Mumia Abu-Jamal

Wednesday 21 December 2011

With the prospect of execution hanging over him, for three decades Mumia Abu-Jamal awoke every morning in a small Pennsylvania jail cell. A former Black Panther activist, he was sentenced to death in 1982 after being convicted of killing a police officer in hotly disputed circumstances. Earlier this month, in an extraordinary turn, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of capital punishment following a long legal battle that deemed the original trial flawed.

For Abu-Jamal’s supporters, it was a major victory. The 1982 verdict was judged to have breached the US constitution, because the jurors in the trial were given misleading instructions that wrongly encouraged them to issue the death sentence. “The district attorney did the right thing,” said John Payton, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer. “After three long decades, it was time to bring the quest for a death sentence for Mr. Abu-Jamal to an end.”

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Abu-Jamal’s home city, hundreds gathered to celebrate the result. Last week he was moved to a new wing of his prison, where for the first time in 30 years he will be able to come into physical contact with his family and friends when they visit him. While Abu-Jamal remains incarcerated on a life sentence without parole, with capital punishment off the table some believe he now has a greater chance of being freed entirely.

“This is not the end of the road. We are fighting for his freedom and we want him to be freed immediately,” says Jeff Mackler, a friend of Abu-Jamal who directs a “Free Mumia” campaign in Oakland, California. “But there’s nothing in this world better than to go to sleep at night and to know that you’re not going to be executed the next morning or within weeks. We are overjoyed that Mumia is alive, that for the first time he can touch his family and hug his friends and be in contact with the real world.”

The controversial saga began on 9 December 1981, when a 27-year-old Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook) was found at the scene of a shooting in the heart of Philadelphia. In the early hours of the morning his younger brother, William, was pulled over by a police officer as part of a routine traffic stop. It is alleged that a struggle ensued, during which Abu-Jamal, who was working in the area as a taxi-driver, arrived amid the scuffle and twice shot the officer – once in the back and once in the head – taking a single bullet himself in the chest. Police backup arrived moments later, and found Abu-Jamal injured on the pavement. A revolver belonging to him was found at the scene. It contained five spent cartridges.

How events unfolded is to this day a subject of contention. Prosecutors of the case are firm in their conviction that Abu-Jamal was the killer, using his links with Black radical politics to argue he was a man on the edge – a dangerous sort of figure with a disdain for the law. But Abu-Jamal’s defence maintain he did not shoot the officer, Daniel Faulkner, with his supporters claiming he was a victim of a “frame-up” at a time when racial tensions between the police and African Americans in Philadelphia were simmering.

What brought Abu-Jamal’s case to the attention of the world, however, was not the circumstances surrounding the killing of officer Faulkner. Whether he did or did not shoot the policeman, it was the manner in which his trial was conducted that brought it notoriety.

The presiding judge, Albert Sabo, was a former member of the Fraternal Order of Police and widely considered to be bias in favour of the prosecution in all cases – calling in to question his ability to be impartial. Over a period of 14 years, he presided over trials in which 31 defendants were sentenced to death, 29 from ethnic minorities. During Abu-Jamal’s trial, press reports noted he displayed “undue haste and hostility toward the defence’s case.” And some years later, the court stenographer filed an explosive affidavit in which she claimed to have heard Sabo say, in the courtroom antechamber, "I'm going to help them fry the nigger."

By the mid nineties, Abu-Jamal, who was a part-time journalist and broadcaster before his incarceration, had written a number of essays and one best-selling book while on death row, making him perhaps the most famous inmate in America.

A number of well-known actors and writers including Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin and Salmon Rushdie championed calls for a retrial. And in 2000, human rights organisation Amnesty International published a thorough report on his case, concluding that “the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty.” The proceedings had been highly politicised, Amnesty noted, which “may not only have prejudiced his right to a fair trial, but may now be undermining his right to fair and impartial treatment in the appeal courts.”

On 7 December Amnesty welcomed the news Abu-Jamal would no longer face execution, but said: “justice would best be served by granting Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial.” Meanwhile, South African archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out upon hearing the revelation, going one step further than Amnesty by calling on Pennsylvanian authorities to immediately free him.

“Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row, justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life – yet another form of death sentence,“ said the archbishop, a Nobel prize winning peace activist. “Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia should be released.”

For the widow of officer Faulkner, Maureen, the latest twist in the long legal struggle provoked a disparate reaction. Describing Abu-Jamal as a “seething animal,” she attacked the judges that questioned the validity of his death sentence, calling them “dishonest cowards.”

“This decision certainly does not mark the end of my journey, nor will I stop fighting to see justice done for my husband,” she said in a statement. “I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind: the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons.”

Faulkner’s words worry Abu-Jamal’s supporters, who realise that as he enters a new chapter of less-isolated prison life among the so-called “general population,” his fate is almost impossible to predict. 68-year-old Osagyefo Tongogara, who runs a UK “Free Mumia” group based in London, remains seriously concerned for Abu-Jamal’s welfare and has vowed to fight on.

“It’s very positive in the sense that he longer faces the death penalty, but there are a lot of killings that take place within American prisons,” he says. “With Mumia being a high-profile person he’s particularly at risk – he’s still in danger of being executed, not judicially but extrajudicially. So we have no intent in letting up in the campaign. We want to see him freed.”

A New Cold War?

Friday 9 December 2011

Chanting “death to England,” they burned the Union Jack, looted offices and smashed a picture of the Queen. It could scarcely have been a more symbolic protest. Outside the British embassy in Iran’s capital city, Tehran, a furious crowd gathered last week to demand the UK’s diplomats leave the country immediately. “Britain should wait for the coming moves of the great Iranian nation, which intends to settle an old score with Britain for years of plotting against Iran,” said the protesters, who some claimed had been put up to the task by their government. “We will not come short of our righteous demands.”

The story that led up to the incident reads like the plot of an elaborate spy thriller. Rooted in fear and intense diplomatic wrangling around the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, it is a murky world of assassination plots, secret agents and covert operations that many believe could be a prelude to military strikes.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which saw the authoritarian, American-backed ruler Mohammad Reza Pahlavi overthrown as part of a popular uprising, relations between the west and Iran have been fraught. Pahlavi had been installed in 1953, historic documents show, as part of a coup involving UK and US secret intelligence operatives amid the Cold War.

Once the new regime came in to power after Pahlavi’s departure, Iran, a newly crowned Islamic state, became increasingly isolated. Western nations imposed severe economic sanctions on the country over allegations that it was funding terrorist groups, with billions of dollars worth of assets frozen. A series of conflicts in the region throughout the 1980s saw Britain and America supply weapons – some chemical and biological – to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war, and during the same period the US shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 civilians.

In recent years, the bitterness between the west and Iran has reached a new and unprecedented level. A pivotal moment came in 2002 – the same year George W. Bush famously declared Iran was a key player in his “Axis of Evil” – when an Iranian dissident revealed the existence of a secret underground uranium enrichment facility, leading to claims the country was attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

This was followed last month by a significant new report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. Listing a large appendix of previously unpublished evidence sourced from ten international intelligence agencies, the report concluded there were “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear programme, which it said caused "deep concern."

Some have doubted the credibility of the findings, with the “dodgy dossier” used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still a fresh memory. But Emily Landau, an Iran expert at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, believes this time the threat is real.

“There is serious incriminating evidence that makes it clear we’re talking about a virtual smoking gun with regards to Iran’s military programme,” she says. “Once Iran becomes a nuclear state, it will become almost invulnerable to attack. And it will be able to stir up a lot of trouble in the Gulf region. It will try to expand its clutch very soon.”

Iran has repeatedly denied claims it is trying to build a nuclear bomb, with its president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, saying it is an “inhumane weapon” that is against the Islamic religion. According to Landau, however, the regime’s words cannot be trusted.

