Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.

Dutch festival OHM – Observe, Hack, Make

Today I am limbering up to attend the Dutch geek festival, Observe Hack Make (OHM 2013). A lot of talks from whistleblowers, scientists, geeks, futurists and bleeding edge tech people. The visionaries?

You decide – all talks will be live streamed and available afterwards. Enjoy!

RT interview re Snowden flying to Russia

As the news broke that NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, had fled Hong Kong for Russia today, I was invited on RT to do an interview. At that point few people had any idea of his plans.  However, it appears that the USA had charged Snowden under the Espionage Act 1917 (no surprises) and then asked Hong Kong to arrest and hold him, pending extradition. Equally unsurprisingly, Hong Kong found mistakes in the paperwork and used the opportunity to complain about US spying activity in its territory.

Anyway, this gave Snowden, with apparently the help of the whistleblowing publishing site Wikileaks, the chance to leave the country and fly to Russia, with the reported final destination being Ecuador.

So here’s my initial take on the situation:

Snowden case shows US is bully boy of world – RTTV interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The FISA/Echelon Panopticon

A recent interview with James Corbett of the Corbett Report on Global Research TV discussing issues such as FISA, Echelon, and our cultural “grooming” by the burgeoning surveillance state:

The Keiser Report – my recent interview

My recent interview on Max Keiser’s excellent RT show, The Keiser Report, apparently now the most watched English language news commentary show across the world.

We were discussing such happy subjects as the war on terror, the war on drugs, but predominantly the war on the internet:

Asymmetric Extradition – the American Way

Published in the Huffington Post UK, The Real News Network, and Information Clearing House

I blame my partner. There I was having a perfectly nice day off, pootling my way through the Sunday newspapers and finding such intriguing articles about the fact that Britain has invaded all but 22 countries around the world over the centuries (France is the second most prolific invader but also has the dubious distinction of being the country most invaded by Britain, apparently).

Then he has to go and say “well, if the US ignores other countries’ laws, why should we be subject to theirs?”. This post is the unavoidable result.

I had made the tactical blunder of sharing two articles with him.  The first was an excellent interview in today’s Independent with news supremo and financial subversive, Max Keiser; the second was an article I found in my Twitter stream from the indefatigable Julia O’Dwyer about her son’s ongoing legal fight in the UK.

The connection?  Unfortunately and rather inevitably these days – extradition.

Richard O’Dwyer is the Sheffield student who is currently wanted by the USA on copyright infringement charges.  Using a bit of old-fashioned get-up-and-go, he set up a website called tvshack.com, which apparently acted as a sign-posting service to websites where people could download media.  Putting aside the simple argument that the service he provided was no different from Google, he also had no copyrighted material hosted on his website.

Richard has lived all his life in the UK, and he set up his website there.  Under UK law he had committed no crime.

However, the American authorities thought differently.  O’Dwyer had registered his website as a .com and the US now claims that any website, anywhere in the world, using a US-originated domain name (com/org/info/net etc) is subject to US law, thus allowing the American government to globalise their legal hegemony. The most notorious recent case was the illegal US intelligence operation to take down Megaupload and arrest Kim Dotcom in New Zealand earlier this year.

This has already resulted in foreign websites that attract the wrath of the US authorities being taken down, with no warning and no due process. This is the cyber equivalent of drone warfare and the presidentially-approved CIA kill list.

As a result, not only was O’Dwyer’s website summarily taken down, he is now facing extradition to the US and a 10 year stretch in a maximum security prison.  All for something that is not even a crime under UK law.  His case echoes the terrible 10-year ordeal that Gary McKinnon went through, and highlights the appalling problems inherent in the invidious, one-sided UK/USA Extradition Act.

So how does this link to the Max Keiser interview? Reading it reminded my of an investigation Keiser did a few years ago into the extraordinary rendition of a “terrorist suspect”, Abu Omar, from Italy to Egypt where he was inevitably, horrifically tortured.  Since then, 23 CIA officers have now been tried under Italian law and found guilty of his kidnapping (let’s not mince our words here).  The Milan Head of Station, Robert Lady is now wanted in Italy to serve his 9-year sentence, but the US government has refused to extradite him.

So let’s just reiterate this: on the one hand, the US demands EU citizens on suspicion that they may have committed a cyber-crime according to the diktats of American law, which we are all now supposed to agree has a globalised reach; on the other hand, US citizens who have already been convicted by the due legal process of other Western democracies are not handed over to serve their sentences for appalling crimes involving kidnapping and torture.

I have written at length about America’s asymmetric extradition laws, but this is taking the system to new heights of hypocrisy.

Just why, indeed, should European countries religiously obey America’s self-styled global legal dominion and hand over its citizens, presumed innocent until proven guilty, to the brutal and disproportionate US legal system?  Especially when the US brushes aside the due legal processes of other democracies and refuses to extradite convicted felons?

It appears that the USA is in a hurry to reach and breach Britain’s record for foreign invasions. But in addition to old-fashioned military incursions, America is also going for full-spectrum legal dominance.

