Monday, 11 March 2019

Iran - human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced to a shocking 33 years in prison and 148 lashes.

The sentence, reported on her husband Reza Khandan’s Facebook page, brings her total sentence after two grossly unfair trials, to 38 years in prison. In September 2016, she was sentenced in her absence to five years in prison in a separate case. 

The latest sentence is the harshest sentence Amnesty has documented against a human rights defender in Iran in recent years, suggesting that the authorities are stepping up their repression.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said: “It is absolutely shocking that Nasrin Sotoudeh is facing nearly four decades in jail and 148 lashes for her peaceful human rights work, including her defence of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced hijab (veiling) laws.” 

Sotoudeh was recently informed by the office for the implementation of sentences in Tehran’s Evin prison where she is jailed, that she had been convicted on seven charges and sentenced to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. The charges, which are in response to her peaceful human rights work, include “inciting corruption and prostitution”, “openly committing a sinful act by ... appearing in public without a hijab” and “disrupting public order”. 

Meanwhile, in a confusing development, earlier today the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Mohammad Moghiseh told journalists that Sotoudeh has been sentenced to seven years in prison: five years for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and two years for “insulting the Supreme Leader”. 

This report did not provide further details or clarify whether the judge was referring to a separate case.

 “Nasrin Sotoudeh must be released immediately and unconditionally and this obscene sentence quashed without delay,” Luther said. 

 “Governments with influence over Iran should use their power to push for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s release. The international community, notably the European Union, which has an ongoing dialogue with Iran, must take a strong public stand against this disgraceful conviction and urgently intervene to ensure that she is released immediately and unconditionally.” 

Nasrin Sotoudeh’s sentence made me think of an interview I recently did for Lacuna Magazine with another Nasrin, also a human rights and women’s rights defender. 

Writer, artist and human rights campaigner Nasrin Parvaz was arrested at the age of 23 by the regime’s secret police after having been betrayed by a comrade. She was tortured and sentenced to death, but her death sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison.

She spent eight years in the same Iranian prison where Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now being held, and has used the experience as inspiration for a novel and a book of memoirs. Speaking in London, Parvaz told me there are echos of Nazanin’s story in prisons across Iran, where rights defenders have been subjected to rape, routine humiliation, torture and execution. 

“The Islamic regime is a master of concealing and deception. When the UN human rights inspectors came to visit Evin prison in 1990, they built a new wall across our corridor to conceal us. We never met the inspectors. While president [Hassan] Rouhani [elected in 2013] publicly promised reforms, behind closed doors, there are still too many prisoners dying in detention.

“Prisons are still full of men and women fighting for civil rights. Questioning how and why the regime operates is still dangerous.”

How terribly true…

You can read her story of activism and time in Iran’s prisons in Lacuna Magazine here.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Stories From Within – Syrian artists tell stories of survival, resilience

Human Bull I by Bassem Dahdouh/courtesy of Stories Art Gallery

When four internationally renowned Syrian artists were asked to contribute pieces showing what they wanted the West to see about their country, they selected artworks representing the untold stories of ordinary people who have endured and persevered through extraordinary circumstances.

Their work form  “Stories from Within”, a fascinating exhibition on display at Stories Art Gallery in London’s Mayfair until February 25. The gallery opened last October with the aim of promoting current Syrian artists whose work challenges their country’s one-dimensional image presented in the media. All the “Stories From Within” pieces were created in Syria over the past seven (almost eight) years and it is the first time since the war that they are exhibited in Europe.

 “We look for works that widen our vision and shift the image of Syria from refugees and needy victims to be pitied to one of humanity and respect – one with whom the viewers can have a connection,” says Manas Ghanem, the gallery’s director.  

 “Yes, there is war, destruction and darkness, but you cannot reduce Syria’s 7000 years of existence to seven years of war.  Syria is still alive,” adds Ghanem, who was born in Damascus, but educated in the West. Before opening her gallery, she worked as a lawyer in the Middle East and North Africa with UNHCR and Unicef.   