“For 20 years Iran was cheating, lying and deceiving the international community, working on a nuclear programme while it was a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,” she says. “There is evidence that they were working on a military programme, under government direction, until 2003.”

A major concern for western governments is that, if Iran was to develop nuclear weapons, it would be able to assert domineering power across the Middle East and beyond, ramping up instability and heightening the potential threat of war. This fear is in part fuelled by a speech made by Ahmedinejad in 2005, in which he said Israel “must be wiped off the map.”

Attempting to address the problem, and due in part to Iran’s apparent lack of cooperation, a coalition of nations, led by the US, Britain and Israel, are believed to have intensified secret intelligence operations in the country. In September 2010 it was revealed that a virus called Stuxnet, reportedly created by western powers in collaboration with Israel, was used to attack and spy on Iranian computer systems. One month later, John Sawers, the head of Britain’s foreign spy agency MI6, said in a rare public speech that “intelligence-led” operations were needed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

More recently, a series of explosions have been reported at Iranian nuclear plants, sparking rumours of sabotage, while a number of Iranian nuclear scientists have also been assassinated. 40-year-old Majid Shahriari, a top scientist described by Time magazine as the “senior manager of Iran's nuclear effort,” was killed last November after a death squad on motorbikes attached a bomb to his car and detonated it as he drove away. Similar attacks have occurred since, all of which the Iranians claim were orchestrated by MI6 in collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israel’s secret service, the Mossad. UK officials have refused to comment, saying only: “We never discuss intelligence matters.”

Though current intelligence missions remain a tight-lipped secret, David Steele is well equipped to offer an insight into the realities of espionage. The 59-year-old former US spy worked for the CIA during the 1980s as a clandestine case officer, “chasing terrorists” around Latin America. His role in the CIA led him to feel he was the “Cold War equivalent of a Jesuit priest”; however, today his view of the agency, especially its alleged involvement in Iran, is highly critical.

“The president [Barack Obama] would have signed an authorisation for covert action [in Iran] but there are also rumours that the CIA is out of control on the drone program and it might be out of control in other areas,” he says. “Israel has had much too much influence on the US government, often using lies, agents of influence including dual US – Israeli citizens in top policy positions with top secret clearances, and false flag operations. Israel is paranoid and out of control. It wants nothing more than to get the US to do to Iran what Iran got the US to do to Iraq.”

Steele believes allegations of UK and US involvement in assassination plots are “absolutely credible.” He does not deny Iran could be developing a military nuclear programme, but he questions how much of a threat it poses.

“It does not justify the actions that Israel and the west are taking,” he says. “On this issue I believe that Brazil, Turkey, China, and Russia are vastly more intelligent, and have more integrity, than the US government.”

Regardless of whether the nuclear threat posed by Iran is realistic, the situation continues to move in the direction of a military standoff. Last week, just hours after protesters angry about the assassinations and economic sanctions stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, foreign secretary William Hague shut down Iran’s London embassy. “We will discuss these events and further action which needs to be taken in the light of Iran's continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme," he said.

Ahmedinejad has since responded by saying he is open to negotiations with the international community over Iran’s nuclear programme. But the country’s supreme leader, 72-year-old Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate control over Iran and its military ambitions, has remained at all times defiant, casting a worrying cloud of uncertainty over the future.

“Iran has stood up against the will of the biggest arrogant and colonialist powers alone and shattered their resolve," Khamenei said in a statement. “With the awakening of different nations, the puppets of the arrogant powers will leave the scene one after the other and the glory and power of Islam will increase on a daily basis."

This article first appeared in issue no.905 of The Big Issue in the North.

Governments turn to hacking techniques for surveillance of citizens

Friday 11 November 2011

In a luxury Washington, DC, hotel last month, governments from around the world gathered to discuss surveillance technology they would rather you did not know about. The annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas conference is a kind of mecca for representatives from intelligence agencies and law enforcement. But to the media or members of the public, it is strictly off limits.

Gone are the days when mere telephone wiretaps satisfied authorities’ intelligence needs. Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced “lawful interception” methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionised communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.

Among the pioneers is Hampshire-based Gamma International, a core ISS World sponsor. In April, Gamma made headlines when Egyptian activists raided state security offices in Cairo and found documents revealing Gamma had in 2010 offered Hosni Mubarak's regime spy technology named FinFisher. The "IT intrusion" solutions offered by Gamma would have enabled authorities to infect targeted computers with a spyware virus so they could covertly monitor Skype conversations and other communications.

The use of such methods is more commonly associated with criminal hacking groups, who have used spyware and trojan horse viruses to infect computers and steal bank details or passwords. But as the internet has grown, intelligence agencies and law enforcement have adopted similar techniques.

“Traditionally communications flowed through phone companies, but consumers are increasingly using communications that operate outwith their jurisdiction. This changes the way interception is carried out … the current method of choice would seem to be spyware, or trojan horses,” says Chris Soghoian, a Washington-based surveillance and privacy expert. “There’s now a thriving outsourced surveillance industry and they are there to meet the needs and wants of countries from around the world, including those who are more – and less – respectful to human rights.”

In 2009, while a government employee, Soghoian attended ISS World. He made recordings of seminars and later published them online – which led him to be the subject of an investigation and, ultimately, cost him his Federal Trade Commission job. The level of secrecy around the sale of such technology by western companies, he believes, is cause for alarm.

“When there are five or six conferences held in closed locations every year, where telecommunications companies, surveillance companies and government ministers meet in secret to cut deals, buy equipment, and discuss the latest methods to intercept their citizens’ communications – that I think meets the level of concern,” he says. “They say that they are doing it with the best of intentions. And they say that they are doing it in a way that they have checks and balances and controls to make sure that these technologies are not being abused. But decades of history show that surveillance powers are abused – usually for political purposes.”

Another company that annually attends ISS World is Italian surveillance developer Hacking Team. A small, 35-employee software house based in Milan, Hacking Team's technology – which costs over £500,000 for a “medium-sized installation” – gives authorities the ability to break into computers or smartphones, allowing targeted systems to be remotely controlled. It can secretly enable the microphone on a targeted computer and even take clandestine snapshots using its webcam, sending the pictures and audio along with any other information – such as emails, passwords and word documents – back to the authorities for inspection. The smartphone version of the software has the ability to track a person’s movements via GPS as well as perform a function described as “remote audio spy”, effectively turning the phone into a bug without its user’s knowledge. The venture capital-backed company boasts that its technology can be used "country-wide" to monitor over 100,000 targets simultaneously, and cannot be detected by anti-virus software.

“Information such as address books or SMS messages or images or documents might never leave the device. Such data might never be sent to the network. The only way to get it is to hack the terminal device, take control of it and finally access to the relevant data,” says David Vincenzetti, founding partner of Hacking Team, who adds that the company has sold its software in 30 countries across five continents. "Our investors have set up a legal committee whose goal is to promptly and continuously advise us on the status of each country we are talking to. The committee takes into account UN resolutions, international treaties, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recommendations."

Three weeks ago Berlin-based hacker collective the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) exposed covert spy software used by German police forces similar to that offered by Hacking Team. The "Bundestrojaner [federal trojan]” software, which state officials confirmed had been used, gave law enforcement the power to gain complete control over an infected computer. The revelation prompted an outcry in Germany, as the use of such methods is strictly regulated under the country’s constitutional law. (A court ruling in 2008 established a “basic right to the confidentiality and integrity of information-technological systems”.)

