Friday, 18 December 2009

Copenhagen – the pressure is working

To follow up on my previous post: yesterday, the media was calling the crucial Copenhagen climate summit dead on arrival.

But 24 hours later, after millions of petition signatures, hundreds of thousands of phone calls, and a massive outcry across the planet, a deal could be back on.

Leaders are frantically doing in hours what they've failed to do for years, but the talks could still collapse. Building up on the massive success on its global petition campaign, Avaaz is now circulating this message:

“We know our pressure is working, let's use these crucial final hours to ramp it up, and get a real deal, not a dressed-up weak agreement. Sign the staggering 13 million person petition if you haven't yet, and forward this email to everyone:

The petition has become the centre of the global revolt against failure in Copenhagen. The names of petition signers are being read out by young people who have taken over spaces in the Copenhagen summit and in governments round the world, including the US State Department and the Canadian Prime Minister's office.

Amazingly, leaders themselves are appealing to the public for action. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an impassioned appeal to 3000 Avaaz members on a global conference call on Wednesday, calling for an historic 48 hour internet based campaign from citizens around the world, calling our impact crucial.

History is being made in Copenhagen, but so far, it's not being made by leaders, but by us, millions of people round the world who are directly engaging, hour by hour, like never before, in the fight to save our planet. The pressure is working, let's ramp it up.

Please, sign the petition."

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Save Copenhagen - last-ditch effort to save the summit

With just three days to go, the crucial Copenhagen summit to stop global warming is failing; only massive public pressure can save it. The international civic organization Avaaz has launched a global petition to put pressure on world leaders and urge everyone to sign it. It may be the largest in history.

Millions watched the Avaaz vigil inside the summit on TV yesterday, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu told hundreds of delegates and assembled children:

“We marched in Berlin, and the wall fell.

"We marched for South Africa, and apartheid fell.

"We marched at Copenhagen -- and we WILL get a Real Deal.”

Copenhagen is seeking the biggest mandate in history to stop the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. History will be made in the next few days.

Tomorrow, the world's leaders arrive for an unprecedented 60 hours of direct negotiations. Experts agree that without a tidal wave of public pressure for a deal, the summit will not stop catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees.

Sign the giant petition below. It already has a staggering 10 million supporters. Every single name is actually being read out at the summit -- please sign this petition now.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Arts and Human Rights in Iran/for Iran

Tomorrow, Monday December 7, students will hold major demonstrations in Iran to support the Iranian civil rights movement and protest the severe repression, widespread arrests and imprisonment of hundreds of civil society activists across the country.

And on December 12, international arts events organized under the banner of ArtsUnited4Iran will try to draw the world’s attention onto human rights abuses in the country.

On the occasion of the six-month anniversary of the disputed elections and the sixty-first anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, artists and activists will join together to highlight the ongoing protests in Iran and honour the Iranian people’s peaceful struggle for their human and civil rights. They will call on the Iranian government to respect the freedom of assembly, expression and press, to free all prisoners of conscience, to end rape and torture in prisons, and to hold those responsible for committing human rights crimes accountable, the ArtsUnited4Iran organizers say.

The arts and culture events will include lectures, concerts, gallery showings, readings, round tables, film screenings in over 20 locations worldwide.

Iran experts and activists speaking out in support of the civil rights movement in Iran include Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University Professor and CNN commentator; Hadi Ghaemi, Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United4Iran’s International Coordinator; Omid Memarian, Iran expert at Human Rights Watch; and Reza Moini, Iran expert for Reporters without Borders (RSF).

United4Iran is a non-political global network of individuals and human rights activists building a mass movement in solidarity with the people of Iran. United4Iran is opposed to blanket economic sanctions and military action against Iran, which they believe, will have detrimental effects on the situation of human rights and harm the Iranian people.

The ArtsUnited4Iran sponsors include Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, ARTICLE 19, and Front Line.

For more details on December 12 events visit united4iran

Sunday, 29 November 2009

End violence against women: a step in the right direction

The UK’s Home Office has launched earlier this month a three-month pilot scheme to grant women facing violence and who have insecure immigration status the ability to access a refuge and seek specialised support.

Women who hold spousal or international student visas or who are in the UK on temporary work permits, are currently unable to access a refuge or specialised support because of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule.

Amnesty International and Southall Black Sisters, which have campaigned against the ‘no recourse’ rule for months, have interviewed dozens of women who have been affected by the rule and gathered testimonies from dozens of refuge workers, police and medical professionals who have previously been obliged to turn women away and leave them with no other option but to return to the place of violence.

One caseworker interviewed by Amnesty told of a woman who was physically and sexually abused by her husband and family – at one point she was doused in petrol and threatened to be set alight. She was returned to her home after fleeing to her GP for help because she was on a spousal visa and had no access to a refuge.

The pilot proposal outlined by the Home Office Minister Alan Campbell MP now provides the security of funding a woman’s refuge place for up to 40 days and enabling her to access the support required by survivors of domestic or other violence.

The government initiative will run for three months, and will be followed by an evaluation which will be conducted in March 2010.

“This announcement is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, albeit a long time coming, which would enable hundreds of women to escape an abusive situation and access a refuge,” said Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen.

