Friday, 30 November 2007

Courting defiance: defending Aamer Anwar

Glasgow Sheriff Court (an apparent exchange)

Sheriff: Have you anything to say before sentencing?
Accused: As sure as God's my judge, your honour, I'm not guilty.
Sheriff: He's not, I am, you are, six months.

An amusing line, if I recall, from the fine film on Jimmy Boyle, A Sense of Freedom, no doubt typical of the many theatrical exchanges that have graced Scotland's courtrooms. Maybe the guy in the dock just needed a decent lawyer.

The Scottish judiciary have shown little hesitation over the years in locking-up the 'men of violence' - with little social regard for how such violence comes about. These days, they seem as efficient in curbing the freedoms of not only those who merely imagine acts of violence, but also their legal representatives.

An impressive campaign is presently underway to defend Glasgow-based human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, who is facing a serious contempt of court action following post-trial comments he made on the conviction of his client Mohammed Atif Siddiqui. Jailed for eight years, Atif is the first person to be convicted in Scotland under the Terrorism Act 2006.

The severity of the sentence handed-down in this case is ready-evidence of how the Muslim community in the UK is being monitored and demonised. Atif was punished for accessing 'subversive' internet sites, illustrating the state's new understanding and application of 'thought control'. Now the establishment is going after those who defend those 'errant' surfers.

But the effort to silence Aamer has only heightened his political and legal profile. During a recent meeting (on Palestine and Resistance) at Glasgow University, Aamer recounted the time when, as a student there, he had his mouth kicked-in by police in nearby Ashton Lane after being chased for putting up campaign flyposters. When a bloodied Aamer asked one of the officers why they had resorted to such brutality, he replied: "That's what happens to black boys with big mouths".

As a fellow Glasgow student at the time, I recall the subsequent meeting, with Aamer, broken teeth in hand, declaring that he wouldn't be silenced. Aamer and campus others had organised a large occupation of the Principal's office (which, with limited persuasion, I found myself part of) in protest at the incoming abolition of student grants. The boot in Aamer's mouth was, no doubt, meant as a timely warning to this up-and-coming activist.

Sixteen years later, a more 'respectable' boot is being used to effect Aamer's 'compliance'. But, as with the cruder methods noted, the present efforts of the state have only served to embolden Aamer, while giving voice to an expansive network of support, now including leading lawyers, MPs and MSPs.

Listening to Aamer speak made me reflect on just how more focused those forces of compliance have become in seeking to punish the "black boys with big mouths" - or, "Muslims and others with legitimate political concerns", as we may more reasonably call them.

As ever, populist media demonology has played its dutiful part. The Daily Record, for example - Scotland's 'very own' exponent of homely, dumb-the-mind hubris - predictably had Aamer down as an "out of order" "firebrand lawyer" daring to question the tariff handed-down on this "wanabee suicide bomber".

This ugly branding of lawyers as 'friends of terrorists' is being conflated - again, through perverse media language - with the growing vilification of immigrants. The assaults on asylum seekers' rights is consistent with the government's push-and-shove determination to secure increased emergency powers of arrest and detention.

The ongoing Home Office persecution of Palestinian refugee and political activist Fatima Helow here in Glasgow is one such disturbing example of the 'asylum-seeker-terrorist-suspect' agenda. Fatima is currently living in a state of demeaning limbo after losing her leave-to-stay appeal. Witness to the brutal massacre at Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, Fatima has also seen a contentious judicial review of her case refused.

The attack on Aamer Anwar is an evident part of that same process: in this case, a denial of the right to speak on behalf of Atif and his family; a creeping erosion of the lawyer-client relationship.

This mood of state-judicial intolerance is apparent elsewhere, too. In Ireland, the government is trying to pass legislation making lawyers financially liable for the court costs of failed immigration cases undertaken, thus undermining the fundamental rights of non-nationals to legal representation.

