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London_Evening_Standard_30_7_2013It was with a sickened sense of incredulity I read the front page story of yesterday’s Evening Standard:

“Twitter Trolls Tell MP: We’ll Rape You”

Following Stella Creasy’s support for Caroline Criado-Perez, who was herself subjected to vile rape threats on Twitter for having the temerity to suggest that our bank notes should recognise the contribution women have made to our national success, it seems Twitter’s women-hating brigade have decided attack is the best form of defence.

I hesitate to use the word “trolls” in the context of men threatening rape.

It is a word that risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of the words they choose to use. It also risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of them, the men that make such threats, by decontextualising the perpetrators. A troll means different things to different people: the quasi-comical lumbering beast of popular culture; those punk-haired childhood toys that look like Child’s Play casting rejects; the dark and monstrous creatures of myth and fantasy; or dysfunctional “saddos” that should “get a life”.

In terms of the Internet, particularly, it is too easy to latch on to this latter idea. It is too easy to suggest that such threats should be dismissed as the mindless (and harmless) ranting of sexually dispossessed indequates. That those who feel threatened (generally women) should grow a thicker skin, particularly if they wish to enter the realm of the Internet (coincidentally designed and dominated, at least in terms of its architecture and maintenance, by men).

It also creates and reinforces a perverse sense of camaraderie and community. Persecutors present as the persecuted. They seek canonisation from their peers for defying the intrusions of the amorphous entity known as “the state” into their domain. It is a domain where, despite the fact that this domain and their freedom to explore it only exists courtesy of the state of which they are citizens, and the physical security and economic infrastructure which that state provides, “the state” and all that accompanies it (such as the rule of law) is evil: only the techno-anarchic, as defined by this self-selecting twisted-moralising techno-prophet elite, can be good.

Part of the hysterical rhetoric deployed is that this sort of censorship is the preserve of “feminazis”. Anyone familiar with the etymology of that word will know it was popularised by right-wing chat show host Rush Limbaugh in his attack on supporters of the pro-choice lobby. Suddenly, it was okay to conflate the term “feminist” with “National Socialism”, a genocidal quasi-religious totalitarian ideology, in order to mock and bring down those who chose to take a public stance on critical issues of women’s health. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals casual use of this term in Internet forum debate on the issue, as well as men seeking to deny that the rape threats were even made in the first place.

I don’t suppose it will be long before Criado-Perez’s assertion that “this is not a feminist issue” will be used both to undermine her credibility with feminist colleagues and, in complete contradiction, to attack her for her feminism. My reading of her comments is that she is making clear that this is an issue that has – or should have – currency beyond those who define themselves as feminist, not that this is not an issue for feminists. It is an issue that many might well identify as a feminist issue, but that we as a society should all be concerned with. It would be regretful if a well intentioned headline, designed to broaden participation and engage those who would normally stay outside such debates – not least of all because of the way some vocal and antagonistic participants use the terms “feminist” and “feminazi” to derogate and intimidate opponents – provided unintended cover for those who would prefer to retreat entirely from uncomfortable discussions of gender, identity and security (see the quote from Professor Mark Griffiths in this BBC story on Criado-Perez’s experiences and the wider issue of cyberbullying: Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women).

We need to slay these trolls – and even the very concept of them. We need to put abusers back in context. We need to remove their self-styled outlaw identity, where they seek to aggregate the romantic pioneer legacy of the Wild West to themselves and to the exclusion of those who choose not to engage in threats to violate other human beings. Like the rapists they emulate, these abusers are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and lovers, banal in their evil. Like the rapists they seek to emulate they have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and lovers. They are men, real human beings who have lost touch with the qualities that make them human – at least, such qualities as make them functional members of a liberal and democratic society in which all should feel safe to carry on their own business without the oppression of the state or other individuals in that society.

You hope that these individuals would not talk to their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends or lovers in the language they choose to address a stranger. (I resent describing them as “men” almost as much as I am reticent about calling them “trolls”. Unfortunately, I can’t escape the fact of their gender. Perhaps I should use the term “males” as “female” and “females” seem to be the nouns of choice when men engage in the casual objectification of women.)  You also hope, perhaps forlornly, that they would be angry as hell if a man approached a woman they loved and said he was going to rape her. If it were someone I loved who was threatened in that manner, I hope I would have the guts to punch their lights out.