“However this is only a short term pilot scheme. Women who have no recourse to public funds have been until now trapped in a cycle of violence. Only once the Government provides a permanent solution to providing assistance and support for these very vulnerable women will they have fulfilled their human rights’ commitments to provide safety and justice for all women fleeing violence living in their jurisdiction.”

Thursday, 19 November 2009

V-Day at Royal Albert Hall - Stop Sexual Violence in DRC

Today, 19th November 2009, hundreds of men and women – activists, politicians from all parties, journalists, celebrities and religious leaders – are gathering on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall in London to demonstrate against the use of sexual violence in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The event is organized by V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

Exactly one hundred years ago, the Great Congo Demonstration was held at the Royal Albert Hall, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury and joined by artists and intellectuals, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, to campaign against the exploitation, slavery and murder of the Congolese people.

One hundred years on, violence and exploitation of a different but equivalent devastation remains. Over the last 12 years, the ongoing conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million people and sexual violence in the DRC is being used to torture and humiliate women and girls and destroy families.

V-Day Founder/Playwright Eve Ensler, who has travelled to the Congo five times in the last two years stated: “What we are seeing in the DRC is a war being enacted on the bodies of women that is conscious and intentional - it is the systematic destruction of the female population of the Congo. Today, we are hearing reports from activists on the ground that the babies born of rape are NOW being raped. What this tells us is that this vicious cycle is continuing, that we are fighting for the same human rights today that the protesters at The Great Congo Demonstration fought for 100 years ago.”

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped since the conflict began. In addition to the severe psychological impact, sexual violence leaves many survivors with genital lesions, traumatic fistulae, severed and broken limbs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Survivors are regularly ostracised and abandoned by their families and communities.

V-Day UK Committee calls upon the international community to champion:

*A political – not military – solution to end the devastating, incessant conflict in the Congo.
*For prosecutions to be taken against those who are living in impunity for the sexual crimes they inflict daily upon Congolese women and girls.
*Support for a larger women’s police force in the Congo that can bring reliable security and protection to the most vulnerable members of its society.

This event is the first in a series that make up Congo Now - an international campaign that unites a coalition of more than 20 of the UK’s biggest NGOs plus UK parliamentarians. The campaign combines British and Congolese voices to demand an end to the world's worst humanitarian crisis - and action to address its underlying causes and consequences. The campaign will reach a climax in June and July 2010, when the DRC celebrates 50 years of independence.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembrance Day at St Pancras International

Today the huge, bustling St Pancras station fell silent at 11am - the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marking the moment World War I ended with the signing of the Armistice Treaty by Germany and the Allies in 1918.

It didn’t happen all at once. Clusters of people hesitated, looked around and stopped tentatively; others kept pushing by with heavy suitcases, walking fast, talking loudly on the telephone. Then from the upper gallery of the station, the poignant melody of Taps started playing, first faintly then louder, and everyone stopped in their tracts, looking up from where the music came from.

I looked around me and hundreds of people, most wearing red poppies, stood perfectly still. For two minutes there were no train announcement, no phone ringing, no talk. Everyone standing there – all remembering, all together. It was eerie and beautiful.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Twenty years after the Fall of Berlin Wall – Wide dissatisfaction with Capitalism

Apparently, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has not been the crushing victory for free-market capitalism that it seemed at the time—particularly after the events of the last 12 months, according to this interesting poll by the BBC World Service.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the BBC World Service global poll finds that dissatisfaction with free market capitalism is widespread, with an average of only 11% across 27 countries saying that it works well and that greater regulation is not a good idea.

In only two countries do more than one in five feel that capitalism works well as it stands—surprise, surprise, the US (25%) and Pakistan (21%).

The most common view is that free market capitalism has problems that can be addressed through regulation and reform—a view held by an average of 51% of more than 29,000 people polled by GlobeScan/PIPA.

But an average of 23% feel that capitalism is fatally flawed, and a new economic system is needed—including 43% in France, 38% in Mexico, 35% in Brazil and 31% in Ukraine.

Furthermore, majorities would like their government to be more active in owning or directly controlling their country’s major industries in 15 of the 27 countries. This view is particularly widely held in countries of the former Soviet states of Russia (77%), and Ukraine (75%), but also Brazil (64%), Indonesia (65%), and France (57%).

Majorities support governments distributing wealth more evenly in 22 of the 27 countries —on average two out of three (67%) across all countries. In 17 of the 27 countries most want to see government doing more to regulate business—on average 56%.

The poll also asked about whether the breakup of the Soviet Union was a good thing or not. While an average of 54% say it was a good thing, this is the majority view in only 15 of the countries polled. An average of 22% say it was mainly a bad thing, while 24% do not know.

Among former Warsaw Pact countries, most Russians (61%) and Ukrainians (54%) believe the breakup of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. In contrast, four in five Poles (80%) and nearly two-thirds of Czechs feel the disintegration of the USSR was a good thing (63%).