“Lots of what intelligence agencies have been doing in the last few years is basically computer infiltration, getting data from computers and installing trojans on other people’s computers,” says Frank Rieger, a CCC spokesman. “It has become part of the game, and what we see now is a diffusion of intelligence methods into normal police work. We’re seeing the same mindset creeping in. They’re using the same surreptitious methods to gain knowledge without remembering that they are the police and they need to follow due process.”

In the UK there is legislation in place governing the use of all intrusive surveillance. Covert intelligence gathering by law enforcement or government agencies is currently regulated under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which states that to intercept communications a warrant must be authorised by the Home Secretary and be deemed necessary and proportionate in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country. There were 1682 interception warrants approved by the Home Secretary in 2010, latest official figures show.

According to Jonathan Krause, an IT security expert who previously worked for Scotland Yard's hi-tech crime unit, bugging computers is becoming an increasingly important methodology for UK law enforcement. “There are trojans that will be customer written to get past usual security, firewalls, malware scanning and anti-virus devices, but these sorts of things will only be aimed at serious criminals,” he says.

Concerns remain, however, that despite export control regulations, western companies have been supplying high-tech surveillance software to countries where there is little – or no – legislation governing its use. In 2009, for instance, it was discovered that American developer SS8 had supplied the United Arab Emirates with smartphone spyware, after around 100,000 users were sent a bogus software update by telecommunications company Etisalat. The technology – if left undetected – would have enabled authorities to bypass Blackberry email encryption by mining communications from devices before they were sent.

Computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum is well aware what it is like to be a target of covert surveillance. He is a core member of the Tor Project, which develops free internet anonymysing software used by activists and government dissidents across the Middle East and north Africa to evade government monitoring. A former spokesman for WikiLeaks, Appelbaum has had his own personal emails scrutinised by the US government as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the whisteblower organisation. On 13 October he was in attendance at ISS World where he was hoping to arrange a presentation about Tor – only to be ejected after one of the surveillance companies complained about his presence.

“There’s something to be said about how these guys are not interested in regulating themselves and they’re interested in keeping people in the dark about what they’re doing,” he says. “These people are not unlike mercenaries. The companies don’t care about anything, except what the law says. In this case, if the law’s ambiguous, they’ll do whatever the law doesn’t explicitly deny. It’s all about money for them, and they don’t care.

“This tactical exploitation stuff, where they’re breaking into people’s computers, bugging them… they make these arguments that it’s good, that it saves lives. But we have examples that show this is not true. I was just in Tunisia a couple of days ago and I met people who told me that posting on Facebook resulted in death squads showing up in your house."

The growth in the use of these methods across the world, Appelbaum believes, means governments now have a vested interest in keeping computer users' security open to vulnerabilities. "Intelligence [agencies] want to keep computers weak as it makes it easier to surveil you," he says, adding that an increase in demand for such technology among law enforcement agencies is of equal concern.

“I don’t actually think breaking into the computer of a terrorist is the world’s worst idea – it might in fact be the only option – but these guys [surveillance technology companies] are trying to sell to any police officer," he says. "I mean, what business does the Baltimore local police have doing tactical exploitation into people’s computers? They have no business doing that. They could just go to the house, serve a warrant, and take the computer. This is a kind of state terror that is simply unacceptable in my opinion.”

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, like Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he says. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is being not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good.”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

TeleStrategies organises a number of conferences around the world, including in Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific. Every country has a need for the latest covert IT intrusion technology, according to Lucas, because modern criminal investigations cannot be conducted without it. He claims “99.9 per cent good comes from the industry” and accuses the media of not covering surveillance-related issues objectively.

“I mean, you can sell cars to Libyan rebels, and those cars and trucks are used as weapons. So should General Motors and Nissan wonder, ‘how is this truck going to be used?’ Why don’t you go after the auto makers?” he says. “It’s an open market. You cannot stop the flow of surveillance equipment.”

This article first appeared at:

Bank Transfer Day

Thursday 3 November 2011

Bonfires and fireworks are what most people associate with 5 November. But this year the date has taken on a new meaning for thousands planning a mass boycott against some of the largest banks in the world.

Angry at corporate greed and unethical financial practices, over 60,000 have vowed to close their bank accounts on Guy Fawkes Day, pledging to transfer their money to local credit unions and co-operatives as an alternative.

The campaign was launched on 3 October by 27-year-old Los Angeles-based art gallery owner Kristen Christian, and has since gained backing from protesters involved in the anti-corporate “Occupy” movement in cities across America and Britain.

Christian was prompted into taking action after being repeatedly charged fees by the Bank of America that she felt were excessive. She started an event page on social networking website Facebook called “Bank Transfer Day”, which gained near-immediate popularity, spreading virally over the internet in a matter of days.

“I was tired of paying outrageous fees to banks for a severe lack of services,” she says. “The final straw came with the announcement of new monthly fees for any customers with less than $20,000 (£ 12,500) in combined accounts. It’s apparent this new policy directly targets the impoverished and working class.

“The structure of for-profit corporate banks is fundamentally flawed and a hindrance to a thriving economy. The goal of Bank Transfer Day is to shift funds to the local level before 5 November. These funds will allow credit unions to expand low-interest rate loans to private citizens and small to medium-sized businesses, encouraging economic growth on the local level.”

Credit unions, cooperative financial institutions owned and controlled by their members, are expected to enjoy a huge boom in the lead up to the boycott. Some have announced that they will be opening extended hours on 5 November, a Saturday.

“The anti-consumer practices of the large banks aren’t a new thing,” says Greg Smith, the president of PSECU, one of America’s largest credit unions. “Consumers are fed up, and we want to let them know that there are financial institutions out there like credit unions that can provide the same products and services their bank does, but instead of gouging them, we will do it fairly.”

Though Bank Transfer Day began as a campaign directed as a protest against US banking institutions, it has tapped into to a strong anti-banking sentiment also widespread across Europe.

London-based organisation Positive Money, which campaigns for banking reform, was quick to lend its backing. The group is encouraging British citizens to transfer their money from big banks such as Barclays and HSBC to smaller, mutually owned “ethical” institutions or building societies such as the Cooperative and Nationwide.

“Customers today don’t have any rights to say what their money can be used for. So the banks can use this money to invest in the arms industry and for projects that are damaging for the environment and for society as a whole,” says Mira Tekelova, a spokeswoman for Positive Money.

“Bank Transfer Day is about encouraging our supporters to chip away at the power and influence from the big banks by simply withdrawing financial support. It’s just a small step of what needs to be done.”

The campaign has come in from criticism from some, who have claimed it could lead to greater instability of an economy that is already failing and on the brink of possible collapse. However, according to Albrecht Ritschl, a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, the boycott is not likely to bring about a major crisis.

“I could not imagine that this would be a big enough movement to really have far reaching consequences,” he says. “If they find enough people to join the boycott, then of course the boycotted banks will get into trouble because they will lose lots of deposits.

“If they concentrate on one particular institution, and the institution is small, then they could probably sink it. I would tend to think, though, unless I’m entirely mistaken, that this particular boycott movement will probably only have punctual or limited impact.”

Ritschl added that the ongoing protests were not likely to spark any self-regulated change from within the banking sector, but could force politicians to introduce stricter rules regulations to appease public anger.

“I don’t think these protests will be entirely ineffective,” he says. “They do keep the discussion about bankers, the role of banks and the financial meltdown alive. They will add momentum to the quest for radical banking reform and bankers’ compensation schemes, so in that broader political sense I would tend to think that yes they will have an impact.”

Many of those participating in Bank Transfer Day have already taken it upon themselves to close their accounts – though some have been obstructed their banks.

In October two women entered a Bank of America (BoA) branch in Santa Cruz, California, carrying a sign that read, “I am closing my BoA account today.” The police were called and the women were made to leave the branch after they were reportedly told by a member of staff, “you can’t be a protester and a customer at the same time.”

