Belarus

Posted: June 17, 2018 in Death penalty, Belarus
Tags: , ,

Pic: Amnesty

Death penalty suspended in Belarus

Belarus is the last country in Europe that maintains the death penalty.  Good news is rare so when it happens it is to be welcomed.   News broke yesterday that the Supreme Court of Belarus, in an unprecedented move, has decided to suspend and review the death sentences of Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoy while their appeals are under consideration. Marie Struthers, Director of Amnesty’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, said:

This is a hugely significant and unprecedented decision for the only country in the region that has continued to execute people all these years.  We are not aware of other cases where the Supreme Court of Belarus has suspended an execution.  We continue to monitor the case closely, but it gives us hope that after years of discussion on the death penalty Belarus is ready to ‘walk the talk’ and has urged the authorities to establish an immediate moratorium on executions and to commute all death sentences as a first step towards abolition

Amnesty’s report on Belarus

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Film reveals terrible state of Chinese justice system

A small audience at the Arts Centre watched a documentary film hosted by the Salisbury group called Hooligan Sparrow set in China.  The story concerns the attempts by a lawyer Ye Haiyan to get a college principal and his assistant prosecuted for spending the night in a hotel with 6 underage girls.  They were likely to have escaped punishment because of the endemic corruption of the Chinese police and communist party.   Subsequently they gave $2000 dollars to the girls which made them prostitutes and thus made them the criminals under the Chinese system.

Ye was determined to bring them to justice and started with a simple protest outside the school.  The film then charts the subsequent events of harassment, violence and intimidation by the police, secret police and hired thugs.  Remarkably, much of this is filmed and we can see and hear the activities of the police engaged in the intimidation.  Ye ends up homeless having been evicted from flats and hotels.  Finally, she returns to her home village to live in some quite basic accommodation.  A most telling and sad scene shows her and her daughter sat on the roadside with all their possessions piled up unable to find anywhere to live.   This exact scene is recreated in an exhibition in Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Ai WeiWei in prison. Pic: Salisbury Amnesty

The exhibition was of work by Ai WeiWei, an artist who has also been intimidated, arrested and interrogated by the police on more than one occasion.  He has a degree of fame outside China which gives him a modest level of protection.  During one of his imprisonments, he was subject to close surveillance 24 hours a day, every day, including when going to the toilet.  This was recreated in an exhibition at the Royal Academy three years ago (pictured)

Ye certainly lived a colourful life and at one time worked in a brothel which is where she acquired the nickname ‘sparrow’. In order to raise awareness for HIV prevention, Ye lived the illegal life of a sex worker, distributing free condoms while claiming that they were government subsidies.

Much of the footage was shaky as the filming took place under extreme duress.  We hear threats to kill her or break her legs.  It is nonetheless riveting work and vividly brings to life the dire state of human rights in China.  The list of infringements of human rights in the country are too many to list here as this report from Amnesty shows:

The government continued to draft and enact new laws under the guise of “national security” that presented serious threats to human rights.  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in custody.  Activists and human rights defenders were detained, prosecuted and sentenced on the basis of vague and overbroad charges such as “subverting state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.  Police detained human rights defenders outside formal detention facilities, sometimes incommunicado, for long periods, which posed additional risk of torture and other ill-treatment to the detainees.  Controls on the internet were strengthened. Repression of religious activities outside state-sanctioned churches increased.  Repression conducted under “anti-separatism” or “counter-terrorism” campaigns remained particularly severe in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated areas.  Freedom of expression in Hong Kong came under attack as the government used vague and overbroad charges to prosecute pro-democracy activists.  [extract] Amnesty Report 2017/18

Much western coverage of China speaks of its economic progress and remarkable growth.  It is the world’s second most powerful nation and its activities in the South China Sea is causing real concern.  Western politicians fawn over President Xi Jing Ping in the hope of business.  But this film shows a lonely woman seeking justice on behalf of six young girls, being subjected to violence, intimidation and threats by a range of state agents.  China does its best to shield its citizens from outside influence shutting out foreign web sites behind the ‘Great Firewall of China‘.  One is reminded of other countries which behaved like this notably, Soviet Russia, East Germany and Rumania.  Each crumbled and it was the activity of a single person which often started the collapse – the priest in Rumania for example.  It can be like a stone chipping a windscreen.