Bassem Dahdouh’s mixed media on canvas “humanoid bull” series depicts hybrid beings who are neither fully human nor beast.  The humanoid bull “portrays us, oppressed when reaching out for a breath of fresh air in an attempt to lead normal lives," he explains.  "It is my hope that we as humanity would succeed and plant some kindness and compassion in this land before it is too late."

Nizar Sabour’s work reflects the emotional impact of the war on the sacred Aramaic town of Maloula, where people still speak the dialect of the Christ and which was ravaged by jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda in 2013.  Never before had this ancient mountain town been harmed.  His five mixed media canvases represent various views of Maloula and the surrounding Qalamoun mountains, some surrounded by protecting lace, guardian angels and saints or official-looking stamps.

The works of the other artists in the exhibition - Edward Shahda and Asmaa Fayoumi - depict the anxiety of those left behind while waiting for the unknown, and finally also hope, love and compassion, which is what allows people to survive.

People don’t easily associate art and Syria, says Ghanem, but the Syrian art scene has been vivid since the 50s and the 60s, and many of the artists exhibited in the gallery are renowned in the world of contemporary art, including Sabour, Shahda, Dahdouh and Fayoumi, who have works in private collections and galleries from USA to Russia, as well as in Arabic countries like UAE, Kuwait and Lebanon.

“Yet for the past eight years, it’s as if that has just gone, and all that you hear about Syria is different. So we are trying to bring it back,” Ghanem says.

The gallery’s next projects include an Arabic calligraphy exhibition by the famous Syrian artist Mounier Al-Sharaani. They also hope to be able to bring artworks from Iraq, Yemen and other countries. 

Stories From Within at the Stories Art Gallery  until February 25. 
51/53    South    Audley    Street Mayfair London W1J 7DD

Friday, 1 February 2019

Thousands of Migrants Have Died in ‘Watery Graveyard’ despite Libya Deal

Personal clothing and items left behind by migrants who travelled by boat from Libya to Sicily.  Credit: Alessandro Rota/Oxfam

Two years on from Italy’s EU-backed migration deal with Libya, more than 5,300 people have drowned in the Mediterranean and thousands more still are suffering in Libyan detention camps – and EU governments are complicit in this tragedy.

 “EU countries are making the Mediterranean a watery graveyard as a matter of deliberate policy,” said Oxfam’s EU migration policy advisor, Raphael Shilhav. “They must allow search and rescue ships to dock in their ports, disembark rescued people, and return to sea to save people’s lives, in line with international law. All attempts to prevent their work will inevitably lead to more deaths and run counter to Europe’s humanitarian values.”

In an open letter to EU governments, more than 50 organisations including Oxfam said EU governments have become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes in the Mediterranean. People are now in even more danger at sea and are being returned by the Libyan coastguard to face sexual abuse, slavery and other human rights abuses in Libya. 

The Libya deal, signed on 2 February 2017, provides money and technical support from Italy and the EU to the Libyan coastguard, in return for the coastguard preventing people from leaving Libya for Europe.

The open letter says that some EU member states have deliberately forced the organisations conducting search and rescue operations to stop their life-saving work. It also accuses governments of making unfounded allegations against ships operating in the Mediterranean and preventing them from leaving their ports. This time last year there were five organisations conducting search and rescue operations – now there is only one.

Since the Libya deal was struck, more than 5,300 people have drowned in the Mediterranean including over 4,000 people on the central route closest to Libya, making it the deadliest sea in the world. 

In 2018, the Libyan coastguard intercepted more than 15,000 people and returned them to Libya. Currently, 6,400 people are known to be held in official detention sites in Libya, with many more in other centres, some of which are run by armed groups. According to the UN, even “official” centres can be run by people smugglers and traffickers, despite the EU’s commitment to combat human trafficking.  

Numerous accounts collected by Oxfam and its partners in recent years show that people in Libya are often crammed into detention centres in abandoned buildings or pitch black tunnels, without enough food. Many are mistreated before being sold to armed groups or as slaves. 

Yonas (not his real name), a 28-year-old man from Eritrea, said he was detained by various gangs in Libya: “Altogether, I lived a year and a half in two prisons, where we were all living in terrible conditions, with many people getting sick and not receiving care. Many died and were buried like animals. The women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by prison guards selected from the group of migrants … They beat us and made us call our family to ask them to send us money.”