The Assange Witch Hunt

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 17 August 2012

A storm of diplomatic sound and fury has broken over Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. The UK government has threatened to breach all diplomatic protocol and international law and go into the embassy to arrest Assange.

The UK justifies this by citing the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, a law apparently put in place following the 1984 shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan Embassy in London.  The murder resulted in an 11-day siege, and the embassy staff eventually being expelled from the country.  Nobody has yet been brought to justice for this murder.

It is hard to equate the gravity of the crime that brought about the 1987 legislation – the murder of a policewoman – with Assange’s situation.  Despite the screaming headlines, let us not forget that he is merely wanted for questioning in Sweden. Nevertheless, the UK is prepared to overturn all diplomatic protocol and create a dangerous international precedent to “get their man”, despite there being a clear lack of justification under the terms of the ’87 Act.

Many people in the western media remain puzzled about Assange’s fear of being held captive in the Swedish legal system. But can we really trust Swedish justice when it has been flag­rantly politi­cised and manip­u­lated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well doc­u­mented. Indeed, the Swedish justice sys­tem has the highest rate per cap­ita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flout­ing Art­icle 6 — the right to a fair trial.

If Assange were extra­dited merely for ques­tion­ing by police — he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden — there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a “tem­por­ary sur­render”. And in the US, a secret Grand Jury has been con­vened in Vir­ginia to find a law — any law — with which to pro­sec­ute Assange.  Hell, if the Yanks can’t find an exist­ing law, they will prob­ably write a new one just for him.

So why all the sound and fury? What is this really all about?

Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech, award-winning journ­al­ism that has exposed cor­rupt prac­tices across the world over the years.  And crucially, in this war-torn, weary and financially broken world, it offers a secure conduit to whistleblowers who want to expose institutional crime and corruption for the public good.

Whis­tleblowers want to get their inform­a­tion out there, they want to make a dif­fer­ence, they want a fair hear­ing, and they don’t want to pay too high a per­sonal price for doing so. Is that too much to ask?

By going pub­lic about ser­i­ous con­cerns they have about their work­place, they are jeop­ard­ising their whole way of life: not just their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and career, but all that goes with it, such as the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage, their social circle, their fam­ily life, their rela­tion­ship…  Plus, the whis­tleblower can poten­tially risk prison or worse.

So, with these risks in mind, they are cer­tainly look­ing for an avenue to blow the whistle that will offer a degree of pro­tec­tion and allow them to retain a degree of con­trol over their own lives.  In the old days, this meant try­ing to identify an hon­our­able, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and a media organ­isa­tion that had the clout to pro­tect its source.  While not impossible, that could cer­tainly be dif­fi­cult, and becomes increas­ingly so in this era of endemic elec­tronic surveillance.

Today the other option is a secure, high-tech pub­lish­ing con­duit such as Wikileaks. This provides anonym­ity and a cer­tain degree of con­trol to the mod­ern whis­tleblower, plus it allows their inform­a­tion to reach a wide audi­ence without either being filtered by the media or blocked by gov­ern­ment or cor­por­ate injunctions.

As someone who has a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the reper­cus­sions of blow­ing the whistle on a secret gov­ern­ment agency, I have long seen the value of the Wikileaks model – and I also understand quite why governments feel so threatened by it. After all, no government or mega-corporation wants freedom of information and transparency forced upon it, nor an informed citizenry questioning its actions.

Our governments like to spout the phrase “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” as they roll out yet another intrusive surveillance measure.

Wikileaks has turned that right back at them – hence this modern-day witch-hunt.

The Extradition Farce – why the delay in reform?

Outrage continues to swell about the peremptory extradition of British citizens to face trial on tenuous charges abroad.

Thanks to the tireless campaigning of distraught family members, a growing anger in the UK press, and indignant questions and debates in Parliament – even our somnambulant MPs have roused themselves to state that Something Must be Done – the Extradition Act 2003 is now centre stage, and reform of the law will no doubt occur at some point.

As there is a growing consensus, why the delay?  I have a theory, but first let’s review some of the most troubling recent cases.

Janis_SharpThe case that really brought the issue to widespread public attention  is the decade-long extradition battle of Gary McKinnon.  With this sword of Damocles hanging over his head for so long, poor Gary has already effectively served a 10-year sentence, uncertain of his future and unable to work in his chosen profession.  Thanks to the indefatigable campaigning of his mother, Janis Sharp, his case has received widespread support from the media and politicians alike.

Despite this the Home Secretary, Theresa May (who has recently been working so hard in Jordan to protect the rights of Abu Qatada), has dragged her feet abominably over making a decision about whether Gary should be extradited to the US to face a possible 70-year prison sentence – even though the UK investigation into his alleged crime was abandoned way back in 2002.

Julia_and Richard_OdwyerThen there is the more recent case of student Richard O’Dwyer, wanted in the US even though he lives in the UK and has broken no British laws.  He is facing a 10 year maximum security sentence if extradited.  Once again, his mother, Julia, is tirelessly fighting and campaigning for her son.