These attacks are a new front in the climate of state-imposed fear, a way of warning human-rights-minded lawyers like Aamer Anwar to 'consider their careers' before 'opening their mouths'.

Meanwhile, as Aamer awaits a date for the contempt hearing, he has accepted a well-backed nomination to run for Rector of Glasgow University. A nice irony - and indication of a principled lawyer unlikely to keep his mouth shut.
Defend Aamer Anwar

Sunday, 18 November 2007

The cancer of Israeli apartheid

It's not always easy making the case for basic political justice, human rights and an end to Israel's apartheid treatment of the Palestinian people. But we try.

Three young Israeli men appeared recently at our Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign stall, with, quite obviously, more than a passing interest in what we were doing. One, in particular, spoke in dismissive tones about the Palestinians, asking me, rather mockingly, if I'd ever actually been to Israel and whether I knew anything about how the Palestinians live. I replied that, no, I'd never been to Israel, only to Palestine, quite recently, in fact, and that, yes, my colleagues and I had been able to see first-hand the shocking ways in which the Palestinians are being forced to live under an illegal occupation.

A little annoyed, he asked whether I, at least, accepted that, being "a democracy," Israel has the right to exist and defend itself. But Israel is not a democracy, I corrected him. It's an apartheid state. Two contradictory entities. He seemed genuinely puzzled by this possibility, apparently struggling to understand that a state with a discriminatory polity akin to apartheid South Africa is not a functioning democracy even in the conventional liberal sense of the term.

Apartheid state, he demanded. Says who? Well, Desmond Tutu, who knows a bit about such matters, and ex-US President Jimmy Carter, for starters. He gave up on me at this point and moved-on to one of my friends.

The walk-away-with-shaking-head routine is usually reasonable evidence of a bankrupt argument. And, when making sure to maintain one's own calm demeanour, it's always helpful to remember that the Palestinians' case is actually fixed in international law. In short, it has legal, as well as moral, right on it's side.

But, such exchanges also reaffirm to me that these young people are themselves products of a siege-mentality state with no actual concern for the legalities and moralities of the issue. More basically, they see themselves as upholders of something which they already have and fully intend to keep. In effect, right and wrong doesn't actually feature in their comprehension of the problem. The more revealing point, rather, is their own incomprehension at the thought of having to relinquish what they've taken and now assume to be their own.

Ask such people how they can justify the illegal settlements pock-marking the West Bank? They can't. Certainly not in any legally-convincing way, given all the UN resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw. So, they evade or dismiss the question.

What about the illegality of the 'separation' wall, as decreed by the International Court? Again, there's no rational argument offered, only standard, convenient rationalisations, such as, 'the wall is there to keep terrorists out.' No mention of its primary purpose in annexing yet more Palestinian land. It's the same shrugging evasions and denials acutely evident in the body language and responses of young conscripts at Israeli checkpoints.

Another seemingly obvious question, thus, arises: how can a person or group acting in a human rights capacity ever hope to persuade such people to observe others' rights when those people have no functioning interest in human rights? If nothing else, there's useful lessons to be learned here in observing the psychology of denial and capacity of people to remain locked-into such a defensive mindset.

Yet, that psychology is itself deeply-informed by Israel's state apartheid policies - de jure and de facto. And from this comes a naturalised language of casual racism, a rooted indifference to others' pain; a socialised grooming in doctrinaire-speak which allows and validates the dehumanisation of an entire people.

The Palestinians, thus, become socially framed as 'a problem' - not a people - to be contained, managed, corralled, humiliated, ground-down and demoralised until they themselves have no reasonable expectation of being treated as human equals.