If anyone doubts the extent of the challenge, it is worth reading Cath Elliot’s thought-provoking Guardian piece from October 2011 and the response it provoked in comments from readers: Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it is directed at women. One particular argument provoked a storm of angry comments from indignant readers, predominantly (though not all) men:

“What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.”

This was immediately seized upon as Elliot saying that all men are potential rapists. Comments under her article include:

“So any man will rape if he thinks he can get away with it? Is that what you’re saying Cath? That were rape to be legalised tomorrow we’d all be doing it?” [04 October 2011, 11.18am]

“Given that even using the disputed maximum figure for number of rapes committed per year you wind up with only 1 in 500 men actually being rapists I’d say that that does make them pretty different from the ‘average man’.” [04 October 2011, 11.22am]

“Oh. That’s absolutely disgusting, by the way. I hope you’ll clarify you’re not seriously suggesting the ‘average man’ would be out there, raping away, if they thought they could.” [04 October 2011, 11.33am]

At no point did Elliot make an equivalence between rapists and non-rapists. Quite the opposite in fact. She makes the distinction based on their actions. In the end she responded with her own comment:

“I didn’t say they were the ‘same as’ I said they weren’t ‘particularly different from’, and they’re not, apart from one key thing – the fact that they’re rapists!

I’m actually surprised that so many posters here seem to think rapists are some kind of special alien-like breed, easily distinguishable from everyone else. Well they’re not. As someone else has pointed out in the thread, they’re brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and so on, ordinary men in just about every way except for one – they’re prepared to commit this heinous crime whereas the vast majority of other, decent men are not.”  [04 October 2011 1.17pm]

She makes the point on contextualisation: that these men are like other men, enjoying the same relationships as non-rapists. They do not appear different, even though their monstrous actions set them worlds apart. If you want to get an idea of the kind of person who makes such threats, read this piece by Emma Barnett, the Telegraph’s Women’s Editor, on her radio interviews with two Internet trolls who attempt to “defend” their “right” to make rape threats online.

I wonder if those who scream “Free Speech” in defence of the right of men to threaten the rape of women on the Internet, whether to intimidate or just “for a laugh”, have really thought through what it is they are calling to protect? Before joining the chorus of indignation, anyone who is in doubt as to the vileness and impact of rape should talk to a rape survivor.

Hear them describe the fear and the sickening sense of violation and the powerlessness and the destruction of self-esteem and the ruin of identity. Hear the anger and the self-blame and the vilifications that have been caused by another man. If you are a man, wrestle uncomfortably with your instinctive sense of affront and indignation at any gender generalisations about men and male behaviour and realise they are being made by a woman who has had her identity reduced to object, a thing which a man felt entitled to violate.

To those who are critical of my gender-specific language, I am of course aware that men are raped and the horrific nature of each instance of rape is not altered by the gender of the victim. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are women. Get your head around the fact that official UK government statistics reveal that some 85,000 women are raped on average each year. That is over 230 a day. Then realise that means the offence has been reported and recorded and so unreported offences, which are no less real to victims too terrified or ashamed or resigned to report their rape, mean the real figure is much higher.

And then think what it means when a man says the following to a woman, whether in private or in the street or in a virtual forum: “I am going to rape you.”

Rape survivor stories make for harrowing reading. It is an offence that defies our sense of what is right on every conceivable level. Those who think that we who are offended by rape threats and jokes (without even being threatened) should grow thicker skins should themselves pause to consider how desensitisation to language is a very real thing. The recent history of popular culture is testament to that.

After all, we have learned as a society to tolerate language that our parents and, even more so, our grandparents, would not. Some of us have championed that as liberating. Some of us have bemoaned a collapse in standards of manners and social etiquette. Still others, myself included, have done both, casually accepting this change in the moral value of language without real challenge, assimilating vulgarities into our own speech despite the things we believe, bemoaning that vulgarity in others, yet also unwilling to see society return to a more censorious age. We may like it, we may not like it, we may champion it, we may hate it, but no-one would seriously question that Western society today is more acclimatised to the use of certain words than a generation ago.

Prevalence of such words, through use and reuse, has, inevitably, extended social acceptability. However, there is a world of difference between the freedom to use offensive words as we choose, with no intrinsic or constructed intent, and the use of phrases that are clearly constructed to create fear through expressed intent – targeted hatred designed deliberately to impact fundamentally on identity and a sense of self, of place. And whether we are content to live in a society in which casual disregard for such intent is a socially acceptable norm is a question we all have a responsibility to answer.