The question is therefore, quite how powerful is the communist party in China that it feels the need to intimidate and mistreat any who question it?

The film was made by Nanfu Wang.  Our thanks to group member Fiona for organising this event.


If you would like to join the local group you would be very welcome.  We are holding a stall in the market place on 23 June so come along and make yourself known.


Executions and torture still continuing in Saudi Arabia

The number of executions in Saudi Arabia is rising and we are gravely concerned for the people on death row there. The authorities have executed 52 people this year already, and nearly 600 since 2014.

Right now, eighteen young people could be beheaded at any time for the ‘crime’ of protesting against the Saudi government.  Some were sentenced to death for attending protests when they were children.  All were brutally tortured.

The UK government continues to prioritize the sale of arms despite the manifest human rights abuses and the bombing of civilians in Yemen. 

Reprieve currently have a petition and if you have time to sign it, every little helps.


[if you have come to this page from a ticket site, details of the film can be found here]

Minutes of the June meeting are available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.

June minutes (Word)


House of Commons Committee taking evidence on human rights issues

A recent post by RightsInfo discussed the evidence given to the House of Common’s Joint Committee on human rights.  The committee’s investigation is to be welcomed.   It consists of 12 members drawn from both houses and its work includes scrutinising government bills for their compatibility with human rights legislation.  It is chaired by Ms Harriet Harman.

On 9 May it took evidence from three witnesses: Prof. David Mead from the school of law at UEA; Ms Martha Spurrier a director at Liberty; Dr Alice Donald a senior lecturer at Middlesex University and Adam Wagner of RightsInfo.  They were asked a range of questions on the issue of human rights, how they are perceived and how they work in the UK today.

Those of us who are concerned about human rights and campaign on the subject are often dispirited by the fairly constant stream of negative press coverage about human rights generally and the Human Rights Act itself.  The most vociferous critic and publisher of tendentious or misleading stories has been the Daily Mail under its editor Paul Dacre and the paper was frequently mentioned by witnesses during this session.  Coincidentally, this week it was announced the Dacre is to retire as editor of the Mail which is welcome news.  As the Guardian put it:

His sheer bully-power often frames the national debate by warping broadcasters’ news agendas, because they know the Mail makes politicians quake. Theresa May – his candidate – caves in to him every time, as paralysed on paying for social care as on Brexit.  Polly Toynbee 7 June 2018

Criticism of the act is of course acceptable, likewise pointing out flawed or questionable decisions.  We have a free press which is important.  But along with the Sun and the Express, the right wing media has carried on a campaign of ‘monstering’ human rights painting them as a threat to the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people.  Why this should be is difficult to understand.  Perhaps it is because the act shifts a degree of power to ordinary people and minorities in society – some of whom are unpopular – and this shift is in some ways distasteful to the elites (or the establishment as they used to be known).  Many readers of these papers will have benefited from the working of the act.  Indeed, Hampshire was mentioned where the authority has incorporated its principles into all its policies.

[Update, 11 June 18] For those interested in this subject, you may like to read an earlier post ‘Why do they hate the Human Rights Act?

The Committee

The committee discussion focused on several main themes:

  • the role of the press and in particular the right wing press
  • education both of the populace as a whole and in schools
  • the role of judges
  • legal aid and
  • politicians

The Press

Prof. David Mead said he had done research specifically on the Daily Mail because

it sticks out like a sore thumb in its reporting across a whole range of topics.  I have done research exclusively on that newspaper and on other across the board.  The findings I have reached are that it misportrays human rights law quite significantly.

He then went on to admit that he did not know of any causative effects of these stories on people’s attitudes to human rights.  As with Brexit, was it a case of the media picking up on reader’s misgivings and supplying the stories to suit or was it the media setting the tone and persuading people to their point of view?  Martha Spurrier said that sections of the press like the Daily Mail, ‘will fan the flames of attitudes and values which are pretty contrary to human rights project’.  She noted that the paper will cover stories about soldiers’ rights ‘sympathetically and accurately whereas with migrants there was a different approach’.  Part of the reason she thought was because these kinds of stories had traction not only in society but in ‘upper echelons of power.’