The results are drawn from a survey of 29,033 adult citizens across 27 countries, conducted for BBC World Service by the international polling firm GlobeScan, together with the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. GlobeScan coordinated fieldwork between 19 June and 13 October 2009.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Sand story - Ukrainian artist conjures up war story in sand

I have just watched the amazing sand animation by Ukrainian artist Kseniya Simonova for Ukraine’s Got Talent. She uses a giant light box, haunting music, imagination and "sand painting" skills to interpret Germany's invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII.

She seems totally absorbed in her story. She uses sometimes large movements, her whole body almost dancing, sometimes short and precise fingers strokes. She throws sand, erases, starts again, adds just a few lines here and there and the whole atmosphere has changed. It is mesmerizing. It is amazing how she can conjure up a whole story and create feelings of love, hope, dread, fear and unbearable paint with sand. It is beautiful and very powerful, and although she is telling a precise story, it is also a universal one.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Iran - petition against the execution of five protesters

The media’s attention has moved away from the aftermath of the post-election unrest in Iran, but hundreds of protesters remain in prison, some have been sentenced to death, and for at least five, execution is imminent.

Those sentenced to death have been forced to confess their involvement in the unrest, yet some of them were already in prison during the election and the subsequent riots, according to a group of ex-political prisoners.

The group is circulating a petition urging Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene and put pressure on the Iranian authorities to prevent the execution of the condemned five.

They fear that these executions might herald mass massacres of political prisoners as it was in the case in the summer of 1988.

The petition is being circulated in Farsi, English, German, French and Spanish. To sign it, click here

Monday, 12 October 2009

N0 waiting for Copenhagen – African children say, Act Now

In the run-up to the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December, I wanted to look at the point of view of children in Africa. They have contributed the least to climate change, but are the worst affected by it. They are also leaders of change: studies have shown that well educated and informed children are often more willing than their parents to adapt and change in order to fight climate change.

“You people in the first world, can you please fix the hole in the ozone layer?” asks 10-year-old Joseph Davies, from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to school children in the UK through a video link. Across Africa, children like Joseph have contributed the least to climate change, yet they already have to deal with the consequences.

Over the last few years, their communities have faced seasonal drought, flooding, landslides, thunderstorms, heat waves and other natural disasters. This has led to failing crops, water shortage and diseases - and children, being more vulnerable, are hit the hardest. The resulting increased poverty has a shattering impact on their education and future.

In Malawi’s Ezondweni farming community, people used to start planting crops in November, but now they have to plant in December or January because of the longer dry season. “This means we harvest later and less,” says Christophe Koroma, 18. “The longer and hotter dry spells also cause crops and trees to die and this causes famine in our community. For me, the changes mean that there can be no food to eat at times. My education suffers as I cannot concentrate at school.”

Yet, Christophe and thousands of other children across Africa aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. They are full of optimism and ideas on how to tackle these threats to their communities.

“I am not too young to worry about climate change”

“We are the future leaders and we need to protect the environment we live in,” Nyakeh Vandy Konteh, 13, says in a telephone interview from the Eastern part of Freetown. “I am not too young to be worried about climate change, simply because if this trend continues unchecked, nobody will be able to live in this environment.”

Nyakeh and 30 other pupils from the Albert Academy School in Freetown have formed the Albert Academy Young Activists on Climate Change, a club involved in research, education and action on climate change.

On field trips, they have learned that the major cause of flooding in their area was deforestation, so they have launched a campaign to convince community members to stop cutting trees and plant new ones. “I have participated in debates, radio discussions and drawing posters,” says Nyakeh, who is the chair of the club.

They have established a solid waste management system, digging waste disposal pits and starting a recycling programme. And they have planted trees on their school compound and the local community. “We have planted Acacia trees because they are fast growing and can serve as wind breakers, prevent erosion and provide timber, and fruit trees like mango, orange and apple, so we’ll have fruits to eat during lunch.” In addition, they are also working with the Ministry of Education to include climate change on the geography curriculum, using local examples, and pushing for more stringent regulations on deforestation.

“They pick up things we don’t see”

Across Africa, thousands of children are involved in similar work. In many African countries, children traditionally are seen, but not heard, but this is slowly changing. “We welcome what the children do. They pick up on things that we don't see,” says an elder in Falaba, Moyamba District in Sierra Leone, where children worked on renovating a well. “The children are aware and take action. They identified the well as a problem, but the adults had just accepted it. Now we work together with them.”

Nyakeh and his friends’ decided to take action after learning about climate change through “Make the Link, Be the Change”, an international climate change education programme, run by Plan, a leading children’s humanitarian organization. The project links 100 schools in 12 countries in the UK, Asia and Africa, so children can share ideas and strategies about preventing the worst effects of climate change.

Ten years ago in Kyoto, children’s issues were not on the agenda and their voices were not heard. “It is critical that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009 puts children at the heart of the discussions and includes their voices in the debates,” says David Bull, UNICEF UK executive director.

Involving children in the fight against climate change is invaluable, adds Nick Hall, head of Disaster Risk Reduction at Plan UK. “Young people are more willing to change and make their lives safer than adults who are more entrenched in their ways and more fatalistic."

Saturday, 3 October 2009

My Neighbour Goes to the Zoo - violence and its legacy

In my last post, I wrote about “The Tree That Remembers,” a moving documentary by Masoud Raouf about political prisoners who have been tortured in prison in Iran and the impact it has on their lives.