For me, in this particular debate, the cry of “Free Speech” is a modern-day Chimera, a monster conjured up by techno-demonologists to strike fear into the hearts of a non-expert majority who rightly fear a censorious state that interferes with political expression and the way we choose to live our lives. It is intended to terrify liberals into feeling that common sense has no place in a liberal democracy. It seeks to drive them into knee-jerk defences against an authority that, manifested in the state, is deemed amoral by the very fact that its pronouncements could arguably bear the label “moral”. It seeks to create a false and binary choice between one particular and romanticised meme of an anarchic Internet, which is fundamentally good, and the opposite and obvious evils of a liberal totalitarianism, worthy of the worst excesses of Arendt or Orwell. To up the ante, this is often presented as an insidious precursor to the totalitarian regimes we witness and condemn in a variety of real world manifestations. Unlike for many of its inhabitants, there are no shades of grey at all in the Internet’s potential states of existence.

I wonder if we are still intimidated by technology? I wonder if for those who aren’t in on the workings of the illusion there is still something mystical about the Internet that means we are terrified it will suddenly vanish if we apply some of the ground rules to this virtual playground that we use to order our physical space? Do we regard these techno-demonologists, who function as the Internet’s high priests, in much the same manner that the inhabitants of Oz regard the Wizard in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz? One of Baum’s biographers, Rebecca Loncraine, describes the story as a critique of power that demonstrates how “easily people who lack belief in themselves can become willing participants in the deceptions practised by manipulative figures who rule over them.” [“The Real Wizard of Oz The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum”, New York, Penguin Group, 2005, p. 179.]

The same liberals that vociferously deny that the existence of a free society depends on the right of its citizens to bear automatic weapons become less sure of their ground and even mute at the thought of tweets in this virtual, “unreal” realm leading to prosecutions and imprisonment in the “real” world (I would suggest that “unreal” and “real” are increasingly unsustainable distinctions in terms of the interface between the virtual and the physical). Yet were this their mother or daughter or sister in the street, they would not hesitate to recognise the threat for what it is. For me, the fallacy of the rapist tweeters’ argument is demonstrated clearly by the way it collapses under the weight of its intrinsic illogicality: “Our right to say what we like, no matter its reception, is one to which we attach such value that it must be protected at all costs, but yet, don’t worry, because it is also so valueless that you can simply disregard it completely when we exercise it.”

If we start from the presumption that freedom of speech matters, which for me it does, and at a very fundamental level, then surely it cannot be divorced from the responsibilities I accrue as a member of the society that protects that freedom? I am free to say what I like in the United Kingdom. I am also free to understand that if I say certain things, there will be certain consequences. That is part of the social contract I enter into by participating in a society that has decided to protect its minorities from words and behaviour that may make them feel threatened for simply existing.

The social contract is in part defined by law and in part by the the informal ways in which we interact with each other socially to establish appropriate behaviours. In modern parlance we might describe these unwritten, normative rules as “crowd-sourced”. I may choose to disregard the contract, or even refuse to recognise it, but that does not change the fact of its existence. (In understanding that, it beggars belief that we have not yet recognised how some words and behaviour can make a much larger segment of the population feel threatened for simply existing. That is an argument for another day but, thankfully, at least making threats of rape carries a criminal sanction.)

Beyond grand ideas of a social contract there is a much more banal and immediate reality (evil may be banal, but so is reality). Twitter might appear to be an anarchic public space, but it is actually a privately provided platform, run by a company that must operate in the real world of rules and corporate responsibility. Users of Twitter sign up to Terms of Service. These include the following provisions:

“We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services, to suspend or terminate users, and to reclaim usernames without liability to you. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public.”

Granted, users are at liberty to not read them or to read them and disregard them. However, Twitter is also perfectly entitled to remove users’ access if they are breached. Similarly, as users with equal access to this private platform, those who feel the terms of service have been breached, for instance if an “applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request” has not been complied with, are perfectly entitled to report their concerns. Whether Twitter then discharges its own contractual responsibilities appropriately is another matter entirely and a part of the focus of the current debate: the way it has been slow to act until public pressure has mounted suggests a depressing subordination of substantive concern to image.