The courageous Jewish writer/academic Ilan Pappe has documented the historical origins of this discriminatory treatment in his fine tome, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Here, and in other definitive writings, Pappe records how the removal and brutalisation of a people since the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 became a vital and accepted narrative for Israelis, part of their 'national duty' to 'defend the homeland'. Thus, the racist treatment of Palestinians is still largely unrecognised:
"The plan decided upon on 10 March 1948, and above all its systematic implementation in the following months, was a clear-cut case of an ethic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity." (1)
The subsequent denial and hiding of this mass crime has been facilitated by official Israeli historiography, such as the concocted story of Palestinian "voluntary transfers". (2) This, Pappe reminds us, is part of "the cognitive system that allowed the world to forget, and enabled the perpetrators to deny, the crime the Zionist movement committed against the Palestinian people in 1948...I have no doubt that the absence so far of a paradigm of ethnic cleansing is part of the reason why the denial of the catastrophe has been able to go on for so long." (3)

And from this flows a message of ethnic superiority and refusal to admit culpability which permeates Israeli society today.

Here's a particularly shocking illustration of that "cognitive system", revealing such discriminatory indifference even in the area of critical health-care for Palestinian children.

Farah's story

Jamal Harma and his family eke-out a living in Balata refugee camp, Nablus. In January 2005, Jamal's daughter Farah, then ten, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right knee. Through an arrangement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Assuta Hospital in Tel Aviv, she was permitted to be seen by doctors there instead of the rudimentary clinics in the West Bank. Jamal was prohibited from accompanying her as he didn't have a travel permit. Instead, Farah made the arduous daily journeys from Nablus with her grandmother.

At the initial consultation, Farah received the most cursory of examinations and was sent home with an ink mark around the tumour indicating the area to be treated with radiation. No interdisciplinary team saw Farah, as standard practice, and no effort was made by an oncologist to determine the precise form of cancer. Her 'case notes' amounted to a paltry two pages.

In March 2005, increasingly anxious about his daughter's condition, Jamal took Farah to Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, where they saw Dr. Yehuda Kollender, deputy head of orthopaedic oncology. Here's Jamal's painful recollection of that meeting:

"When we met Kollender," says Jamal, "he asked me: 'Why did you come to us so late?' I told him: 'She's being treated at Assuta.' He asked me: 'What are you doing there at Assuta?' I said: 'What do you mean? Radiation.' Kollender took off his glasses, looked at me and clutched his head in his hands. He told his secretary not to let anyone else in the room. 'We're in big trouble,' he told me. I didn't understand what was happening. He called Assuta Hospital, while I was sitting there. I don't know whom he spoke to there. 'How could such a thing happen?' he asked them. 'You'll be responsible. This wouldn't happen to a child from Israel.'"
Dr. Kollender later recalled:
"A little girl came to me with an advanced and neglected tumor, and when her father told me that the girl was getting radiation at Assuta, my hair stood on end. Every expert in oncology, actually every specialist in oncology or orthopedics, knows that the standard treatment all over the world for such a case is chemotherapy, followed by limb-preserving surgery, and then another round of chemotherapy."
But the damage to Farah had been done. The case is now subject to a civil suit against Assuta. The lawsuit papers show that Farah was also treated with a long-outdated Cobalt 60 radiation machine, reserved only for Palestinian patients. Two investigators were subsequently told by Assuta's medical director that the machine did not fulfil the necessary requirements for treating Israelis and was being used only to meet the 'needs' of the PA. The investigators confirmed the director's admission that the machine was being used just to make money, noting, with shock, her concluding remark: "It's not my problem".

The human rights-based attorney Michael Sfard who filed the case describes it as a "constitutional lawsuit"; "a suit about constitutional injustices when an organization or individual infringes on the rights of another person". Safrd's indictment comes with this scathing conclusion: "when Assuta was asked to clarify its numerous faults, what was uncovered was an indifferent and racist system motivated by financial considerations".

That "indifferent and racist system" is beyond Jamal's comprehension, and was, tragically, the difference between life and death for Farah:

"Eventually, the doctors said they had done all they could. Farah was very sick. The tumor had spread to her lungs. She had trouble breathing and had to rely on an oxygen tank. "I'm a devout man. As a Muslim, I believe that everything is in God's hands. At that point I understood that her fate was in God's hands, and we came back home." "
Little Farah died. But her death is not only due to medical negligence. It's rooted in a system of state discrimination.