How can you go on living when you have been subjected to unbearable pain or injustice at the hands of fellow human beings? It is a question that haunts me. I have asked it to many people all over the world. Here two survivors of the Iran 88 massacre share their answers:

Amir Atiabi says: “You have to live with this legacy, you carry an unbearable burden, you cannot know peace until you can share this pain with the rest of humanity. You cannot concentrate on your own life: carrying this burden takes all your energy, it slows you down, it crushes you.”

Mahin, another survivor, explains: I am involved in two contradictory lives. My external life at work, in socialising, entertaining, etc. is filled with joy, activity and optimism. My inner life, however, is filled with stories that cannot be shared with others. Speaking about the prison, executions and the wounds of that period makes me sad and crumpled.

Most people do not have the patience to listen to such stories! The prison and the massacre have strengthened my tendency towards solitude, loneliness and ridiculing death from within. The memories of the prison are at the same time distant and near.”

The legacy of the violence is always there, just below the surface, and crops up even in the most unlikely circumstances, as the Iranian poet Majid Naficy wrote in his latest poem, first published in

My Neighbor Goes to the Zoo

by Majid Naficy

My neighbor is going to the zoo

With her three grandchildren:

Mussa, who was born in Haifa

Of a Palestinian father and an Israeli mother,

Sees himself as the never-grown-up Peter Pan-

Sailing from the island of Neverland

With one eye green, one eye blue:

Gemini, a twin, who was born in America

And named after his father's lost friend,

Has a moonlight face and a red robe

And sees himself as Casper, the friendly ghost

Returning from the land of martyrs;

And Zahra, who is one minute younger than her brother,

Has soft, golden hair

And sees herself as Alice from Wonderland

Looking for her lost rabbit everywhere.

They are going to the zoo

To visit the crocodiles of the Nile river

Who, everyday after lunch

Lay back on the pebbly shores

And leave their mouths open for hours

So their companion birds can clean

Their sharp teeth and gums,

And when they want to return to the water

The crocodiles gently close their mouths

Lest surprise

Their tooth-brushing plovers.

Having no faith in earthly paradise

And being accustomed to war and bloodshed

I panic from so much co-existence in nature

And unwillingly shout:

My neighbor! My fanciful neighbor!

Keep your grandchildren around your skirt

Lest the warring crocodiles

Roll their armored tanks

And the Iron-winged birds

Drop clusters of bombs

Over their heads.

August 18, 2009

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Tree That Remembers

This weekend I went to “Iran – 21st Anniversary Seminar” in London, a seminar commemorating the thousands of political prisoners executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the summer of 1988 and the 72 or more young people killed during the uprising following the June 12 election.

During the seminar, Masoud Raouf, an Iran-born painter and film director/producer who has lived in Canada since 1988, presented “The Tree That Remembers.” In this poignant documentary, he tries to understand what led to the suicide of an Iranian student who was living in Canada as a refugee. The film won the Silver Award for Best Canadian Documentary at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, the Golden Sheaf Ward for Best Social Documentary at Yorkton and the Bronze Plaque at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival.

In 1992, a young Iranian student hanged himself from a tree on the outskirts of a small Ontario town. He had escaped the Ayatollahs' regime, but he could not escape his past. News of the young stranger's death hit home with filmmaker Masoud Raouf. He too is part of the generation of Iranians who rose up against the Shah's despotic rule during the 1979 revolution, but their hope quickly turned into despair as the equally murderous new regime persecuted them too. Thousands of political prisoners were executed by the Islamic regime in the 1980s in order to eliminate any opposition to the regime. This culminated in the mass massacre of more than 3,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

In the Tree that Remembers, Raouf assembles a group of Iranians - all former political prisoners like himself who were active in the democratic movement. The ex-political prisoners who have been tortured in prison, explain they have to build walls around themselves in order to survive. Their eyes have been opened to the capability of all mankind to inflict the most terrible evil. And this remains imprinted in them for ever. The only way to go on living with this unbearable burden is by sharing their stories, and that’s what they are doing. And that's what a growing number of filmmakers, artists, writers and ordinary people are doing.

The 21st Anniversary Seminar was organized by the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners (in exile) and and Prisoners of Conscience Appeal Fund

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Never Forget Us - In Memory of Iran's Election victims

Just as Amnesty International is sending out warnings that victims of rape and torture by Iranian security forces are facing renewed risk, I’ve received a link for “never forget us,” a moving website documenting 72 confirmed victims killed by the regime for protesting the 12 June presidential election.

“In the summer of 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest a rigged election,” reads the webpage. “Many were shot, beaten or tortured to death. Despite government pressure, names and pictures of some of the fallen have emerged.

This is in their memory…”

The site opens on a view of masses of people protesting in front of the Azadi tower in Tehran. Some hold placards. On each placard is a photo of one of the 72 victims, and if a photo was not available, a flying bird. If you click on the picture, you can read a short bio of the victim and the circumstances of his/her death. Many were students with their whole lives in front of them, shot dead for participating in the protests or just chanting or only observing.

