Thursday, 23 August 2012

Too much doubt…again

It has been almost a year since the State of Georgia put Troy Davis to death against the back drop of three words that have scarred the conscience of the USA: Too Much Doubt.

Troy Davis ProtestToo much doubt because Troy’s conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. Too much doubt because of police brutality against witnesses.  Too much doubt over whether Troy was guilty to justify keeping him in jail without a re-trial…let alone taking his life.

But the authorities went ahead and amidst the protests, desperate last minute appeals and thousands of individuals taking to the streets around the world, they strapped him to a table and killed him.

And now, in a matter of months, the whole grotesque spectacle may be played out once again; this time in the state of Missouri. The man facing the long walk to the execution chamber is Reggie Clemons, accused of being an accomplice in the murder of two young women, who were pushed off a disused bridge in 1991. Yet like Troy Davis, enormous questions remain over whether he actually has blood on his hands at all.

For one thing, there is not a shred of physical evidence linking Reggie to the crime. Then there is the horrendous litany of discrepancies on which Reggie’s conviction was based. Proven incitement of the jury, a strong possibility of police brutality, improper dismissal of black jurors and contradictory witness statements, to name just a few aspects of this case, paint a picture of at best a vehemently unsound verdict and at worst a lynching contrived amongst the racial tensions of 1990s Missouri. That is certainly the view of the juror who said that had she known the what she knew now, she would not have voted for the death penalty.

Yet in spite of the well documented failings of the legal system, Reggie has spent almost two decades on death row, coming within days of execution before being granted a temporary reprieve. Now his fate is about to be sealed: on 17 September a Special Master appointed by the Supreme Court of Missouri will spend one week reviewing the case for a final time. The Special Master can free Reggie, commute his sentence to life in prison or uphold the death sentence.

If it is the latter there will be no more chances: a date will be set, an execution chamber will be prepared and a man will be killed. A man over’s whose guilt there is simply too much doubt….again.

Reggie Clemons too much doubt

Sunday, 19 August 2012

China’s protest politics

Political clashes over the uninhabited Senkaku / Diaoyu islands (the name differing whether you sympathise respectively with the Japanese or Chinese territorial claim) are nothing new. This weeks tit-for-tat flag stunts by activists from both sides are just the latest incidents in the ever-complex web of island sovereignty disputes between China, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.Japan flag Senkaku Diaoyu

Historians, geographers and international lawyers can argue the various cases ad infinitum, whilst politicians around the world cautiously watch regional tensions rise. However, the response to the latest Senkaku / Diaoyu  spat also casts an interesting light on domestic Chinese politics, which is equally as important as the foreign-relations dimension.

Following the detention and deportation of Chinese activists who attempted the raise their flag on the islands and the subsequent successful flag-raising by Japanese nationalists, significant anti-Japan protests began to sweep through Eastern Chinese cities. Businesses and goods from Sushi bars to Japanese made police cars were destroyed, whilst demonstrators waved banners and yelled slogans, in some cases calling for a military occupation of the islands.

China anti Japan protestUnlike the vast majority of protests in China these were apparently held with police permission and, despite some officers being pelted with missiles, nobody was arrested. In a further illustration of the contrast with other demonstrations, those attending were able to share their videos and comments online with relatively little censorship.

Such exceptional disregard of the general repression meted out by security forces both on the street and on the web will come as little surprise to seasoned China-watchers. The CCP has long exploited deep-seated anti-Japanese sentiment to periodically bolster its own support whilst allowing citizens a degree of space to publicly vent anger. Fervent nationalism, a ‘common foe’ and limited freedom to protest helps to keep Chinese citizens from turning their anger against the government over issues such as the slowing economy and high profile political scandal currently facing the country.

In the run-up to the leadership-handover later this year, a unified and patriotic citizenship focussing on the supposed “territorial aggression” of their neighbours rather than the shortcomings of their own politicians, could serve the Chinese elite rather well. 

However this is a dangerous game which may yet cause the government some serious problems. Allowing people onto the streets in this manner may act as a political ‘safety-valve’ to let off steam, but it may equally give a taste for dissent. Similarly the skills that people can gain form even the most fleeting of protest movements are easily transferable to other situations.

