Monday, October 30, 2006

Life and death of Mehdi Ben Barka


A socialist kidnapped and murdered 41 years ago has returned to haunt the screen and point the accusing finger at the three "Western democracies" and one pro-Western Arab kingdom whose security services were involved in his murder.

Serge Le Peron's film J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka (November 2005)now showing in Britain as "I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed", is a film noir thriller about a real kidnapping and murder, that of Moroccan left-wing leader Mehdi Ben Barka, who was "disappeared" in Paris by French secret scrvice agents working with the Moroccan security police.

The film actually starts with another death, that of Georges Figon, a crook and con-man (played by Charles Berling), who was employed to ensnare Ben Barka with talk of a film to be made. Figon later fell out with his employers over payment, and started talking to journalists, film-makers and anyone else about what he knew. When he was due to be called as a witness in the trial of secret service men his body was found in a pool of blood at his home. The official reports said "suicide" , but whoever arranged it made a mistake by leaving the wrong gun. The film goes back over Figon's story, that he did not get to tell in court. I haven't seen it yet, though I am told it is a good movie well worth seeing.

But of course, whatever the artistic use of this side-view, the really important figure is that of Ben Barka himself. *

Born in 1920 in a poor neighbourhood of Rabat, the son of a low-ranking civil servant, Mehdi Ben Barka was the first Moroccan to obtain a degree in mathematics from a French university. A leader in the nationalist Istiqlal party which led Morocco to independence, he found his hopes for democracy and development in conflict with the monarchy and right-wing, and quit with others to form the National Union of Popular Forces, UNFP, now known as Socialist Union of Popular Forces(USFP).

Exiled in 1963, the Moroccan opposition hero became an international figure. In Algiers he met Che Guevera, Malcolm X, and Amilcar Cabral, leader of African guerrillas fighting Portuguese colonial rule in Cape Verde and Guinea. Like them he was to be assassinated.

Due to chair the first Tricontinental Conference planned for January 1966 in Havana, Ben Barka told a press conference, "the two currents of the world revolution will be represented there: the current which emerged with the October Revolution and that of the national liberation revolution".
He said the struggles against colonialism and Apartheid would be linked with support for Cuba against US imperialism.

Here, in an interview in 1999, Ben Barka's son Bachir takes up the story:
"On Friday 29th October 1965, at 12.30 pm, Mehdi Ben Barka, my father, had an appointment at the Brasserie Lipp, on the boulevard Saint Germain, in Paris, with a journalist, a film producer and a scriptwriter, to discuss the preparation of a film about national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The film was to be shown at the opening of the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in January 1966. The title of the film was to be Basta!

"This appointment was a trap. Before his arrival at the Brasserie, my father was stopped by two French policemen, who showed their police cards and asked him to follow them. He got into their official car. He was calm and confident. But in this car were other individuals, an agent, or "honourable corespondent" according to the conventional expression, of the SDECE, that is to say the French secret services, and a criminal, a henchman. The SDECE agent was wearing a false mustache and a wig so that my father, who knew him, would not recognize him.

"The car moved off in the direction of the suburbs to the south of Paris, to Fontenay-le-Vicomte to be precise, and stopped in front of the house of a notorious gangster, Georges Boucheseiche. From this point on, I would say, certainties end and speculation begins as to what then happened to my father. What is known is that General Oufkir, the Moroccan Minister of the Interior, was informed that the "parcel" had been delivered. His deputy, commander Ahmed Dlimi, was also informed. The following day, they both arrived in Paris.
There were various comings and goings at the house. We do not know exactly who by, but we do know that from this time on we lose all trace of my father. We can suppose that he was assassinated, but we don't know who who killed him, nor how, nor the whereabouts of his corpse. Was the corpse kept in France, or was it sent to Morocco? Or else, as some people claim, was the Mossad, the Israeli secret services, charged with getting rid of it? To this day, 34 years after the events, we still have no definite answers to these questions.
From the outset, the elimination of my father was one of the political objectives of the Moroccan authorities. This objective resulted in several attempted assassinations and two official death sentences. The ideas my father developed were seen as a political alternative to those of the regime which had shown it's bankruptcy socially and economically.

"The Moroccan regime was not alone in this affair. It was helped from within the French secret services and by the crooks who worked for them. Coordinated action between French and Moroccan police had already been used against the Moroccan opposition in France. There was also involvement by the Mossad which gave at least "logistical" support to the Moroccan secret services in the perpetration of the crime. Numerous investigations carried out in Israel, in France, and in the United States enable us to confirm categorically the involvement of the Mossad in this affair. From 1967 onwards, revelations in the Israeli press about the involvement of the Mossad in the assassination of my father indicate that this led to an important crisis in the government and even to the resignation of the Israeli Prime Minister at that time.

"One can also assume that the CIA was involved in one way or another. My father was preparing, in 1965, the Tricontinental Conference which was to bring together representatives of national liberation movements and progressive parties from Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the time, many African countries were still under colonial rule. Apartheid still held sway in South Africa. Portugal still had it's colonial possessions and even in those countries which had gained their independence, important mass struggles were developing. The Havana conference was to lay the basis for concerted solidarity action between these different struggles. Mehdi Ben Barka was the Chairman of the committee preparing this initiative and his activity could not escape the attention of the most powerful imperialist country. The conference was held in January 1966 but, unfortunately, without the man who had prepared it".

In Morocco there was a general strike over Ben Barka's disappearance, which testifies both to his popularity, and the people's reasonable assumption that their government's skulduggery was involved.

Israeli Connection: No Bul

In September 1966 a sensational Israeli magazine called Bul reported that Israel's Mossad secret service, working through a Moroccan Jewish businessman based in Europe, had helped organise Ben Barka's kidnap for the Moroccan secret police. Bul means "bullseye" , and for scoring this one the magazine had all its copies seized. Editors Maxim Gilan and Shmuel Mor were tried in secret, on charges of endangering state security, and jailed.
Whether or not he had known about the operation, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was worried about the effect on Israel's international relations, and tried to suppress information, but internal conflict in both the secret state and political leadership ensured the story was leaked not just to Bul but to the international press, and so Israeli papers followed.
Mossad and Moroccan Internal Security Minister Muhammad Oufkir had got to know each other. In 1961, after a Mossad-run ship carrying Moroccan Jews to Israel went down with the loss of 44 lives General Oufkir cracked down, rounding up and torturing members of the Zionist underground Misgeret, but no Mossad agents were caught. After King Hassan II came to the throne the Moroccan authorities began facilitating emigration. In 1965 General Oufkir was secretly brought to Israel by David Kimche of Mossad. He asked for the Israeli agency's help in tracking down and murdering Ben Barka.
(see Israel's Secret Wars, Ian Black and Benny Morris, 1991).

American angle (or Angleton?)

If Charles de Gaulle was exasperated to find the SDECE agents sometimes following what seemed like their own policy rather than his, it may be not just because old habits died hard for right-wing agents, veterans of the struggle over Algeria, but because they looked up to a higher authority than their own government- the American CIA.

Around the time of Ben Barka's kidnapping the Israeli Mossad was moving into closer working with the CIA. The US agency's James Jesus Angleton, notorious for plotting false-flag operations and political coups, was keen to involve them.

In his early days as a leader of Moroccan independence Ben Barka had caught the eye of the US State Department which wanted to replace French influence. He was invited to Washington to meet with top government officials and Congressmen. But when he was accused of plotting against the king, and even more when he started supporting Cuba and talking about the October Revolution, the interest was bound to change.

Time magazine reported in its international edition of December 29, 1975, that in 1964 Minister Oufkir had asked the U.S. ambassador in Rabat for U.S. help in "bringing Ben Barka before a Moroccan court." The magazine said this request was relayed to CIA headquarters in Europe, but "there is no evidence that the CIA ever accepted the invitation." The CIA may bring people in but is not noted for getting them to court.

In June 2001 a retired Moroccan secret policeman Ahmed Boukhari stated that three CIA agents had been assigned to the Moroccan Counter-Subversion police bureau in Rabat from 1960 to 1967. Boukhari, said a CIA agent known to him as "Colonel Martin" followed the preparations to abduct Ben Barka and would have known about his death. According to Boukhari, Ben Barka had died during interrogation in a villa south of Paris. He said Ben Barka's body was then taken back to Morocco and destroyed in a vat of acid. The acid vat, whose plans were reproduced by the newspapers, had been constructed under instructions from "Colonel Martin", who had learnt this technique for making corpses disappear while working in the Shah's Iran in the 1950s.

According to another account, Ben Barka's body was encased in concrete and buried outside Paris, except for the head which General Oufkir took back to show the Moroccan king. Whatever the grisly truth, the body has not been found.

On March 1, 1976, Bachir Ben Barka, requested documents pertaining to his father under the Freedom of Information act. The CIA, in a reply dated August 11, 1976, referred to 1,846 pertinent documents, but later declined to release them, citing "national security". While a few documents were later sent to the applicant, the vast majority have never been released. Since Boukhari's statements on US involvment, Human Rights Watch has made several requests to the US authorities to release the files they have.

