"If I Stop, They Win"

Saturday 28 May 2011

While in Spain last week covering the protest that has been taking place in Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, I spent a great deal of time speaking to some of the activists and demonstrators whose action has sparked a wave of similar protests in more than 60 cities across the country.

It all began on May 15, when police arrested 24 political activists who were marching through the city, as part of a protest against mass unemployment and austerity measures.

The arrests sparked more protest, and numbers snowballed. Within a few days a handful of around 100 protesters had become a mass demonstration of tens of thousands.

By chance, in Puerta del Sol I met one of the 24 activists who had been arrested on May 15. He was handing out pamphlets that detailed his and his fellow protesters’ ordeal while in police detention. Though he did not want to give his name for fear of police reprisal, he agreed to give me a short interview.

The activist, a 22-year-old sociology student at a Madrid university, spoke about the harsh treatment he faced while in police custody. He detailed what he believed could be next for the movement, and gave a fascinating insight in to the origins of a demonstration that has since sparked protest across Europe – in London, Italy and Greece.

Audio of the interview along with an edited transcript can be found below by clicking "read more".

Inside the Spanish Revolution

Friday 27 May 2011

There are thousands of people in Spain right now who feel that they are on the cusp of something very important – a revolution, even. The streets of Madrid are thick with a sense of optimism and hope, crammed with protesters of all ages carrying placards and posters, many scrawled with slogans such as "They do not represent us!" and "In defence of our dreams!".

The city's main square has become a tent city, occupied by groups inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. Everywhere you look, there are banners demanding change and "real democracy".

No one had seen it coming, not even the activists. What started as a fringe protest against rising unemployment and the Spanish government's multibillion-euro bank bailout escalated after several activists were arrested by police and held for 48 hours.

A demonstration against the arrests was organised in the city's main square, Puerta del Sol, and numbers soon snowballed when word got out over the internet. What began as a group of fewer than a hundred activists reached an estimated 50,000 within less than six days.

The protesters whose arrests had sparked the initial demonstration were released and immediately returned to the square. By the time they arrived, the demonstration was no longer just about their treatment at the hands of the police. It was about government corruption, lack of media freedom, bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and privatisation.

"We cannot find a job, we cannot find a house, we cannot find health from the state," says Alejandro Jalón, a 20-year-old student. "I am here because I think we can change something."

The young people's sense of optimism is sincere. The protesters at Puerta del Sol are interested only in action, not rhetoric. In the square, they built a makeshift campsite, including everything from a children's nursery and a library to a kitchen offering free food donated by local businesses.

In the space of a few days they had created separate working commissions to form proposals for change to current government policy. A social and migration commission would look at immigration policy, the health commission would focus on how to deprivatise health-care services. Other commissions were formed to handle politics, education, the economy and the environment.

Among the camp's immediate demands were calls for electoral reform, the dissolution of the Spanish parliament's second chamber, and an end to a much-despised policy of "salaries for life" for politicians.

The movement itself has no single leader or figurehead; all decisions are made by consensus at general assemblies, held twice daily. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, attend the meetings, and no decision is taken until every single person is in agreement.

The meetings are long and laborious – occasionally lasting more than four hours at a time – but seem so far to have been successful.

"The leadership is our assembly, where the decisions are taken by consensus," says Nadia Moreno, 29. "Many people think that this doesn't work – the reality is we are where we are after six days because of this consensus."

Although the movement is driven by highly political young people between the ages of roughly 20 and 35, a large cross-section of Spanish society appears to support the occupation of the square. There is a festive atmosphere, with families, music and workshops of every kind imaginable taking place throughout the day. Everyone who attends is encouraged to submit suggestions, using ballot boxes, to each of the commissions. All of these are later scrutinised, tabled and debated.

The organisers say that they think the huge success of the camp, which has since spread to more than 60 other Spanish cities, stems in part from what has taken place in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Egypt and Tunisia was a very important catalyst for the movement in Spain," says Beatriz Pérez, a 29-year-old spokeswoman for the movement who also acknowledges the influence of the recent UK student protests. "I think the people are in the street because they have hope – that's the most important thing."