The bank said in a statement: “We do not allow protestors inside of our banking centres. If a customer who is participating in a protest wishes to conduct bank business, including close an account, we ask them to come back when they are not protesting or they may also conduct their bank business at a nearby branch away from protest activities."

One man the banks will have difficulty stopping from closing his account is Alex Schaefer, who is fully committed to the 5 November boycott. The 41-year-old American artist has become notorious in recent months for painting pictures of banks on fire – a symbolic reflection of US society’s incendiary anger over the financial crisis.

“It’s been slowly dawning on me since about 2003 or 2004 that the financial sector is totally out of control,” says Schaefer. “The ratings agencies [which assess the financial strength of companies] aren’t doing anything and the politicians are completely bought off. In my opinion they’re just sailing the ship into destruction.”

Shaefer, who previously worked as a video games artist for Disney, was questioned by police in July after he was spotted painting a picture of a burning bank in Burbank, Southern California. The authorities suspected he could be a plotting terrorist attack.

He explains: “They asked me ‘do you hate the banks?’. I told them: I don’t hate the banks but I think everybody is sick of this criminal business model that they’ve been operating for the last twenty years.

“Here are banks that are stealing and gambling billions and trillions of dollars, totally bailed out on the pocketbooks of the people. So why aren’t those guys getting their doors knocked on by the police. It’s an imbalance of justice.”

A similar bank boycott, Move Your Money, was launched in 2009 by the editor-in-chief of the US blog Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington. It encouraged Americans to put their money into credit unions to protest against risky investments made by bankers that led to the US government’s $700 (£440) billion bailout in 2008. In a televised interview last year, Huffington said: “We've had lots of good speeches and lots of good rhetoric, but this is an opportunity for people to take action.”

This article first appeared in issue no.900 of The Big Issue in the North.

The Occupy Movement and The Indignados

Friday 28 October 2011

On the sweltering Madrid streets back in May, there was a strong feeling that something very significant was happening. Tens of thousands were crammed into a makeshift encampment in the city's Puerta del Sol square, unified by an acute sense of disillusionment with the political establishment. High unemployment, unaffordable housing and a feeling that politicians were not representing the people had resulted in the near spontaneous birth of a movement that would become known as the Indignados (the outraged), or 15-M (after 15 May, the date the protest began).

Everyone who was there and who witnessed it could sense that this was not any ordinary demonstration. Despite the bleak social and economic conditions that had sparked the protest, the place was buzzing with indescribable energy and an optimism for what could be achieved. It was a forum for all ages to come and debate how to create a better society; inspired by protests in other parts of the world – particularly across the Middle East – the aim was, in essence, to take control of history and swerve it in a different direction. "I am here because I think we can change something," said 20-year-old student Alejandro Jalón.

In the main, they were reformist as opposed to revolutionary, calling for electoral and media reform and an end to corruption and money in politics. Rejecting representative, parliamentary style democracy, they favoured direct, participatory democracy, with decisions made by consensus at public "general assembly" meetings.

Like the uprisings that had exploded onto the streets of places like Tunisia and Egypt, the Spaniards hoped their actions would spark similar protests across Europe. One 66-year-old man stood awestruck amid the crowds at Puerto del Sol and recalled the student and worker protests that swept parts of the world in 1968. What was happening in Madrid was of greater significance, he believed, because of its relationship to the uprisings in the Arab nations. "I think I am living a new world order," he said, without a quiver of doubt or hesitation in his voice. "I am sure it will spread."

His prediction was not far off. By late May protests had sprung up in over 60 Spanish towns and cities, and similar groups were formed in Italy, France, Greece and England. In London, activists organised a protest outside the Spanish embassy and called a public meeting on 29 May at Trafalgar Square. About 300 were in attendance, but they were predominantly of Spanish or Greek nationality.

"We are hoping that the British will join us too, because you have a lot to complain about," said 29-year-old Virginia Lopez Calvo. "We are sure that more people will join us if we continue to convene."

The 15-M, however, seemed to lose steam after the Madrid camp, which had become the beating heart of the movement, voted to disband in early June. Marches and demonstrations continued – some of which were suppressed by authorities – but lacked the same scale. The systemic change which at one point seemed to be within the clutch of the Indignados' grasp suddenly began to look like a faded dream. There was a moment when the movement itself appeared destined to fizzle out, as had the protests of 1968, absorbed into history before making any substantial political impact.

That was, of course, until a new wave of protesters exploded onto Wall Street, New York, in September, which injected a powerful double dose of energy and inspiration into not only the Spanish movement, but to similar protest groups across Europe and beyond.

Calling themselves "the 99 per cent" – a reference to the gap in income and wealth between the one per cent super-rich and the rest of society – the Wall Street protesters had themselves been moved into action after watching events unfold in Spain, Greece and the Middle East. Their anger, like that of their European counterparts, was borne on a basic level from the same sense of disillusion – even despair – at the political establishment and the lack of equality and opportunity within their society.

Dubbed the "Occupy" movement, the American protest, which is ongoing, erupted like a volcano into something far more politically radical than anything proposed by the Indignado reformists. Though it adopts the same participatory methods of direct democracy used in Madrid, the New York group completely rejects politicians and the traditional system of government – instead calling explicitly for a "revolution of the mind as well as the body politic".

By mid October Occupy-inspired groups – many forming their own general assemblies and tent-based occupations – had sprung up in over 80 countries and 900 towns and cities, including across the UK. "It's about finding a new way for people to actually have control over their own lives," said 32-year-old Tom Holness, a protester involved with an Occupy group in Birmingham. "At the moment our access to democracy is limited to going to a ballot box every five years and voting for people who are going to lie about what they're going to do."

Each of the groups' methods, goals and motivations are not necessarily the same, but they are united in their adoption of participatory democracy and their broad rejection of 'leaders' and hierarchical forms of organisation. Some are reformist, others revolutionary – all are vehemently opposed to the current political and economic status quo.

In cities across the world, there is now that same sense of indescribable energy and optimism that could be felt in Madrid's Puerta del Sol in May. It is contagious and continues to spread. There are some who believe it could be the birth of a new paradigm – the embryonic beginning of an alternative future unburdened by the cobwebbed shackles of party politics. Many continue to disregard it as a flash in the pan that can be ignored, though there is an increasing recognition that the Occupy movement and others like it cannot be dismissed out of hand for much longer. Mark Field, Conservative MP for the cities of London and Westminster, acknowledged last week that such protests posed a "huge challenge for the entire political class".

In the five months since the demonstrations in Madrid shook Spain, citizens on almost every continent appear to have simultaneously awoken from their slumber in unprecedented numbers, giving rise to all manner of possibilities that would have been unthinkable one year ago. No matter what the political differences between the movements in America, Britain, Spain, or elsewhere, there is a binding feature that is in itself incredibly powerful. It is a relentless, restless desire to fight for what is perceived to be a better, more egalitarian society – or "in defence of our dreams," as one of the slogans popular among the Indignados eloquently put it.

"Once in a while in history something will happen that will capture people's imagination," said Edward Needham, 43, a volunteer at Occupy Wall Street. "We're all at the start of this. Together there's not going to be anything that we can't achieve."

This article originally appeared at:

Electronic Tagging: a Lucrative Business

Thursday 13 October 2011

In a dingy Indian jail cell forty-six years ago, Tom Stacey had an idea that would later develop into a billion-pound industry. The author and former Sunday Times foreign correspondent, jailed after crossing the government while working on a story, dreamt up an alternative to prison that he felt would be more humane: the electronic tag.

On his return to England he became a prison visitor and encouraged companies to create the device. He set up the non-profit Offender's Tag Association to lobby government and, after a short trial period and a flurry of controversy, electronic tagging was eventually introduced by New Labour in 1999.