* This is not the first film inspired by the Ben Barka story. The affaire has inspired fictional thrillers. But more important, Moroccan-born Simone Bitton, best-known here for her film Mur, about people either side of Israel's "security fence" or Apartheid wall, has directed a film called Ben Barka; The Moroccan Equation, about Ben Barka's life and significance as a political leader, rather than just the circumstances of his death.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Persecuted in Pakistan, denied refuge in Britain

The plight of an Asian Christian family

BRITISH government ministers and media persons condemning "Islamic fundamentalism" and seclusion behind the veil say they are concerned for tolerance and freedom. They only want immigrants and minorities to integrate with "our society", and "our values", so we are assured. And even the most strident voices against Muslim attitudes and behaviour will tell us their views have nothing to do with racialism.

So the Karim family should expect a welcome, and not experience any problems being accepted in this country ...

Nigel and Pearl Karim came to Britain with their children Calvin, now 11, and Crystal, 13, because as practising Christians in Pakistan they faced persecution by Muslim bigots. The family have been living in Nelson, Lancashire since 2002, and are parishioners of the Holy Saviour Roman Catholic Church there. But neither their claim to refugee status nor being respectable working people integrated into the local community is good enough for the Home Office. The Karims are threatened with deportation to Pakistan. In May this year immigration officials took them to Yarleswood detention centre in Bedfordshire. On that occasion it emerged important paperwork intended for the Home Office had been lost.

Then a week ago a letter from the Home Office arrived and the Karims were told by their solicitor their case had been rejected and they had no right of appeal. Devastated by this decision, the family asked why their evidence of being persecuted in Pakistan seemed to have been ignored. They were incensed to discover that the Home Office did not accept their evidence was genuine.

The official letter said: "We are aware that there is a high level of corruption in Pakistan and it is possible to obtain many types of fraudulent documents or documents that are fraudulently authenticated by a bona fide stamp of authority." Another excerpt said it would not be difficult to have newspaper articles published depicting certain situations or a prosecution. It ended by inviting the family to apply to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for money to help fund their relocation to Pakistan.

Pearl said: "I ask why me? Why is this family being singled out? They are just kicking us about like a football and the Home Office want us to get out by hook or by crook."I say make use of me, let me work, don't offer me money. They give money to every Tom, Dick and Harry using and abusing the system, but I want to work." Nigel agreed, he said: "The IOM sends people home voluntarily if they want to go and people can apply for £3,000 a head to help them move. That could mean £12,000 for this family.

"But I came here for the safety of my family. If they gave me £10,000 per person to go back I wouldn't do it. We are not here for economic reasons. What if we were to go back and something happened to my family?"

Despite the fact the family have been in the country for four years the letter also told the Karims that meeting friends and undertaking voluntary work wasn't advisable as they may be forced to leave the country at short notice."My children have to go to school," said Pearl. "But they don't sit in one corner and say 'don't come near us, we are asylum seekers'."The children were very little when they came. They have had their eyes opened and started to learn about life in this country."What these people don't realise is that we do not have a home. We are Christians and in Pakistan that means we are second class Asians, no matter how qualified we are."

Note that the Home Office does not say the family's evidence has been faked, but simply asserts that it could be, because of the "high level of corruption in Pakistan". This reminds me of a story I heard once about a police constable many years ago saying that he knew the accused was lying and guilty, because of the man's religious background, that they all lied. Only in that story the judge immediately threw the case out. Whereas, it seems when you are up against immigration you are guilty until you can prove innocence - and that's not that easy (except if you are white).

After news on the Karim family was posted in the Labour Left Briefing discussion list, a former Home Office(HO) immigration officer who knows how the department operates was moved to comment:-
"HO has sophisticated forgery detection teams/eqipment, it's probably more that they believe anyone could say they were a member of the Christian church there and easily produce documents so this doesn't necessarily prove that they are being persecuted but of course this kind of generalisation which was used all the time when I was at Heathrow dosen't prove that they weren't either, it sounds like they are one of a block of refusals such as we had to do for Nigerians who said they were in the Campign for Democracy, and usually just had a simple card or letter to state this. But of couse HO know full well that not all asylum seekers will have documentary evidence just as they know that it is impossible to get out of some countries and travel to the West without using forged docs along the way so when I was there (under Howard and Widdecombe ironically) this was accepted but nowthey are using any forged or counterfeit docs as an excuse to remove(deport) people which is morally wrong if they had no other way out. It sounds to me as if this family were meant to be rounded up and detained as one of Blair's latest boasts of high removal figures ...."

Our informant believes things have got worse under Labour, and that because it is not always easy to deport people to some countries, unscrupulous officials may be having to bend their own rules to meet impossible targets.

"To return to the Karims as they (shockingly) have no right of appeal these days their only option is John Reid ..."

Referring to the family's circumstances and entitlement to compassionate treatment, particularly in the current state of affairs, the writer adds: "Don't be fobbed off by a stock refusal letter with a generalised summary of the supposed conditions in Pakistan and assesment of religious persecution there as these are very often economical with the truth or at least over-generalised in nature, I know as I used to serve them. Most of them are the same for applicants from the relevant country, yet the applicants circs may be different, sometimes they put in some justifications pertinent in their opinion to the particular case and I often had to deal with some extremely upset people who said what they's written was wrong, unjust etc or who didn't agree but were sadly subdued into silence.

"I would try to cheer them up a little by making sure they had the papers for an appeal and wereaware of their appeal rights (even if I didn't think they had a hope in hell according to the decisions HO were making for those of their circs/nationality at the time) but I'm afraid some of my less scrupulous and probably more right wing colleagues didn't always do this which is partly why I used to volunteer to do FR interviews and serve these papers myself...

"The HO in my day was very canny as on the training course they warned us not to be swayed by the fact that people may have put down roots here e.g. had children and they know that applicants will use the media etc to get attention and that previous staff like me will sometimes lobby them on applicants' behalf and of course they receive representations from MPs I have now done this myself while working for an MP.

The former immigration officer describes how often even torture victims have found it difficult to get their cases heard and considered properly under changing Home Office rules which on the basis of a few frivolous cases punish the great majority of genuine ones. She also notes that incomers from Australia or white South Africans find it much easier to get permission to stay and work here than applicants from other countries, and that restrictions are being relaxed for some immigrants, but says meantime we have to work within the unjust system as best we can. "Please ensure this family gets a fair hearing".

The Karim family have seen their MP Gordon Prentice, and he wrote to Home Secretary John Reid asking him to excercise his discretion and let them stay.
"This is a last resort for the family as all appeals have been exhausted and there is no further appeal that can be legally made," he said."I have known the Karims for some years now and they have been battling moves to deport them and I have supported them," said Mr Prentice."They are well integrated, they have children here and they are a part and parcel of the local community. The school has spoken vociferously on their behalf and petitions have been given to me and passed on. The Catholic Church and clerics have been to see me and there is just a huge amount of goodwill there for them and I recognise that."I am going to do my best for my constituents so we shall wait and see what happens. I have asked the speaker for a debate in the Commons and if I do get a debate then I will speak about the plight of Christians in Pakistan."

In light of this most recent development a major effort has been launched by friends and supporters of the Karims. Mr Brendan Conboy, Calvin and Crystal's headteacher at Fisher-More RC High School, said the school and church community was desperate to help the family in any way possible.Many people have written to the Home Secretary as well as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England.Holy Saviour Church, Nelson, has also set up a prayer appeal on its website to raise awareness of the family's situation.The family has urged anyone willing to help to visit the website and write to the Home Office. Pearl said: "I think the more people that get involved the faster the message will get across to the relevant people. That is what we want, more people to to know about our situation and what the Home Office is trying to do to us."
(from Nelson Today)

For more information people should visit,_.___

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Hanging Matters. From Denshawai to Suez

GALLOWS GRIM, Glories of Empire.
Relatives watch hanging at Denshawai,

Egypt, 100 years ago under British protectorate.

WITH the 50th anniversary this year of both the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez war and the Russian suppression of the Hungarian people's revolt, there are various discussions, TV programmes and publications reviewing events. I've been reading "Suez 1956", by Barry Turner, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
It's a good read, both on the political background and how the military events unfolded. Drawing both on accounts by those involved and subsequent evaluation, Turner shows how leading figures were sometimes reluctant to admit the truth, even to themselves, and shows how the campaign was both a military failure and political disaster, achieving the opposite to the results intended.

I particularly liked his description of how that fine old statesman Sir Anthony Eden continued desperately denying there had been collusion in launching the attack between Britain, France and Israel. The official British government line was that British forces went in like policemen to separate Egyptians and Israelis. (and "If you can believe that, gentlemen, you will believe anything", as the Iron Duke once said).