The list has been compiled from sources including The Guardian,, ICHRI and Green Martyrs.

While you scroll from one victim to the other, you can listen to the beautiful and sad “Overture to NeyNava concerto” by Persian composer Hossein Alizadeh. You can also leave a tribute on the site.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is concerned for the safety of the detained protestors after documents detailing abuses against them were confiscated.

Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“The Iranian authorities appear more intent on finding the identities of those who claim to have been tortured by security officials than in carrying out an impartial investigation so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

“The Supreme Leader must intervene and ensure that there is no cover up of the grave abuses committed against those who challenge the official election result. In particular, he must ensure that victims of rape, torture and other abuses are fully protected against reprisals or further abuse at the hands of those who tortured them.”

Sunday, 6 September 2009

"I want the world to know" - 21st anniversary of the 1988 massacre in Iran


In the coming days, families will gather on a derelict plot next to the cemetery of religious minorities in the district of Khavaran, in south-east Tehran. They call it ‘the rose garden of Khavaran’ – for a rose, in a culture where it is often safer to use poetry, represents a fallen freedom fighter. The Iranian leadership calls it the ‘place of the damned’ or the ‘cemetery of the infidels’. There, in unmarked mass graves, lie thousands of political prisoners killed by the Islamic regime.

Their families have been coming there early September – and at other times - for the past 20 years to commemorate what they call “the national catastrophe” - the biggest and most under-reported state crime in Iran’s modern history. Braving military harassment and sometimes arrest, they return to Khavaran again and again.

In July and August 1988, the Islamic regime had executed in secret thousands of political prisoners throughout the country – men, women and teenagers. They were intellectuals, students, leftists, members of opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many were jailed for no more than distributing leaflets, having a banned book or being accused by ‘a trusted friend of the regime’.

The slaughter was efficient and relentless. All day long, prisoners were loaded on forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of six at half-hourly intervals. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to horrific torture. The killing was ‘an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history, unprecedented in form, content and intensity,’ wrote the US historian Ervand Abrahamian in his book on Iranian prisons Tortured Confessions.

‘When they took me to the death committee in (Tehran’s) Gohardasht prison, the lobby was piled high with sandals, glasses and blindfolds. That’s all that was left of our friends. They are all gone and I am alive. Iam alive to tell their story. That is my only goal,’ says Mehdi Aslani, 52, who survived the massacre and now lives in exile in Germany.

The regime has never acknowledged the massacre, revealed how many were executed, nor why. Amnesty International has recorded the names of 2,800 victims, but survivors believe it was probably between 5,000 and 10,000. The execution of such a large number of people within such a short time, without any due process, violates many international human rights treaties to which Iran is signatory; yet the world has remained largely silent. Most of the perpetrators are still in power today. ‘Nobody has been brought to justice’ says Drewery Dyke, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. ‘Impunity for such appalling crimes only leads to further human rights abuses.’

The husband and two brothers of Rakhshndeh Hosseinpoor, now 56, were killed by the Islamic regime. She now lives in Germany with her son. ‘They have ruined so many lives. I’ve lost three members of my family, but some families have lost six or seven. So many children are without fathers and mothers, so many young widows, so much pain that never goes away... We need justice.’

‘We need people to know about the massacre of 1988 because it isn’t just the problem of the survivors and their families,’ says Reza Moini, another survivor, who works as a human rights activist in Paris. ‘It was a political act, a social act, not a private one. We need the truth for tomorrow’s youth.’

This post is based on an article I have written on the massacre for the New Internationalist. I have researched this topic for many years, gathered lots of evidence and documents, and interviewed a dozen survivors in Germany, the UK, Belgium, France and the US. I have yet to find a mainstream publication willing to run an in-depth article on the 88 massacre.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Investing on children's future

Children’s early years are crucial and that is the time when governments should strongly support them. Investing more money on children in the first six years of their lives would reduce social inequality and help all children, especially the most vulnerable, have happier lives, according to the OECD’s first-ever report on child well-being in its 30 member countries.

The report shows that average public spending by OECD countries up to age six accounts for only a quarter of all child spending. But a better balance of spending between the “Dora the Explorer” years of early childhood and the teenage “Facebook” years would help improve the health, education and well-being of all children in the long term, according to Doing Better for Children.

“The crisis is putting pressure on public budgets across the world. But any short-term savings on spending on children’s education and health would have major long-term costs for society,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel GurrĂ­a. “Spending early, when the foundations for a child’s future are laid, is key especially for disadvantaged children and can help them break out of a family cycle of poverty and social exclusion."

The report is advocating providing more cash benefits in the pre-school years, strengthening pre- and post-natal services and early childhood education, especially to children in disadvantaged families, supporting breast-feeding and teaching parents the importance of a healthy diet and the risks of smoking.

Many countries concentrate child spending in compulsory education. But often, school systems are not designed to address the problems of disadvantaged children. More of this money should be spent on helping them within schools, through mentoring and out-of-school programmes, to improve behaviour and educational attainment.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Undercover journalist arrested

BBC journalist Arifa Farooq, who went undercover as a carer to expose flaws in the system in the care of elderly in their own homes, has been arrested earlier this month and is facing criminal prosecution.