The feeling of hope is such that many at the camp believe it could be the start of a social and political revolution. It is the first sign, they say, that the uprisings across the Arab world are about to spread across Europe.

Manuel Ferreira, a 66-year-old retired engineer, says the scenes at Puerta del Sol remind him of the student protests in France during the summer of 1968. "It's the same war against capital, against power, against politicians, against the establishment and so on," he explains. "It [the Puerta del Sol protest] is more significant, because through Facebook and the internet, this movement is worldwide . . . I think I am living a new world order."

The start of the demonstrations coincided with regional elections across the country, which the right-leaning Partido Popular (People's Party) won by a landslide.

At one point last week, an electoral committee assembled by the government declared the camp "illegal". But even though there were strong rumours of an impending police "clean-up" operation, and seven riot vans gathered at one side of the square, protesters have remained at all times in a defiant spirit.

"If they take us from the square tomorrow, the only thing that they will get is that they will make us stronger and we will come back stronger," says 22-year-old Juan Martín. "We want a new society. This one doesn't work any more."

This article originally appeared at: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/05/puerto-square-spanish-work

Dr Thornton and the University of Nottingham Saga

Friday 13 May 2011

A professor was suspended earlier this month after calling for a public enquiry into alleged serious malpractice perpetrated by senior management at the University of Nottingham. Dr Rod Thornton, a lecturer in international security and terrorism, presented an 112 page paper at the British International Studies Association Conference in Manchester last month detailing a series of failings and subsequent cover-ups he claims took place at the university three years ago, after the arrest of a postgraduate student and a member of university staff, both Muslim, on "terrorism related charges.”

In response to his suspension, a call for his immediate reinstatement was published in the Guardian by a significant list of influential academics from India to America, headed by Noam Chomsky and including Paul Gilroy, Dr Karma Nabulsi, Charles Tripp and Neera Chandhoke. Meanwhile yesterday around 100 demonstrators gathered in Nottingham to protest against the university's treatment of Thornton, with a campaign around the case now generating national interest.

The saga began in May 2008, when social sciences research student Rizwaan Sabir and his friend, Hicham Yezza, were arrested and detained for six days after a copy of an al-Qaeda Training Manual (AQTM) was found on Yezza’s office computer by a member of the University’s staff. The AQTM is recommended reading on most terrorism courses, and was also available through the University’s library. Sabir, who had obtained it as part of his research for an MA dissertation around the role of al-Qaeda in Iraq, sent the file along with two other articles (from the academic journals Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal) to Yezza by email.

Yezza worked in the University’s modern languages department as the principal school administrator, and in order to avoid paying print costs Sabir had sent his friend the articles and asked if he would print them from his office for free. Several months later, a member of staff used Yezza’s computer and discovered the dubiously titled AQTM (which was incidentally given its name by the US Department of Justice; it was originally titled, Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants). The concerned member of staff promptly reported the find to senior members within the department; the university’s Registrar, Dr Paul Greatrix, was informed, and the police were subsequently called in to investigate.

Greatrix was later quoted in a police statement as saying that there was no “valid reason whatsoever for the documents [found on Yezza’s computer] to exist” and that the AQTM was “illegal”. It was also apparent from a document given by police to Sabir’s lawyers that comments made by Bernard McGuirk, a Professor of Romance Literatures and Literary Theory at the university, were integral to the investigation. According to a police note released under the Freedom of Information Act, McGuirk had told police the AQTM was not a “legitimate document”. Thornton claims that on this basis alone police arrested both Yezza and Sabir, who were detained under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act on suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation and instigation of an act of terrorism. During their six days of incarceration, the university did not contact the two men or offer them any support.

The day after the arrests, the university prepared an exclusion letter for Sabir which set out to ban him “from all parts of the university with immediate effect”. When Sabir was released without charge, however, the expulsion was never issued. Specialist counter terror police had conducted a meticulous search of Sabir’s family home, which involved all of his family – including his elderly grandmother – being forced to vacate for 24 hours. But after a "bag and tag" search, all that the police discovered was an array of academic texts including works on Nietzsche, postmodernism and educational research. They had failed to find any connection between Sabir and Yezza and terrorism.