"Two middle-ranking Foreign Office people were told to put together a file of all the sensitive papers on Suez and deliver it to Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary. The files were never seen again. At Chequers the last pointer to Eden's meeting with General Challe, when the Israeli plot was first mooted, was removed when someone scratched out Challe's name in the visitors' book, replacing it with the name of an offcial who would not normally have even signed in."

In Parliament, Eden declared "I want to say this ..and to say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt - there was not."

I'll be having more to say on this collusion, and Tory hypocrisy.

But meanwhile I'd like to mention one cark with Barry Turner's book, though not directly related to his thesis. On page 80, dealing with Zionist terrorism in mandatory Palestine he mentions the Irgun Zvai Leumi's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then being used as headquarters by the British military, and civil administration. (This took place on July 22,1946, and the anniversary was marked this year by a public ceremony). He then goes on: "The shock was made yet more brutal by the murder of two British sergeants, their booby-trapped bodies left hanging in a eucalyptus grove near Nathanya".

This was indeed a barbarous act, made gratuitously so by the booby-trapping. So far as I know the two soldiers were guilty of no crime other than the uniform they were wearing. But what the author does not mention is that the unfortunate men were hanged after a warning, in retaliation for the British hanging of captured Irgun men. It seems to have had one salutary effect, as not until Adolf Eichman was anyone hanged in Israel/Palestine again.

Twenty years previously it had been Arab Palestine in revolt, against Zionist settlement and the British, and in suppressing that 1936 general strike and revolt the British forces killed thousands of Palestinians and demolished entire villagers, hanging villagers if they were so much as caught in possession of a firearm. In 1938 an officer called Bernard Montgomery took command. In 1939 alone they hanged 109 Palestinian prisoners. Next time you hear some lamebrain declaring that Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians is "as bad as, if not worse, than the Nazis", you can correct them, saying "No, but it is almost as bad as the British".

I am grateful to Barry Turner for bringing my attention to another hanging episode. This year 2006 is over-rich in anniversaries, and among those we missed was the centenary of the Denshawai incident. A hundred years ago, Egypt was one of those bits shaded pink on the map, more or less ruled as a British protectorate, after British and French forces had gone in to recover the debts its government had fallen into.

On 13 June, 1906, a party of British officers, apparently having nothing better to do, set off on a pigeon-shooting expedition to Denshawai, a Nile delta village. Perhaps they did not know, or did not care, that the birds they shot at were reared in towers above people's homes much as English villages once kept dovecotes. So as far as locals were concerned, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, it was like a bunch of foreigners coming round your green and bagging ducks and poultry.

To make matters worse, fire from one of the guns apparently set alight grain on a village threshing floor, and when the owner tried to seize the gun it was discharged, wounding his wife. Altogether five villagers were wounded, and locals chased the intruders off with stones. One of the officers was injured in the head, and later died from sunstroke.

The British insisted on vengeance. Fifty-two members of the village were put on trial before a special tribunal, presided over by a stooge called Boutros Ghali (now where did I hear that name?)for premeditated murder. Thirty-two were found guilty: eight to be flogged, others sentenced to penal servitude, and four male villagers to be hanged in public. The British governor Lord Cromer (of the banking family Barings) confirmed the sentences. Egypt's Khedive, or viceroy, who might have been more lenient, had been ignored and bypassed.

There were protests in Britain as well as in Egypt, where patriotic opposition to British rule now turned from intellectual idea to a mass popular movement. Cromer retired, though not apparently due to the Denshawai affair, and sentences were reduced and prisoners released, though that could not bring the four hanged men back, nor heal the scars left in people's minds after those on the backs of those flogged might have healed. Boutros Ghali, who had become prime minister, was assassinated after agreeing a forty year extension to the Suez canal company's territorial concession.

It would be half a century before Nasser told cheering crowds that Egypt was going to nationalise the canal, and British imperialists fumed at his audacity.

It's all a long time ago. Even Suez 50 years ago may seem remote and strange to a younger generation, though Barry Turner does not hesitate to link that supposedly last imperialist fling with current wars and occupations. I don't know whether British colonialists brought any new refined brutality to the Middle East with their use of floggings and hangings, as the Romans had done when they introduced crucifixion. But the foreign rulers did impress with their enthusiasm.

Today, when we are hearing about soldiers gouging old men's eyes after kicking them in the kidneys, there is a new fashion for historians to comfort us with revised versions of imperial history and the many civilising benefits it brought to those whose countries were benevolently looked after. Shame my Dad, who spent much of his younger life soldiering for the Empire because it had seemed the alternative to hunger on the dole, is not around to guffaw derision at this. He had a sharp eye for bullshit.

But now seems good a time as any for remembering what really happened.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Buried alive by the NCB"

Forty years after disaster at Aberfan

At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21, 1966 a waste tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Down below it was foggy in the valley, and people heard the rumble before they could see what was happening. The black avalanche destroyed a farm cottage in its path, killing all the occupants. It continued down to Pantglas Junior School, where the children had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their assembly.

Gaynor Minett, an eight-year-old at the school, remembered four years later:
"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes."

Men working above the tip had tried to run and give warning. They had no phone, apparently because the cables had previously been stolen. In any case even a 'phone warning would not have ennabled anyone to move in time, it all happened so quickly. The slide engulfed the school and about 20 houses in the village before coming to rest. Altogether 144 people died in the Aberfan disaster: 116 of them were school children. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School, and five of their teachers, were killed.

"Buried alive by the NCB!" was one father's bitter verdict, shouted aloud at the inquest. Though volunteers had rushed to help local people and rescue teams at the disaster scene, Lord Robens of Walsingham, the former Labour MP Alf Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) had carried on with his scheduled business, going to accept an appointment as chancellor of the University of Surrey. He would try and hide the causes of the slide and claim that nothing could have been done to prevent it. He never apologised.

A Tribunal of Inquiry found that the National Coal Board had been responsible for the disaster, "due to ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication".
The Aberfan disaster was not some unpredictable freak of nature. It could have been foreseen. Aberfan lies below Merthyr Mountain, on the bank of the River Taff, near the Merthyr Vale colliery. Like other mountain areas in Britain it has a high rainfall. Where mining subsidence has accentuated cracks in the sandstone of the mountain, the water penetrates down until it reaches layers of coal or clay, when it bubbles back to the surface as springs and streams down the slopes. One such stream was buried under Tip 7.

As far back as 1927 a Professor Knox delivered a paper to the South Wales Institute of Engineers in Cardiff, warning that if water accumulated in tips it would cause landslides. Collieries which failed to pay for drainage to remove the water would end up paying compensation for the results. Among those who studied this paper was a man who would later be Production Director of the NCB's South Western Division, covering Merthyr Vale, near Aberfan.

Before nationalisation, in 1947, the mines in this area were owned by the Powell Duffryn company. It was at one of their collieries, the Albion, five miles from Aberfan, that on December 5, 1939, some 180,000 tons of wste from a tip slid down the hillside, into the road, the canal and the River Taff. Powell Duffryn commissioned a consultant engineer to investigate, and he produced a study called "The Sliding of Colliery Rubbish Tips".

In November 1944 a large part of the conical Tip No.4 at Merthyr Vale slipped down the hillside. The tip had partly lay on loose material left from an earlier slide. Earlier that year company officials had assured the local council that there was no immediate danger from the tip, and said they were starting to have drainage trenches dug. When the November slip happened the colliery agent blamed the rain, and told the council it could have been worse but for the drainage channels. In fact the No4 tip had buried 400 foot of a stream.

By the time of the Aberfan disaster the waste was being tipped on Tip.No7, and there was a new danger. Mechanised mining methods brought a new kind of waste, fine dust left when the smallest amounts of coal were extracted. These tailings could not be piled high as more solid material, and their inclusion considerably lowered the "angle of repose" at which a pile would settle significantly. In rain they could turn to a wet slurry, sliding down into watercourses, then drying to form a solid blockage behind which more water accumulated until it flooded.

Already in 1959 and 1960 the council, backed by the Merthyr Vale Labour Party, had raised concern over flooding and the dangers of tip slides. In 1963 part of the foot of Tip No.7 was washed away by a spring, leaving a steep face over 70ft. high. A consulative committee, attended by miners' representatives and others on November 26, 1963, heard fears of further slides. The colliery manager visited the tip, and decided tipping of tailings must stop. There had already been a decision in the South Western Division that such waste should be poured into disused shafts. But the tipping continued.

On March 29, 1965, at Tymawr, a tailings lagoon held behind rubbish at the base of a tip burst its banks and flowed over railway tracks and the main road for hundreds of yards, wrecking cars in the car park and threatening to flow into the mine shafts. It cost the NCB £20,000 but somehow the incident never made into records at the Board's headquarters. Nor had the 1963 slides of waste at Tip 7 over by Aberfan.

Yet local people did express fears about what could happen if waste contnued to be tipped on the hillside behind their school. The Merthyr Express reported on January 11 1964 that a local councillor warned a planning meeting "if the tip moved it could threaten the whole school".