The Panorama documentary, Britain's Homecare Scandal, which was aired in April, revealed malpractice in companies caring for older people at home.

Arifa Farooq, 30, who works with the BBC Scotland investigations unit, was one of several reporters who went undercover for two months to research the story.

She was arrested and questioned earlier this month in relation to allegations of making a false disclosure in the course of her investigation.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has called on the prosecuting authorities in Scotland to use common sense and to rule out the prosecution of a Glasgow-based journalist.

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear said: “We are strongly urging the authorities to use their common sense and rule out prosecution. The work undertaken by Arifa Farooq was clearly in the public interest and it is now in the public interest for the case to be dropped.

“The only people who would benefit from legal action in these circumstances are those who want to stop the kind of vital journalism that has been undertaken by Arifa."

The Local Government Committee at the Scottish Parliament has been investigating issues around elderly care provision that were raised by the Panorama programme.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Rape and violence against women as weapon of war: one DRC woman speaks out

One gorilla vs 500,000 women
"We ask: 'Why the silence of the developed countries? When a gorilla is killed in the mountains, there is an outcry, and people mobilize great resources to protect the animals. Yet more than five hundred thousand women have been raped, and there is silence."
This is what Democratic Republic of Congo's journalist Chouchou Namegabe testified at a hearing on sexual violence in the DRC before the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in May.

“The women ask WHY? Why such atrocities? Why do they fight their war on women’s bodies? It is because there is a plan to put fear into the community through the woman, because she is the heart of the community. When she is pushed down, the whole community follows. The rapes are targeted and intentional, and are meant to remove the people from their mineral-rich land through fear, shame, violence, and the intentional spread of HIV throughout entire families and villages.

After all of this you will make memorials and say 'Never Again.' But we don't need commemorations; we want you to act now,” continued Namegabe, visibly anguished and angry.
She is founder of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association, known as Association des Femmes des Medias du Sud Kivu (AFEM-SK). The organization gives a voice to thousands of voiceless women. They use radio to give women the space to express what has happened to them, begin their healing and seek justice.
We don't need memorials, but actions
"We have interviewed over 400 women in South Kivu, and their stories are terrifying. In fact, the word rape fails to truly describe what is happening, because it is not only rape that occurs, but atrocities also accompany the rapes. That is what makes the situation in the eastern Congo so different, and horrible. Of all the testimonies we recorded there are two that stay in my mind that I will share with you.

I met a woman who had 5 children. They took her into the forest with her 5 children, and kept them there for several days. As each day passed the rebels killed one of her children and forced her to eat her child's flesh. She begged to be killed but they refused and said, “No, we can't give you a good death.

Last month, after the joint operation between the Congolese army and the Rwandese army to break down the FDLR1, in their running away the FDLR raped more women. Our journalists were told that after they raped the women, they put fuel in their vaginas and set them on fire, and then extinguished the fire. This was done not to kill them, but to let them suffer. There were many other horrible atrocities."

Why our silence and inaction? What are we waiting for? Namegabe is right to say that the international community would have never let so many gorillas suffer in this way.

To read about the six actions Namegabe is requesting, go to the full transcript of the hearing.

And to watch her testimony on YouTube:

Monday, 3 August 2009

Iran - a poem

I've met Majid through a poem. I had written an article a few months ago for on Tehran authorities destroying the site of mass graves the district of Khavaran in southeast Tehran. In these unmarked graves lie thousands of political prisoners killed by the Islamic regime in the 1980s - most of them during a secret mass massacre in the summer of 1988. In response, Majid sent me a poem.

Since then, he has sent me more poems, punctuating the events in his native country, creating something beautiful out of pain and violence. I love them. Here is his latest offering:

A Poem: Three Gifts
by Majid Naficy

Published on July 29 in Foreign Policy in Focus in response to the repression and violence in Iran

In Memory of Saeed

One day my father called us and said:
I have three gifts for you —
A red heart, an hourglass, and...
O God, I don't remember the other one.

Mehdy took the heart
Opened its two halves
And strummed the strings of its chambers.

I took the hourglass
And along its white sands
I fell from one half to the other
Asking myself:
What can be done in three minutes?

And Saeed
At age ten went to Paris
For heart surgery
And at age twenty-nine

He was executed in Tehran.
I remember him.
He had red cheeks
And strong hands.

March 1994

Majid Naficy, who is the author of more than 20 books written in Persian, fled Iran in 1983, a year and a half after the execution of his wife Ezzat in Tehran. He has published two collections of poetry "Muddy Shoes" (Beyond Baroque Books 1999) and "Father and Son" (Red Hen Press 2003) as well as his doctoral dissertation "Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature" (University Press of America 1997) in English. He lives in Los Angeles.

Iran - Show Trials and database of detainees

Show Trials
Today, Iran's opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami are denouncing "show trials" of politicians and activists charged with fomenting unrest after the disputed presidential election on 12 June . Both men accused the Tehran regime of using forced confessions to charge senior opposition figures of "acting against national security" and "conspiring with foreign powers to stage a velvet revolution".