This is not an unusual phenomena. It characterises much of the debate about the Internet and the way, particularly, that private companies who provide virtual platforms appear keen to protect profit margins by perpetuating iconic imagery, such as that of the Internet outlaw, in order to sustain associations with traditional user groups. Perhaps, ironically, it is the very fact that the Internet and social media is becoming more widely accessible to non-theists, and thus potentially more profitable, that is causing these companies pause for thought.

Whether driven by economics, a recognition of what is right and what is wrong, or simply common-sense, at least there are some signs of responsiveness. On the same day that the Evening Standard carried that headline, Twitter was reported as saying that it would install a report abuse button on every tweet, despite previously arguing that it was not necessary.

First the Bank of England and now Twitter. Caroline Criado-Perez is emerging as a very serious and inspirational force to be reckoned with. (If you still want to add your name to Kim Graham’s petition in support of Criado-Perez, calling for a Twitter abuse button, you can find it here.)

I am a liberal to my core.

I believe that the rule of law is fundamental to a prosperous and peaceful society. I believe that governments should err on the side of extreme caution in matters of intervention where it could be construed as an assault on freedom of speech. I also believe that we should put the “trolls” back in context as real individuals with abusive behaviours that demand consequences. Those who seek to hide criminality in the form of threats of rape behind something as valuable as freedom of speech place themselves at liberty of sanction. Freedom of speech matters too much for it to become the preserve of rapists and those who believe they have an unfettered right to engage in society’s private and public spaces without regard for the freedom of all of that society’s citizens.

[Updated 31.7.13]

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Elections are distracting affairs and somewhere along the line I missed the return to the internet of one of the most important resources for freedom of information campaigners of recent years: WikiLeaks.

Having survived the attempts of the US intelligence services to destroy its activities, WikiLeaks suspended itself at the beginning of the year in order to raise funds to ensure its staff could be paid and that a more robust framework for its vast quantities of information could be established.

Wikileaks has become a vital tool of the campaigning trade, especially when attempting to expose the sometimes questionable dealings of multinationals, governments and banks. For instance, WikiLeaks recently reported on the efforts of big pharmaceutical companies to spy on the World Health Organisation.

Take a look – and offer any support you can.

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Having posted on eagle-eyed web-watchers spotting the Daily Mail manipulating their polls to ensure Cameron won the debate, reports are appearing of The Sun manipulating its polling information by withholding data that contradicts the pro-Cameron political message it wants to send.

View London reports:

“The unpublished poll showed that if people believed the Lib Dems had a significant chance of winning the election they would get 49 per cent of the vote, compared to 25 per cent for the Tories and 19 per cent for Labour.”

i see this as an obvious challenge to Liberal Democrats and their Rage supporters the length and breadth of the country.

Get yourself to a seat with serious Lib Dem prospects, campaign yourself into the ground until polls close on May 6th – and show the electorate exactly how serious Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are about securing fundamental and lasting change.

And in the process thoroughly enjoy watching the Barclays-Murdoch-Rothermere press froth and foam and howl as ordinary people reclaim their election from what Bibi van der Zee describes as “a small collection of white middle-aged men in bunkers in London…”

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“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! The horror!’”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The sudden surge in support for the Liberal Democrats was accompanied, predictably, and properly, by increased scrutiny of the party and its policies.

However, until the television debates, breaking up the self-serving establishment consensus between Labour and the Tories on the one hand, and Fleet Street’s finest on the other, was not regarded as a real likelihood in any election. The balance of probabilities afforded the mainstream media the opportunity to to relax into complacent clichés about the Liberal Democrats, from gentle teasing about beards and sandals to attempts to portray them as out of touch loonies.

Nick Clegg’s clear and robust presentation of the Liberal Democrats’ key proposals has put paid to both those tired canards – and the likes of the Barclays, Murdoch and Rothermere are now in a blind panic for two reasons. Firstly, Cameron, their favoured son, is not walking it, despite the combined might of their media empires and Labour’s dismal record in Government. Secondly, they have woken up to the fact that they have absolutely no handle on Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and the grass roots-led political insurgency that is threatening to take this election out of the clutches of the press and hand it back to the voter. (And if anyone believes that rumours of political interference are exaggerated, remember Murdoch’s explicit admission of political editorial control in his newspapers.)

