Archive for October, 2016


Book on human rights published

Conor Gearty. Picture: LSE

As we wait to see what the government brings forward to replace the Human Rights Act it seeks to repeal, a book was recently published which is recommended to all those who believe in human rights and – despite its faults – that the HRA is a major step forward in granting rights to its citizens.  The book is called On Fantasy Island* by Conor Gearty who, amongst other things, is professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Institute of Public Affairs at LSE.  He has written several other books including the Struggle for Civil Liberties (2000)

The HRA has come under sustained attack in the media particularly but not exclusively at the tabloid end of the market with regular stories of criminals and terrorists escaping justice because of it.  Positive aspects of the Act including use by the media themselves to protect sources, seldom get a hearing.  A recent example from the Daily Mail gives a flavour of the type of reporting which is common at that end of the media market:

Folly of human rights luvvies: As actors fight plans to axe Human Rights Act, how thousands of foreign convicts use it to stay in Britain
  • Number of foreign offenders on UK’s streets has spiralled to a record high
  • Includes killers, rapists and paedophiles who have avoided deportation
  • Left-wing luvvies lining up to oppose plans to scrap the Human Rights Act
  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave condemn Tory proposals

    25 June [accessed 31 October 2016]

Conor Gearty methodically discussed the history of rights in the UK and tackles head on some of the absurdities regularly reported in papers like the Mail and the Sun.  Myths abound and include the case of Abu Qatada; the murderer of Philip Lawrence outside the school and Denis Nilsen’s request to access pornography and write a book.  In each case, the HRA is in the frame when it was either irrelevant or the event complained of was not going to happen anyway.  Perhaps the most famous instance was the absurd statement by Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference in 2011 about a Bolivian student who could not be deported because of a cat.  ‘I’m not making this up’ she said: problem was she did make it up and had grossly exaggerated a small part of the case.

The government – now led by Theresa May – is apparently preparing a British Bill of Rights.  Gearty discusses this and says:

…attentions shifted to the Human Rights Act.  Here we find uppermost the fantasies that drove the much of the first part of this book – you cannot change a law for the better if it has never been what it you have claimed it to be in the first place.  (p189f)

He sets the context of hostility to the Act in terms of a deadly combination of the nostalgic and the negative.  For a country which until the recent past, ruled a large part of the world and whose power and influence was supreme, we now have to form partnerships and accept that our writ no longer runs as it once did.  Strasbourg is just one of the elements of this.  Nostalgic because were we not the inventors of common law so who are these overseas people interfering in our law making?  The role of the media is discussed and a fuller account of the media’s role in ‘monstering‘ the HRA is provided by Adam Wagner of RightsInfo.

Human rights offer a route to a society where all are equal before the law and where each of us has a chance to engage in political activity on a level playing field if we so wish.

Several years have gone by since the Conservatives announced their desire to abolish the act and we are still waiting to see what happens.  The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has reaffirmed that and of course Theresa May is now prime minister.  We wait and see …  Our Local MP, John Glen, is on record in the Salisbury Journal as someone who agrees with abolition so we wait and see when the time comes.

The book is highly recommended.

*Oxford University Press, 2016 – £18.99 RRP


Damning criticism of government’s blind eye to arms sales to the Saudi Arabians
Recommends suspension of arms sales to the Saudis

Picture: mintpressnews.com

Followers of this blog will be aware of the attention we have been drawing to the war in Yemen and our government’s role in it.  It started by accident with a letter to our MP Mr John Glen who forwarded a bland reply from a Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood.  The answers began to unravel quite quickly when it was revealed that, for example, far from reigning in the Saudi’s, we were promoting their membership of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Now the International Development and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committees have produced a lengthy report which is extremely critical on several different levels.  The chair’s summary remarks were:

The UK led the way in establishing international humanitarian law to govern the sale of arms. The conflict in Yemen has raised serious concerns that we are not showing equal determination in ensuring that these are respected.