Ibrahim (also an alias), a 26-year-old man from Guinea, said he was kidnapped by a gang in Tripoli. He described how the gang members would deceive UN personnel who came to the detention centre where he was held: “On the days when UN staff came they treated us well, cleaned everything, cooked good food, brought us clothes, brought us to a doctor for check-ups. As soon as the UN staff had left, things changed immediately. They took everything they had given us: food, clothes, soap.”

Oxfam and the other signatories to the open letter are calling on EU governments to stop sending people rescued at sea back to Libya. The organisations say that EU member states need to be prepared to suspend cooperation with the Libyan coastguard if issues like arbitrary detention are not dealt with. EU governments should also support search and rescue operations and ensure that people rescued at sea can arrive safely and without delay to Europe. 

Thursday, 20 December 2018

A Taste of Home - When meals in refugee camps mean more than food

A hot meal in a refugee camp is always welcome, but in Obrenovac and other refugee camps in Serbia, a meal is also a portal to the home and loved ones left behind by the refugees and migrants who live in limbo in camps.

“Kookoo Sibzamini [potato patties] is what I had in my backpack when I left home. My sister made them for me for the road. I told myself I need to save them for later when it gets tough. But I ate them all. I don’t think they even got cold,” says Mohsen from Iran.

Moshen’s favourite dish is one of seven popular healthy, homely recipes cooked in refugee camps in Serbia, which were provided by the refugees themselves.  Oxfam, which is serving meals at the Obrenovac camp 30km south-west of the capital Belgrade, along with Care and CaritasEuropa, had run a survey asking refugees and migrants what they wanted to eat.  The refugees came up with a lot of suggestions, but many also offered recipes from their own countries. Now, instead of the usual breaded fish and vegetable curry, Obrenovac and several other camps are serving traditional dishes from Afghanistan, Syria, India, Iran and Pakistan.

Oxfam asked an illustrator to make colourful and easy to read recipe cards for seven of the recipes. The cards also include recollections from some of the refugees: where the recipe came from, who first cooked it for them, the last time they ate it, etc.  For example, Gjulan from India (Kashmir) says that the smell of Gajar Matar ki Sabzi, a spicy stew now cooked at the camps, instantly transports him home. “When me and my brothers would come back from school my mother would be by the stove cooking the stew, dancing along with the music from TV. In my mind, it is still like this back home: music ad the smells of cooking.”

“Refugees’ life is hard,” says Ali who came from Pakistan, “but when I sit with people and eat at the dinner table, I am very happy.”

Most refugees in the camps have been in Serbia for over a year and have attempted to cross the border into neighbouring countries such as Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Hungary - and been turned back. They are trying to reach other countries in Europe, either to claim asylum, reunite with family members or to find work.

In 2017, there were nearly 4,000 migrants in Serbia, of which 89% are housed in camps.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Outdoor Education - Bringing back nature into our children's lives

Children at Into the Woods nursery and Ark Franklin Primary Academy/Credit: Caroline Irby

“Nature breeds curiosity; it helps grow explorers rather than robots.” Ben Palmer-Fry, outdoor learning teacher, Ark Franklin Primary Academy.

Children in the UK spend less time outside than high-security prisoners, according to a recent report While their grandparents roamed unsupervised outdoors, our children spend their days cooped up inside, glued to a screen.  We have displaced nature from their lives: selling off their outdoors spaces, feeding them technology, keeping them inside with our fears and lack of time.  

A few years ago, the National Trust published a report on the phenomenon of "nature deficit disorder", a term coined in 2005 by the American author Richard Louv, who argued that the human cost of "alienation from nature" was measured in "diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses".  

Nature deficit disorder is not generally regarded as a medical condition. Yet, in the UK as in many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly since the 1970s.  

What if we could ‘rewild’ their childhood - bring back nature into their lives?  Could it produce healthier and happier young people?

Many people believe so, and a growing number of schools across the country (and elsewhere) are trying to do just that: they are re-introducing nature into children’s lives.  It is seen as a new trend, but the UK has a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century with Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden and many others.