Ultimately, whilst the CCP has previously been able to roll out anti-Japanese demonstrations then cut them off at an politically-suitable time, it may not always be so easy to put the protest-genie back in the bottle. Thousands of people marching against Japanese territorial claims may encourage China’s leaders….a similar march over land rights, poverty or civil liberties would have a very different effect altogether.

China anti Japan island protest

Thursday, 16 August 2012

South Africa’s nightmare flashback

South Africa mine massacreThese scenes were not meant to blight South Africa ever again: police officers standing, guns raised, with more than a score of dead civilians lying on the ground in front of them.

It was a tragic and shocking peak in a week of violence….and its not over yet.

The immediate trigger was an industrial dispute at a platinum mine about forty miles from Johannesburg, pitting not only workers against bosses but complicated by sour relations between two rival unions. Clashes quickly escalated last weekend, with two security guards and some of the striking miners losing their lives. A heavy police deployment followed, but failed to prevent the gradual slide into chaos; as guns and machetes were drawn, two officers were killed and around three miners shot dead.

That set the scene for Thursdays massacre. It is unclear exactly who fired first, a fact that is likely to take some time to establish, if ever. All that is known for sure is that as anger boiled over between police and miners, shots were exchanged until a volley from the police side, fired directly into the protesting crowd, left somewhere between twelve and eighteen dead.

Tonight as outrage spreads across the country and the world, a tense standoff continues.

No one can be in any doubt that the police were acting under extreme circumstances; this was no peaceful protest and reports from the ground suggest that pistols, grenades and even a gun seized from one of the murdered officers were fired towards police lines. However, unapologetic statements from  the office of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa that officers ‘did their best’ against ‘barbaric hard-core criminals’ simply appear as an attempt to justify a slaughter that was frankly unacceptable for any supposedly democratic police force to carry out.

The officers involved should be suspended immediately pending a full investigation, with criminal charges swiftly brought where necessary. At the same time, the unions should urgently disarm striking miners on the ground and hand over those involved in earlier killings. Unions played a significant role in winning democratic rights for South Africans, but theSouth Africa platinum mine violence freedom to strike and protest is now being undermined by images of machete wielding thugs murdering their own countrymen.

Beyond this there is an critical need for the government of Jacob Zuma to address some of the underlying nationwide issues that sit behind both the strike and the response. Amnesty International’s 2012 Report underscored the massive inequality and rampant corruption that plagues South Africa, as well as the consistent excesses of force by the law enforcers throughout the country. Unless these are tackled, the militant unions, violent protests and police atrocities that are tonight generating comparisons with the apartheid era, are likely to continue long into the future.

Lonmin Marikana violence

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

8888–the struggle goes on

8888 Uprising Burma8 August 1988 – the key date in the nationwide democratic uprising that catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence before being brutally crushed by Burma’s military regime, is commemorated with protests around the world every year.

Inside Burma itself however, such demonstrations have long been muted. Publicly remembering the thousands who gave their lives and liberty in an attempt to free their country was until recently, enough to land you in jail.

This week things could not be more different; with the young pseudo-civilian government of President Thein Sein both allowing and financing rallies held by veterans of the uprising and other democrats. The events, which drew thousands of supporters, have generated a sense of optimism that the government may finally be moving towards ‘national reconciliation’ over the massacres.

In some cases commentators have pointed to reports that Thein Sein, as a young army officer during the uprising, released captured protestors rather than arresting them. They hope that he may show similar compassion in his Presidential capacity over the coming months and years.

However all is not well in Burma, and the government’s accommodation of a few commemoration rallies should not be allowed to disguise the fact that twenty-four years on, the human rights and freedoms that people demonstrated and died for are far from being realised.

Perhaps the most obvious symbols of just how incomplete change has been, are the hundreds of political prisons who remain behind bars, many of them facing torture and gross mistreatment. Tellingly the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated in July: “As no significant shift in the Government's policy towards political prisoners is in sight, the past month is once again marked by a contrast between an international rush to commend the limited political reforms underway …and the reality of continued human rights violations.”

Rohingya Refugees in BangladeshMeanwhile tens of thousands of the long-persecuted minority Rohingya population are still suffering in the fall-out of brutal communal violence, which evidence from Human Rights Watch indicates was fuelled by the government itself. Those who evaded the murderous mobs and soldiers by escaping across the border into Bangladesh are now facing a dire humanitarian situation as the Bangladeshi government, in a shocking and open violation of international law, obstructs aid agencies from delivering essential medical and food supplies.