In the first year 9000 tags were issued in England and Wales. This figure has steadily risen and to date more than 750,000 people have worn one. Between April 2010 – April 2011 alone 116,000 individuals were tagged, including over 6,000 young offenders, some as young as eleven. They are predominantly used to monitor prisoners released early on home detention curfews, but can also be issued as a community penalty.

The technology has attracted sustained criticism over the years, most notably from penal reform campaigners and probation officers who say it does not have any impact on reducing crime or reoffending rates. In September, however, justice secretary Ken Clarke revealed the coalition government was looking to further expand its use of tagging, inviting private companies to bid on over £1bn worth of contracts to provide the service.

For Stacey, who now spends his days working as a publisher based in west London, this was without doubt a positive move.

“It is clearly better than prison,” he says. “Prison is a pretty random and stupid way to handle people. It destroys the ability to get a job. It eliminates a person’s skills if they ever had any and it breaks up families if there ever was one.

“Prison is not just about depriving somebody of their liberty, it’s actually exposing them to all kinds of sustained abuse and fear … The tag is a much more humane alternative.”

Stacey, in fact, believes the government has not gone far enough. He wants to see it adopt high-tech, GPS satellite tracking tags – piloted by former home secretary David Blunkett in 2004 – which would monitor an offender’s every move.

“It’s highly unimaginative and timid of this government not to follow up on the initiative of David Blunkett on that pilot scheme,” he says.

The equipment used most commonly in England and Wales is less advanced, consisting of a tag, worn round the ankle or wrist, and a monitoring unit based usually in the home. Using a radio signal like a mobile phone, the tag acts as a transmitter that communicates with the monitoring unit, which in turn updates authorities, ensuring the offender does not breach their curfew by leaving home during a set period, though not monitoring their exact movements.

Part of the reason tags have proved popular with government is financial. It costs £1,063 to tag an adult for 90-days, which is over £5,000 less than the average cost of imprisoning a person for the same length of time. But despite the saving, according to critics including Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, tags are not value for money because there is little evidence that they reduce crime.

“Putting people on a tag does nothing to address the causes of crime and has no long-term impact on offending,” she says. “In a recent investigation into the use of tag on young people, many of the people we spoke to explained the dehumanising effects of being placed on tag. One young person described it ‘like being on a dog chain’. Others felt that it actually exacerbated the chances that they would be breached and returned to prison due to the amount of frustration it caused.”

Campaign groups have also expressed concern that under new government plans, the length of a curfew could be raised from its current twelve-hour-a-day maximum to 16 hours, and the order doubled in duration, from six months to twelve.

“Being confined can affect rehabilitation into the community, depending on the number of hours per day,” says Sally Ireland, a policy director for human rights organisation Justice.

“At 16 hours it really starts affecting employment, education and other opportunities to undertake meaningful activity. There should be a rational connection between the offending and the curfew, and it should be proportionate. It shouldn’t just be used as a form of house arrest or a way of putting somebody in custody harshly.”

Advocates of the tag argue that it can provide order and stability to sometimes chaotic lives, allowing an offender to reintegrate into society after committing a crime. However one former Birmingham University student, convicted of an offence midway through a computer science degree, told The Big Issue in the North being tagged for a four month period after an early release from prison had a negative effect on his education.

“I couldn’t go in to the [university] labs to use specialist software because of tag,” said the 29-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous. “It impacted my coursework without doubt. It wasn’t ideal and I did get special understanding from the university. They accepted that I couldn’t work for four and a half months because of the tag, but it did restrict me.”

In recent months tags have attracted negative publicity after being imposed for minor offences. In March a 66-year-old great grandmother from Sale was tagged after selling a goldfish to a 14-year-old boy (an animal welfare law passed in 2006 made it illegal to sell goldfish to under 16s). And it was reported in July that a 71-year-old woman from Hattersley was tagged for three months after refusing to have her sick dog put down.

Stacey concedes that “there will always be bizarre instances” and “eccentric judges” who impose an electronic tag in questionable circumstances. But he remains firm in his conviction that the technology will always be a better alternative to prison.

“Tagging is not a massive shock to the system,” he says. “Banging somebody up in prison is completely alarming and heaven knows what sort of consequences it could have.

“Magistrates don’t like sending people to jail … But if they’re not allowed to put them on the tag they won’t have a choice. Just ask a person: would you rather be on the tag or in prison? There’s only one answer you’ll get to that.”

This article first appeared in issue #897 of The Big Issue in the North magazine.

Climate of Fear in the NHS

Saturday 8 October 2011

“The last chance to save the NHS” is how it has been billed. This Sunday thousands from across the country are expected to descend on London to launch a headline-grabbing demonstration against the coalition government’s proposed healthcare reforms.

Led by the anti-austerity group UK Uncut, the protesters plan to temporarily close down the iconic Westminster Bridge just days before a crucial parliamentary debate on the controversial Health and Social Care Bill. If the Bill is passed into law, campaigners say, it will open the NHS up to corporate interests, damage the standard of service and lead to the destruction of an equal and universal healthcare system.

But in the build up to the demonstration, an investigation by The Big Issue in the North has discovered frontline NHS staff across England are already enduring cutbacks that could be putting patient care at risk, with some surgeries being delayed due to tight budgets.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Dr Stephen Smith (not his real name), said at one hospital in the south west of England staffing was at a “dangerous level” after the ratio of nurses to patients in each ward had been reduced.

“There is a climate of fear and a feeling that everyone’s budgets are under heavy attack,” he said. “Working in A&E for example there are signs up saying ‘how can we save money’, with people asked to give suggestions. But the amount that’s having to be saved each month is just crazy, and consequently rotas are being designed with less doctors in them because it’s cheaper. Which clearly puts patients at risk.”

Smith added that he believed the Health and Social Care Bill would send things in a “very bad direction”.

“There isn’t anybody I know in the medical profession that thinks it’s a good idea. Everyone has said that this is going to destroy the NHS and is just an attempt at backdoor privatisation. The only people who are pro it are the GPs who are going to make money out of it,” he said.

Jacqui Moore (not her real name), a specialist practitioner who is also a union representative at a hospital in the north west of the country, described increased levels of stress due to a string of job cuts.

“I see alot of staff going off with stress at the moment. The minute you start cutting staff everybody else is just expected to work harder and a lot of staff react to that. They just can’t cope with it. Just about every person I deal with seems to have either been off with stress or has just come back after a period of stress-related illness. Everybody is feeling the pressure.

“I think it’s just symptomatic of what’s going on in the health service as a whole. The whole agenda is very cost driven, and every decision that seems to be made is a financial one, rather than one that’s got patient care at the end of it.”

Shortly after coming to power in May 2010, the coalition government gave an assurance that its cuts agenda would not impact upon frontline services. And in April this year the government launched a “listening exercise” to address concerns about the scale of its NHS reforms.

Launching the initiative, prime minister David Cameron said the government wanted to “safeguard the NHS for future generations”, but added that it was only through “modernisation that we can protect the NHS and ensure the country has a truly world-class health service.”

Months after the listening exercise, however, the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents around 141,000 doctors and medical students in the UK, called for the Health and Social Care Bill to be “withdrawn or at the very least significantly amended.”

“The clear view of BMA Council is that the Health and Social Care Bill remains deeply flawed,” said Dr Hamish Meldrum, the council’s chairman. “The BMA will continue to publicly and vigorously highlight the concerns of doctors and patients, particularly to peers who have a real opportunity to protect the NHS by addressing the damage that could be done by many aspects of these reforms.”

One long-serving nurse at a hospital in south London, Mike Davey, told The Big Issue in the North the fear is that the standard of service – and ultimately patient care – will be severely compromised by the changes.