Their panic became very clear in the headlines of the last forty-eight hours.  The Telegraph screamed sleaze in 9/11 point headlines about donations that were properly accounted for and properly spent, insinuating that Clegg had pocketed the cash. (Amusingly, the subsequent debunking of this particular untruth revealed that Clegg actually paid out more money than he received.) At the same time, the Daily Mail attempted, outrageously, to slur Clegg with Nazi allusions. (The hypocrisy of the Mail is breath-taking – you may remember their “outrage” when they attacked Chris Huhne for  condemning William Hague and the Conservative Party for the Tories’ European associations with right-wing homophobes and climate change-deniers.)

To what extent are we to believe Tory denials of involvement in any conspiracy to smear Nick Clegg?

Not at all, if Nick Robinson is to be believed. He wrote on his blog last night:

“I now learn that political reporters from the Tory-backing papers were called in one by one to discuss how Team Cameron would deal with “Cleggmania” and to be offered Tory HQ’s favourite titbits about the Lib Dems – much of which appears in today’s papers.”

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a brutal analysis of man’s duality and the conflict between the idealistic projection of civilised values and the savage reality of desperate men. If Nick Clegg on a resurgent Liberal tide is the Barclays-Murdoch-Rothermere Establishment’s nightmare vision, then yesterday’s headlines are the result of his media henchmen attempting to fulfil the political equivalent of Kurtz’s scribbled instruction: “Exterminate the brutes!”

Perhaps this is what lay behind the showdown at the offices of The Independent, when Murdoch’s son, James, and News International stooge Rebekah Brooks (formerly Wade), stormed in carrying copies of the Independent and its wrap-around advert proclaiming “Murdoch won’t decide this election – you will.” One experienced journalist described the episode as being “like a scene out of Dodge City”. Very interestingly, the Guardian reports that the Indy showdown was preceded by a meeting between the Murdoch and Rothermere camps.

They should beware.

Those who remember Conrad’s book, or are familiar with its allegorical Vietnam War reinterpretation Apocalypse Now, will know how this story ends: with Kurtz’s isolation precipitating a descent into a destructive madness of self-obsession and self-aggrandisement, rendering him even more irrelevant to the world around him.

Life in the political wilderness and isolation from political civilisation destroying these faux-mythical beasts of the media Establishment?

As Michael Wolff writes of Murdoch’s flailing around: “this is one way for empires to end”.

Let’s hope.

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Yet another refreshing twist of this election campaign is the way that Twitter has provided a ready platform for creative expression in the moment. Ironic comment has long been the preserve of columnists, writers and the chattering classes. Twitter particularly has also allowed ordinary people to demonstrate they are more than capable of cutting wit and irony – and in a deliciously mischievous twist have sought to parody the attacks of the Tory press.

The Tories may have thought that they were being clever by briefing the Rothermere and Murdoch press to smear Nick Clegg. Reassuringly, however, the backlash against the smears started online almost immediately, with savvy voters seeing straight through an obvious dirty-tricks campaign and starting an ironic hash-tag #nickcleggsfault for Tweets attributing the world’s ills to Nick Clegg.

Here are some of those I liked best that ran with the #nickcleggsfault tag:

“Beethoven and Mahler didn’t complete their 10th symphonies #nickcleggsfault”

“Goose dying in Top Gun #nickcleggsfault”

“Haven’t done any of the work I was supposed to do… It’s #nickcleggsfault”

“Kennedy assassination. New footage confirms hidden gunman on grassy knoll is Nick Clegg. #nickcleggsfault”

And my personal favourite?

“Nick Clegg was seen two weeks ago poking Eyjafjallajokull with a stick #nickcleggsfault”

If you’ve spotted any others you like, please feel free to share… 🙂

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haytham al-malehVery worrying news from Amnesty International regarding the health of Hytham al-Maleh.

Haitham al-Maleh was born in Damascus, in 1931 holds a degree in Law from Damascus University and a diploma in public international law. He is an award-winning human rights activist and lawyer. On 7 December 2004 he received an award from the National Advisory Committee (French) for Human Rights for his research on torture. He received his award from the French ambassador in Damascus in a special ceremony because the authorities prevented him from travelling to Paris. On 11 March 2006 he was awarded a Dutch medal in recognition of his courageous struggle for human rights.

The text of Amnesty’s recent press release is reproduced below.