In amidst such circumstances it is clear that whilst 8888 can now be commemorated, the goals set by those on the streets all those years ago are still a long way off. Some change has occurred and more may be imminent but the struggle must – and will – go on. 

Never Forget 8888

Monday, 6 August 2012

Pussy Riot in court- Russia on trial

As the trial of three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot enters its second week, the humiliation and degradation continues unabated.

Pussy riot trialOn a daily basis the young women are woken up after around three hours of sleep in their cells, then spend the following three in a cramped prison van which takes them to court.  There they are stripped naked and searched, then re-dressed and locked in a plastic cage as brazenly corrupt proceedings unfold. Complaints that Maria Alyokhina,Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich are being deprived of food have fallen on deaf ears, whilst the judge’s politically charged behaviour has been branded ‘surreal’ by external observers.

The outrageous events, which effectively amount to a grim combination of a show trial and a public torture session, are all the worse considering that the women’s only “crime” was to enter Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in their trademark coloured dresses and balaclavas, then perform a song criticising Vladimir Putin and his clerical lackey Patriarch Kirill.

The actions hardly amount to the charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" levelled at Pussy Riot. Their performance did not attack Orthodox Christians nor their beliefs, but rather a dictatorial President and a Patriarch who has consistently exploited his position to garner support for the Putin regime.Pussy riot Christ the Saviour Cathedral

The sight of a political performance in their Church may of course have been uncomfortable to some believers (though many are openly supportive of Pussy Riot); however the band has clearly apologised for any offence caused. Furthermore, the seven year sentence that the women now face is grossly disproportionate to any judicial penalty that should be given solely for insulting a particular faith group.

The painfully obvious truth is that this trial is nothing to do with religion and everything to do with Putin’s cronies seeking to bully, harass and silence some of his most popular critics. The consistently brutal response to an opposition movement which refuses to be silenced, has highlighted Putin’s utterly autocratic nature, something that was never in doubt but is today perhaps more visible than ever.

The young women, undergoing physical and mental torture, facing the majority of a decade in prison for singing a song, are just the latest symbol of Russia’s ongoing slide into deeper authoritarianism. Putin may have won an election, but any credibility that comes from doing so rapidly dissolves upon the arrest of those who criticise the result. He has put his government and his country on trial – and been found guilty.

Pussy riot on trial

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Book review: Burma–a nation at the crossroads

Burma a nation at the crossroadsAfter more the five decades of dictatorship Burma has reached an historic juncture, with a gradual democratisation and liberalisation process giving a glimmer of hope where none previously existed.

Yet things are not so simple as the headlines often suggest: political uncertainty, ethnic tensions and external actors mean that the chances of genuine and lasting progress fluctuate by the day.

Given these constant changes there is a greater need than ever for a thorough and balanced analysis of the underlying issues. Enter Benedict Rogers, one of the UK’s most prominent Burma activists, with his third book: Burma – a nation at the crossroads. In this fundamentally important work Rogers draws upon his years of experience to examine how Burma got to this point, the prospects for further progress and the obstacles that lie in the way.

As any serious commentator must, Rogers extends his focus beyond Aung San San Suu Kyi, the mainstream opposition and the military-dominated government. Delving into Burma’s ethnic minority regions he discusses issues as diverse as the ingrained social prejudices against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya population, the widespread military rape in Kachin State and the crippling poverty blighting the Chin region.

And whilst clear in his support for the democracy movement, he successfully avoids the simplistic ‘good vs evil’ narrative that so often shapes reporting on Burmese politics. A Nation at the Crossroads pulls no punches in describing the barbarity and corruption of the country’s leaders, but refrains from blaming them for all of Burma’s problems, highlighting the failings amongst democrats and others in society, particularly on minority issues.

Perhaps most crucially of all Rogers clearly highlights how recent changes have not occurred in isolation, but are the direct and indirect results of various events and decisions over previous years. It is only by understanding these that activists and others following the situation in Burma can effectively make sense of what is now unfolding.

Through his previous works: A Land Without Evil (focussing on the situation in Karen State) and Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (a biography of former dictator Than Shwe) Rogers has already made a significant contribution to academic commentary on Burma. A Nation at the Crossroads, may however be his most timely and essential piece yet.