Some schools are following the Forest School philosophy, drawing on the Scandinavian model of Nature Kindergartens, while others are developing their own outdoor learning organically, adapting it into their curriculum.  Many community programmes, projects and social enterprises are also trying to reconnect young people with nature.

And the results are amazing. A solid body of research show the significant health, social and emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Forest School teachers say their children are healthier, more independent, confident, creative, socially minded and caring for the environment than other children. Yet, outdoor learning is likely to remain on the margins of education until the benefits are  recognised by policymakers and reflected in policies.

Photographer Caroline Irby and I have visited two London schools, which represent two different approaches to outdoor learning.  Into the Woods, a nursery where children spend their entire days in the woods, rain or shine, and Ark Franklin Primary Academy, which has transformed a piece of urban derelict land into a green oasis with a storytelling grove, a bug hotel, a vegetable garden and more.  The outdoors lessons include sciences, literacy and maths, but also “weaving and knot-tying and everything we think will be useful,” says headteacher Janine Ryan.

“Education is increasingly dominated by academic targets and a narrow curriculum,” says Emma Shaw, founder and manager of Into the Woods, London’s first Forest School nursery.  “The concept of play is lost along the way. ‘Let’s do the Maths earlier’: everything is measured. We all live our lives on screen all the time…  Here, the children can be themselves. They have space and time to explore, learn and do their own things.”  

You can read our story “Learning Outdoors: Growing Explorers, not Robots”  published in Positive News.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Claire Nouvian: Guardian of the Deep

Claire Nouvian with her book: The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss/Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

This is a story I wrote for New Internationalist on how an encounter with strange creatures of the abyss tuned a French filmmaker into a passionate guardian of the deep and an untiring campaigner. Against all odds, Claire Nouvian managed to convince France to ban deep-sea bottom trawling, a devastating fishing method, which annihilates everything in its path.  In 2016, the entire EU banned the practice. This was an amazing victory for Nouvian and her small environmental NGO Bloom. 

She had hoped to catch her breath after the long campaign, but then another destructive fishing practice caught her attention: electric ‘pulse’ fishing. “It’s the same story, but with a different destructive practice...”

Here is the story of her fight:

A glimpse into an unknown world alive with mysterious and strange creatures turned Claire Nouvian into a formidable defender of the deep sea – one who survives on little sleep - armed with passion, hard facts and a steely determination.

In 2001, Nouvian, 44, a French wildlife filmmaker and journalist, who grew up in Algiers, Paris and Hong Kong and speaks six languages, was filming a documentary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “I discovered deep sea creatures – extraordinary creatures I couldn’t have imagined, like giant jellies, dragonfish and vampire squid,” says Nouvian, who has recently won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for ending deep-sea bottom trawling in Europe. 

 The deep ocean is the largest habitat on earth and home to some of the oldest living creatures on the planet, such as 4000-year old corals. But this huge diversity is being destroyed by deep-sea bottom trawlers – boats, which tow a heavily-weighted net that is dragged multiple times over the seafloor. “It is one of the most destructive forms of fishing, which annihilates everything in its path. The fishing industry practices a boom and bust model: they go somewhere new and take everything there, then move on to the next fish stock. It’s serial depletion. They are roving bandits,” says Nouvian, still visibly upset.

Determined to challenge this, Nouvian founded the NGO Bloom in 2005. “I was naïve. I thought that if we could tell the world that the deep sea is full of life and is being destroyed, it would stop.” So she put together a book and an exhibition describing the wonders and fragility of the deep sea. Both received a lot of media attention, but it was not enough.  “I understood the need to take it to a political level.”

In 2008, as the EU was preparing reforms of its deep-sea fishing laws, the young activist saw her chance to influence policy at both the French and EU levels. In Europe, the main deep-sea fleet was French and belonged to supermarket chain Intermarché.  “A EU campaign could only succeed if we could change the French position. But in France, fishermen were heroes and the public didn’t care about protecting the ocean. So Nouvian and her Bloom colleagues launched a sustained campaign, addressing the issue from all fronts. They worked with scientists to publish fact-based reports and launched a public consumer campaign that ranked French supermarkets according to their fishing practices - Intermarché came last. This was followed by a media blitz, with giant anti-trawling posters in front of Paris’ gare du Nord (from where politicians boarded trains to Brussels), newspapers ads, press statements and social media drives. They also visited schools, organised demonstrations, and collected 900,000 signatures for an anti-trawling petition, with the help of a brilliant cartoon based on Nouvian’s TEDx talk, which went viral.