Please write as requested by Amnesty.



URGENT ACTION

Haitham al-Maleh’s health failing

Prisoner of conscience Haitham al-Maleh is very ill, and he has not taken any of the medication he needs since 11 February.

Since 11 February, the authorities have not allowed detainees in ‘Adra prison to obtain medication from anywhere but the prison pharmacy. Haitham al-Maleh will only take medication provided by his family, because he believes the prison pharmacy’s medicine is of poor quality.

He was brought before a military judge in Damascus on 22 February to face new charges of “insulting the president” and “slandering a governmental body”, in a public hearing. These charges were based on information from a prisoner detained for a non-political offence. Haitham al-Maleh said the information consisted of “lies and acts of provocation” by the prisoner.

Diplomats and two Italian lawyers representing the International Federation for Human Rights, an international non-governmental organization that aims at improving human rights protection, who had come to observe the trial session, were not allowed to attend. Haitham al-Maleh’s wife, who was present in court, was not allowed to shake his hand or talk to him. On his way out, security officers dragged him away from her when they embraced.

According to those who did attend the hearing, Haitham al-Maleh was so frail that his voice was weak. He had passed out during the week before the hearing, because he had not received his medication. The day after the hearing, the new charges were dropped under a presidential amnesty for prisoners convicted of minor offences, but the charges brought against him on 3 November still stand.

Conditions in ‘Adra prison are poor. Haytham al-Maleh sleeps on a mattress on the floor in an overcrowded cell. He has diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland and has not had any medication since 11 February, although he needs to take regular medication to treat both conditions. His health is deteriorating. Individuals suffering from diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland who do not take medication are at risk of severe weight loss, falling into a coma, and even heart and kidney failure. Unlike other detainees in ‘Adra prison, Haytham al-Maleh is usually accompanied by a prison officer when meeting with the prison doctor.

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in Arabic, English, French or your own language:

Urging the authorities to release Haytham al-Maleh immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

President

Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410
Salutation: Your Excellency

Minister of Interior

His Excellency Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
‘Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428
Salutation: Your Excellency

Copies to: Minister of Foreign Affairs

His Excellency Walid al-Mu’allim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Abu Rummaneh
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 7620
Salutation: Your Excellency

Additional Information

Haitham al-Maleh was charged by a military judge on 3 November with “conveying false news”, “weakening national sentiment” and “slandering a governmental body”. These charges relate to his public criticism of human rights violations and corruption by Syrian officials, which included a phone interview in September with a Europe-based satellite channel, Baradda TV.

Kamal al-Labwani

Prison authorities often encourage prisoners charged with or convicted of non-political offences to inform on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. On 23 April, Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience was given an additional term of three years in prison by the First Criminal Military Court in Damascus for “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” under article 286 of the Penal Code. This sentence was added to the 12-year term he was already serving on account of his work advocating peaceful reform in the country. This new sentence was based on the testimony of a prisoner in his cell in ‘Adra prison that Kamal al-Labwani had returned from one of the hearings of his previous trial and spoken disparagingly of the government. Kamal al-Labwani denied the charge and said prisoners detained for non-political offences were working in conjunction with the prison authorities, who had ignored his complaints that he had been assaulted twice in the prison.

Walid al-Bunni

Another prisoner of conscience, Walid al-Bunni, is serving a 30-month sentence for his involvement in the Damascus  Declaration for Democratic National Change, a coalition of unauthorized political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists from across the political spectrum. He was brought before Damascus Criminal Court on a new charge of “conveying false news” on 4 May 2009, based on the testimony of another prisoner. The new charge was finally dropped on 17 June 2009 and Walid al-Bunni was acquitted.

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Since Kamal was illegally imprisoned by the Syrian regime in Adra Prison, in 2005, numerous of our democratically elected representatives have raised his plight in our national and international parliaments. I have trawled through the websites of the UK Parliament and the European Parliament to consolidate the various representations in one place. I have also linked again to the petition running on the Number 10 website.

Some of you may wonder why I bother.

To some, Kamal is just one more unfortunate political progressive caught on the wrong side of an unreconstructed Middle Eastern dictator.

Not to me.

I bother because he is an artist, a philosopher, a radical and a Liberal.

Most of all, though, I bother because he is my friend.

Please take a look at this parliamentary archives page and be grateful for our own freedoms and democracy.

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