Most recently, Chris Tappin, a retired businessman and golf club president, has been shipped off to a Texas high security penitentiary following what sounds like a US entrapment operation (a technique not legally admissable in UK courts), and faces a 35 year sentence if convicted.

Chris_and_Elaine_TappinDespite having turned himself in, this elderly gent, who walks with the aid of a cane, is considered such a flight risk that he was last week denied bail. Once again, his wife Elaine has come out fighting.

My heart goes out to all these women, and I salute their tenacity and bravery.  I remember living through a similar, if mercifully briefer, four months back in 1998 when the UK government tried and failed to extradite David Shayler from France to the UK to stand trial for a breach of the OSA. I remember with crystal clarity the shock of the arrest, the fear when he disappeared into a foreign legal system without trace, the anguish about his life in an alien prison.

Sunday_Times_Paris_98And I remember the frightening moment when I realised I had to step up and fight for him – the legal case, dealing with MPs and the endless media work, including the terror of live TV interviews.  And all this when you are worried sick about the fate of a loved one.  Shall I just say it was a steep learning curve?

In the wake of the recent extradition cases, there have been questions in Parliament, motions, debates, reviews (Download Review), and there is an ongoing push for an urgent need for reform.  And no doubt this will come, in time.

So why the delay?  Why not change the law now, and prevent McKinnon, O’Dywer and many others being sacrificed on the American legal altar – the concept of “judicial rendition“, as I have mentioned before.

Well, I have a theory, one derived from personal experience.  The British media – most notably the Daily Mail – inveigh against the unilateral extradition of UK citizens to the USA’s brutal prison regime.  There is also some concern about extradition to other European jurisdictions – usually on the fringes to the south and east of the continent, regions where the British seem to have a visceral fear of corrupt officials and kangaroo courts.

But what many commentators seem to miss is the crucial legal connection – the extradition arrangements that ensure Brits can be shipped off to the US and many other legal banana republics comparable legal systems to face outrageous sentences are, in fact, embedded within the Extradition Act 2003.  This is the act that enshrined the power of the European Arrest Warrant, the the act that was rushed through Parliament in the midst of the post-9/11 terrorism flap.

And, of course, this is the very act that is currently being used and abused to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden merely for police questioning (he has not even been charged with any crime), whence he can be “temporarily surrendered” to the delights of the US judicial process. Hmm, could this possibly be the reason for the delay in reforming the Act?

Assange_Supreme_CourtLet me guess, you think this is begin­ning to sound a bit tin-foil hat? Surely it is incon­ceiv­able that the Brit­ish politi­cians and judges would delay right­ing a flag­rant legal wrong that mani­festly res­ults in inno­cent people being unjustly extra­dited and pro­sec­uted? Surely our gov­ern­ment would move swiftly to pro­tect its citizens?

As I men­tioned, my the­ory stems from per­sonal exper­i­ence. Once again delving into the mists of time, in 1997 David Shayler blew the whistle on the wrong­ful con­vic­tion on ter­ror­ist charges of two inno­cent Palestinian stu­dents, Samar Alami and Jawad Bot­meh. Their law­yer, the excel­lent Gareth Peirce, was imme­di­ately on the case, but the UK gov­ern­ment dragged its heels for a year. Why?

Dur­ing that time, the UK gov­ern­ment tried to have Shayler extra­dited from France to the UK to stand trial. Gov­ern­ment law­yers were con­fid­ent of vic­tory and delayed a decision on the stu­dents’ appeal against their con­vic­tions until the whis­tleblower was safely incar­cer­ated in HMP Bel­marsh, await­ing trial.

Except it all went wrong, and the French freed Shayler for being mani­festly a polit­ical whis­tleblower, which in their legal opin­ion was not an extra­dict­able offence. Only at that point did the UK gov­ern­ment law­yers begin to work with Peirce on the Palestinian case, details of which can be found here.

Christine_AssangeSo my the­ory is that the UK is drag­ging its feet about reform­ing the pre­pos­ter­ous Extra­di­tion Act until it has Assange safely over in Sweden. How­ever, they may be count­ing their chick­ens pre­ma­turely — and they should never, ever over­look the determ­in­a­tion of the cam­paign­ing mother, in this case Christine Assange.

But in the mean­time, while the UK con­tin­ues to pros­ti­tute itself to the USA, how many more inno­cent people will have to suf­fer unjust and unjus­ti­fi­able extradition?

A Tale of Two Cases

Abu_QatadaThe first case, the one hitting the headlines this week, is that of Jordanian-born alleged terrorist supremo Abu Qatada, who arrived in the UK using a forged passport almost 20 years ago and claimed asylum, and has already been found guilty twice in absentia of terrorist attacks in Jordan. He is reportedly also wanted in seven other countries for terrorist-related offences.  He has been labeled Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, and over the last few years in the UK has been variously interned, placed under control order, and held in maximum security prisons.  

The UK courts ruled that he should be deported to stand trial in his native country, but these rulings were recently overturned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as it had concerns that Jordanian diplomatic assurances that he would not be tortured could not be relied on, and that evidence against him in any retrial there might have been obtained using torture. 