Perhaps other voices were getting more attention. On 7 July 1965, the colliery manager and senior engineers from the area NCB visited the Aberfan tips with the managing director of a fuel company that was interested in reclaiming coal from the waste tips. Apparently they saw no evidence of anything wrong or any instability.

And so on Friday, 21 October 1966, at 9.15 am, after smaller movements, the big slide began. Down the hillside came 140,000 tons of waste. At the bottom part it appeared as liquid, like a cold black lava tide. Smashing through two mains water pipes its flow increased, crossing a railway embankment to engulf more homes.

The tribunal found that the disaster could and should have been prevented. The main cause was a build-up of water in the pile and, when a small slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy and it flowed down the mountain. In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on earlier Ordnance Survey maps, and it had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known, both to colliery management and to tip workers but very little was done about it. The Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any wrongdoing. No NCB employee was sacked, demoted, or even disciplined. The NCB was ordered to pay compensation, though much of this was made up by government, and compensation to local families was later reduced because they had received sums from an appeal fund.

Labour's nationalisation of industries like coal in 1947 did not remove them from capitalism. On the contrary, they were expected to show a profit after paying out interest on loans made to compensate the former coal owners, who had risked miners' safety and pocketed subsidies, and continued recieving payments even when their former mines were closed as "uneconomic". State owned industries were modernised at public expense to serve the private sector, while neither their workers nor the public gained any control over bureaucratic management.

Bosses and bureaucrats anywhere, management members, aim to increase profit, keep down costs, empty their in-trays, look the other way when necessary, endear themselves to their superiors, raise their status and earnings, and make sure anything that goes wrong will be blamed on someone else, preferably lower down in the workforce, or on unpredictable factors beyond their control. Anyone, manager or worker, who sees their responsibility to the wider comunity, the environment and humanity is asking for trouble with their careers, and woe betide the worker who speaks out of turn let alone expects a say in things.

Since Aberfan we have seen several major disasters, not least in the Thatcher era of "deregulation" - the Kings Cross fire(1987), the sinking of the aptly- named Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge(1987) and the Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames, and major rail crashes, not to mention the continuing toll on workers' lives in the construction industry. Nor can we forget that this year was the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. State ownership with bureaucratic rule and control of information does not equal socialism. But we know that if global capital continues its way, under whatever political labels, the planet itself is threatened.

At the Labour Party conference in Manchester last month the party leadership was defeated on issues of public housing, privatisation in the Health Service, and the watering-down of the government's long awaited Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Bill. Transport and General Workers' general secretary Tony Woodley said the bill only allowed companies to be fined, and would give guilty directors a "get out of jail free" card.

We will see whether this government takes more notice of union or Labour party members, or continues listening to the City and big employers. The tide of opinion in this country has swung against big business and privatisation, but on this as on the peace and war issues, the public mood still needs to find political expression. Socialists should be getting far more support, but whether in the Labour Party or out of, we have to ask how we realise this potential.

As we remember the victims of Aberfan, the children slaughtered when their lives had hardly begun, let us recognise the human cost of continuing to subordinate everything to profit, and the need to gain not just public ownership but democratic control by society over our industries and environment. It is a life and death question.


Much of the information about the history leading up to the disaster is from Victor Bignell's study on the Aberfan Disaster in Catastrophic Failures, published 1977 by the Open University.

I was spurred to write something on this by a TV news item on the village marking the anniversary, but also by fellow-blogger Mark Elf covering it in his blog Jews Without Frontiers. He also provides a reference to other resources at

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Czech your alarms

POLITICAL rally around Jan Huss monument in Prague. But Czech government wants to restrict who can utilise such freedoms.

IT seems that those who boast that they have vanquished socialism aren't taking too many chances. Czech president Vaclav Klaus came to prominence as an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and her free market ideas, although he has since then benefitted from backing by remnants of Czech Stalinism.

Capitalist free for all does not mean freedom for all. The Czech Interior Ministry announced last week that it had decided to ban the country's Union of Communist Youth (KSM).

An interior ministry spokeswoman said the Communist youth movement was striving to replace the private ownership of the means of production with nationalisation, which, she said, was against the Czech constitution.
The ministry says the KSM, which claims some 600 members, is illegal anyway because it is based on Marxism and believes in workers' revolution.

The organisation has 30 days to launch an appeal, but says it has already tried negotiating with the ministry, since being warned of the ban last year, and collected thousands of signatures at home and abroad against the ban, which would prevent it holding rallies and other activities and fundraising..

"I think it is a shameful witch hunt", Dr.Josef Skala of the Czech Communist Party told a Radio Prague interviewer. " Any democrat, not only a Marxist, should ask the question what sort of danger these 600 young girls and guys represent for democracy in the Czech Republic. Only for claiming what the original Christians were claiming. The question is how democratic the right-wing forces in this country can be. What is their relation to democracy?"
Pointing out that the Czech constitution is also supposed to guarantee freedom of speech and opinion, and asking what the young Communists had done to violate the constitution., he added a pointed challenge:

"Can anybody show me one practical deed and compare it with the right-wing rowdies who apply violence in the streets of the Czech Republic, with fascist symbols and so on? And they survive, no-one bans them. That's a very interesting comparison, isn't it?"

Indeed it is. But while neo-Nazi thugs have carried out violent attacks on Roma and other minorities, besmirching their country's name and the memories of Lidice and Terezin, it may be that the Communist Youth have committed a different offence.

As part of its prize for joining "the West", the Czech Republic has been permitted to participate in the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be able to host US bases in its territory.

The Czech parliament's petition committee recently discussed four petitions against the proposed construction of a US missile defence base on Czech territory which nearly 40,000 Czechs have signed. Defence Minister Jiri Sedivy defended the possible location of the base in the Czech Republic by pointing to the alleged threat of a missile attack from Iran and North Korea, which he said would be able to produce weapons of mass destruction in 5 to 15 years. But many people suspect hosting US forces makes them more likely to be a target, as well as forming part of moves to encircle the former Soviet Union.

As the Prague Daily Monitor reported today, "The Communist Youth Union (KSM) has collected the largest number of signatures - more than 33,000 under its petition against the base. The KSM cooperates with the Soldiers Against War civic association and the parliamentary Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) in its petition campaign. All KSCM deputies have signed " ... gn-petitions-against-US-missile-base

The Communist Party has benefitted from disillusionment with capitalist restoration, and worries over the Czech place in a German and US-dominated Europe. With 13.9 per cent of votes in this year's elections it is the third largest party in parliament, and hopes to use this for bargaining power. Representing past bureaucratic privilege behind the "Communist" name that it has kept, it has protested the ban on the youth movement, but leaders also told the young communists to back down and alter their aims to fit in with the constitution.
(something the party itself had already done).

Whatever we think of the Stalinists' record, we cannot accept the capitalist government's right to ban the communist youth. The reasons given for the ban - and here we must be grateful for the Czech government's honesty - would apply to any of us who consider ourselves Marxist, and believe the working class must gain power to change society from one based on profit to one based on human need, a change made all the more urgent by the way global capitalism is ruining this planet. Even the British Labour Party, were it to return to the aims enshrined in the famous Clause IV, section Four - to secure for the workers the full fruits of their labour by means of public ownership and democratic control - would fall foul of the Czech Interior Ministry's ruling interpreting the constitution.

Czechoslovakia, we once learned the hard way, was not just "a faraway country of which we know so little". The Czech Republic, as an EU member, must guarantee the same human rights we demand for ourselves, lest its restrictions become a precedent for attacks on us all. Hands off the Union of Communist Youth and all other left-wing Czechs!

  • ROMA human rights campaigners have welcomed a UN report condemning the forced sterilisation of Roma women in both Hungary and the Czech Republic. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women cited cases of individuals sterilised without informed consent as recently as 2004, and criticised the Czech government's failure to "adopt legislative changes on consent to sterilisation as to provide justice for victims of such acts". It also noted continued social discrimination against Roma, and failure to act against discrimination.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Land of the Free?

GEORGE W. BUSH is bringing the "War on Terror" home to Americans, with measures to hit the freedoms that citizens thought their birthright. Some fear the administration can rely on public panic, lack of awareness and tame corporate media to push these measures through without encountering enough resistance.

This warning alarm is sounded in a broadcast on Tuesday evening - A Time Of Shame National yawn as our rights evaporate’, by Keith Olbermann - Anchor, 'Countdown'.

"First thing this morning, the president signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which does away with habeas corpus, the right of suspected terrorists or anybody else to know why they have been imprisoned, provided the president does not think it should apply to you and declares you an enemy combatant.

"Further, the bill allows the CIA to continue using interrogation techniques so long as they do not cause what is deemed, quote, “serious physical or mental pain.” And it lets the president to ostensibly pick and choose which parts of the Geneva Convention to obey, though to hear him describe this, this repudiation of the freedoms for which all our soldiers have died is a good thing."

Video and transcript.

They are interested to know what you are interested in

Those of us compensating for our lack of power or media ownership by chattering away on the Internet might note another move afoot to close or restrict this window of freedom. Here's an extract from a report by Declan McCullagh:

"FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday called on Internet service providers to record their customers' online activities, a move that anticipates a fierce debate over privacy and law enforcement in Washington next year. 'Terrorists coordinate their plans cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, as do violent sexual predators prowling chat rooms,' Mueller said in a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Boston.

"'All too often, we find that before we can catch these offenders, Internet service providers have unwittingly deleted the very records that would help us identify these offenders and protect future victims,' Mueller said. 'We must find a balance between the legitimate need for privacy and law enforcement's clear need for access'.

"The speech to the law enforcement group, which approved a resolution on the topic earlier in the day, echoes other calls from Bush administration officials to force private firms to record information about customers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for instance, told Congress last month that "this is a national problem that requires federal legislation."

Justice Department officials admit privately that data retention legislation is controversial enough that there wasn't time to ease it through the U.S. Congress before politicians left to campaign for re-election. Instead, the idea is expected to surface in early 2007, and one Democratic politician has already promised legislation.

Law enforcement groups claim that by the time they contact Internet service providers, customers' records may have been deleted in the routine course of business. Industry representatives, however, say that if police respond to tips promptly instead of dawdling, it would be difficult to imagine any investigation that would be imperiled.

'One proposal would go beyond Internet providers and require registrars, the companies that sell domain names, to maintain records too. And during private meetings with industry officials, FBI and Justice Department representatives have cited the desirability of also forcing search engines to keep logs--a proposal that could gain additional law enforcement support after AOL showed how useful such records could be in investigations.
A representative of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said he was not able to provide a copy of the resolution.

'At the moment, Internet service providers typically discard any log file that's no longer required for business reasons such as network monitoring, fraud prevention or billing disputes. Companies do, however, alter that general rule when contacted by police performing an investigation--a practice called data preservation.

'A 1996 federal law called the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act regulates data preservation. It requires Internet providers to retain any "record" in their possession for 90 days "upon the request of a governmental entity."'

Not surprisingly, to those of us familiar with the ways of British government, it seems Britain is leading the way in moves to control the Internet:

"When adopting its data retention rules, the European Parliament approved U.K.-backed requirements saying that communications providers in its 25 member countries--several of which had enacted their own data retention laws already--must retain customer data for a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years.

"The Europe-wide requirement applies to a wide variety of "traffic" and "location" data, including: the identities of the customers' correspondents; the date, time and duration of phone calls, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls or e-mail messages; and the location of the device used for the communications. But the "content" of the communications is not supposed to be retained. The rules are expected to take effect in 2008."

The FBI director's reference to "terrorists" and "violent sexual predators" is just the way those in power use current panics to conceal their wider aim. The call to monitor Internet customers reminds us of the reported request to library staffs to keep records on who gets out which books.

Note how nothing is said about controlling websites inciting violence, or exploiting children for degrading pornography. Business is business, and though material and victims are now provided from eastern Europe, we'd guess most of the porn websites are still hosted in the USA. So is the Redwatch site used by British and European Nazis to circulate details on people targetted for death threats and violence. But the current stereotype of "terrorist" does not feature those who are right-wing and white.

Can governments or commercial Internet Service Providers be trusted to respect our freedoms and not interfere with legitimate communication? Well, some while ago a friend and I found some e-mails were being blocked from reaching people, and intended recipients were neither consulted nor informed. It transpired that AOL was responding to a call from someone to block anything containing the web address of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom. This automatically triggered university servers to reject such e-mails - just at a time when academics were debating whether to boycott Israeli institutions and might have been interested in what left-wing Israelis had to say.

The timing might have been a coincidence. But I expect we can guess what kind of bodies might have sought to block the views coming from Gush Shalom.
(for instance the US-based B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League which has objected to Gush Shalom website material before also boasts of its efforts to secure co-operation from Internet Service Providers.) As it happens a way was found around this censorship, but no apology was ever recieved, nor any admission there had been anything wrong. After all, we have heard how big companies co-operate with the requitements of the Chinese authorities in restricting material, so how much more willing might they be to collaborate patriotically with the authorities in the USA?


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Able to work and to fight for their rights!

NO, the big one with the red nose isn't me, so while Special Branch check their files for an ID, let me explain that he was one of the figures who, together with the guys in orange suits invaded Liverpool's Adelphi hotel last year to speak to delegates attending a trades union councils' conference (like the person with red delegate's bag) about fears that government was switching work from the Remploy tailoring factory where they worked to private companies.

Remploy is a public agency providing paid employment and training for disabled workers, and maybe "disabled" is a misleading term, never mind politically incorrect, because its skilled workforce have shown they could do vital specialist work producing
protective clothing such as Chemical and Biological Warfare suits for government at home and abroad.

Letting disabled workers become skilled craftspeople who more than earn their keep might seem the sort of thing everyone, and any government, would support unconditionally. But while the Blair government wants to "help" disabled people back into jobs by threatening their benefits, it is less concerned with ensuring there are reasonably paid job openings. In this as other fields, public enterprise and social need are up against the nasty, brutish insistence on privileging private interests and exploiters which New Labour inherited from Thatcherism.

These disabled workers are not only able to do skilled work, however, but as in Liverpool where their "Mr.Blobby" characters as above brought Saturday morning traffic in the city centre to a standstill, they can also stage imaginative protests. This afternoon workers from Reploy factories are due to raise their protests outside Arsenal's new stadium in North London before the game against Watford.

The Transport and General Workers Union and the GMB say a Remploy factory close to the Emirates stadium is being compulsorily purchased as part of the ongoing development of the area, but there had been no guarantee of a new plant to replace it. The unions fear that Remploy, which employs 5,000 disabled workers in 83 sites across the UK, is planning a number of factory closures over the next few years. They have warned that if any Remploy factories are closed they will ballot workers for industrial action.

Phil Davies, national officer of the GMB said: "Arsenal has done everything right by agreeing to pay a substantial amount of money to Remploy for the site." But he warned that many disabled Arsenal fans faced losing their jobs if a new factory was not opened in the area.

Jennie Formby, national officer of the Transport and General Workers Union, said: "We'll be asking fans to back our campaign to get the Holloway site relocated, as the club were led to believe and as our members were promised."

Meanwhile .... A Health Warning for the Government

In Oxford, Brighton and Haywards Heath today people will be taking part in the latest demonstrations around the country over cuts in hospital and other health services.

Health workers are being sacked, and up to 60 main acute hospitals could be closed or downgraded because of cuts due to the financial crisis in the National Health Service(NHS).

Geoff Martin, of Health Emergency, said: "This weekend thousands more people will join the national fightback against the government's cuts programme for the NHS. They know that the planned axing of front line services has nothing to do with a rational planning process and everything to do with hacking back the NHS budget".

Many more protests are planned. "We've warned before", says Martin, "the anger at NHS cuts could become New Labour's poll tax and the government would be well advised to back off on the closure programme or risk electoral meltdown."

The trouble is, that whereas the poll tax became a focus for the anger that brought down Margaret Thatcher and eventually put in a Labour government,
Blair and Gordon Brown can carry on confident the public has nowhere else to go, at present. If the only result is a Tory government getting back they can retire to opposition, safe in the knowledge they'll not lose too much financially, and the policies will continue.

The various protests around the country need to be united in recognition that what is happening to your local hospital is a national, indeed international issue; and you need a political alternative going beyond protest.

But saying which, here are some details I've been sent about things happening in Greater London:

  • North West London: Where the busy Accident and Emergency services at Park Royal (Central Middlesex) hospital are threatened, and people would have to traipse up to Northwick Park, which is also in trouble... There's a meeting in Harrow on Thursday, Keep Lyon House & Northwick Park Hospital open. With Dr John Lister, Paul Kenny (GMB), Gloria Mills (TUC president). Organised by Harrow Trade Union Council. October 19, 7.30pm, at the Baptist Church, College Road, Harrow on the Hill. For info e-mail
  • North East London: Save Whipps Cross Hospital public meeting Thursday, 2 November. Waltham Forest Keep Our NHS Public has called a public meeting on Thursday, 2 November to launch a mass campaign to defend Whipps Cross Hospital.
    The meeting will start at 7.30 pm at al Badr Hall, Lea Bridge Road, E17. Speakers confirmed so far include Neil Gerrard MP, Charlotte Monro, Chair of UNISON at Whipps and Indira Mootoosami from the BMA. All three local MPs have been invited to speak and there will also be a speaker from Keep Our NHS Public. The campaigners are running a stall today in Walthamstow Market Square outside the library, and have a planning meeting on Monday evening October 16, 7.30 pm at Quaker Meeting House, 1a, Jewel Road, E17 (off Hoe Street). All welcome.
  • Lobby of Parliament. Join the lobby of Parliament in defence of the NHS called by the TUC, health trade unions and staff associations on Wednesday, 1 November. There will be a rally at 12 noon, Methodist Central Hall, the Sanctuary, SW1.

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Reporter murdered by US forces

A British coroner has recorded a verdict of unlawful killing on Independent Television News (ITN) reporter Terry Lloyd, who was shot dead by US forces in southern Iraq in March 2003. His interpreter died and his cameraman is missing.

The inquest heard how Lloyd was killed while lying in a makeshift ambulance, having already been hurt in American-Iraqi crossfire.

"Terry was shot in the shoulder and had been lying in the sand," an Iraqi driver recounted. "He managed to walk to the car but was too weak to get in without help." The witness also said he had seen Lloyd's press pass and described a white Kuwaiti pass clipped on a yellow short-sleeved shirt. The witness said Mr Lloyd was shot in the head by US troops while the vehicle was leaving the scene.
The coroner is to ask the attorney general to consider pressing charges. Oxfordshire Assistant Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker said he would also be writing to the director of public prosecutions asking for him to investigate the possibility of bringing charges. Lloyd's Lebanese interpreter, Hussein Osman, was also killed and French cameraman Fred Nerac is still officially classed as missing, presumed dead. Belgian cameraman Daniel Demoustier was the ITN crew's only survivor.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said Lloyd's killing was a "war crime", a charge repeated by the reporter's widow, Lyn, in a statement: "This was a very serious war crime, how else can firing on a vehicle in these circumstances be interpreted?" His daughter Chelsey Lloyd said: "The killing of my father would seem to amount to murder which is deeply shocking."

Lloyd and his three colleagues were caught up in a firefight between US and Iraqi forces near the Shatt Al Basra Bridge on 22 March 2003. The coroner said it was his view the American tanks had been first to open fire on the ITN crew's two vehicles. He added Mr Lloyd would probably have survived the first bullet wound he received, but was killed as he travelled away in a makeshift ambulance.Mr Walker said it "presented no threat to American forces" since it was a civilian minibus and was facing away from the US tanks.

"If the vehicle was perceived as a threat, it would have been fired on before it did a U-turn. This would have resulted in damage to the front of the vehicle."I have no doubt it was the fact that the vehicle stopped to pick up survivors that prompted the Americans to fire on that vehicle."

Born in Derby, the son of a Welsh-born policeman, Terry Lloyd had gained a reputation as a tough, intrepid journalist determined to go right into the world's troublespots and report what he saw first-hand. Fifteen years ago, he was the first TV reporter to go into the market town of Halabja in north-east Iraq to see the results of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish people there. At the time some British and US officials denied knowing about the crime, though much later their governments and media would repeatedly invoke it to justify war on their former ally.

In January 1993, Lloyd was the only British TV reporter on the US carrier Kittyhawk, as she launched planes against Iraq, and brought exclusive coverage of the aircraft taking off and the Iraqi targets being hit. The following March he reported on the discovery of mass graves at Ovcara near Vukovar - the remains of hundreds of Croats massacred by the Yugoslav army and its accompanying killers.

In July 1997, Lloyd was in Cambodia reporting on fighting there. But it was for reportting from inside Kosova, following a mountain refugee route through Montenegro with ITN cameraman Mike Inglish, that he won an award.

Lloyd was reporting from Iraq under his own steam, rather than being "embedded" with US or British forces. A former ITN chief executive Stewart Purvis told the inquest in Oxford that though ITN kept the Army informed of its journalists' movements, the Army would not tell them anything in return. "The military did not wish to take any responsibility for [journalists' operating independently of UK forces] to such an extent that in a sense they wouldn't even recognise their existence".

ITN's editor in chief, David Mannion said they fully supported the Lloyd family's desire to "bring those responsible for Terry's death to account before a court of law".He added: "I would also like to say something that I know Terry would have wished me to say."Independent, unilateral reporting, free from official strictures, is crucial; not simply to us as journalists but to the role we play in a free and democratic society."


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bombers Near Pendle

TWO Lancashire men, one of them a former British National Party(BNP) candidate have been remanded in custody and are due to appear at Burnley Crown Court on October 23, after police found what they say was a record haul of chemicals used in bomb-making at a house in Colne.

Robert Cottage (49), of Talbot Street, Colne, and David Bolus Jackson (62), of Trent Road, Nelson, made separate appearances before magistrates last week. They were charged under the Explosive Substances Act(1883) with being in possession of an explosive substance for an unlawful purpose.

Cottage was arrested at his home on Thursday, September 28, while retired dentist Jackson was arrested in the Lancaster area on the Friday, the same day as he left a dental practice in Grange-over-Sands.

It is reported that the 22 chemical components recovered by police were possibly the largest haul ever found at a house in this country.

Cottage is an ex-BNP member who stood as a candidate in the Pendle Council elections in May. Mrs Christiana Buchanan, who appeared for the prosecution in Jackson's case, alleged the pair had "some kind of masterplan". She said a search of Jackson's home had uncovered rocket launchers, chemicals, BNP literature and a nuclear biological suit.

Police raided Cottage's Talbot Street home last week. The house was taped off while forensics officers searched the premises. Neighbours were told to stay in their homes for their own safety. Cottage's car was also taken away for examination. Officers also made a thorough examination of Jackson's Trent Road home and, again, officers were on duty outside the house. Forensics officers examined the property.

This information comes from a local news source,, brought to our attention by someone from that area. The case was also covered by the Lancashire Telegraph, the same paper which broke the story of Jack Straw's aversion to veils.

For some reason I can't remember seeing anything about this case in the national media. I may have missed it. Or ...Could it be that a) Reporters and TV camera crew who gave us nightly coverage of a house in Forest Gate where a man was shot but no bombs or dangerous chemicals were discovered find it hard to obtain travel expenses to cover stories in north-east Lancashire?
or b) The media don't feel obliged to cover cases where the alleged bomb-makers don't sound like Muslims?
or c) some kind of D-notice has been imposed because one of the men charged has been connected with the British National Party? Don't want to publish anything that dispels the far-Right party's law n'order image.

And now, here's some good news to record on a couple of very different cases:

PoW wins case against government discrimination

Diana Elias, who was deemed "not British enough" to be compensated for spending four years as a Japanese prisoner of war has won her case against the government. Mrs. Elias, 83, is entitled to a £10,000 award plus nearly £4,000 for injury to her feelings, the Court of Appeal ruled on Tuesday. The government had denied Mrs Elias from Colindale, north London, compensation as she had no "blood link" to the UK. In his judgment, Lord Justice Mummery criticised the handling of the scheme.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had appealed against a High Court ruling in July last year which found that the blood link rule - that a parent or grandparent must have been born in the UK - was unlawful discrimination on grounds of race.
Hopefully others who failed to get compensation over their detention will now be able to claim. And someone should ask why, apart from the meanness for which the MoD is notorious (except when paying big business contractors) was the government so determined to fight this case?

A slap for hysteria

As has been reported everywhere, London mayor Ken Livingstone has had his suspension from office for insulting an Evening Standard reporter squashed.
And quite right too. One does not have to be one of Livingstone's dwindling fan club to see that the Standard had no business sending its reporter doorstepping the mayor as he left a party (for gay MP Chris Smith) unless it was after a wind-up. Nor to recognise that his outburst was aimed at that right-wing newspaper group, with its nasty (and Nazi) past, and not at the reporter who happened to be Jewish.
As for bodies like the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which launched an anti-Livingstone campaign tagging the mayor as "antisemitic" from afar, relying on the ignorance of its American public, I hope it will take this judgement as a slap in the face. It deserves one.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Not quite British enough...

AS politicians tell us how important it is that people try to be British, and conform to "our values", and chattering pundits patriotically ponder the poser of "national identity", an 83-year old widow in Southgate, north London, is waiting in her council flat for a verdict from the Court of Appeal, as to how "British" she really is.

For Diana Elias, her "Britishness" is no small matter. It is an issue she has had to live with most of her life. Diana was just 17 in December 1941 when Japanese troops marched into Hong Kong, where she lived with her family. The occupiers decided to round up British and other enemy nationals. They had been given lists. They came to people's homes in the dead of night, dragging screaming women out by their hair. Diana and her family were herded on to a truck, and taken to Stanley camp, where they were among almost 3,000 people interned.

Conditions were grim. People suffered and died from deficiency diseases, and from dysentery and typhus. Diana's mother had a nervous breakdown. Diana still has nightmares about the camp, or wakes in the night thinking about her family's experiences, and cannot go back to sleep.

The family were interned and suffered for being British. Her grandparents had been British, and her father, a textile merchant, travelled the world proudly showing his British passport. Her brothers had registered for service in Crown forces. But Her Majesty's government has insisted that she is not quite British enough. Their argument is that she has no 'ancestral connection' to the United Kingdom.

Back in the days of the British Empire, many families like hers, Jews from Iraq and India, qualified to be British subjects, and some prospered and became famous, like the Sassoons, of Mumbai, or David Marshall, first prime minister of Singapore. No one questioned their British status so long as they were seen as assets, nor when they served, or like Diana and her family, were interned and suffered for being British.

After the war, the family were not able to return to their old home. Diana found work as a travel agent's sales manager in Mumbai. She travelled to Britain frequently, and settled here after her husband Nissim died in 1972.

In November 2000 the government announced a £167 million compensation scheme whereby British citizens who had been interned by the Japanese would each recieve a £10,000 "debt of honour".

Then in May the following year it announced that only those who could show an ancestral "blood link" to this country would qualify. That meant up to 2,400 people whose parents might have worked in the Far East, or served in the British military or colonial administration, could be disqualified because they did not have a parent or grandparent in Britain. Over 1,100 people have already been denied compensation.

Diana Elias complained to the offcial Ombudsman, and in 2004 she took the government to court. An internal government memo revealed during the case half-admitted that the authorities were discriminating by evaluating a person's right to compensation partly on racist grounds. Written in July 2001 by the former head of the MoD's Veterans Agency, it states: 'It is true to deny we are being racist, but we are in fact including race as deciding factor as part of our eligibility criteria.'

Last year Diana did recieve £10,000, after an Ombudsman's report said there had been "maladministration" in her case. But she has continued her legal fight, not for more money for herself, but to establish the principle that what the government is doing is wrong.

'What this "blood link" means is that being British is not good enough. Being interned because you were British is not good enough. You only count if you were born here in the UK, or your family originates from here. If not, then you are another type of British. A type of British whose suffering and rights do not matter one bit. I was born British. I have always been British. My grandparents were British. My father was British and so was my mother. I can remember my father taking great pride in the fact he was British and so was his family. And I was proud to be British. I still am.'

'One of the things that makes me proud to be British and to make this country my home is that people of different races, origins and backgrounds have mixed here and made a success of that. There could not have been more of a mix at my 80th birthday party, but almost all of us were British.'

Diana Elias saw the "blood link" rule for what it was. 'I realised it would discriminate in a way that is racist. I did not need to go to court to realise that. One of my brothers Charlie, was refused under the same bloodlink rule. He died soon afterwards, considered a second-class type of British by his own country.'

On 7 July 2005 High Court Judge Sir Patrick Elias (no relation) said the bloodlink rule breached the Race Relations Act because:
“the criteria involved in this case inevitably involve indirect discrimination on grounds of national origin. They treat less favourably those who are of non-British origin…. here it is plain that the extent of the discrimination on grounds of national origin is very marked indeed.”

But the Secretary of State for Defence appealed to the Court of Appeal who heard the case in April 2006. Even if the Ministry of Defence loses its appeal those denied compensation may not be paid automatically. But Diana Elias has exposed the mean streak of racialism in Whitehall and opened the way for others to demand justice.

and for information from the lawyers about this and similar cases:

Diana Elias witness statement: extracts

1. Despite me being British all my life, despite my family's details being handed over to the invading Japanese troops in 1941 because we were all British, despite us being interned in Stanley Camp for four years because we were British, despite me facing the consequences both in the camp and for the rest of my life because I was British, I was not, and I am still not, quite British enough in the eyes of the Ministry of Defence. That is because I do not have what it calls a 'bloodlink' to the UK. I do not have a bloodlink because I was not born here and neither were my parents or my grandparents. If you have no bloodlink, then you are another type of British. A second class type of British. A type of British whose suffering and rights do not matter one bit.

2. I would also like the Ministry of Defence to finally accept that its bloodlink rule is racist and to compensate me for the hurtful discrimination I have had to put up with over the last five years. Last but not least, I would like an apology.

3. It was a long time before I gave any thought to the possibility of compensation. When the camp was liberated, my family and I were evacuated from Hong Kong by ship. We were given no opportunity to return to our home where I had lived all my life, or my father and brothers to restart the business. We all had to start our lives from scratch again. No help was on offer. Worst still, my father traveled ahead of us because he was so ill and I never saw him alive again.

4. When I was little my father traveled around the world as a textiles merchant, using his British passport. When he did business with people he would always make a point of letting them know that he was British. Before I was born in Hong Kong the family had traveled there from India. They could do that because they were British and wherever we were in the world, all of us would always be British. It was a constant thing in our lives, a foundation. And I was proud to be British. I still am.

5. I was British when I was interned. I was interned because I was British. So was my family. The Japanese knew I was British. The lists of British people had been handed over to them. Yet here was my own government, the British government, saying that I had yet to be considered to be British enough to be paid like everyone else.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Clutching a Straw, with Dirty Des

RICHARD DESMOND. Didn't acquire his assets by encouraging women to cover theirs.

BRITAIN's tabloids have been competing to come up with anti-Muslim stories this week. Maybe its because it's Ramadan.

There was the story about the Muslim policeman, a member of the Diplomatic Protection Group, who had been excused from duty guarding the Israeli embassy during the war in Lebanon, where he had relatives.

Papers that normally won't have a word said against the police were outraged at this discovery that policemen can have human feelings - or rather that a Muslim officer should have his feelings respected.

Then there was the story about white and Asian youth clashing in Windsor, where there has been some local disagreement over whether a dairy owner can obtain planning permission to open a mosque -"on the Queen's doorstep!". We may no longer be a religious country but true suburban English folk will faithfully protect their property values and piously incant fears about parking problems at the thought of members of another religion praying in the vicinity. Their yobbish offspring will sally forth to do battle, secure in the knowledge their vandalism and violence will be excused if it's against the current hate-targets.

The Daily Mail led its front-page with a scoop about a Muslim minicab driver who had refused to take a blind man with his guide dog because he considered the animal "unclean". I can sympathise with the disquiet over this. When I lived in Balham, south London, I regularly experienced difficulty with taxi drivers whose religion apparently forbade them to cross the river after nightfall. I dare say any of them could have faced loss of their license if I'd complained but I doubt whether it would have made front-page. The point of the Mail story is not the rights of blind people, and the difficulties they and the disabled face, it is about blaming Muslims.

But step forward the man who has provided the tabloids with their big story this weekend. Former Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and now leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw. Speaking to Muslim community leaders in his Blackburn constituency who had been expecting to discuss such matters as the war in Iraq and the way it affects attitudes among young people, Straw lost no time in getting on to what for him was apparently a weightier matter. What a woman wore who came to his constituency surgery.

"He said, some of my constituents who have been accepting of the hijab are greatly concerned about the niqab," said one who was there. That is, the face covering which is particularly common to the Gulf states, but has been adopted by some Muslim women in Britain, and is commmonly referred to as "the veil".

The odd things is that this discussion was almost 12 months ago. Straw was warned at the time not to make a public issue of it. (I wonder what the Arabic or Urdu phrase is equivalent to verwarts putz gefahren*?). But a year later, for whatever reasons, he has done. Maybe having been deprived of his Foreign Office job and replaced by Margaret Beckett he is not that bothered.

(* "Forward goes a fool", Yiddish, similar to "fools rush in ...", whenever someone ventures on to a subject best not gone into -cf. "Don't go there". But if someone is determined...)

Straw has been in politics since his student days (he was president of the National Union of Students 1969-72), besides qualifying as a barrister, and going on the world diplomatic stage. He knows the significance of words, and presumably of timing.

So did the editors at the Lancashire Telegraph when they received the MP's column on Wednesday morning. They cleared the front page for the next day and reporters began calling community leaders for comments. By the following days it was national 'news'.

The "veil", or niqab, has been raised as an issue before in some places. Imperial College sought a ban on "security" grounds. Some academics claim not being able to see a student's face makes teaching difficult. According to Jean Seaton, professor of media history at the University of Westminster, "You can't teach somebody if they can't communicate, without seeing the response. Teaching is not like stuffing a goose with corn - its utterly reactive. In a social situation, everybody else's faces are giving away stuff left right and centre."

Just in case we mistook this reaction as purely rational, Professor Seaton added: "I remember the first time I saw a Saudi in Holland Park and being viscerally terrified of this image."

Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens,,1889846,00.html

Some people, particularly women, including Muslim women, say the face covering is unecessary to their religion, and symbolises backwardness and patriarchy. Some politicians complain the wearers are cutting themselves off from society. But if that was the issue why not move on to condemn all distinctive forms of dress, such as turbans (which were an issue many years ago, only then we rightly opposed discrimination against wearers), or skullcaps, or the sheitl (the wig worn by Orthodox Jewish women after they have shaved their heads)? Or dare we say those outsize crosses some people dangle from their necks? France at least cloaked its ban on the veil in schools with a ban on all "conspicuous religious symbols.

If some Muslim women's extreme concern for "modesty" symbolises male oppression, what should we say about those British sisters who go to the opposite extreme, bare-midriffed however inclement the weather, tattooed and pierced by rings in most peculiar places, as though escaped from some fantasy harem? The obvious answer is that whatever we say, it is no business of mere men let alone politicians to tell women what to wear.

As for fear, a lot more is caused by young lads of whatever background who prowl around in hoods, whether to avoid being identified from CCTV or because (though they'd never confess it) they too wish to modestly withdraw their faces from society. I'm sure there's some psychology here, but with the hoodies as with the niqab wearers, telling them to take it off will only make them wear it more stubbornly.

Only, apart from one or two shopping centres, nobody has sought to ban the hoods, whereas they are going for the women in niqab. As the Guardian notes, there seems to be a change in government attitude. Previously they insisted the "war on terror" was not agaist Islam, and stressed good community relations.

" But in August, Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, called for a 'new and honest debate' on the merits of multiculturalism. At last week's Labour conference the home secretary John Reid said Britain would not be bullied by Muslim fanatics, and he would not tolerate "no-go" neighbourhoods. The government has also appointed Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality and a man who has warned that Britain is "sleepwalking towards segregation", as the chair of the new single equalities body'.

The irony of Ruth Kelly being responsible for integrating communities was noted when she was appointed, as she is a member of the very exclusive Opus Dei, though since the latest row concerns outward religious symbols it won't effect the Catholic society's distinctive style in undergarments.

Could it be the government's turn has anything to do with military setbacks suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, legal snags to the attack on civil rights, or the disgust felt by the majority of the public - not just Muslims - with Blair's support for the war on Lebanon? What better than to divide people by pretending it is only "Islamic extremists" who oppose you, and then whipping up prejudice against all Muslims while pretending it is the fault of the minority for failing your test of conformity?

Putting the onus on the minority to "integrate" is not new, mind. It was the line taken by David Blunkett after riots in northern towns, and not surrisingly Keighley MP Ann Cryer has been sounding off about the veil on television. It goes with talking about "Our Values" and "Our Society" - as though we all wish to be at one with the values and society this government defends.

Though many Muslims would criticise the veil, they are worried about the way Jack Straw has raised it as an issue. Shahid Malik, the MP for Dewsbury, said: "It's not so much about what he has said as the climate in which he has said it, in which Muslims - and non-Muslims - are getting tired of Muslim stories. The veil isn't the problem; the problem is that people are frightened of it - they've never spoken to someone with a veil. This cannot and must not be about blaming one group, but about saying, we have all got to take collective responsibility. "

But one newspaper, true to the Crusader image in its logo, has leapt in behind Straw with its own rallying cry. "BAN THE VEIL!" said the Tory Daily Express, "CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil. An astonishing 97 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed that a ban would help to safeguard racial harmony." The story was bylined Padraig Flanagan, not the kind of name those Union Jack-waving "Britons" would recognise as one of their own, in other times, but I dare say they will turn a blind eye so long as he is speaking for their idea of "harmony".

As for Express owner Richard Desmond, having worked his way into Blair's good books with a £100,000 donation to Labour coffers five years ago, he has more recently been trying to buy respectability in the world of Jewish charity. But we should not doubt his sincerity in seeking to free Muslim women of their veils, or modesty. Before he moved into newspapers he had made his fortune with such liberating publications as Big Ones, Asian Babes, and Horny Housewives.

The racist yobbos who will take headlines about banning the veil as their encouragement to abuse and attack any Muslim woman, or indeed anyone who looks "different", won't be bothered about that. But any feminists and socialists inclined to give Straw their support should give the company he has attracted a thought. Along with remembering what the government.of which he is part has done.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

30 years ago: US-backed terrorists killed 73 in airline bombing

CUBANA DC8 and right, memorial unveiled during Castro visit to Barbados

ON October 6, 1976, Cubana airlines Flight 455 took off from Seawell airport, Barbados, at 17.15hrs on the penultimate leg of a scheduled journey Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados, Kingston Jamaica to Cuba. Less than ten minutes after take off a timebomb exploded on board the Douglas DC8, at 18,000 feet above the Caribbean.

The captain, Wilfredo Pérez Pérez, radioed to the control tower: "We have an explosion aboard, we are descending immediately! ... We have fire on board! We are requesting immediate landing! We have a total emergency!"

As the pilots struggled to stop the plane's fall and return it to Seawell a second bomb exploded. Realising a successful landing would now be impossible it seems the pilot turned back to the ocean rather than endanger tourists on the beach.

All 48 passengers and 25 crew aboard the plane were killed - 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans. Among them were all 24 members of the Cuban fencing team that had just won gold medals in the Central American and Caribbean Championship. Many were teenagers. Several officials of the Cuban government were also aboard. The 11 Guyanese passengers included 18 and 19-year-old medical students, and the young wife of a Guyanese diplomat.]

Hours after the explosions, police in Trinidad arrested Freddy Lugo and Hernan Ricardo Lozano, two Venezuelans who had boarded the plane in Trinidad and checked their baggage to Cuba but alighted in Barbados and flown back to Trinidad. Ricardo had been travelling with a false identity under the name of José Vázquez García.

The two men confessed, saying they had been acting under orders from Luis Posada Carriles. Their testimony and other evidence implicated Carriles and another Venezuelan, Orlando Bosch. On 14 October, Posada and Bosch were arrested in Caracas. The offices of Investigaciones Comerciales e Industriales C.A. (ICICA), a private detective company owned by Posada, were raided, and weapons, explosives and a radio transmitter found. Ricardo was an employee of ICICA at the time of the attack.

By agreement among the governments involved, the four accused were to go on trial in Venezuela, since they were citizens of that country. On August 25 1977 the case was referred to a military tribunal. The men were charged with treason. In September 1980, a Venezuelan military judge acquitted all four of them. the prosecutor appealed, arguing that the crime was homicide and the men were civilians, and the four were then charged with aggravated homicide and treason before a civilian court.

Lugo and Ricardo were each sentenced to 20 years in prison, but this ws reduced "due to the extenuating circumstance of no prior criminal records." Orlando Bosch was acquitted, because the evidence gathered by the Barbados authorities during the investigation could not be used in the Venezuela trial, as it was presented too late and had not been translated into Spanish.

On the eve of sentence Posada fled from the San Juan de los Morros penitentiary where he had been confined following two previous failed escape attempts. Allegations were made that Venezuelan authorities were bribed to help him escape. No verdict was entered against Posada because, according to the Venezuelan Penal Code, judicial proceedings cannot continue without the presence of the accused.

A different judge then ordered the case reviewed by a higher court. The Venezuelan government declined to appeal the case any further, and in November 1987 Bosch was freed. Lugo and Lozano were released in 1993 and continue to reside in Venezuela. Posada fled to Panama, then to the United States. Hugo Chavez' government wants him returned for trial, but in September of 2005, a US immigration judge ruled that Posada should not be deported to either Cuba or Venezuela because he could be subject to torture.

This touching regard for the airline bomber's rights stands out impressively against the background of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extradition and "extraordinary rendition", in America's "War on Terror". But then Posada is different. He is one of America's own terrorists. Official documents obtained in the United States show the links between the United States and the plane bombers.

Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born naturalized Venezuelan, was the Director of Counterintelligence at Venezuela's FBI equivalent, the DISIP, from 1967 to 1974. But he also had a long relationship with the CIA. In February 1961, he joined Brigade 2506 to invade Cuba, although the ship to which he was assigned never landed at the Bay of Pigs. While in the U.S. military between 1963 and 1965 the CIA recruited and trained him in explosives and demolitions; he subsequently became a trainer of others. Although his service officially terminated in July 1967 he was reinstated, and remained in contact with the CIA until June 1976, just three months before the plane bombing.

A U.S. Government document released through the Freedom of Information Act also refers to "Luis Posada, in whom CIA has an operational interest - Posada is receiving approximately $300 per month from CIA". Posada was heavily involved with right-wing anti-Castro groups like the Cuban-American National Foundation and the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Revolucionarias Unidas - CORU), led at the time by Orlando Bosch.

A declassified CIA document dated October 12, 1976 quotes Posada as saying, a few days after a plate fund-raising meeting for CORU held around September 15th, "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner... Orlando has the details"

A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976 quotes a CORU member stating that CORU "was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 ... this bombing and the resulting deaths were fully justified because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime."

After bribing his way out of prison in Venezuela, Posada went to El Salvador to work for Lt. Col. Oliver North, supplying right-wing contras in Nicaragua with arms, without the official knowledge of the US Congress. Assuming the name "Ramon Medina," he worked as a deputy to another anti-Castro Cuban exile, Felix Rodriguez, who was in charge of a small airlift of arms and supplies to the contras in Southern Nicaragua. Rodriguez used the code name, Max Gomez. A document, released during the Congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra operations, records both Posada and Rodriguez obtaining supplies for the contras from a warehouse at Illopango airbase in San Salvador. Posada is also accused of involvement in plans to overthrow a government in Guatemala.

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