During this inquiry we have heard evidence from respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used in contravention of International Humanitarian Law.  The Government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.

We call on the Government to continue the UK’s long-standing commitment to IHL and lead the international community in establishing a strong, independent inquiry. The circumstances surrounding incidents in Yemen, such as allegations of the use of cluster bombs, must be firmly established and send a clear message to all combatants in Yemen that human rights must be respected.

The current system for overseeing the sale of arms must be improved.  At present we do not have sufficient transparency to hold licensing decisions to account or the confidence that the benchmarks ensuring human rights law is respected are high enough. This must be addressed immediately.

Backbench committees do valuable and largely unsung work in the House of Commons and provide an opportunity for members to question government activities more closely than they are able to do in the House itself.

Background

The background situation in the Yemen is dire.  The UN categorises it as a level 3 crisis which is the most severe.  UNICEF say that 1,211 children have been killed and 1,650 injured, both are likely to be under-estimates in view of the difficulty in reporting.  The economy and health care systems are on the verge of collapse.  Over a million people are internally displaced.

Britain however continues to profit from the war by supplying huge amounts of weaponry to the Saudis.  Between April and December 2015 we supplied £1.7bn worth of aircraft and a further £1bn of air-Image result for cluster weaponsdelivered bombs.  More shockingly is that, although we are no longer supplying cluster munitions, previously supplied ones have turned up on the ground.  These weapons kick out tens or hundreds of sub-munitions which saturate an area the size of several football fields.  Duds can be dangerous to children especially who can lose limbs or be blinded if they pick them up.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have provided evidence to the FCO about the use of these weapons.

The report

The report makes interesting reading most particularly concerning the UK government attitudes to the conflict.  It contrasts the FCO’s attitude to the documented evidence it is presented with on the Yemen by NGOs including Amnesty and HRW, which it ignores, with that from Syria where evidence is accepted.  David Mepham, the UK director of HRW said in evidence:

I was at a meeting with [the Foreign Secretary] several months ago when I gave him copies of our report and said, “These are the GPS coordinates; these are the strikes; these are the markets and schools that were hit.” Therefore, he has that evidence. The Foreign Office has had that evidence for months. It is extraordinary that the line comes back that they do not have evidence, when that evidence has been shared with them for a considerable period of time.

Picture: the Independent

The line from the government is that the UK has ‘the most robust arms control export regimes in the world’.  The committee heard evidence of how long this robust arms control regime took to make its decisions: a matter of days.  The hundreds of licences take around 20 or 25 days to approve.  In comparison with other government decision making, this is merely the blink of an eye.  It seems fairly obvious that little control is exercised.  No licence has been refused.

In the face of the hundreds of incidents of schools, marriage ceremonies, factories and hospitals being hit by bombing, the UK government accepts the answers given it by the Saudi government.  The committee was sceptical at FCO reliance on Saudi assurances and said:

We are not convinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of IHL breaches and their lack of progress with reporting findings only confirms our concerns that they are obstructing progress.  Of 185 incidents reported by UN, HRW and AI, only 9 investigations have taken place

UK personnel

Our involvement is not just limited to supplying weapons but military and civilian personnel are also involved in the control centre and elsewhere.  The claim is that they are not directing the actual bombing.  The committee were not convinced by this argument.

It is impossible, on the basis of the evidence that is before us to claim plausibly that the United Kingdom is not involved.  We provide the aircraft and the bombs.  This level of involvement without being party to a conflict is unprecedented.  This is an area where there is much confusion and greater clarity is needed.  (para 75)

Human Rights

The committee considered our political role in this conflict and our supposed commitment to an international rules based order.  We were now in a tricky position.  UK’s support for the Saudi led coalition primarily through the sale of arms and in the face of violations of International Humanitarian Law is inconsistent with our global leadership role in the world.  The very rules the UK championed – represented by the Arms Trade Treaty – are at risk of unravelling.