“There’s a nervous anticipation and a lot of staff are very concerned. It’s having a negative impact on morale,” he said. “This particular government is putting thumb screws on to the managers, the executives and the trust boards so they have to pretty much market test everything – which means services being privatised out.

“We’re told a private company can do things cheaper and better than our own in-house services. But previous experience, since the Thatcher government in the 80s brought in mass privatisation, has led us to see that this is not actually the case.”

At a hospital on the outskirts of Manchester, some surgeries may have already been rationed due to budget shortages.

According to Oldham and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abbrahams, a 33-year-old man in her constituency had an operation to fix his cataracts delayed because his sight was classed as "impaired" as opposed to "blind". The man, an engineer by trade, cannot work due to his condition and will have to wait until his vision worsens before he can undergo immediate surgery.

"Delays to simple and relatively inexpensive operations, like those for cataracts, can severely affect a person's life,” Abbrahams said. “I am very concerned about this situation as I have had several constituents come to me asking for help because they cannot get their cataracts treated in a reasonable time. Along with Michael Meacher and other Greater Manchester MPs I am asking Oldham's Primary Care Trust for clear answers about why this and other basic operations are being hit so hard by this government's ideologically driven cuts."

On 11 October the Health and Social Care Bill will be debated at length in the House of Lords. The Lords can propose amendments to the Bill, with some Liberal Democrat peers, led by Baroness Shirley Williams, expected to rebel against it. Writing in the Observer last month, Williams said that she had “huge concerns”, adding: “The battle is far from over.”

For Ben Jackson, a spokesman for UK Uncut, this Sunday’s protest will be crucial.

“It all depends on what they [the Lords] hear from the public,” he said. “So we need to take drastic action to make it clear that this isn’t going to be something we’re just going to lie down and take. This is something we really care about. It’s an emergency for the NHS."

This article first appeared in issue #896 of The Big Issue in the North magazine.

Inside the World's Largest Arms Fair

Friday 23 September 2011

There is a sense of nervous tension outside the ExCeL centre in London's east end. It is the first day of the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition – otherwise known as the world's largest arms fair – and a huge line of predominantly middle-aged men in suits are queuing to get inside. Some of them are arms dealers, others government representatives and intelligence agents. Scarcely a word is spoken as we shuffle slowly forwards. Police radios puncture the silence, beeping on and off as burly-looking security guards patrol intently.

Through a set of glass doors and beyond airport-like security scanners are two massive, 145,000 square-feet halls split by a long corridor, dominated on either side by shops and cafes. Delegates from some of the 65 countries in attendance sit enjoying breakfast next to a giant tank, its rooftop gun revolving in circles – much to the approval of passers-by, who point and take photographs.

The two main exhibition halls have previously hosted concerts by Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and UB40. But today they are crammed with around 1300 exhibits, selling guns, bombs and the latest in security technology. A handful of stalls are devoted to life-saving equipment. Most of the space, however, is reserved for displays featuring 100lb hellfire missiles, AK47 rifles, stealth tanks and even gold-plated handguns.

The quiet dissipates and is replaced by the sound of chatter. Business cards change hands, and multi-million pound contracts are being negotiated. At a large stand run by the defence arm of SAAB, a Swedish company more renowned for its cars, Håkan Kappelin is showing off a laser-guided missile system to delegates from India. It has a range of 8km and can travel at speeds of up to 680 metres per second.

"It could be deployed inside a city like London. And you can engage any type of target," he says. "Not like when you use an infra-red system, where you have problems with houses in the background. Just reload in five seconds and engage the next target."

The delegates nod approvingly. "680 metres per second," one repeats to another.

Upstairs, in a briefing room, Defence Secretary Liam Fox delivers a speech. Anti-arms campaigners have levelled criticism against the government for doing deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of crackdowns on protesters across the Arab world. Fox is dismissive. "I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world," he says. "This is fundamental part of the coalition government's agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement."

Back on the exhibition floor, the atmosphere is carefree. A tall Arab man dressed in a pristine white Thawb, and protected by a circle of six bodyguards, is treated like a celebrity at a stand offering intelligence and surveillance systems, made by German company Cassidian. Gold buckles on his brown leather sandals sparkle in the light; people walking by stop and stare. "I think he's a Saudi prince," one says.

Nearby, two glamour models, Rosie Jones and Charlotte McKenna, joke and flirt as they sign copies of a "Hotshots" calendar in which they are pictured, scantily clad, wielding various pistols and rifles. Next to stalls selling vicious-looking machine guns, gas masks and chemical suits for use in the event of a biological weapons attack, free massages are on offer and delegates eat canapés washed down with glasses of sparkling wine.

The prevailing opinion among the delegates and exhibitors is that they are in the business to bring security to the world – they deny claims made by campaign groups that they are peddlers of death. A representative from Pakistan's exhibit, Major Ali Asghar Mushtaq, says his country is here selling weapons to help bring about a more peaceful world.

"The aim of Pakistan's army is that everything manufactured and sold should not be for killing and terror activities," he says. "It should bring peace on the whole world, not wars." Does he really believe manufacturing arms en masse will help bring about peace? "It's obvious," he says. "Once one country and the other country both have weapons, no one is going to use the weapons against each other. So there will be more stability."

Later, Major Mushtaq and his colleagues are removed from the exhibition after it is discovered they are advertising cluster bombs banned under UK law. But his viewpoint lingers. The South African exhibit on the other side of the hall boasts that it is "securing a peaceful future through high technology defence equipment," and Condor, a Brazilian company that supplied teargas and rubber bullets used against protesters in Bahrain, says it is committed to the "reduction of violence through gradual use of force."

These apparent paradoxes litter the hall. The lavish consumption of food and drink sits awkwardly with the sale of gleaming weapons that are ultimately used to kill and maim. And the talk of security attained through the mass production of arms is reminiscent of George Orwell's dystopian nightmare in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where peace is itself a state of perpetual war.

Walking around the exhibition, it is difficult not to recall US president Dwight Eisenhower's famous 1961 farewell address, during which he warned against the perils of an "immense military establishment and a large arms industry." Although there is an imperative need for the industry to develop, Eisenhower said, it has "grave implications" for the "very structure of our society." Government officials today are keen to point out that last year defence exports generated revenues of more than £22 billion for UK industry. A question Eisenhower might have urged us to ask is: at what cost?

Leaving the ExCeL centre, police officers advise anyone wearing a DSEI pass to conceal it from view. "There are protesters about and they might not like where you've been," one warns. We take a specially ordered train from the stop outside ExCeL to nearby Canning Town, where the arms traders, weapons makers and other defence industry insiders join a crowd of rush hour commuters. Just another bunch of men in suits, they disappear into the night.

This article originally appeared at:

Business as Usual? Arms, Surveillance and Arab Dictatorships

Saturday 17 September 2011

A wave of revolution across the Middle East and north Africa this year has left tyrants and dictators clinging to the power they once took for granted. Citizens of countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria have taken to the streets and in some cases fought and died in an attempt to overthrow their rulers. But as Britain has offered its support to the newfound freedom fighters, some have made accusations of hypocrisy. After all, like many other western nations, the UK has been doing business with authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for decades.

Little is known about the true extent of the relationship the UK has maintained with dictators and autocrats across the region. However, as the old regimes crumble, details have begun to slowly emerge. Last week the organisation Human Rights Watch released documents it discovered in Libya, revealing that UK intelligence agency MI6 collaborated with Muammar Gaddafi's security services to transport terror suspects to Libya for interrogation, where they were allegedly subjected to torture. MI6 continues to deny involvement, though the secret documents paint an altogether different picture.

