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Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director

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Has Jack Straw sold his soul to punk? [Jul. 8th, 2009|04:37 pm]
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director
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First Ronnie Biggs and Michael Shields were to stay behind bars. Now war criminals or those suspected of genocide who go to ground in Britain could join them in prison.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw is certainly having a high-profile period in his lengthy career. Speaking yesterday about amendments to the Justice and Coroners Bill that will mean that suspected genocidaires and war criminals resident in Britain can be prosecuted here, Mr Straw talked of the “chilling effect” that this will have on those looking at London (or Milton Keynes, or Leicester …) as a nice quiet safe haven from international justice. 

No more cooling your heels here, the UK’s too hot for you latter-day Idi Amins or Papa Doc Duvaliers. All well and good - and welcomed by Amnesty - except this is only a partial closure of a gaping loophole and it’s not quite the great freeze-out that Jack Straw would have us believe.

Only those legally resident in the UK would be caught by this legislation, and only those accused of crimes committed since 1 January 1991. Plenty of room for others then. Take the Pinochet case for example. Accused of responsibility for thousands of killings, “disappearances” and acts of torture in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s, were he still alive the former general could have continued his shopping trips to London unmolested by these laws: neither a resident here, or accused of crimes that occurred from ’91 on.

Ah, but wasn’t he arrested in London back in the late nineties? And, as a matter of fact, wasn’t the eponymous Jack Straw even the Home Secretary at the time? Yes and yes, but the Pinochet arrest was nothing to do with these new powers. Instead, it was a relatively rare application of the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction”. Wherever you commit a serious crime, you can still be held responsible for it regardless of geographical location of the offence or capture.

In the Pinochet case, the matter hinged on whether courts in the UK accepted this principle in relation to the crime of torture and whether UK laws allowed a torture suspect’s arrest and even trial overseas. In fact it was Spain that wanted to put him on trial and the UK was merely holding and processing him for extradition.

Except, much to the disgust of countless Chileans who had fought for decades for justice for their tortured or murdered relatives, Jack Straw made the decision that on medical grounds Pinochet was unfit to face extradition for trial in Madrid. Instead, he was allowed safe passage back to Santiago and an inglorious retirement where he spent his twilight years dodging the Chilean courts.

Meanwhile, while Chilean torture chambers in the 1970s were getting on with their torture trade, a certain notorious British punk band - the Sex Pistols - released a B-side called “Ronnie Biggs is innocent”  (“Ronnie Biggs was doing time / Until he done a bunk / Now he says he's seen the light / And sold his soul to punk”).

Now I must admit that I was never a fully-paid-up member of the Malcolm MacLaren fan club, but one thing I take from this is that while Biggs might have thought it a good wheeze at the time - safely evading British justice in South America - his escapade with the Pistols seems even now to have cost him dear. Jack Straw’s recent refusal to allow a withered and probably dying Biggs out of jail is widely seen as punishment for the great train robber’s deliberate flouting of the law while on the run.

Jack Straw, then: tough on Biggs, but not tough enough on Pinochet. Willing to close a loophole for (some) UK-resident war criminals, but not for non-resident mass killers in our midst. I’m minded to ask the following question: when will Jack Straw do a proper job on international justice?



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It’s not us, it’s them: the deadly rhetoric of Gaza revisited [Jul. 2nd, 2009|12:31 pm]
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director
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In the war of words during and since the Gaza conflict at the start of the year, we heard several mantras from Israel and Hamas.

Hamas had been “terrorising” people in southern Israel with its rockets. The 22-day offensive had been to stop rockets “raining down” on Israeli towns. Israel’s forces went to “great lengths” to avoid civilian casualties. Civilian deaths when they occurred were actually the fault of Hamas, which had situated its fighters in residential areas: either to deter Israeli attacks or to blame Israel if it attacked. Hamas had even, said Tel Aviv, cynically used Palestinians as “human shields”, deliberately putting them in harm's way, knowing what the deadly result would be.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups meanwhile deployed their own broad justifications. Yes, it has created a “circle of fear” in southern Israel, firing mortars, Qassam and Grad-type rockets. But these had been in “revenge” for Israeli attacks and for the paralysing economic blockade of Gaza. They were a “cry of protest to the world”.

Both of these arguments are totally unsustainable when measured against the facts. But before I come back to these dual distortions, let’s hear some alternative voices in this war of words. First, an ordinary Gazan holding no torch for Hamas or the rocket fusilladers. This is Fathiya Mousa, whose mother, father, three brothers, and sister were killed in a missile strike on her family’s home in the Sabra district of Gaza City on 14 January:

“There was no electricity. All the family were in the yard or the house listening to the news, negotiations in Egypt, martyrs, etc. The missile hit. Four were dead at once; my brother’s body was all in pieces … why did they hit our house? It is in a residential area. We are neither Hamas nor Fatah. We are all civilians. None of us did anything. My father was opposed to firing rockets against the Israelis; he wanted peace, and they killed him. We have nothing to do with the resistance … We want peace; and we want an investigation; we want to know why me and my sisters have been orphaned.” 

Meanwhile, about 25 miles to the north, across the Israeli border in Ashkelon, here’s a middle-aged Moldovan immigrant called Esther Berdichev describing a 2 January rocket attack on the flat she shares with her husband Viktor:

“Everything was dark. I choked on the dust, and was lightly hurt by the flying debris. Two rooms were completely destroyed, and the rest was covered in dust, shards of glass from the broken windows and debris. I cannot sleep at night and any loud noise upsets me … We never thought we’d be in a situation like this, not having a place to rest our heads … We moved to Israel from Moldova in 1992. We worked hard to build our lives in that home. Now we’ve lost everything.”

Lucky to be alive and thankfully not as badly hit as the Mousa family, the Berdichevs have nevertheless felt the trauma of suffering an unjustified attack. What happened to them happened to scores of others in southern Israel between 27 December and 18 January. In total nearly 200 Israeli civilians were injured and three were killed. On the other side the human cost was much higher. Figures are disputed but of 1,200-1,400 Palestinians killed, the evidence suggests that two-thirds were civilians (approximately 900), with some 5,000 others injured. Figures for the destruction of buildings are even starker: one Israeli home destroyed during the rocket barrage; 3,000 Palestinian homes destroyed by Israeli missiles, artillery and white phosphorous shells, tank shells, mortars, mines and army bulldozers.

Israel’s then Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has said the vast difference in casualty figures was actually “the idea” of the operation; after the conflict Prime Minister Olmert talked of a further “disproportionate” response to any new Palestinian rocket bombardment.

While it is chilling to believe that punitive disproportionality could have been the underlying policy behind the offensive, the fact remains that after examining in detail scores of individual attacks on Palestinian homes, on unarmed people in the street, on schools and other public buildings, on ambulances and on food processing plants, Amnesty has found little or no justification for attacks like those that devastated Fathiya Mousa’s family.

Contrary to repeated Israeli claims, Amnesty has also found no evidence that Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups used civilians as human shields. Hamas most certainly did carry out armed operations within residential areas - the crowded streets of Gaza City for example - but this did not, as Israel’s military surely knew, absolve Israel of the duty to avoid exposing civilians to excessive harm.

The zero-sum blame game of the Gaza conflict is terrifying. Israel says Hamas tactics make it responsible for hundreds of Palestinian civilians dying, while Hamas and the Palestinian armed groups say that Israelis killed or left to cower in bomb shelters in towns like Ashkelon are there because of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, or its drone strikes, or its incursions.

The truth is less paradoxical. When Hamas fires hopelessly inaccurate rockets into Israel it commits a war crime; when the Israel Defense Forces fire on unarmed civilians it commits a war crime. It’s always them, not us, according to the justifiers, a bankrupt policy of avoiding responsibility that short-changes civilians over and over again.

So I say again what should be said loudly and regularly. The international community - the US, Britain and everyone else concerned with this dreadful situation - should not only get behind the Richard Goldstone UN inquiry into the Gaza conflict, they should also be explicit as to the consequences of either side not cooperating. A cycle of death and destruction is almost certain to reassert itself without justice for the long-suffering people of this region. The Goldstone inquiry currently offers the best chance of breaking that cycle.

* Amnesty International’s 117-page report Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days Of Death And Destruction is out today.

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Are guidelines on Tasers tough enough? [Jun. 18th, 2009|01:09 pm]
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director
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[Current Location |London]

Debate has arisen once again about whether British frontline police officers should be armed with Tasers.  This time as a result of the startling mobile phone footage taken by taxi driver Colin Hedley which shows a man in Nottingham being shocked with a Taser while already on the ground, surrounded by four police officers and apparently already under effective control. 

Of course it’s impossible to know the circumstances that led up to this incident but what the video does reveal is a clear breach of the conditions under which Tasers should be used, not to mention an apparent use of disproportionate force. 

It’s reassuring to hear that the Independent Police Complaints Commission will be investigating this incident. I hope that they can conclude effectively whether the officers were justified to fire the Taser at the man while he was already on the ground and had apparently already been shocked.

This incident raises a fundamental question that Amnesty has long posed about the use of this electro-shock weapon in British policing: whether it is right to equip frontline officers with a potentially lethal weapon that is inherently open to abuse?  It also raises questions about the rules of engagement that are applied for use of the weapon?

Exactly what kind of direction had the officers been given before deploying their weapon in Nottingham?  How much training had they received?

It wasn’t long ago that Tasers were only in the hands of Specialist Firearms Officers.  These officers undergo regular and intensive training, where they are continually assessed on the circumstances under which they can use the weapon.

At that time the Home Office acknowledged that these weapons are dangerous and should be kept in the hands of the best-trained firearms officers.

So what’s changed? Had the event in Nottingham taken place two years ago when Tasers were not at these officers’ disposal, wouldn’t they have been able to control the situation?

Amnesty International has carried out extensive study into the use of the Taser weapon in North America, where it has been routinely used for a longer period of time.

This has shown that since 2001 more than 345 people have died after being shocked by a Taser – many were subjected to prolonged and multiple shocks – the majority of those people who were fired at were unarmed, such as a 15-year-old boy who died after being shocked with a Taser earlier this year and many have been Tasered for minor offences, such as the 72-year-old great-grandmother who refused to sign a ticket after a traffic stop.  One of the most well-known deaths following a Taser shock is that of a Polish man in Vancouver airport, which features on YouTube.

Rightly, Amnesty International has always insisted that this is a dangerous weapon which should be used in a very limited set of circumstances. It should be considered a weapon of last resort and used in circumstances where the situation presents an immediate threat to life or serious injury.

If the Nottingham police thought it was appropriate to fire the Taser at a man who was already lying on the ground and surrounded by four officers – perhaps the Home Office should re-examine existing guidelines.

UK police forces have always prided themselves on policing by consent rather than policing by force.  The last thing the UK needs is a change of that culture.  Let’s hope that the UK Government re-examines the use of Tasers in British policing and seeks to ensure that the recent case in Nottingham is not the first of many.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director

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