MATT_CartoonAs a result, Mr Justice Mitting of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) has ruled that he should be released under a strict T-PIM (the new control order).  This decision has predictably roused the frothing wrath of the Home Office and the readership of the Daily Mail.  Politicians of all flavours have rushed out their sound bites condemning the ECtHR decision.  

But can they not see that it is the complacency and the very disdain for law that the British political and intelligence infrastructure has displayed for the last decade that has created this mess in the first place?  If, instead of kidnapping, torture, assassination, and indeed internment without trial within the UK, the rule of law had been followed, the country would not currently find itself in this legal quagmire.  

There used to be a notion that you used due process to investigate a terrorist suspect as you would any other suspected criminal: gather the evidence, present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, hold a trial in front of a jury, and work towards a conviction. 

How quaintly old-fashioned that all seems today.  Instead, since 9/11 and the inception of the hysterically brutal "war on terror" led by the USA, we have seen people in the UK thrown into prison for years on the secret word of anonymous intelligence officers, where even the suspects' lawyers are not allowed to see the information against their clients.  The British legal system has become truly Kafkaesque.

Which leads me to the second case.  This was a quote in yesterday's Guardian about the Abu Qatada ruling:

"The Conservative backbencher Dominic Raab echoed Blunkett's anger: "This result is a direct result of the perverse ruling by the Strasbourg court. It makes a mockery of human rights law that a terrorist suspect deemed 'dangerous' by our courts can't be returned home, not for fear that he might be tortured, but because European judges don't trust the Jordanian justice system.""

Julian_assangeIn the case of Julian Assange, can we really trust the Swedish justice system? While the Swedish judicial system may have an ostensibly more fragrant reputation than that of Jordan, it has been flagrantly politicised and manipulated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well documented. Indeed, the Swedish justice system has the highest rate per capita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flouting Article 6 – the right to a fair trial.

If Assange were extradited merely for questioning by police – he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden – there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a "temporary surrender".  And, to bastardise the above quote, who now really trusts the American justice system?

A secret Grand Jury has been convened in Virginia to find a law – any law – with which to prosecute Assange.  Hell, if the Yanks can't find an existing law, they will probably write a new one just for him.

Forget about the fact that Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech journalism that has exposed corrupt practices across the world over the years.  The US just wants to make an example of Assange in retaliation for the embarrassment he has caused by exposing US double dealing and war crimes over the last decade, and no doubt as a dreadful example to deter others.  

Bradley_Manning_2The alleged Wikileaks source, US soldier Private Bradley Manning, has been kept in inhumane and degrading conditions for well over a year and will now be court-martialed.  The general assumption is that this process was designed to break him, so that he would implicate Assange and possibly other Wikileaks associates.  

In my view, that means that any US trial of Assange could essentially be relying on evidence obtained under torture.  And if Assange is extradited and and judicially rendered to the US, he too will face torturous conditions.

So, to summarise, on the one hand we have a man who is wanted in eight countries for terrorist offences, has already been convicted twice in his home country, but who cannot be extradited.

And on the other hand we have a man who has not been charged, tried or convicted of anything, but is merely wanted for questioning on minor and apparently trumped up charges in another country, yet who has also been imprisoned in solitary confinement and held under house arrest.  And it looks like the British authorities are happy to collude in his extradition.

Both these men potentially face a mistrial and both may potentially experience what is now euphemistically known as "degrading and inhumane treatment".

But because one faces being sent back to his home country – now seen for the purposes of his case as a banana republic with a corrupt judicial system that relies on evidence extracted under torture – he shall probably not be extradited.  However, the other faces being sent to an alien country well known as a beacon of civil rights and fair judicial system oops, sorry, as a banana republic with a corrupt judicial system that relies on evidence extracted under torture.

A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesThe UK has become a legal laughing stock around the world and our judicial framework has been bent completely out of shape by the requirements of the "war on terror" and the rapidly developing corporate fascism of our government.  

The UK is currently celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.  Perhaps the time has come to pause and think about some of the issues he discussed in one of his best-known novels, "A Tale of Two Cities".  Do we want our country to slide further down the path of state terrorism – a phrase adopted from the original Grande Terreur of the French Revolution? 

We need to seize back our basic rights, the due process of law, and justice.

Judicial rendition – the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Sometimes I sit here reading the news -  on subjects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police investigation into UK spy complicity in torture, where the police decided not to prosecute – and feel that I should comment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough concrete evidence, of course no individual spies would be held to account, despite the fact that the British government has already paid massive settlements to the victims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be investigating MI6 involvement in the extraordinary rendition and torture of two Libyans.  The case appears bang to rights, with documentary evidence that high-ranking MI6 officers and government ministers were involved in and approved the operation.  Yet I'm willing to bet that the plods at Scotland Yard will still not be able to find the requisite evidence to prosecute anybody. 

The inevitable (and probably wished-for outcome on the part of the authorities) is that people become so weary and cynical about the lack of justice that they stop fighting for it.  And they can temporarily succeed, when we succumb to cynical burnout.