Amid the uprising in Egypt earlier this year, protesters made a similarly shocking find. After ransacking a government intelligence agency headquarters in Cairo, they unearthed hidden underground interrogation cells, evidence of torture, and a stockpile of documents that outlined a paranoid government programme of industrial-scale mass surveillance. Most controversially, among the many files was a letter from an English, Andover-based IT-security company, dated June 2010, offering to sell Egyptian authorities spy technology that would enable them to intercept dissidents’ emails, record audio and video chats, and take copies of computer hard drives.

The company, Gamma International, denies that it sold the technology, worth over £250,000, to the Egyptian authorities. “Gamma complies in all its dealings with all applicable UK laws and regulations,” it said in a statement. “Gamma did not supply to Egypt but in any event it would not be appropriate for Gamma to make public details of its transactions with any customer.”

Many similar products, manufactured in western countries, are believed to be widely available to Arab governments facing uprising. An extensive recent investigation conducted by the Bloomberg news agency, for instance, found that Trovicor, a German company with links to Siemens and Nokia, had supplied “monitoring centres” to at least twelve Middle Eastern and north African nations.

Such technology is used by governments around the world, including in the UK. However its use in most western countries is strictly regulated and can only be used when authorities have grounds to believe it could help prevent or detect a crime. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East do not have the same regulatory framework, though this does not restrict western firms such as Gamma International and Trovicor from selling them their products.

Since the discovery of documents showing British and other European companies had either offered or sold intrusive spy technology to regimes across the Middle East and north Africa, a group of concerned European politicians has taken action. Six MEP’s including Baroness Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat MEP for London, made a joint request to the EU’s head of foreign policy calling for a decision on whether European companies contributed to human rights violations in countries including Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria.

“I don’t know whether the EU has paid sufficient attention to this,” Ludford said. “It raises very important issues about whether export of surveillance equipment from the EU is being used in repression and human rights abuses. The law is a mess: it’s not being properly or rigorously applied and that needs to happen alongside responsible companies that check what the ultimate use [of the technology] is going to be.”

According to Dr Andrea Teti, a specialist in international security at Aberdeen University, it is not possible to stop surveillance systems from being used for repressive purposes unless firm new legislation is implemented, controlling the countries to which it is exported.

“Just because the physical harm comes once removed from this particular technology, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about it,” he said. “If there are safety implications for people in terms of their human rights or physical safety, then we should have some kind of controls. The problem that we have in the west is that in most cases those regulations are quite poor when it comes to export licensing. The onus is definitely on us to deal with that side of things – and we haven’t done so.”

Through the course of the Arab Spring the murky world of mass surveillance has undoubtedly been exposed by the fracture of once intensely secretive regimes. But important questions have also been raised about the UK’s role in arming state forces responsible for brutally repressing protests across the region.

In February the Foreign Office said it was conducting an “immediate and rapid review” of all UK arms export licences to affected countries. Between February and June, however, arms sales to Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia totalled over £30m – 30 per cent more than for the same period in 2010. Weapons exported included sniper rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, according to an investigation by The Times.

The government has since blocked the export of arms to Libya and Syria as part of an EU embargo, and also revoked a number of military export licences to Bahrain. But Oliver Sprague, director of human rights group Amnesty International’s UK arms control programme, said it was a case of “closing the stable door after the horse had bolted,” and called for tighter regulations.

“Countries are entitled to purchase weaponry for legitimate defence and policing purposes, but was it ever remotely sensible for the UK to sell weapons and crowd-control equipment to countries like Gaddafi’s Libya?” he said. “The key question is: are our existing risk-assessment procedures tight enough when it comes to sending arms overseas? The lesson of countries like Bahrain and Libya is that they’re not and we could still end up sending weapons to human rights abusers in the future.”

The Foreign Office said that there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom, though admitted “further work is needed on how we operate certain aspects of the controls.”

A spokesperson said: “We do not export equipment where there is a clear risk it could be used for internal repression ... Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications. HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] reacted quickly to the events in the Middle East: we reviewed licences and moved swiftly to revoke where they were no longer in the line with the criteria.”

This article first appeared in issue no.893 of the Big Issue in the North.

Work Elsewhere

Monday 5 September 2011

Hello all. Been rather busy recently and have not had the time to update this website very frequently. However, the good news is I'm currently building a new section for 'reports' & 'clippings', as I predominantly only post features, interviews and other longer pieces here... so lots more content is in the pipeline. In the meantime, find below links to work I produced last month (more on the agenda in September):
Banks urged to end loans for cluster bomb makers, Big Issue in the North, August 29 2011.

University staff asked to inform on 'vulnerable' Muslim students, the Guardian, August 29 2011.

Facebook faces up to new privacy row, Big Issue in the North, August 22 2011.

Phone hacking survey & the role of investigative journalism, Frontline Club, August 19 2011.

New police riot powers would be 'unenforcable'
, Big Issue in the North, August 15 2011.

UK authorities should not be given a communication 'killswitch', openDemocracy, August 11 2011.

Campaigners gear up to oppose fracking in the UK, Big Issue in the North issue, August 8 2011.

Police forces come together to create new regional surveillance units, the Guardian, July 25 2011.

'We were raised by a generation of hypocrites'

Monday 15 August 2011

Young Deacon is angry. The 17-year-old south London rapper watched his peers wreak havoc across the city last week in a frenzy of fire and destruction. In part of the borough where he lives, Wandsworth, a group of an estimated 1000 ransacked shops and clashed with police for several hours. Similar scenes took place in neighbouring Brixton and Peckham.

As the city was burning, at home in his bedroom Deacon wrote and recorded a song. Though he did not approve of the destruction on his streets, he felt he understood why it was happening. The rioters were filled with rage – and so was he.

Titled “Failed by the System”, the song – which can be heard here – touches on the Iraq war, unemployment, and criticises the media (“We’re branded alot / As rioters, looters / Murderers, yobs / Knifers, shooters / Depicted as the worst / On your news and computers”). It references budget cuts, crime rates and accuses the government of not having a grasp on why the riots happened (“You're focused on an issue / But you don’t know what the issue is / We were raised / By a generation of hypocrites”).

A debate has raged across Britain about whether the riots were just an expression of mere opportunistic criminality or a symptom of something much deeper – rooted in societal inequalities. For Deacon it is unquestionably the latter. His lyrics tap in to a sense, reflected in interviews with young people involved in the rioting, that something at the core of our society is broken or at least failing to function the way it should:

Don’t give up on the kids / They’re in need of support / Better role models / Not leaders at war / It takes a whole community / To raise a single child / So please think twice / Before you blame him 'cause he’s wild / If only he had that / Little bit of guidance / Maybe he wouldn’t be / Running from the sirens / Maybe he wouldn’t be / Adding to the violence / And maybe he wouldn’t be / Out in the riots

So what compelled Deacon to record the song? “The same reason why large amounts of young adults took to the streets that very same night, intent on causing havoc and destruction – the reason is anger,” he says.

“Like so many others my age, I feel as though I have been dealt an injustice within the society I live, or in other words, the sense of being ‘Failed by the System’. This idea is grounded not only in the rising of tuition fees [for university], but also within the spending cuts including youth club activities, and even through the stereotypical generalisation we – as a generation – receive from public authorities such as the Metropolitan Police.”

But it is not just politics or economics that is the root of Deacon’s grievance. The media, he believes, also has a significant role to play. He mentions a peaceful protest the black community staged at Scotland Yard two months ago that received no news coverage, referred to by another young man in Tottenham last week.

“As unfortunate as it is, the young generation have come to the realisation that in this day and age, those with power only respond to violence and destruction,” he says. “It [the media] is there to selectively filter the thoughts and opinions of a whole nation. This may seem like a whole different discussion, but nevertheless is part of an important issue that led up to the outbreak of riots, and therefore needs to be addressed.”