Hayah's story

Farah's story is connected with the case of Hayah Abu-Qabatya, another Palestinian child discarded by the system. Hayah also died never having received proper treatment. Her case is party to the lawsuit:
"As in the case of Farah Harma, [the same doctor] looked at her leg and drew with a marker to designate the area meant to receive radiation. The lawsuit says that he subsequently sent her for radiation treatment without doing any medical tests to obtain a more precise diagnosis of the type of cancer and of the girl`s medical condition. In this case, too, he failed to go through standard treatment planning or consult with a pediatric oncologist...No physical examination was performed and she also received radiation from the Cobalt 60 machine."
Hayah's father recalls how the true extent of the problem, as with Farah, was discovered too late:

"When my daughter finished the treatments, they asked us to come back in two months,` says the father. `A week later, my daughter said that her stomach hurt. I took her to Al-Husseini Hospital. She had an X-ray. When the doctor saw the film he went nuts. He said: 'I don`t understand, I don`t understand! How did the disease spread like this?'...Further examination found that the cancer had spread into the girl`s abdominal cavity and lungs. Hayah began chemotherapy at Al-Husseini Hospital, but her condition rapidly deteriorated, and the treatments were halted. `At the hospital they told me, 'Take her home, it will be better that way,' says Abu-Qabatya."
There's the pain of losing a child. The knowledge of medical mistreatment is a terrible added burden. But how more awful to know that such loss is symptomatic of a state's racist treatment of an entire people?

"Hayah Abu-Qabatya died at home in the village of Yata, on Thursday, October 13, 2005. She was just 12 years old. In the last days of her life, she slept because of the strong painkillers she was given. "The whole time she was being treated at Assuta, I tried to hide from her that it was cancer, so as not to break her," says her father. "But she quickly understood what was going on. A few days after we came back from the hospital, she asked me, 'Daddy, am I going to die?' and I didn't know what to answer. On the Friday of the Ramadan holiday, I came back from prayers and sat beside her. It was 12 noon. She opened her eyes for a moment, looked at me and then closed them."
But, as the responses of some Israeli doctors and officials in this report shows, there is also a strong and enduring capacity for those on the dominant side to care about their fellow human beings.

Hayah's father retains kind praise for the human rights volunteers who were always there to help his daughter through the checkpoints en route to hospital and to offer stay-over accommodation.

This aspect of the story is a ray of hope, a reminder of how people are ever-capable of acting in a spirit of humanity, able to contemplate the possibility of a just political system and equitable society.

Ilan Pappe and other key anti-Zionist campaigners participated in a major conference recently on the case for a one-state solution, the most alarming of all scenarios for Israel's apartheid state and its adherents. For it would not only force a post-apartheid structure of equal political and civil rights. It would necessitate the humane treatment of Palestinians as equal people.

Alas, all that's too late for Farah and Hayah. One can only hope for a day when their brothers and sisters can live in a land of open justice, equal health-care and common dignity.



(1) Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p x111 (2006, Oneworld Pub.).
(2) Ibid, p xiv.
(3) Ibid, p xvi.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Victims, voices and celluloid dissent

In a recent speech on media and cultural propaganda, John Pilger commented that The Deerhunter is the only movie that ever caused him to shout out in protest inside a cinema.

Pilger was objecting to its selective indulgence of American suffering, a theme all the harder to challenge given that the film was so "brilliantly made". Likewise, notes Pilger, Oliver Stone's Platoon may have offered graphic images of the ugly war in Vietnam, but - like the rest of his Vietnam trilogy (Heaven and Earth, and Born on the Fourth of July) - it's primarily concerned with the angst of American soldiers, offering no meaningful Vietnamese voice or experience. In short, it's about seeing America as the principal victim.