But the case reported in today's Daily Mail, that of a young British student facing extradition to the US despite having broken no laws in the UK, succeeded in rousing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hapless 23-year old Richard O'Dwyer faces 10 years in a maximum security American prison.  His crime, according to the US, is that he set up a UK-based website that provided links to other international websites that allegedly hosted copyright material.

This case is so troubling on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crackdown of US corporate copyright law, issues around the inequality of the unilateral Extradition Act 2003, and historic questions of US hypocrisy about extradition.

So let's start with the unsupported allegations against poor Richard O'Dwyer.  He is a student who built a website that collated a list of sites in other countries that host films, books and music for free download.  O'Dwyer did not himself download any copyrighted material, and the websites he linked to were apparently within jurisdictions where such downloads are not illegal.  Providing a signpost to other legal international sites is manifestly not a crime in the UK and he has never been charged.

However, over the last couple of decades the US entertainment lobby has been fighting a vicious rearguard action against copyright infringement, starting with the music, then the film, and now the publishing industry.  The lobbyists have proved victorious and the invidious SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Congress.  All well and good you might think – it's one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have global reach.  What might be legal within the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legislation.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extradition Act 2003 becomes particularly threatening.  This law means that any UK citizen can be demanded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evidence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hacker Gary McKinnon, it matters not if the "crime" were committed on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon's case was not prosecuted by the UK authorities in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a maximum sentence of 6 months' community service: if extradited he is facing up to 70 years in a US maximum security prison).

The UK government has tried to spin the egregious Libyan cases as "judicial rendition" rather than "extraordinary kidnapping" or whatever it's supposed to be.  So I think it would be accurate to call Gary McKinnon's case "judicial rendition" too, rather than boring old extradition.

Richard O'Dwyer apparently didn't commit anything that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extradition to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judicial rendition. 

As I have mentioned before, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow summed it up best: "you can't make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants".  These corporate internet laws are a Trojan horse that will threaten our basic civil liberties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypocrisy around the American stance on extradition with the UK is breathtaking.   The UK has been dispatching its own citizens off at an alarming rate to the "tender" mercies of the US judicial system since 2004, with no prima facie evidence required.  In fact, the legal proof required to get a UK citizen extradited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extradited from one US state to another. 

The US, on the other hand, delayed ratifying the law until 2006, and the burden of proof required to extradite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbalanced not only in concept but also in practice.  And this despite the fact that the law was seen as crucial to facilitate the transfer of highly dangerous terrorist suspects in the endless "war on terror".

Why has this happened?  One can but speculate about the power of the Irish lobby in the US government, as Sir Menzies Campbell did during a parliamentary debate about the Act in 2006.   However, it is well known that the US was remarkably coy about extraditing IRA suspects back to the UK to stand trial during the 30-year "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.  We even have well-known apologists such as Congressman Peter King, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee attempting to demonise organisations like Wikileaks as terrorist organisations, while at the same being a life-long supporter of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

UK_poodleThe double standards are breath-taking.  The US dictates an extradition treaty with the UK to stop terrorism, but then uses this law to target those who might potentially, tangentially, minutely threaten the profits of the US entertainment mega-corps; and then it delays ratifying and implementing its own law for potentially dubious political reasons.

And the UK government yet again rolls over and takes it, while innocent students such as Richard O'Dwyer must pay the price.  As his mother is quoted as saying: "if they can come for Richard, they can come for anyone".

Alleged Wikileaks source, Bradley Manning, faces the death penalty

Bradley_manningAlleged Wikileaks source US Private Bradley Manning is now charged with “aiding the enemy”, amongst a bewildering array of 22 new charges.  This is apparently a capital offence, although the US military has cosily said that they wouldn’t push for this barbaric sentence.

So just life without the hope of parole then…..

Putting aide the minor question of whether the USA should even be entitled to call itself a modern democracy when it still has the death penalty on its books, let’s just remind ourselves of what Manning is alleged to have revealed: the “Collateral Murder” military shoot-up, where innocent children, civilians and journalists were gunned down by US forces in a particularly nasty snuff video game that was then deliberately covered up by the Pentagon for years; many other heinous war crimes and records of daily brutality in Afghanistan and Iraq; and an “embarrass de richesses” of diplomatic cables.

I think “embarrass” is the key word here, on so many levels, and goes a long way to explaining the USA’s desperation to destroy Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, by any means necessary.

But the phrase from the list of charges against the hapless Manning that leaps out at me is “aiding the enemy”.  If – and it’s still a big legal if – Manning was indeed the source of all this crucial information, whom was he actually aiding?

Information that has appeared on Wikileaks over the last few years has been eclectic, international and very much in the public interest.  It’s covered such nasties as Trafigura, the BNP, Scientology, Climategate, Guantanamo, the Australian internet blacklist, Sarah Palin, and much more.

It’s certainly not just restricted to the information that hit the headlines last year about the US hegemony.  However, there is no doubt that it was the release of the Afghan, Iraq and diplomatic files that stirred up this particularly unpleasant hornets’ nest.