The relentless campaigning paid off: in January 2014, Intermarché announced that it would no longer fish below 2,600 feet (800 meters) and would phase out the sale of deep-sea fish by 2025.

A year later, France - in response to overwhelming public pressure - finally agreed to a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling below 2,600 feet (800 meters). In 2016, all EU member states followed suit.

It was a huge victory, but it took a toll on the small team. “We were dead tired, completely toasted. It was a very violent fight. I was not a big NGO, so the fishing industry assumed I would let go if they put enough pressure. They tried to discredit and smear me. I got death treats and intimidation. It was constant.”

She adds with a grin:  “It was not pleasant, but the more I get threats, the more I think that I am doing the right thing!”  And after a short pause, she continues:  “I am blessed to be in Europe because in other countries, I’d be blown up by now.”

Nouvian had hoped to catch her breath after the long campaign, but then another destructive fishing practice caught her attention: electric ‘pulse’ fishing. “It’s the same story, but with a different destructive practice,” and this time, the Netherlands is the main culprit.

So, with Bloom, Nouvian is now campaigning for a full EU-wide ban on electric fishing, which she describes as “putting a Taser in water, electrocuting marine life and destroying ecosystems”. She also wants to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the international level as they encourage overfishing and destructive fishing practices around the world.

“It’s an on-going fight. But it’s a privilege of living in a democracy to be able to open our mouths, so we need to do it. We will not let go.”

Friday, 3 August 2018

"It's Just Good Journalism" - Constructive Journalism at Thessaloniki International Summer Media Academy

Students at Thessaloniki International Summer Media Academy looking for constructive angles/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

“Do we need to call this ‘Constructive Journalism’?  It’s just good journalism,” one student at the back said.  All over the room, heads nodded in approval.

Most of the 46 students at the International Journalism Media Summer Academy in Thessaloniki had never heard of the term “Constructive Journalism” before, yet it just made sense to them that when journalists expose a problem, they should try to explore solutions as well. And that reporting on progress and possibility has its place, alongside covering crisis, crimes and tragedy.

I had been invited to the beautiful city of Thessaloniki this summer, along with colleagues from Croatia, Germany, Russia and Ireland, to present lectures and workshops on ‘New Trends in Media and Journalism: Disinformation, Verification of News and Constructive Journalism in a Changing World’.

It was wonderful to see students from Greece, Russia, Croatia Ukraine, Germany, Brazil, Bosnia, The Netherlands, Slovenia, the US, China and other countries, debate and build connections - and listen to their various perspectives.

When we discussed the coverage of the refugee crisis in their respective countries, most students said that the media mostly stressed the problems posed by migration and the burden it imposes on social services, but others had another take.  Greek students, for example, said that while the coverage was alarmist and negative at first, over the years, there were also stories of solidarity and on the contribution made by migrants. This was unexpected as Greece is one of the countries most affected by the influx of migrants and in the midst of a serious economic crisis.

We found examples of constructive stories from a rapidly growing media pool - from the New York Times and the Guardian Upside to the BBC World Hacks, Positive News and De Correspondent.

We explored how to interview the so-called “victims” in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their situation, but shows their resilience and preserves their dignity.  And we looked at how we can ask different questions to those in power, the experts and those who hold different views.

The idea that journalists can facilitate engagement between people from different religious and ethnic groups, political views or age, rather than fuelling polarisation and conflict, led to heated discussions.   We concluded that it’s not the journalists’ role to advocate a solution or campaign for integration, but to show how communities can come together across these lines to engage with one another, and how problems that they are facing are being tackled elsewhere.

At the end of the day, the students decided to call this type of journalism “Responsible Journalism.” I kind of like that!