Database of dead and detained
Hundreds, probably thousands, have been arrested in Iran since the election. Human rights and campaign groups such as Human Rights Watch, the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Reporters Without Borders have been collecting and publishing the names of those dead or detained.

The Guardian newspaper have brought those lists, and reports from trusted media sources, into a database. They are asking readers and those elsewhere on the internet to contribute too.
Since they launched this exercise, they have had hundreds of emails, photographs and names sent to us. Keep them coming. Please post your visualisations and mash-ups on their Flickr group or mail them at

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Berlin - Hunger strike for release of detainees in Iran

Ex-political prisoners of the Islamic Republic of Iran are staging a 48-hour hunger strike tomorrow in Berlin to request the release of all political prisoners in Iran – particularly those arrested in the aftermath of the elections, including human rights activist Shadi Sadr.

Eighty-four former political prisoners will start their hunger strike tomorrow morning, Friday July 24, at 9am in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. They’ll conduct a press conference at 11 am.

Here is an edited version of their statement:

We, ex- political prisoners of the Islamic Republic, stand in solidarity with the people struggling for basic human rights in Iran, in demanding the release of all political prisoners, in particular those who have been arrested in recent weeks, including human rights activist Shadi Sadr.

The recent peaceful demonstrations by the Iranian people following the rigged elections have been met by cruelty and violence at the hands the police and security forces in Iran.

So far dozens of people have been killed, many have been injured and 3,000 to 5,000 have been arrested or have simply vanished.

The attacks on the university dormitory by the police, the raids to the homes of families of students and journalists, the increase in arbitrary arrests, abduction and disappearances are alarming, and once again bring back the memory of the bloody 1980's.

We demand: Immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Iran,

We demand: The abolition of capital punishment in Iran.
Signed by 84 participants, 697 supporters and 108 organisations/NGO’s/societies/ foundations

Amir Atiabi, a former political prisoner and survivor of the 1988 massacre in Iran, says ex-prisoners will do whatever they can to free the detainees because they know the terrible conditions they are facing in prison.
We are all very concerned about the conditions of the detainees based on our knowledge and own experience on what’s going on behind the walls of the Islamic Republic’s prisons. The level of torture and violence against the detainees is beyond imagination.

Those who work for the system can do anything they like without questioning. There are no laws and no rules. The country is filled with lies, propaganda, horror, terror, threats, tapping phone calls, monitoring Internet activities, censorship, daily arrests and crimes against any active opponent and journalists.
We have to act now. Tomorrow will be too late.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

10th-year anniversary of Falun Gong persecution in China

Tomorrow, July 20th, marks the 10th-year anniversary of the baffling, but ruthless persecution of Falun Gong in China.

Falun Gong, which counts millions of members mostly in China, but also elsewhere in the world, is a holistic practice guided by the principles of “truthfulness, compassion and tolerance”, based on slow-moving exercises and meditation.

Falun Gong has no formal structure and is not a religion, yet it was banned as “an evil cult” in China ten years ago by then Chinese Communist Party president Jiang Zemin. It is believed Jiang felt threatened by the growing popularity of the practice. It is banned only in China, but practiced freely in 80 countries.

On July 20th 1999, hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners were dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, and over the next few days tens of thousands were detained throughout China. When all the police stations and detention centres were full, many were held in sports stadiums and other public facilities.

“Like any normal day, I went to do Falun Gong exercises in Yuyuantan Park in the centre of Beijing at 6am,” says Cambridge resident Jingwen Wang, who lived in Beijing at the time. “I heard the government had banned Falun Gong, so I decided to appeal. At 7am I arrived at the Appeals Office, but I was swiftly forced onto a coach, along with other practitioners. After driving a long time, we arrived at Shijingshangymnasium. There were already about 4,000 practitioners there. It was very hot, about 37 degrees. Thousands of people stayed there without any water, food or fresh air for the whole day.”
Since then, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong followers have been imprisoned in labour camps and prisons across the country. They account for the largest single population of prisoners of conscience in China, according to Amnesty International. Tens of thousands have been tortured and over 3,200 have lost their lives. Millions others face destitution, job loss, expulsion from school and other form of discrimination.

Annie Yang, a former antique trader in Beijing who now lives in London, was arrested in 2005 and sent to two years in labour camp for being a member of Falun Gong.
“Every day I was forced to sit for over 18 hours, in a strict sitting posture: both legs and knees pressed tightly against each other; both hands rested over the knees, the back kept straight, and eyes open. After a week or two, many people’s bottoms started to rot. After endless days of both mental and physical persecution my eyesight became bad and my memory weak. My hair turned white and mentally I almost reached total collapse. Every day the only thing I thought about, when I was able to have a moment to think, was how to end my life. Was it better to smash my head on a radiator or to drink washing powder?”
Now, ten years later, the brutal repression shows no signs of abating.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Falun Gong repression and attract attention to their plight, members are staging a press conference at noon at Westminster in London and a peaceful protest in Parliament Square all day-long. They are also hosting an art exhibition nearby in Palmer Room, 1 Great George Street, SW1 3AA from 11 am to 4 pm. The exhibit Uncompromising Courage, which has toured more than 40 countries since 2004, portrays the beauty of the traditional Chinese meditation practice, Falun Gong, and at the same time depicts the personal experiences of the artists and others who have been persecuted under the Chinese Communist Party."