So if senior leaders are saying they want to create ‘a hostile environment for migrants’ is it any wonder that newspapers will then peddle stories about migrants being a pernicious group of people to sell those papers.  We cannot divorce rhetoric in one part of the system from rhetoric in another.  Martha Spurrier

This argument seems a little weak since there are newspapers and weeklies which do divorce the two.

Adam Wagner from Rights Info was a little more robust and said:

… however, I do think that certain right wing newspapers have ‘monstered’ human rights.  They have created a monster out of human rights in a deliberate and specific campaign.  […] when you talk to people, you find that they are generally influenced by the way that human rights are framed in the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express.  They talk about human rights being for other people not for us.  They refer to them fundamentally as being about stopping people being deported or crazy European Judges.

Education

There was discussion about the role of education – or rather the lack of it – in generating better understanding of human rights and their importance to us.  Wagner thought that human rights was removed by the Coalition government.  There was a lot of talk about the rule of law but he thought that they have been removed because they were seen as ‘a kind of leftie political thing.’

Going out to schools they thought was important which in fact is something the Salisbury Amnesty group does every year.

Significant budget cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made the issue of educating the public at large more difficult.  They now had around a quarter of the funds they had when they were formed.

Judges

The role of judges is important and Adam Wagner noted that a new generation of High Court judges have grown up in their careers with the Human Rights Act.  He said you cannot underestimate how important this is and how it has marked a fundamental change in our entire legal system.

He went on to describe how politicians and ministers in particular, use or rather misuse the judicial system.  They frequently, he claimed, passed difficult or contentious cases to the courts to decide so that the ‘judges can take the blame for this.’  When there was a furore following the decision, the Home Office would say that they are considering appealing the case which in fact they never did because the judge got it right.

Legal Aid

Another topic discussed was legal aid the severe cuts to its funding.  There were now ‘advice deserts’ all over the country where you will not be able to seek advice.

We have seen legal aid being decimated across areas of fundament importance to ordinary people’s lives: debt, welfare and benefits, housing, employment, clinical negligence, and immigration.   Martha Spurrier

Conclusion

This is just part of this committee’s deliberations on this important topic.  A consistent theme of the evidence given was the malign role played by the right wing media.  Although no one wanted to limit press freedom, the ‘monstering,’ as Adam Wagner put it, of all things to do with human rights was clearly regretted by the witnesses.  It was not clear however what the ‘direction of travel’ was.  The tabloids have been successful by giving the readers what they want.  If the public do not like migrants for example, then providing stories of their misdoings are going to sell papers.  Are the papers stirring things up or are they reflecting what their readers already think?  After all, the right wing papers sell in great numbers and the online version of the Daily Mail was the most read paper in the world.

The role of politicians and in particular ministers, was another theme running through the evidence.  A failure to give a lead and using judges to get out of receiving bad press for themselves showed them up in a poor light.

No doubt we will be hearing more as time goes by.


If you want to join the local group – which is free – you are very welcome to do so.  We suggest coming along to one of our events and making yourself known.  We have a stall in the market place on  the morning of Saturday 23rd of June and we are hosting a film on Thursday 14 June at the Arts Centre starting at 7;30 pm.

 


A reminder that the film Hooligan Sparrow will be shown next Thursday 14 June at 7:30 pm.  This is FREE but there is a parting collection to help cover our rental and other costs.  It’s at the Salisbury Arts Centre in the White Room upstairs.  Tickets can be obtained from the front desk.


Stock and volunteers needed!

On Saturday 23rd June we shall be having our annual stall in the market place and we would welcome items for sale.  Popular are clothes, bric-a-brac, good quality books only, CDs and plants.  No electrical items please.  We shall be setting up at 7:45 so if you do have something, you can bring it along any time after that although earlier the better as people congregate early.

If you can spare an hour to volunteer that would be appreciated.


We attach the latest death penalty report with thanks to group member Lesley for compiling it.  It features, Malaysia, Algeria, USA, Mauritania, Sudan and Belarus.  Note that China is believed to execute more of its citizens than the rest of the world combined but details and statistics are a state secret.

Report (Word)

No to the death penalty


We have pleasure in enclosing the minutes for the May meeting.

The June meeting takes place tonight (7 June)not next Thursday as is usual – because we shall be showing a film at the Arts Centre.

May (pdf)


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