As global citizens I would suggest that we have every right to know what is done in our name. But, having said that, according to these new charges against poor Bradley Manning, the beneficiaries of Wikileaks – ie all of us –  have now become the enemy.

When did we, the people, the global citizenry, become the enemy?  It seems that our esteemed rulers are at last showing their true colours….

On that note, do have a look at this video of former MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, speaking recently at the Cambridge Union Society.  An interesting perspective on the British Establishment’s line on Wikileaks and Julian Assange:

The Case of Gary McKinnon

Gary_McKinnon_Bow_Street_Magistrates_24_Nov_2005_600-thumbI've been following the extraordinary case of Gary McKinnon for years now in a long range kind of way, but we are now in the final throes of his prolonged fight against extradition to the USA, and he needs all the support we can give him.  The Daily Mail recently started a campaign against his extradition:  it's not often I agree with the Wail, but I'm wholeheartedly in favour of this initiative. 

For those of you who have been living in a bunker for the last 7 years, Gary McKinnon is the self-confessed geek who went looking for evidence of UFOs and ETs on some of America's most secret computer systems at the Pentagon and NASA. 

And, when I say secret, obviously I don't mean in the sense of encrypted or protected.  The Yanks obviously didn't feel that their national defence warrants even cursory protection, as Gary didn't have to hack his way in past multiple layers of protection.  Apparently the systems didn't even have passwords.

Gary, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, is no super hacker.  Using a basic PC and a dial-up connection in his bedroom, he managed to sneak a peek at the Pentagon computers, before kindly leaving a message that the US military might like to have a think about a little bit of basic internet security.   Hardly the work of a malignant, international cyber-terrorist.

UK police investigated Gary soon after this episode, way back in 2002.  All he faced, under the UK's 1990 Computer Misuse Act, would have been a bit of community service if he'd been convicted.  Even that was moot, as the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute.

And that, as they say, should have been that. 

However, in 2003 the UK government passed yet another draconian piece of law in response to the "war on terror" – the Extradition Act.  Under this invidious, one-sided law, the US authorities can demand the extradition to America of any British citizen, without presenting any evidence of the crime for which they are wanted.  Needless to say, this arrangement only works one way: if the Brits want to extradite a suspect from the US they still have to present prima facie evidence of a crime to an American court.  The Act also enshrines the questionable European arrest warrant system in British law.

So how on earth did the half-wits in Parliament come to pass such an awful law?  Were they too busy totting up their expense fiddles to notice that they were signing away British sovereignty?  This law means that it is easier for a US court to get a Brit in the dock than it is for them to get a US citizen from another state.  In the latter case, evidence is still also required.

Let's get this straight.  The UK authorities decided not to prosecute in this country.  Even if they had, Gary would probably have been sentenced to community service.  However, if he is extradited, he will get up to 70 years in a maximum security prison in the US.

So a year after Gary's bedroom hack, and after the CPS had decided there was no case to answer, the US authorities demanded Gary's extradition retroactively.   The UK government, rather than protecting a British citizen, basically said "Yes, have him!".  Gary has been fighting the case ever since.

Janis_SharpHe has not been alone.  Many people from across the political spectrum see this unilateral law as invidious.  And the government reckoned without his mum.  Janis Sharp has fought valiantly and indefatigably to protect her son from this unjust extradition. She has lobbied MPs, talked to newspapers, gained the support of many public and celebrity figures.  She even recently met the PM's wife, Sarah Brown, who was reportedly in tears for Gary.  Yet still the majority of the parliamentary half-wits refuse to do anything. 

In fact, it gets worse.  Over the last few years many MPs have signed Early Day Motions supporting Gary's fight against extradition.  But in a recent debate in the House of Commons about the need to revise the provisions of the Extradition Act, 74 of these MPs betrayed him and voted for the government to keep the Act in place.  Only 10 Labour MPs stuck to their guns and defied the party Whip.  One Labour MP, Andrew MacKinley, will stand down at the next election in protest at this hypocrisy.

This week is crunch time: on Friday a final judicial ruling will be made about the case.  It was the last throw of the legal dice for Gary.  If this fails, he will have to rely on political intervention, which is possible, to prevent his harmful, unjust and unnecessary extradition to the USA.  Please visit the Free Gary website and do all you can in support.

British Spies and Torture

On 30th April, The Guardian newspaper reported that yet another man, picked up in a British counter-terrorism operation in Pakistan, has come forward claiming that he was tortured by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, with the collusion of British spooks

This is part of a growing body of evidence indicating that British intelligence officers are continuing to flout the law in one of the most heinous ways possible, the prolonged torture of another human being. Allegations have been emerging for years that detainees of notorious camps such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have heard British voices either during the interrogation sessions or directing the line of questioning. Many of these detainees are also the victims of “extraordinary rendition”, in itself an extraordinarily euphemistic phrase for the kidnapping and transportation of terrorist suspects to Third World countries where they can be held indefinitely and tortured with impunity.

This is a situation that haunts me. I worked as an intelligence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, before leaving to blow the whistle. Perhaps I worked with some of the people now directly involved in torture? Perhaps I was even friends with some of them, met them for drinks, had them round for dinner? How could young, idealistic officers, committed to protecting their country by legal means, make that personal moral journey and participate in such barbaric acts?