Quoting a friend, he adds: “We steal a pair of trainers, and the youth are in the media spotlight. A banker breaks the economy, and receives bonuses.”

On Wednesday, Deacon plans to release an album – “Poetic Justice” – for free download that he says will address the circumstances that led to the rioting. He invites people to listen to his music to “experience the system through the eyes of the failed.”

As for the future, he warns more trouble could be on the horizon, though remains somewhat hopeful that things could change for the better.

“I believe that the riots Britain faced this week are but a ‘small’ spillage of a boiling pot,” he says. “Save the youth, save the future."

This article originally appeared at:

America, Extradition and 'Policing the Internet'

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Not often do US officials pay visits to students in Sheffield. But after building a website that allegedly shared links to pirated TV shows and movies, 23-year-old Richard O’Dwyer became a wanted man.

Accused of criminal copyright infringement, the Sheffield Hallam University undergraduate now finds himself at the centre of an extraordinary story. US authorities are attempting to extradite him so that he can be tried and imprisoned in America.

The threat of extradition came as a serious and unexpected shock to the O’Dwyer family. Richard’s mother, Julia, has since been forced to take sick-leave from work because of the stress it has caused her, and now spends her days trawling the internet to research the law.

“The effect of all this upon our family is immense,” she said earlier this month. “The thought of having my only son taken thousands of miles away to face an unknown legal system and without being able to monitor what is happening or to be able to advocate for him fills me with terror.”

Though Richard’s case is unusual, it is not isolated. Since 2004, 28 British nationals have been extradited to America, made possible by a treaty signed in 2003. Introduced to speed up the extradition of terrorist suspects, the treaty was negotiated by Tony Blair’s Labour government with the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. It allows the US to request extradition of UK citizens without evidence and on the basis of “reasonable suspicion” alone.

Using the powers of the treaty to go after people for breaching copyright and other crimes not associated with terrorism, the O’Dwyer family believe, is a clear abuse of its purpose. By allowing American authorities to seek extraditions on such grounds, they claim that the UK government is failing to protect its citizens and that the treaty is imbalanced in America’s favour.

"If Richard has committed any crime, it was committed on UK soil, and we have sufficient copyright legislation over here so that he can be prosecuted in the UK,” said a family spokesperson. “To extradite a young man in the middle of his university studies is wholly disproportionate.

“Since the Extradition Act came into force in 2004, the US has agreed to the extradition to the UK of only three people with a claim to US nationality. So presumably the US would understand if Britain were equally as protective of its own in preferring to try British defendants in the UK ... Just because an extradition request is made, doesn't mean that the British authorities have to agree to it.”

At the heart of the issue is the internet and how it has changed the nature of crime. In the seven years since the UK-US extradition treaty was brought in to force, the internet has hugely expanded – and with it hacking, piracy and other so-called “cyber-crimes”.

Another British citizen, Gary McKinnon, finds himself in a similar situation. A Scottish computer hacker who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, McKinnon has been fighting extradition to the US since 2003. He admits hacking in to US government computer systems in order to try and find information about UFOs, but wishes to face trial in the UK. If sent to America, he could face a prison sentence of up to 70 years.

According to one of the UK’s leading experts on extradition law, Julian Knowles QC, the problem is that the extradition treaty does not contain a provision – known as “forum” – allowing courts to decide on balance whether each respective case is best heard in the UK or abroad. And because the internet has made it much easier for crime to be committed across borders at such a rapid pace – as well as change the nature of crime itself – the law has as yet failed to adapt.

“The law just doesn’t cater for this situation,” he said. “They [the Americans] will go after people who have committed crimes abroad with very little linkage to the US. And the English courts are powerless to say: ‘well, actually, the crime has been committed here in the UK.’ It’s the absence of that power that I think is the problem.

“What the McKinnon and O’Dwyer cases have indicated is that there can be real injustice in sending people back to the US to face very savage sentences – nothing like the sort of sentence that really matches the harm.”

A forum amendment, which would allow judges to consider whether McKinnon and O’Dwyer would be better tried in Britain, was tabled by politicians back in 2006. But it was not brought in to force at the time, Knowles says, because there is a “big dose of politics in extradition law making” and a reluctance to “upset the Americans”.

In June, a joint parliamentary committee on human rights recommended that urgent action was needed to make sure Britons were not extradited over alleged offences committed inside the UK or without any evidence being offered against them. “We wholeheartedly support the introduction of a forum safeguard,” the committee wrote. “It is difficult to understand why this has not yet happened.”

Isabella Sankey, director of policy for the human rights group Liberty, said that due to changes in technology there has been an upsurge in countries asserting jurisdiction over alleged actions that take place in other parts of the world. She agrees that it is in the interests of justice for a forum provision to be introduced.

“The Internet increases our risk of falling foul of the law, making it possible to commit an offence on the other side of the world without even leaving your bedroom,” she said. “[A forum amendment] would allow UK courts to bar extradition in the interests of justice where conduct leading to an alleged offence has quite clearly taken place on British soil.”

Earlier this month US authorities went further than ever before, claiming that anyone in any country who owns and runs a website with the .com or .net suffix is under their jurisdiction because these domains are by a technicality registered in the US state of Virginia.

Critics have branded this a clear attempt by America to “police the internet” as it struggles to control piracy of American-made films and television shows outside its own borders; the implications are severe. If the country was to try to prosecute every British individual with a .com or .net website linking to copyrighted content, it would put huge and unprecedented pressure on the UK’s extradition system.

In the meantime, US authorities continue to aggressively pursue both O’Dwyer and McKinnon, as well as nine other British nationals whose extradition cases are pending. McKinnon’s case is currently being reviewed by home secretary Theresa May, while O’Dwyer will face a preliminary hearing in September.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK's extradition arrangements are currently being reviewed by an independent panel to ensure they operate effectively and in the interests of justice. We expect the panel conducting the review to report at the end of the summer.”

This article first appeared in issue no.887 of Big Issue in the North.

LulzSec Interview: the full transcript

Saturday 23 July 2011

Last week, hacker collective LulzSec returned with a bang, attacking a series of websites owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International in apparent response to the ongoing phone hacking scandal.

For 50 days between May and June, the tight-knit, six-strong group made headlines across the world, rising to almost instant notoriety after perpetrating a series of audacious cyber attacks on high-profile government and corporate websites, before abruptly announcing that they would disband. Among just a few of LulzSec's targets: Sony, the US Senate, the CIA, the FBI and even the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The authorities continue to try to track them down, and on Tuesday 20 suspected hackers were arrested in the UK, US and Netherlands as part of an ongoing international investigation. In a joint statement with an affiliated network of hackers known as Anonymous, LulzSec responded to the authorities directly. "We are not scared any more," they wrote. "Your threats to arrest us are meaningless as you cannot arrest an idea."

Earlier this month, two weeks after they had announced their apparent split, I managed to track down "Topiary", a founding member of LulzSec and self described "captain of the Lulz Boat". The interview was long - almost three hours - and covered lots of ground. But a great deal of what Topiary told me never made it in to the final write up, published by the Guardian, due principally to restrictions of space.

It was troublesome, deciding what to include and what to omit; the entirety of the interview was valuable. So rather than let the sections that were not printed disappear into the ether, the most sensible thing to do, I felt, was to have the full transcript published here in its entirety.

In the sections that were until now unpublished, Topiary explains how he first became involved in hacktivism and pays credit to his fellow hackers. He details the basis for extortion claims levelled against LulzSec by one US security company; reveals that he recently engaged in a bout of philanthropy, donating thousands of dollars to organisations including WikiLeaks; and also takes time to talk politics - blasting the US government, who he says are "scared of an uprising"... (click read more below for the full interview.)