.

Firstly, I have sought to respond promptly to any letters or emails that are sent to me on this matter.   However, my experience is that organisations such as the Nigerian Liberty Forum and Rally for Nigeria either claim that they have never received my responses, or simply ignore the contents.

Part of my frustration with the Independent on Sunday was that the journalist concerned made no proper effort to get in touch with me, or to put to me the matters which were going to become allegations in his article.  This hardly strikes me as being responsible journalism.

I think it is also fair to observe that notwithstanding the Independent on Sunday’s apology and correction, again, without making any attempt whatsoever to get in touch with me, you simply sought to repeat  the IOS’s earlier allegations which were untrue and defamatory.

I have no quarrel with political blogs.  I believe they serve a genuinely useful purpose in making our politics more vibrant, but I see no justification for bloggers, particularly those who are journalists like yourself, simply repeating allegations which the newspaper concerned has acknowledged were incorrect.

Incidentally, it was not my intention that your blog should be removed;  simply that the defamatory material should be removed.

As I had not had the opportunity prior to publication of discussing the issues with the journalists concerned, my objective was simply to ensure that there was a correction printed as soon as possible based on the facts.

I have not read your further blog.  I think that the Olswang letter, which is now available on the internet, together with the correction from the Independent on Sunday, reflect a fair and accurate statement of the facts.

As I have repeatedly made clear, I have taken no action in this matter as a Member of Parliament.  My locus has been as a barrister, properly instructed.

Attention has focused on the letter that I wrote to the Foreign Secretary.  Various allegations have been made against me, all of which are untrue; it has been said that the letter sought to persuade the Government to discontinue the prosecutions at present being undertaken at Southwark Crown Court – untrue.

It has been suggested that the letter sought to persuade the Government/prosecuting authorities to discontinue the investigation into James Ibori  –  untrue.

It has been suggested that I advised that any investigation into Mr. Ibori should be discontinued as being detrimental to British interests – again, untrue.

I understand that an application has been made under the Freedom of Information Act to the Foreign Office for disclosure of the letter  and this, I understand, has been refused by the Foreign Office on the grounds that its release could be detrimental  to relations between the UK and another Government and also that its release could be detrimental to the administration of justice, and as a member of the Bar, I  think I would be quite rightly open to criticism if, given those conclusions by the Foreign Office, doubtless in consultation with the Office of the Attorney-General, I was to publish the letter myself.  That matter, as I understand it, is now before the Information Commissioner for him to decide.

However, I think that you and organisations such as the NLF, might like to reflect on the motivation and tactics of whoever “leaked” the existence of this letter to the NLF.

If they had thought that I had done something untoward, as a Member of Parliament , they could presumably have “leaked” the whole letter, or acted in such way as that the letter could have been made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who regulates the conduct of Members of Parliament.  Indeed, the day after the IOS’s article was published, I immediately sent the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a copy of  the letter myself.

So those who “leaked” the existence of the letter, chose to leak what were clearly selective, inaccurate, and untrue assertions as to its contents.

So, for example, the NLF at the outset were clearly convinced that the purpose of my letter had somehow been to interfere in the existing trial of defendants at Southwark.  But as I have explained to organisations such as the NLF, and Rally for Nigeria, way back in February, so far as the Southwark proceedings were concerned, my letter stated in terms “I do not represent any of these defendants, and am in no way involved with their defence, and of course the conduct of that case is a matter for the Crown Court”.

Moreover, I do somewhat have the impression that whatever the facts in this case, and however often I respond to queries,  there is a determination to try and find something untoward.  So, for example, I understand that you have made a request to the Foreign Office, under the FOI, for a copy of the envelope in which the letter was sent.  I hope they still have it, as it will show that it is a perfectly normal white envelope !

I repeat.  At no time has my involvement in this matter been as a Member of Parliament, but as a barrister.

As a Member of Parliament, I am under the rules of the House, obliged to make a number of declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests with regard to any outside interests.  This I have fully done.

Finally, as a general point, it has always been a valued tradition of the English Bar, that the English Bar will properly represent and give the best possible advice to anyone involved with the English criminal system, irrespective of the allegations being made against those individuals.  As far as I am aware, we have never had a situation in England where journalists and the media have sought to attack Members of the Bar because of the clients they represent.

I appreciate that I have not answered all of your questions and insofar as I haven’t answered all your questions, I have not done so because they do not relate to my conduct as a Member of Parliament and I think that it would be unprofessional of me to say anything further on this matter as a member of the Bar whilst criminal proceedings are still ongoing at Southwark Crown Court – about which, and for the avoidance of any doubt, I repeat, I have at no time made any representations and whilst criminal investigations are still outstanding against James Ibori.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Baldry

The questions I asked were:

1.  It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?

2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?

3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?

4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?

5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?

6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?

Written by Richard Wilson

March 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

Trafigura vindicated? 115-page “Reply” which the company says rebuts the BBC’s case

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Trafigura’s Reply to the BBC’s libel Defence(PDF)

A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.

Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.

Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.

Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.

Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:

1. Go to the High Court in person

2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)

3. Wait several days

4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready

5. Visit the High Court again in person

6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee

7. Pick up the paper copy of the document

8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF

9. Pay another fee

10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.

This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…

We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:

1. Visit the Parliament website

2. Type in a relevant search term

2. Download the information (for free).

For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.

If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Fair comment in the public interest

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Some readers will know that the post I wrote earlier this week about Tony Baldry MP and James Ibori has been taken off this site. More on that in due course.

In the meantime, I would recommend that everyone take a look at this blog post from Will Jordan, which I believe is both fair comment, and self-evidently in the public interest.