The committee heard evidence that the arms companies were a huge source of employment and that if we did not supply the weapons, others would.  An argument which could easily be applied to slavery.

Summary

For the sake of weapons sales, the government has become ensnared with a war which is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster.  Our involvement is much to close for comfort and attempts to dissemble and hide the truth are at risk of unravelling.  We also risk losing the moral argument as well.  It is difficult for us to criticise the Russians and Syrians for their barbaric activities in Aleppo and elsewhere, when we are only slightly removed from doing the same things in Yemen.  So far the government has been lucky: all eyes are on Syria and there are few reports emerging from Yemen.  But this report is a welcome spotlight on the unsavoury and ultimately foolish activities by our government in that country.  They recommend ending arms sales to the Saudis.

On 26 October the House of Commons debated the question of withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.  The intention was to send a message to the government that MP’s do not want to support a war without a UN investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law.  Labour MPs did not attend and the vote was lost.  Mr Glen voted against the motion.  So the carnage continues.

The full report


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Good News!  Iranian woman saved from execution

There has been a world wide campaign to stop the Iranian authorities from executing Zeinab Lokran.

We have received a message from Amnesty which says

By standing up to the Iranian authorities, you have helped to keep 22-year-old Zeinab alive. Thank you for defending her right to life.

Her execution, which was scheduled to go ahead as early as 13 October is no longer imminent. Zeinab now has a new lawyer working on her case. Together they will submit an application for a retrial – which is Zeinab’s right under Article 91 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code.

While this is extremely good news, her death sentence remains in place until a retrial is granted by the authorities.

Please share: Continue to put pressure on Iranian authorities not to execute Zeinab


Claire Perry writes in the Salisbury Journal

Claire Perry MP. Picture: thedrum

Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, said in her piece in the Salisbury Journal that:

[at the recent Tory party conference] … there were other important announcements to celebrate including the news that the government will put an end to the vexatious and damaging legal claims against members of the Armed Forces that arise from applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield.

It is scandalous that highly trained and professional soldiers have been subjected to vexatious legal claims second-guessing their decision-making and that since 2004, the MoD has spent over £100 million on Iraq-related investigations, inquiries and compensation – money that should be spent on our troops not lawyers.   Salisbury Journal 27 October 2016

The problem with Claire Perry’s piece – largely copied from the statement by the Defence Minister at the conference – is that it is highly selective and largely untrue.  The picture painted is of our soldiers, operating in difficult and extremely dangerous environments, being pursued by lawyers, sorry ‘vexatious lawyers’, on the make.  The reality is quite different.

Firstly, it is part of a consistent and long running campaign by the right-wing media and tabloids against the Human rights Act and the European Court.  They do not like it because it provides protections for ordinary citizens and in particular, against the invasion of privacy by those self-same papers.  So at a party conference, appealing to that part of the media is only to be expected.

But more specifically, to take one element the statement: ‘claims against members of the armed forces …’ gives the impression that the claims are only about the soldiers themselves.  Many of the claims are against the MoD for not taking sufficient or reasonable care of their men.  So one claim for example was on behalf of a soldier who died of heatstroke serving in 50 degrees of heat in Iraq.  There is also the whole business of Deepcut and the soldiers who died there.  Others involve the Army sending men off in insufficiently protected land rovers.

The phrase ‘applying European Court of Human Rights judgements in the battlefield’ is doubly disingenuous.  Firstly, it is the application of the Human Rights Act which is causing the problem.  Adding the ECHR is just to appeal to those who do not like Europe and trying to shift the blame to Strasbourg who often have little if anything to do with it.  ‘Battlefield’ is also slipped in to create the impression of brave soldiers being pursued by lawyers (keep forgetting – vexatious lawyers) with outrageous claims.

What many of the claims are about is how prisoners are treated once they are taken captive, not on the battlefield.  One such claim was a man thrown into a canal in Baghdad and left to drown.  Many others relate to beatings and other mistreatment of prisoners.  If the courts have investigated claims and the MoD has been forced to pay compensation it argues that something is adrift.

Perhaps Claire Perry should ask herself why do we go to war in the first place?  Part of the answer is to promote our values.  We want to promote democracy and the rule of law.  We become involved in part to try and instill those values.  If our soldiers – not on the battlefield but back at base – are mistreating prisoners then those are not our values.  Although there was a lot of nonsense about weapons of mass destruction, one reason we went into Iraq was because Sadam Hussein treated his people abominably.  The results of bad treatment in places like Syria are visible to us every day with the refugee crisis.

It is a great pity that nonsense like this is both written and then published without challenge.

 

 

 

 

 


Life and death in the courtrooms of America

It sometimes comes as a shock to people that the only country in the Americas which still has the death penalty is the USA.  It is especially favoured by the southern states such as Louisiana, Texas and Florida and we have on many occasions on this blog mentioned particular cases where the wrong man is convicted of a crime or where the evidence is at best doubtful.

Our view here in the UK of the justice system in America is heavily conditioned by Hollywood films, on screen or on TV, which give a highly biased view of the real life situation.  In these depictions, an innocent man or woman has been wrongfully arrested.  Clean cut lawyers appear for the defendant and there is a tense meeting in the DA’s office.  At some point, the defence (or defense if you’re reading this in the USA) lawyer says ‘we’re outa here’ and they all sweep out.  Hearings, such as a Grand Jury happen as if by magic and subsequent court appearances take place soon after.  Few episodes can go by without a lawyer saying someone’s ‘Miranda rights have been infringed’ and more people sweep out.  Everyone is dedicated to securing justice with the exception of one individual (a witness, police officer or someone needed for the plot) who is found out at the end.  More clean cut young people find a tiny and crucial piece of evidence and this is sufficient to set a defendant free, often in the last minute or so of the trial.  The overall impression is of a system that works – albeit uncertainly at times – with the good guy getting off at the end.

If you read Clive Stafford Smith’s book Injustice * you will find that these Hollywood stories are for many in the States, fiction.  Clive has spent many years in the USA helping people on death row, the majority of whom should not be there.  The book is about one individual, Krishna Maharaj (pictured), who was on death row in Florida for 28 years before being released.  It is a truly astonishing book with 110 pages of detailed notes and describes the dysfunctional legal system in states such a Florida.

The problem – bizarrely – is that an innocent man or woman is often more at risk that someone who is guilty.  Innocent people believe, often wrongly to their cost, that they don’t have to prove anything because they are innocent.  There cannot be any evidence to prove they did it because they didn’t.  They also think that the justice system is unbiased and the truth will out eventually, a ‘touching faith’ as Clive describes it.

 

The book explores these issues in great detail.  America elects its law officers and so there is great pressure to convict to prove to the electorate that you are ‘tough on crime’.  Sentencing people to death is a great way to prove this.  Unlike recent changes to the justice system in the UK, the defence has no right of disclosure.  So the police need only present evidence allegedly proving guilt, and not reveal evidence that proves the defendant innocent.  This practice was also commonplace in the UK before new rules were introduced following some high profile injustices were discovered.  In Florida, because of the enormous amount of money flooding in to the state from the drug barons, corruption is rife throughout the justice system.  Amazingly, the judge himself in Krishna’s trial was arrested for bribery and corruption after three days of hearings.  The police are often themselves involved in the drugs trade.

 

So if the judge was arrested, then surely the trial should start afresh?  No, because defence lawyers are paid so little and on a block fee basis, to start again is something they cannot afford, so they just ploughed on with a new judge.   The quality of defence lawyers is frequently poor and they fail to cross-examine properly, call relevant witnesses or even to meet the defendant that often.  The problem here is that if through incompetence or otherwise the defence lawyer does not raise the issues at trial, then appeal courts will rule matters to be ‘procedurally barred’ subsequently.

So alibis are not called, forensic evidence not challenged, police witnesses’ changes in evidence not challenged and so on and so on.  The result was an innocent man narrowly escaping death row for a crime he did not commit and which was committed it was eventually discovered, by someone acting for a drug cartel.  The man murdered was ‘skimming’ drug profits.  Errors are so great and so frequent that justice would better be served if it was done on the basis of a coin toss.  Fewer would be executed on this basis.

Clive Stafford Smith is an extraordinary lawyer but he is also a great story teller and this account of Kris Maharaj death row case is a powerful thriller beautifully told.  Helena Kennedy QC [senior lawyer in the UK]

Passionate and Humane Mail onSunday

This is a highly recommended book for anyone interested in the justice system.  If you have written letters to governors and others in the States it will explain a lot.  Clive Stafford Smith was the founder of Reprieve.

A story about the case in Miami Herald

*Injustice by Clive Stafford Smith, Vintage books, 2013


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Ray Hinton released after 28 years on death row in Alabama

Anthony Ray Hinton NBC News

This story is both tragic and uplifting.  Anthony Ray Hinton was released in April last year from death row in Alabama, USA having spent 28 years there for a crime he did not commit.  He was not present at the crime scene when the murder happened and had good alibis to prove it.  His mother had a gun but it did not match the one used in the murder.

The failures inherent in the US justice system, especially in the southern states, are fully described in Clive Stafford Smith’s book Injustice (Vintage, 2013).  Clive is founder of Reprieve.  He describes the low rates of pay for defence lawyers, elected prosecutors keen to convince the electorate that they are tough on crime, the lack of access to police material (disclosure) which means that information which disproves their case is not revealed until after the trial, and so on.  We hope to publish a longer review of this important book soon.

His release depended on finding a good lawyer and the work of the Equal Justice Network.

In this Guardian piece Ray describes his experiences after leaving which included looking up at the stars, standing in the rain and sleeping on a full length bed.

We publish a review of the use of the death penalty around the world and the latest issue is here.


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We are pleased to attach the monthly minutes for the October meeting thanks to Lesley for preparing them.  We discussed the Refugee, North Korean and Death Penalty campaigns, forthcoming films, Evensong at the Cathedral and Citizenship days at some of our schools.

october minutes (pdf)


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In partnership with Salisbury Arts Centre, we shall be showing the film Mustang on 15 December 2016.  This award winning film by a Turkish director concerns five girls growing up in a northern Turkish town.  On their way home from school they meet some boys and start some harmless frolics in the sea.  This is reported to their parents and thus begins a life of confinement, forced marriage and control.

We are delighted to say that there will be a short presentation at the start by Prof. Lucy Mazdom who is Head of the Film Department at Southampton University.   Her research interests include French and American film; contemporary French and British television; transnational film studies; remakes; film history in a global context and issues of cinematic distribution, exhibition and reception.

After the showing, the local group will asking people to sign a petition (to be decided nearer the time).

Tickets are available at the Arts Centre.


Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.  If you are interested in joining local group, make yourself known at the film to one of us at the signing table.  It is free to join the local group.  Details on the ‘Joining’ tab on the home page.


We attach the monthly death penalty report for October thanks to group member Lesley for compiling it.

September – October

No to the death penalty

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Woman at risk of execution in Iran.  Horrific case.
Woman could be hanged within days for killing her abusive husband

Zeinab Sekaanvand Lokran

We attach an urgent action concerning a woman, Zeinab Sekaanvand Lokran in Iran who is at imminent risk of execution.  The story – which we hope you will find time to read – is pretty horrific involving torture and a stillborn child.  If you can write or email that would be appreciated.

She confessed to murdering her abusive husband, was denied access to a lawyer, beaten in a police station until she confessed and then lost her child due to shock. She has received no treatment or help after her miscarriage.

Zeinab case (pdf)