Stone made 'amends' for his 'radical output' with the more recent World Trade Center and is now embarking on the fourth of his Vietnam films, Pinkville , examining the cover-up of the My Lai massacre. It stars the arch-conservative Bruce Willis.

But, if Hollywood is still to make a convincing Vietnamese-sided film, do other current cinematic and theatrical war dramas, including the 'war on terror', give appropriate voice and experience to the main victims?

Hollywood would have us believe it's 're-found' it's own 'critical' voice. But, even for the more independent film companies, anti-war doesn't mean giving a 'lead role' to the Iraqi, or any other conquered, people.

Producers like Robert Redford, 'speaking for' liberal America at large, may be getting a little more room these days to shout-down Bush's lies about Iraq and challenge the neo-cons' 'extra-judicial 'practices. Yet, this is still a safe distance from allowing a voice to those in Fallujah, Kabul and Gaza who actually experience the crushing impact of the Pentagon's and its associates' corporate-driven warfare.

Ah well, at least there's even more parts available for Arabs to play terrorists these days.

The current crop of 'leftfield' US films, such as Rendition and Lions for Lambs, are a kind of zeitgeist expression of the discomfort America is feeling over its warmongering foreign policy and use of authorised torture around the globe. Similar liberal-minded output from George Clooney (Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck) overhangs this mood. Yet, on closer inspection, much of this is really a cry for the 'lost American ideal', illustrating the safe boundaries of liberal America's celluloid dissent. Redford et al may be a welcome alternative to the Bruce Willis-type gush of US heroes in hostile foreign places (Willis is still, apparently, planning an Iraq-based action thriller championing the US combat unit Deuce Four). But, as with Pilger's 'reviews' of The Deerhunter and Platoon, US cinema, 'big box' or 'indie', still offers little true experience of the victimised other.

Brit-side voices

A more promising contender, this side of the Atlantic, is the recent TV drama, Britz (Channel 4, 31 October, 1 November 2007). Despite a little artistic licence here and there, Peter Kosminsky's absorbing film carries a number of thought-provoking devices serving to outline the fuller context of the 'war on terrorism'. We have, for example, one of the lead characters, Sohail, Riz Ahmed (of The Road to Guantanamo), surveying the complex landscape for British Muslims while being drawn-into the service of MI5. In one scene, we see how the police's racist treatment of Sohail's friends conflicts with his decision to spy on them and his community. In another chilling sequence, the other main character, Nasima, Sohail's sister, offers a very profound statement on our collective "responsibility" for allowing Blair to act in this criminal way, thus provoking and raising the potential for violent Islamic responses.

Britz was, at least, a welcome respite from the facile Spooks, with its risible take on the 'dark underbelly' of British intelligence. In it's attempt to play the 'sophisticated' plot line of dark-but-still-decent MI5 good guys, the US is currently being portrayed as a malignant agent provocateur seeking to implicate Iran and up the war on terror ante, while our all-action heroes rush around trying to stop fanatical Algerians blowing-up London. Another recent episode had the intrepid MI5ers cutting through a garden fence-like wire to enter a supposedly top-security installation hiding America's most secret nuclear weapon. Yet, behind all the racy plot lines, 'self-examination' and 'admitting' of dirty deeds, the predominant voice remains that of our vigilant spymasters protecting us from renegade insiders and demonic outsiders.

Staged voices

As Edward Said shows in Culture and Imperialism, populist narrative has always played a vital role in helping to demonise, omit or remove the non-Western other. It's as though the colonised and occupied have no valid part in their own historical drama.

Alas, I had that uneasy feeling of the 'absent other' watching the finely-produced and performed (TV screening of) Black Watch. This play is assuredly not war propaganda. It's, in a certain 'unstated' and, thus, nuanced sense, an anti-war production. But it's also acutely lacking in any Iraqi voice or experience. And I don't just mean the inserted testimony of a victimised Iraqi.

It's almost impossible to fault John Tiffany's brilliant direction. Writer Gregory Burke has also allowed the play to have 'its own voice' through the gathered accounts of serving soldiers. It's more a 'pain of war' statement, rather than agitprop theatre, resulting in a poignant human story of brutalised young fighting men in an alienating land far from home.

But it's also a disappointingly one-sided representation of that pain and alienation.

Burke is, essentially, against the war, but unwilling to castigate the men or regiments who participate in it. This couples with his opposition to the MoD-imposed break-up of the Black Watch and reformation of it and other units into a single Scottish regiment.

In this spirit, Burke argues that Black Watch is first-and-foremost about the Black Watch and the psychology of soldiers being sent to, and returning from, war. And, yes, the piece can stand as a singular perspective on the war - the soldiers' story.

But does that story have moral validity without reference to those who are on the principal end of the Black Watch's actions? Indeed, to what extent should we 'elevate' those soldiers' stories in this form while their regiments help perpetuate the occupation and mass suffering in Iraq?

The related problem of Black Watch is its underlying endorsement of militarism, a theme which, while artistically displayed in the unfolding history of the regiment, too-readily 'celebrates' its esprit de corps. Black Watch may help us reflect on the horrors of war. But it also reinforces populist sentiments of 'benign militarism'.

At a time when the BBC and other elite-upholding media are serving to convey the idea of the 'mistaken war' - rather than the illegal and genocidal one that's actually happening - such output, arguably, serves to distract attention from the part UK forces have played in the invasion and killing.

There is a standard legal principle in such matters, still relevant from Nuremberg: the higher up the chain of command, the more culpable one is of war crimes. Blair, Brown and the generals should, thus, be standing at a dock in the Hague. But this doesn't entirely absolve those on the ground. Soldiers, though obeying orders and doing their job, are also responsible, legally and morally, for their actions.

Black Watch is not the jingoistic 'our boys at war' which an obedient media rallied-around from day one of the invasion. But it's still a troubling version of it. These soldiers are, of course, 'our boys'. But so also, to my way of thinking, are young Iraqis. They're all 'our boys' in a more inclusive, humanitarian sense. The principle, quite obviously, should extend to all suffering beings, male and female, young and old, caught-up in this wicked war and other conflicts.

In the week that saw the resilient Rose Gentle finally get judicial recognition for the loss of her Fusilier son Gordon in Iraq, Black Watch is a ready-reminder of the ways in which the state has, effectively, 'press-ganged' economically-fragile young people and sacrificed them in the supposed name of 'benign intervention'. But the play and the ruling might also cause us to reflect again on how we extend our understanding of human empathy with the forgotten of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other oppressed lands.

Penn is mightier than the sword

With good timing, this week also saw the actor Sean Penn give an impressive BBC interview in which he talked of his travels to Iran (to report the 2005 elections), his opposition to Bush, and how he sees the need for such a common politics of humanity. Alongside his warnings of how Bush will continue to "lie" on Iran, Penn's admirable words help illustrate the kind of mutual regard we must feel for the presently suffering and imminently threatened other.

Interviewer: "You're known also for your politics, you're known for your strong views [on the Iraq war and US policy towards Iran...] Why have you not chosen to use your films in a more overtly political way?"

Sean Penn: "Well, I don't know that there's anything more overtly political than to be proactively human... I'm not interested in the word politics as an academic notion. I think that it's got to be [about]quality of life for people...for one individual...for everybody. And that's what politics ought to be about. It's really a one issue world. It's quality of life."

Penn added, in relation to Iran:

“My project is to cut through to some of the meaningless kind of spin that has numbed people from understanding that people are people everywhere, and to be able to go there and to report back some of the kind of very shared humanity that we all have, no matter where we are coming from.”

Penn shows that there are also other ways of acting. And the key motivation of his assumed role is a rejection of mainstream politics for a true politics of compassion. In his efforts to expose the "spin of fear" and how the powerful seek to "make life so much cheaper", Penn reminds us that, on-screen and off, we have a duty to consider and reflect the voice and experience of the victimised other.