It seems to me that the core issue here is, as Craig Murray also points out, the extent to which it is appropriate, in a modern democracy, for MPs to hold down second (and third, and fourth and fifth) jobs without creating serious conflicts of interest which threaten to compromise their independence as MPs.

Tony Baldry has been at pains to stress the extent to which his work as a barrister is distinct from his activities as an MP. And yet the website of his own legal chambers, One Essex Court (accessed and archived 6/3/10), seems to blur this distinction, stating that:

Recent Heads of Chambers include Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, a leading Conservative MP for over twenty years, and Parliamentary connections are maintained under One Essex Court’s current head Tony Baldry MP.

The question of whether or not individual MPs are currently “acting within the rules” is, to my mind, secondary to this much larger question of whether the rules, in their current form, are really doing an effective job of maintaining the robust independence we need from our Parliamentarians in order to sustain a healthy democracy.

As was often the case during the expenses scandal, we might happily accept at face value all of the public statements that Tony Baldry MP has made, yet still have grave concerns that the Parliamentary rules could permit the arrangement he describes.

And as with the expenses scandal, it is vital that members of the public are able to voice these concerns openly, without facing threats or intimidation.

As Chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, Tony Baldry must surely be aware of the growing international concern around the use of UK libel law by super-rich claimants to deter critical reporting of serious public interest questions.

The debate around MPs’ second jobs – in which the controversy surrounding Tony Baldry is just one example – is clearly a public interest matter. Democracy depends on our freedom to scrutinise the conduct of our MPs, and question the rules they make for themselves.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 5, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Another surrealist masterpiece from Christopher Booker

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Update – False and misleading claims about asbestos are especially galling for those actually living with mesothelioma, a cancer whose only known cause is asbestos exposure. A Mesothelioma action group have now set up a Facebook campaign criticising the Daily Mail over its misleading coverage on this issue.

Compare and contrast…

1. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another scare campaign.

As so often before championed by the BBC, it warned us again of the deadly dangers posed by asbestos – this time in Britain’s schools.

It is true that most older school buildings contain asbestos products of one kind or another, such as asbestos cement roof slates or ceiling tiles.

But almost all of these products contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre…

…when it is encapsulated in cement, as it most often is, it is virtually impossible for those fibres to escape and be breathed into the lungs at all..

==> From the UK government’s Health and Safety Laboratory, 2007

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen…

The claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer.

2. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

The dangers from such products are so vanishingly small – as many scientific studies have shown – that, in the cautious words of a report by the HSE itself, they are ‘insignificant’. The risks of their causing lung cancer are ‘arguably zero’.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Book talk: Skeptics in the Pub, Winchester, Thursday 25th February

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I’ll be speaking at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub this coming Thursday, convened by the  excellent Crispian Jago. Here’s the blurb:

The Roebuck Inn, 57 Stockbridge Road, Winchester, SO22 6RP
7:30pm Thursday 25th February 2010

Sceptics are people who are prepared to ask difficult questions, and point out uncomfortable truths. In societies where freedom of speech is denied, such habits can be seen as subversive, and even dangerous. One of the most famous sceptics in history, the philosopher Socrates, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young” by encouraging Athenians to question accepted wisdom. Even in democratic states, sceptical thinkers can face difficulties. Journalists who expose quackery and corruption may find themselves on the receiving end of crippling libel suits, while scientific advisers are sacked for questioning government policy.

Societies that exclude scepticism become incapable of acknowledging and correcting their mistakes. At the extreme, the consequences can be fatal. In Soviet Russia and Maoist China, millions starved through the imposition of pseudo-scientific agricultural policies that few could question freely. In the modern era, the application of archaic media laws can allow corporate negligence and malpractice to go undiscovered.

Yet while today’s sceptics still face many challenges, modern technology also creates new opportunities for defending and extending the freedoms on which scepticism relies. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, Richard Wilson highlights the relationship between scepticism and freedom of speech, and talks about the tools that modern-day sceptics can use to help preserve it.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Relativist poster-boy Paul Feyerabend finally gets his way

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From Feyerabend’s Against Method, 1975:

A mature citizen is a person who has learned how to make up his mind and who has then decided in favour of what he thinks suits him best… he will study science as a historical phenomenon and not as the one and only sensible way of approaching a problem. He will study it together with other fairy-tales such as the myths of ‘primitive’ societies so that he has the information needed for arriving at a free decision.

An essential part of a general education of this kind is acquaintance with the most outstanding propagandists in all fields, so that the pupil can build up his resistance against all propaganda, including the propaganda called ‘argument’… His decision in favour of science – assuming he chooses science – will then be much more ‘rational’ than any decision in favour of science is today…

Scientists will of course participate in governmental decisions… But they will not be given overriding authority. It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology…

From The Guardian, 12th February 2010:

Carbon dioxide is “essentially harmless” to human beings and good for plants. So now will you stop worrying about global warming?

Utah’s House of Representatives apparently has at least. Officially the most Republican state in America, its political masters have adopted a resolution condemning “climate alarmists”, and disputing any scientific basis for global warming.

The measure, which passed by 56-17, has no legal force, though it was predictably claimed by climate change sceptics as a great victory in the wake of the controversy caused by a mistake over Himalayan glaciers in the UN’s landmark report on global warming.

But it does offer a view of state politicians’ concerns in Utah which is a major oil and coal producing state.

The original version of the bill dismissed climate science as a “well organised and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate “tricks” related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome”. It accused those seeking action on climate change of riding a “gravy train” and their efforts would “ultimately lock billions of human beings into long-term poverty”.

In the heat of the debate, the representative Mike Noel said environmentalists were part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life and control world population through forced sterilisation and abortion.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm