Friday, April 18, 2014 

Tailing.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014 

Russian imperalism triumphs over US/NATO imperialism.

The "de-escalation" agreement reached at the Geneva meeting between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US is, obviously, to be welcomed.  It does however signify just how quickly Ukraine and in turn the West have adjusted, first to the Russian annexation of Crimea and now it seems to the loss of major parts of the country's east, something that less than two weeks ago the Americans and many commentators were denouncing as being an effective Russian forced break-up of a sovereign state.

It must be all the more painful as that remains precisely what the occupation of buildings and declarations of autonomous regions has been.  Regardless of the involvement of some pro-Russians on the ground, we've seen practically a carbon copy of the operation in Crimea.  Armed men without insignia seized government offices and police stations, somewhat supported by civilians, while the Ukrainians simply let them get on with it, apparently powerless to do anything, in spite of the police themselves having weapons.  All this despite there being far less support in the east of the country for alliance with Russia than there was in Crimea.  Whether out of fear or feeling no real allegiance to Ukraine as a state, the numbers of those objecting to the seizures seems relatively slight, not withstanding an apparently well-attended pro-Kiev protest in Donetsk today.

The most obvious illustration of this ambiguous relationship with Ukraine as a sovereign entity was the seizure yesterday of the 6 APCs in KramatorskAs Jamie says, those in charge were from the 25th Airborne Division, meant to be some of the most capable in the Ukrainian army, and yet they surrendered it seems with little more than a shrug, not willing to countenance getting into a situation where they might have to shoot their fellow citizens.  The unit has since been disbanded by the interim president, although whether other divisions will be more willing to put up a fight should it come to it remains in question.  Admirable in one way as it is that they stood down, can you imagine our very own heroes letting protesters, armed or otherwise, take any sort of vehicle off them in a similar situation?

A state doesn't fall apart as quickly as Ukraine has without grievances and discontent being allowed to fester for a long time.  The much exaggerated involvement of Svoboda and others on the far-right first in the Maidan protests and now the interim government has just been an handy excuse for those who have long wanted increased autonomy, with the Russians taking full advantage.  The aim it seems is not full annexation as in Crimea, instead something more akin to that in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the country pulls the strings with figureheads in nominal power.  The Geneva agreement therefore suits Putin down to the ground: if those who have seized government buildings do pull back, it removes the threat of increased sanctions, while the promise of a new constitutional process will be open to all kinds of manipulation once attention has switched elsewhere.

As much as this is a triumph for Russian imperialism, and it really can't be described as anything else, it's also a tale of imperial overreach, mainly of the US and NATO, but also the EU.  Just as secretary of state Victoria Nuland seemed to believe the Maidan protests were there to be manipulated to the advantage of the US, deciding for Ukrainians whom their new political leaders should be, so have the Russians, just far more effectively and aggressively.  For all the posturing of NATO, including yesterday with the announcement of further deployments meant to "reassure" member states, it has been powerless to do anything to prevent Putin and friends from doing anything they feel like.  As for the EU, it can't even agree on the most basic of sanctions, such are the barriers when Russian business interests are so intertwined with those of our own top companies.

When it came down to it, we just didn't care enough about Ukraine.  Others looking to the West for hope will have to remember this hypocrisy.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 

The conspiracy theories return.

Only on Monday were we mentioning in passing Sir Peter Gibson's truncated inquiry into alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition by our glorious security services and government. His final report sat waiting to be published for almost 18 months as arguments over which secret documents could and couldn't be included in full raged, regardless of how meek and mild Gibson's actual conclusions were. One of the key claims from all involved was this time the security services had cooperated fully, making the "vast majority" of requested documents available, except for those that couldn't be released without US permission.

Strange then that as Craig Murray posted on Monday, a source in the Foreign Office had told him our own government was lobbying the Americans over the similarly delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report into the rendition and wider torture programme operated by the CIA. Their worry was, even redacted, the release of the report's executive summary could damage the case currently being put before the courts blocking the attempt by Abdul Hakim Belhaj to seek compensation over his rendition. Despite the judge accepting the evidence for Belhaj's rendition via Hong Kong was all but established, to go any further would risk damage to the "national interest", i.e., the UK's relationship with the US.

Now via al-Jazeera America (and Yorkshire Ranter) comes another reason why both this government and the one previous would like the report's summary to remain sitting on President Obama's desk for a while yet. According to two US officials who have had access to parts of the 6,000 page report, it confirms for the first time that despite repeated denials from ministers back then and the Gibson inquiry not receiving any documents (PDF) that said otherwise, Diego Garcia was indeed used not only as a stopover point for rendition flights as was admitted in 2008, but also as a "black site".  This was with the full permission of the government, despite the likes of Jack Straw and David Miliband time after time telling parliament the exact opposite was the case.

If confirmed, it not only means ministers lied to both houses of parliament to protect the United States and its torture programme, it's also the first time the mistreatment of detainees has been found to have occurred on UK territory.  As all the reports up till now have also cleared the government of complicity in actual extraordinary rendition, having not considered the cases of Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi while downgrading the transfers of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna to Guantanamo as "renditions to detention", it would also for the first time leave the government with no wiggle room on that charge, potentially opening the way for more compensation claims, or even prosecution for those who gave the Americans permission to use their base on Diego Garcia as they saw fit.

Once again then we can be glad the eventual follow-up to the Gibson inquiry has been handed to the fearlessly independent Intelligence and Security Committee, the same one which let the intelligence chiefs know the questions they were going to be asked beforehand (although, it must be noted, they probably would have known anyway such are GCHQ's abilities).  It must also be a relief to Baroness Amos and David Miliband that they have since moved on from the Lords and the Commons respectively, as both insisted the government knew nothing about the use of Diego Garcia to host detainees, although there's a certain irony in how both are now involved in humanitarian work, Amoss at the UN and Miliband at International Rescue.  As for Jack Straw, he's set to leave parliament at the next election, probably before any subsequent inquiry reaches its conclusion.  While the chances of Inspector Knacker coming to call are unlikely, to judge by their past involvement in similar cases, it hopefully won't come too late to further tarnish what deserves to be regarded as one of the most ignominious political careers of recent times.  It might not be the equivalent of having your penis slashed with a scalpel, being deprived of sleep for over 11 days, forced into a pet carrier for two weeks or shackled to the ceiling of a cell by your wrists, but it's something.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014 

Anonymity in the criminal justice system must not be undermined.

Regardless of the natural empathy you must have for Nigel Evans, it's difficult not to feel a little discomfort at how his acquittal was responded to by some of his fellow MPs. Evans had it seemed been hung out to dry, no one seemingly willing to speak up for him prior to the trial, not even the usual "friends of" who so often brief the papers and are correspondingly often the person themselves. Come last Thursday and suddenly it was as though none of his contemporaries had doubted his innocence for a second. Much as one suspects the reaction is somewhat to do with general dislike for John Bercow and the role he played in the arrest of his deputy, as well as continuing disgruntlement over Plebgate, you can't help but detect something else just below the surface.

Why else would there continue to be calls for those accused of sexual assault and rape to have the same right to anonymity as those making the allegations when no one believes the same protection should be given to those charged with murder or manslaughter? The character of the accused is often traduced in the same way, and the stigma that follows can if anything be worse regardless of acquittal: Colin Stagg is just one such example. While there is no anonymity for murder victims for obvious reasons so there isn't a direct parallel, anonymity doesn't make giving evidence any easier for those often then aggressively interrogated by the defence: the suicide of Frances Andrade makes that clear.  In the past I've been suspicious of calls to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, and I don't think Keir Starmer's suggestion to consider a move away from the adversarial system is workable, but his helming of a review for Labour is certainly a step beyond Blair era tabloid pleasing efforts.

It certainly doesn't help the message to listen to those who come forward saying they were abused when MPs make it clear to one of their own that she should be examining her conscience.  Sarah Wollaston did absolutely nothing wrong in first making an appointment for two of the men accusing Evans to see John Bercow, and if anyone doubts that despite the failings of the wider prosecution case there were questions for Evans to answer, they should see the interview Newsnight conducted with one of them.

None of this is to deny that the CPS and the police do have questions to answer over its handling of the wider evidence.  Most of the men approached believed their brushes with Evans had not been abusive, and maintained that from the outset.  In this instance the attempt to create a picture of a wider pattern of abuse than just one or two alleged incidents completely undermined rather than strengthened the case.  Much the same has been apparent in the other recent trials of high profile figures, where defences have picked apart faded memories and juries have taken the word of the celebrity rather than their sometimes confused and uncertain accusers.  As Wollaston argues in her piece for the Telegraph though, there is a danger both in politicians criticising the CPS and in the wider emphasis on the questions surrounding anonymity.  In the case of Stuart Hall it was other victims coming forward after he was first arrested that almost certainly led to him pleading guilty.  As I also noted on Thursday, while Evans was understandably exciting much opinion at Westminster, the even more farcical evidence presented by the prosecution in the Nicky Jacobs trial went almost entirely ignored.

Coming after the Maria Miller storm, the last thing MPs ought to be seen as doing is special pleading.  Some never seem to get truly exercised about anything until it hits them personally, such as during the Damian Green case, or Plebgate, only then it occurring that if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone.  The fact is Evans' case is not unique, and the real irony is it's a change to legal aid by his government that looks set to mean the CPS won't be paying his costs.  Much as you don't want it to be the case, at times politicians give the impression some victims are more deserving than others.

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Monday, April 14, 2014 

How long before we need an inquiry into the inquiry?

Governments change, ministers come and go, but if there's something that doesn't alter in our modern political culture, it's there's always one inquiry or another stuck in the mire.  For a long time it was the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took 12 years to report on the events of a single, if extraordinary, confused and controversial day.  More recently we had Sir Peter Gibson's cancelled inquiry into extraordinary rendition and the British state's alleged complicity in it.  Gibson's short report sat waiting to be published for 18 months, as arguments raged about whether a single, if crucial strand of correspondence within MI6 concerning the mistreatment at Bagraim air base could be declassified.  Not fully, it was decided, Gibson giving in.  Another inquiry now waits in the wings, due to conducted by those thoroughly decent chaps at the Intelligence and Security Committee.

We are though forgetting the Chilcot inquiry, aka the umpteenth attempt to have a definitive inquiry into how we went to war with Iraq, which started hearing public evidence in November of 2009.  Almost five years on, and three years since it finished its public hearings, we're still waiting for the report to published.  First the suggestion was the "Maxwellisation" process of writing to those criticised was likely to begin by the middle of last year; then came the news there were disagreements between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office over the publication of documents and memorandums between Tony Blair and George Bush.  It wasn't clear and still isn't clear now whether this the result of complaints by Blair or the state refusing to declassify this higher level material, or whether the US may also have objected.  The Graun reported at the end of last year that a compromise had been reached and the inquiry was likely to reach a conclusion by mid-year; now the Independent says those stories were "mere optimism" and the negotiations are still deadlocked.  With the "Maxwellisation" process still to start, and indeed with the very conclusions apparently yet to be written, even if there's a deal during the summer recess it seems unlikely the report will be published until this time next year.

Complaining that this is ridiculous seems to miss the point.  Every inquiry dealing with "sensitive material" is always caught up in seemingly endless discussion about what can and can't be safely made public lest national security be affected.  After all, when the MoD decides to block publication of a book it first commissioned, it doesn't seem quite as ludicrous more care is taken over personal communications between world leaders.  It does however suggest delay is built into these inquiries, governments always believing the more time passes between a controversy and its final resolution the less chance that something beyond criticism of those responsible is taken. 

This remains the case regardless of changes in government, as exemplified by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.  Without letting Blair or Gordon Brown for that matter off the hook, the delay seems to rest with the refusal of the Cabinet Office to countenance releasing anything in the wider public interest that is also secret.  Hence Heywood's visit to the Guardian to demand the return of the Snowden files, where he made clear the government will decide when debates on such subjects begin and end.  This would also tally with the news from Craig Murray that the government has lobbied the Americans on the release of the Senate Intelligence Report on rendition, lest it undermine their efforts to block legal action by Abdul Hakim Belhaj over his rendition to Libya.  It was after all the release by an American court of far more damning evidence of the torture of Binyam Mohamed that led the High Court here to release the "seven paragraphs".

The very least we deserve is to know precisely why publication continues to be delayed and by whom.  It's all very well for Nick Clegg to say the report should be published now, without giving any suggestion as to whether he has done anything practical to smooth or speed the process, but we need more.  With Blair continuing to defend the war, it's difficult to see how he could be trying to delay the inevitable: he is more than ready to brazen out whatever Chilcot chooses to throw at him.  Instead it once again seems to be the secret state acting as a block, always wanting to be in control, while refusing to take responsibility.  Once Clegg and his party would have promised to try and do something about that.

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Friday, April 11, 2014 

Baby face.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014 

PC Keith Blakelock: a question of conscience.

As they are wont to do when it comes to their own, various MPs have questioned the decision to prosecute former deputy speaker Nigel Evans following his acquittal today on charges of sexual abuse.  As the latest in a series of high profile figures to be found not guilty, it certainly does merit asking whether a jury is ever likely to favour the word of a member of the public over that of a celebrity when the alleged offence happened years previous, there were no other witnesses and also no forensic evidence.

Apart from local Tottenham MP David Lammy though, it seems no other politician commented on the acquittal yesterday of Nicky Jacobs on the charge of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the riots on Broadwater Farm in 1985.  This was despite the case against Jacobs being even more farcical and ridiculous than any so far brought against a figure in the public eye.

The evidence against Jacobs, if it can even be described as such, amounted to accounts by witnesses known to have lied in the past, and two pieces of circumstantial.  Dealing with the latter first, it was found Jacobs had written a poem/rap which celebrated Blakelock's murder at the time he was serving a prison sentence for affray.  While providing an insight into the fact Jacobs was not the most pleasant of men at the time, there is nothing in it to suggest he had any insider knowledge of the killing; indeed, it refers to "chop[ping] him on the leg" and "chopping him all over".  While Blakelock's injuries were extensive and the result of a frenzied, brutal attack by multiple individuals, he was not stabbed all over his body, as his uniform with applied tape showing the puncture wounds proves.  Similarly desperate was the evidence given by a police officer who told the court Jacobs had said on being arrested in 2000, "fuck off, I was one of them who killed PC Blakelock".  The officer did not at the time report this to any superior, only coming forward in 2012.

Absurd as the above is, it somehow gets even more so.  The irony in the case was that two of the witnesses, given the false names John Brown and Rhodes Levin, have both admitted they took part in the attack on Blakelock.  The Met however made the decision to only go after the "stabbers" rather than the "kickers", enlisting the latter and ensuring they had immunity from prosecution.  As understandable as this is, it brings into sharp relief the continued use of joint enterprise to prosecute those who were present at the time of a murder but otherwise had no involvement.  Their accounts were further undermined by how they were paid lump sums of £5,000 and £2,500 back in the 90s despite their evidence not being tested at the time.  As Stafford Scott also points out, in July of last year Levin was found to have 63 bags of cocaine and heroin in his possession.  Rather than a custodial sentence, he received 12 months community service.  Brown also did himself no favours when he said to police in 93 that he couldn't tell the difference between black men, a view he told the court he "more or less" still held.

Remarkably, it got still worse for the prosecution.  Brown's cousin, a man known only as Q, also gave evidence that Jacobs was one of those who stabbed Blakelock.  While none of the three could agree on the weapon used, the others at least gave a plausible version of events.  Q by comparison claimed that earlier on the day of Blakelock's murder there had been two Rolls-Royces on the estate, from which black men had passed what looked sawn-off shotguns, and also got the location of the murder wrong.  The jury were so flummoxed they asked the judge if Q could have Korsakoff's syndrome, a condition brought on by chronic alcohol abuse where sufferers invent false memories to fill the gaps.  A long term heroin addict as well as an alcoholic, it didn't seem any less plausible than Q's own evidence.

To no one's surprise, the jury took just four hours to find Jacobs not guilty.  He wasn't released yesterday however, as almost all those acquitted of the most serious offences are on the same day; the officers needed to fill out the paperwork had already gone home.  Cock-up or conspiracy, it just underlines how it seems different standards were in operation for this case.  The Crown Prosecution Service has given the OK to flimsy trials in the past, but this must rank as one of the weakest in recent times, such was the obvious unreliability of the witnesses and the clutching at straws of the rap/poem.  Often it can be said in the CPS's defence that there was just enough evidence for the case to be put before a jury and to let them decide, as there was for instance in the case of Ian Tomlinson, despite the CPS at first deciding not to prosecute PC Simon Harwood. In this instance it seems more likely that the pressure from the police to find someone, anyone guilty of a murder that has cast such a long shadow over both the Met and Tottenham was too great for them to refuse and say there just wasn't a reasonable chance of a jury convicting.

Failing new witnesses coming forward who aren't tainted by having lied in the past, it seems increasingly unlikely that Blakelock's murderers will now be brought to justice.  As relations between the Met and the community in Tottenham never fully recovered and have since been further damaged by the shooting of Mark Duggan, any chance of such a development must also be extremely low.  Quite apart from giving Keith Blakelock's family justice, the obvious reason as to why it would benefit all sides if new witnesses were found is it would help to put a traumatic event firmly in the past.  Blakelock's murder still hangs over Broadwater Farm, tainting the estate and the men who were caught up in the police investigation.  The only way to lift that stigma is for the real killer(s) to be found.  The Met won't manage it, so it's up to those with a conscience to do the right thing.  The sooner, the better. 

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