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Sceptic of the week – John Ward

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In 1988, 28-year-old Julie Ward was found dead in a game reserve in Kenya. The Kenyan authorities claimed that she had been attacked by wild animals, committed suicide or been struck by lightning. The UK Foreign Office – initially at least – supported this view, and tried to persuade Julie Ward’s family that there was nothing more to know.

For the last 20 years, Julie’s father John Ward has been campaigning for her death to be recognised as a murder, and for those responsible to be brought to justice. In the process he has exposed the efforts of the Kenyan authorities in covering up the truth – and, perhaps most shocking of all, the complicity of the UK government in these efforts, which he has described as “treachery”.

More details of this cover-up were released this week under the Freedom of Information Act – having been withheld by the UK government since 2004 on the transparently bogus pretext of “national security”. We now know that four years ago, an independent UK police inquiry concluded that the Foreign Office had been guilty of “inconsistency and contradictions, falsehoods and downright lies” and had deliberately obstructed John Ward’s attempts to reveal the truth about his daughter’s death.

The Foreign Office admits mistakes, but denies wrongdoing and claims that it has learned its lesson. The fact that the results of the internal police inquiry were withheld for four years on such obviously spurious grounds suggests that whatever lesson they have learned, it isn’t about openness and transparency…

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Written by Richard Wilson

September 9, 2008 at 6:16 am

“Every Brilliant Thing”

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My friend Paul just sent me a link to an amusing new collaborative project which aims to come up with a comprehensive roster of “every brilliant thing”. The resulting list will then be used to help create an innovative, yet-to-be-revealed, installation art exhibit. Examples range from “People falling over (but not hurting themselves)” to “Aromatic duck pancakes with hoi sin sauce” and “The word ‘haberdashery'”. Anyone can contribute, so I added a couple of my own, including “Absurd place-names” and “The Flemish word ‘kwiestenbiebel'”. More details here.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 21, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Other stuff

Burundi politican jailed for calling the President an “empty bottle” (and inciting armed rebellion)

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Here is an odd story. Back in 2006, when I wrote this article for Comment is Free, Burundi seemed to be sliding towards dictatorship, and the prevailing view was that Hussein Radjabu, then Secretary General of Burundi's ruling party CNDD-FDD, was at least partly to blame. 

Radjabu had made a number of open threats against the independent media – describing journalists who criticised the government as “talking skulls” on one occasion – and was widely believed to have been behind the arrest and torture of several prominent opposition leaders on the bogus pretext (no evidence was ever produced – the giveaway sign of a conspiracy theory) that they were jointly plotting a coup. He was also suspected of orchestrating a number of unexplained killings, together with a botched attempt on the life of the award-winning journalist Alexis Sinduhije, and of using kickbacks from a number of corrupt business deals to fund his own private militia.

But in early 2007, ruling party members voted to oust Radjabu from his position, and he was then arrested. The instability continued, however, and when I met some CNDD-FDD members who visited London last summer, it was clear that Radjabu's influence was still casting a long shadow. One of those I spoke to, Senator Mohammed Rukara, told me that unknown assailants had fired shots at him earlier in the year, and many believed that Radjabu's associates were behind the attack.

The BBC's latest report suggests that Radjabu's fall may alienate Burundi's Muslims. As ever, it's very hard to know how you could evaluate such a claim or find evidence for it. I'm generally sceptical of the presumption that a community as a whole will inevitably feel victimised simply because someone who happens to belong to that community has been found guilty of a crime and prosecuted. While Radjabu and his allies may try to paint this case as an attack on the entire Muslim community, this doesn’t automatically mean that every Burundian Muslim will share this view.

What the reports on this case don’t seem to mention, regrettably, is that some of the fiercest and most high-profile opponents of Radjabu have also been Muslim – not least Senator Rukara, who is a leading member of Burundi's Islamic community. 

But the story does seem to highlight the irony of Burundi's topsy-turvy judicial system. The charge for which Radjabu was jailed was "plotting an armed rebellion", and – most heinously of all – calling the President an "empty bottle". The fact that he is also suspected of orchestrating torture, assassination, and mass-killings seems to have played no part in his prosecution and conviction. And there is no sign yet of any justice for the victims of Buta, Teza, Muyinga, Gatumba, Itaba or the Titanic Express.

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 5, 2008 at 4:00 pm