These questions ran through my head when, in 2007, I had the honour to meet a gentle, spiritual man called Moazzam Begg. He is a British citizen who went to Pakistan with his family to help build a school. One night, his door was broken down, and he was hooded, cuffed and bundled out of his home by Americans, in front of his hysterical wife and young children. That was the last they saw of him for over 3 years. Initially he was tortured in the notorious Bagram airbase, before ending up in Guantanamo, which he said was a relief to reach as the conditions were so much better. Needless to say, he was released with out charge, and is now suing MI5 and MI6 for compensation. He has also written a book about his experiences and now spends his time helping the campaign, Cage Prisoners.

Britain was the first state to ratify the European Convention of Human Rights, which includes Article 3 – no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It is impossible for a state to derogate from this article. So how and why has Britain stooped to the level that it will apparently participate in such activity? The “apocalyptic scenario” much loved by apologists of torture, where a terrorist has to be broken to reveal the location of the ticking bomb, occurs only in fantastical TV dramas like “24”, never in real life.

In the 1990s the accepted MI5 position was that torture doesn’t work. This was a lesson the UK security forces had learned the hard way in 1970s Northern Ireland. Then, IRA suspects had been rounded up, interned without trial and subjected to what the Americans would no doubt nowadays call “enhanced interrogation techniques”. But the security forces got it wrong. The vast majority of internees were arrested on the basis of the flimsiest intelligence and had no links whatsoever with the IRA. Well, at least when they entered prison. Internment proved to be the best possible recruiting drive for the IRA.

So why has this thinking changed? I would suggest this is part of a core problem for MI5 – the shroud of secrecy within which it continues to operate and the complete lack of accountability and oversight for the organisation. There is no ventilation, no constructive criticism, no debate. Once a new doctrine has been adopted by the leadership, in slavish imitation of US policy, it rapidly spreads throughout the organisation as officers are told to “just follow orders”. To do anything else is career suicide. This leads to a self-perpetuating oligarchy where illegal or unethical behaviour is accepted as the norm.

Of course, you may well argue that a spy organisation has to operate in secret. Well, yes and no. Of course it needs to protect sensitive operational techniques, ongoing operations and the identities of agents. However, beyond that it should be open to scrutiny and democratic accountability, just as the police anti-terrorism branch is. After all, they do virtually the same work, so why should they be any less accountable?

The tradition of UK spies operating in absolute secrecy is a hangover from the bad old days of the cold war, and is utterly inappropriate to a modern counter-terrorist organisation. Increased openness and accountability is not only essential in a modern democracy, it also ensures that the spies cannot continue to brush their mistakes and criminality under the carpet. Britain deserves better from those charged with protecting its national security.

 

Interview with Francis Wheen, 1999

An interview with Francis Wheen of The Guardian, August 1999:

The spy left out in the cold

Francis Wheen on the hounding by the authorities of MI5 whistleblower David Shayler:

Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer living in France, came to London last week. On a previous visit, in 1997, she was nabbed at Gatwick airport by a goon squad from Special Branch. This time her only ordeal was a couple of hours with me in a Soho cafe. It was progress of a sort, I suppose; but little else has changed.It is exactly two years since Annie’s partner, David Shayler, hit the headlines with his complaints of malpractice and incompetence at MI5. Since then the government has consistently refused to heed or
investigate his allegations, preferring to load up its rusty blunderbuss and shoot the messenger.

In his original interview with the Mail on Sunday, Shayler exploded the official myth that MI5 monitors only those “subversives” who wish to “overthrow democracy by violent means”, revealing that, in fact, it kept files on such harmless pussycats as Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman and the reggae band UB40. The government was outraged – not by the evidence of spooky skulduggery but by Shayler’s whistleblowing.

Tony Blair’s spokesman warned the newspaper that “the heavies would move in” unless future articles were submitted to Downing Street for vetting. When the editor refused to obey, the treasury solicitor obtained an injunction banning the media from reporting any further remarks by Shayler about misconduct or mismanagement in the security service.

Shortly afterwards, at MI5’s request, Special Branch officers raided the London flat Shayler had shared with Machon. The search warrant permitted them to look for
“evidence of an offence under the official secrets act” – which they interpreted, rather eccentrically, as a licence to smash the furniture, hurl table lamps to the floor and remove several pairs of Machon’s knickers.

Then came the absurd pantomime at Gatwick airport. Machon was obviously not going to put up a struggle: her lawyer had told the police when and where she was due, and she was armed with nothing more lethal than an overnight bag. Nevertheless, Special Branch
thought it necessary to send no fewer than six brutes to hustle her away. This crude intimidation continued during six hours of questioning at Charing Cross police station, when her interrogators read out love letters she had exchanged with Shayler – billets doux that had no conceivable relevance to the Official Secrets Act.

If Shayler had committed a serious offence, as Straw maintained, why were no charges brought against the editors and journalists who published his disclosures? The question answers itself: bullies pick on the powerless, and ministers were reluctant to antagonise the mighty Associated Newspapers. Instead, the authorities took out their frustration by harassing innocent bystanders. Shayler’s brother, Philip, was detained, as were two of his friends.

Like Machon, they were eventually released without charge – although not before the police had helpfully informed Philip’s employers that he was wanted in connection with “financial irregularities”.

From his French exile, Shayler continued to press for an inquiry. In October 1997, the
government set up a cabinet office review of the intelligence agencies to be chaired by John Alpass, a former deputy director of the security service. As Shayler points out, Alpass was scarcely a disinterested party, as “any adverse criticism of MI5 would have reflected badly on his time there”. Nevertheless, Shayler submitted a 6,000-word memo on “management problems in MI5”.

The committee refused to read it. He was given a similar brush-off by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, supposedly responsible for holding the spooks to
account.

Last summer, in the hope of exciting some official interest, Shayler told the Mail on Sunday that MI6 had secretly paid a Libyan emigré £100,000 to assassinate Colonel Muammar Gadafy. Although  the point of Shayler’s revelation was that ministers had neither known nor approved of the plot, Robin Cook felt able to issue an instant denial. “I’m perfectly clear that these allegations have no basis in fact. It is pure fantasy.”

Why, then, did the government refuse to let the MoS publish the article, arguing that it would endanger national security? And why did Straw immediately ask France to arrest
and extradite Shayler? If the story was fantasy, he hadn’t broken the official secrets act. If it was true, and British intelligence had indeed conspired to murder a foreign head of state, then it would not be Shayler who had some explaining to do.

Unable to cope with this glaring contradiction, his enemies took refuge in invective. “In a
better world,” the Daily Telegraph harrumphed, “David Shayler and his like… would be horse-whipped.”

After his release from a French jail last November, the Sunday Telegraph came up with an even more extreme solution, pointing out that if he were a renegade French spy his former employers would probably have killed him. “One wonders how Shayler would react to being shot at by MI5 agents,” the newspaper mused. “But these days,” it added  regretfully, “MI5 is scrupulous in its observation of the letter of the law.”

Scrupulous as ever, MI5 tried assassinating his reputation instead, letting it be known
that he was always regarded in the service as “a Walter Mitty, a loose cannon” and “a rebel who likes to sail close to the wind”. (The last phrase, incidentally, came from a school report written before Shayler had even taken his A-levels.)

Many tame MPs and hacks have repeated these insults without pausing to think through their logic. If Shayler is as manifestly dotty as they claim and yet managed to join the fast track at MI5 and win a performance bonus in his final year, doesn’t this confirm that the security service is indeed run by dangerous clodhoppers, as Shayler claims?

Logic, however, is seldom allowed to intrude into this case – except for the deranged logic of Catch 22. Shayler wrote a spy novel, The Organisation, assuming that this at least would be allowed. No such luck.

The treasury solicitor contacted the major London publishers warning that Shayler must not write anything, “whether presented as fact or fiction, which may be construed as relating to the security service or its membership or activities or to security or intelligence activities generally .” (My italics.) In other words, Shayler can’t publish true stories, even if the government says they are fiction; but he can’t publish fiction for fear that it might have a kernel of truth. And yet other ex-spies – John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury – have written umpteen novels about British intelligence without having injunctions hurled at them.

“It is barely believable in this day and age that a UK citizen should have to live in exile for telling the truth – or, if you believe the government, for making up stories about the intelligence services,” Shayler says. “It is doubly difficult to accept when we see that this has happened at the behest of a Labour government.”

Personally, I don’t find it at all difficult: Labour politicians have always been suckers for cloak-and-dagger nonsense. Lest we forget, it was the last Labour government that expelled the American journalists Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball at the behest of MI5, without troubling to give any reasons, and then tried to jail a colleague of mine from the New Statesman for the heinous offence of collecting ministry of defence press releases. “New” Labour has revived the tradition by prosecuting a respected defence orrespondent, Tony Geraghty, and tormenting the hapless Shayler.

Only last month the treasury solicitor sent a stern letter to Shayler’s lawyers. “Your client has been writing to various members of the government, enclosing a pamphlet which he has written entitled Secrets and Lies,” he noted. “The disclosure of this information constitutes yet a further breach by your client of the injunction against him… I am not instructed to deal in detail with the points made by your client, save to say that his  allegations of impropriety on the part of the security service are rejected.”

How can ministers know that the allegations are false without bothering to check? Easy: MI5’s director, Stephen Lander, has assured Straw that everything is tickety-boo.

At the height of the Spycatcher panic, the British cabinet secretary admitted that Whitehall often found it necessary to be “economical with the truth”, and there are very few people naive enough to assume that the professional dissimulators who run MI5 and MI6 can always be believed. Fortunately for Lander, this select band of credulous oafs includes every senior member of the Labour cabinet.

If David Shayler were a member of the Provisional IRA, Tony Blair would be happy to negotiate deals and  indemnities with him. Since he is merely a public-spirited whistleblower who has never murdered anyone, he is condemned to harassment, vilification and indefinite exile.