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Children of prisoners have rights

I’ve read a very interesting story in the Guardian recently on Albie Sachs, the South African judge who ruled not to send a woman to jail because it would infringe the human rights of her three children.

The woman was facing four years in jail for up to 40 counts of credit card fraud that she had committed while under a suspended sentence for similar offences. At first, Sachs wanted to jail the mother, but a female colleague urged him to consider the rights of the woman’s children separately. Here is how the 74-year-old judge explained his decision to an international audience of human rights lawyers in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago:

"She said: 'There is something you are missing. What about the children? Mrs M has three teenage children. She lives in an area that we politely call fragile, an area of gangs, drug-peddling and a fair amount of violence. The indications are that she is a good mother, and the magistrate gave no attention to the children's interests.'

"The minute my colleague spoke to me about the importance of the three teenage children of Mrs M, I started to see them not as three small citizens who had the right to grow up into big citizens but as three threatened, worrying, precarious, conflicted young boys who had a claim on the court, a claim on our society as individuals, as children, and a claim not to be treated solely as extensions of the rights of the mother, but in their own terms."
As a result, Sachs created a legal precedent in 2007: now in South Africa at least in borderline cases, primary caregivers of children should not be sent to jail. And if the court decided to jail a primary caregiver, it had to take some responsibility for what happens to the children. "The court can't simply say that she should have thought of that before she committed the offence, or that she can't hide behind her children."

Judge Sachs did not know it at the time, but similar ideas were being framed in Scotland in a report by the then children's commissioner, Kathleen Marshall.

The report, Not Seen, Not Heard, Not Guilty, argues that the rights of offenders' children to family life under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are systematically ignored by the court system. The report found that almost two-thirds of prisoners in the Cornton Vale women's prison in Stirling had children under 18, but there was no provision to take their rights into account during sentencing.

This is fascinating. A new way of thinking is emerging within the criminal justice system. Children have rights on their own, which the court system should take into account. And children don’t forfeit their rights because their parents have committed a crime. Of course, it is not a one-fit-all answer: some convicted mothers and fathers are terrible parents and being a parent shouldn’t be a license to commit a crime with impunity. But the principle is important and, if we think about it, rather basic: children shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ crimes. Both the children and society would benefit.

I wonder if the same argument could be made about unborn children – the children of pregnant women in prison. Many years ago, fellow journalist Loren Stein and I worked for the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco on a year-long investigation (published in the Progressive and Boston Herald magazine) into the alarming number of miscarriages among pregnant women in US prisons. Packed into routinely overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped facilities, pregnant inmates were often denied essential pre-natal and emergency care, although their health needs were both greater and more specialized. As a result, more than 30 percent of pregnancies in prison ended up in miscarriage (often during the third semester, which is very rare among the general population) or the loss of the baby during or after birth.

For many of these inmates’ unborn children, a prison sentence actually meant a death sentence.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Iran - detained opposition leaders at risk of torture to force TV confessions

I was dismayed to hear that many callers on a BBC 4 programme on Iran over the weekend believed that the demonstrations against the outcome of the 12 June election – and the claim of the fixed election itself – were part of a foreign-led plot against the Islamic regime. Even the Independent newspaper’s Robert Fisk suggested in a recent opinion piece that much of the reported demonstrations and violence by security forces were fantasy.

That is exactly what the regime is hoping to achieve. Iranian opposition websites claim the regime is torturing jailed Iranian reformists to force them into TV “confessions” aimed at implicating Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated reformist candidates, in an alleged conspiracy, or the US and UK.

Amnesty International is gravely concerned that several journalists and opposition leaders – including Mohsen Aminzadeh, Abdollah Ramazanadeh and Mostafa Tajzadeh - detained in the wake of the elections may be facing torture to force them to make televised ‘confessions’ as a prelude to unfair trials in which they could face the death penalty.

On Friday 26 June, cleric Ahmad Khatami, who is a member of the Assembly of Experts, called on the judiciary to punish, severely and without mercy, those involved in the demonstrations. Ominously, he used the term moharebeh or enmity against God, a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Televised “confessions” have repeatedly been used in the past by the Iranian authorities to incriminate political activists in their custody or force prisoners of conscience to recant their beliefs or allegiances. Many have later retracted these “confessions”, stating that they were coerced to make them, sometimes after torture or other ill treatment. Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian documents this practice in Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran.

Mohsen Aminzadeh, Abdollah Ramazanadeh and Mostafa Tajzadeh are among hundreds of politicians, journalists, academics, students and human rights activists, who have been detained, some briefly, across Iran since the election. Most are either supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, or are close to ex-President Khatami who supported Mousavi’s campaign. Others have been critical of incumbent President Ahmadinejad’s policies.

According to official statements, well over a thousand others have been arrested. Protesters were dealt with brutally by security forces. Many were beaten and, according to the authorities, up to 21 people have been killed, although the true number is likely to be higher.

Amnesty is asking people to call on the Iranian authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with the protestors and to ensure that those arrested are not tortured or otherwise mistreated.