Even two months after the arrest of the pair, though, Greatrix continued to reiterate that the AQTM was “illegal”. In one letter to Sabir, dated August 4th 2008, he conflated the downloading of the AQTM with the downloading of child pornography. Both, he said, were available on the internet but were “still nevertheless illegal”.

This clearly frustrated Thornton, an expert on terrorism studies. He knew that the AQTM was available through the university's own library and was considered “required reading” on any terrorism course; to compare it to child porn was “unconscionable” and “malevolent”, he wrote in his paper. Thorton also felt part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the AQTM was misleadingly titled – by the US government – as it contains no information about how to build bombs or other weapons. “The al-Qaeda Training Manual is a mainstream student source,” he wrote. “It is in no way illegal, illegitimate, seditious or extremist.”

But he was most disturbed at how quickly the university’s management had gone to the police. Despite what the university would later claim, Thornton alleges that the Registrar, Greatrix, did not carry out a "risk assessment" in accordance with university guidelines. Greatrix should have – but ostensibly did not – consult first with senior academic staff and with experts in the field of terrorism before going to the police.

Thornton also suggests that a culture of Islamophobia was a key factor in the arrests. At one point in his paper he recounts the comments of a police officer, made during one lengthy interview about the suspicions surrounding Sabir and Yezza. Thornton writes that, seemingly exasperated, the officer let out a sigh and said: “This would not be happening if the student had been blonde, Swedish and at Oxford University”.

In the aftermath of the incident, Thornton tried to raise the issues he had with the handling of the case internally. He claims that he “stopped stories running in the media” and that he “[gave] senior management at the University of Nottingham every chance to carry out their own investigations and to take the necessary actions.” He also says that he wrote to the government minister then responsible for universities; went to the English universities funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and appealed to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, whose role it is to oversee the activities of public institutions. But all of this yielded no response. Unless universities are engaged in financial impropriety, he concluded, they are “allowed to be completely autonomous and accountable to no-one.”

With no other avenue to pursue, Thornton decided to “go public”. Shortly after he did so, by releasing his paper in late April, he was suspended from his post at the University of Nottingham with immediate effect. In the days following his suspension, Sabir, now a doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde, helped organise the open letter in support of his former lecturer, and is working actively with a campaign group to raise the profile of the case.

Sabir, speaking on the phone from Nottingham, described Thornton as "talented, brave and courageous" and said his suspension was "totally absurd".

He added: “Because the university has failed to investigate these matters internally over the last three years, no other option exists now but to have a public, independent enquiry through which the issues can be resolved. Until a public enquiry is undertaken we can’t ever bring closure to this.

“They have failed in their duty of care to me. They have failed in their duty of care to Hitcham [Yezza], and they are now failing in their duty of care to all other staff and students that have spoken up for justice to be done at this university.”

A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham refused on policy grounds to confirm or deny whether Thornton had been suspended, and stated that at all times the University has acted in an ethical, transparent and fair manner.

“The fact remains that the article produced by Dr Thornton is highly defamatory of a number of his colleagues," the spokesperson said. "Academic freedom is a cornerstone of this University, but it is not the freedom to defame your co-workers and attempt to destroy their reputations as honest, fair and reasonable individuals. The University rejects utterly the baseless accusations Dr Thornton makes about members of staff.

“It is important to remember that the original incident, almost three years ago, was triggered by the discovery of an al-Qaeda Training Manual on the computer of an individual who was neither an academic member of staff, nor a student, and in a School where one would not expect to find such material being used for research purposes. The individual concerned was an administrative member of staff with no academic reason to possess such a document. The University became concerned and decided, after a risk assessment, that those concerns should be conveyed to the police as the appropriate body to investigate.”

Abuse of process?

It seems clear that with each side accusing the other of wrongdoing, the only way forward can now be an independent public enquiry into Thornton's allegations. If the university believes it has conducted itself in an ethical, transparent and fair manner, then it should encourage a full and thorough investigation into not only its handling of the original Sabir and Yezza incident, but also its dismissal of Thornton, which in itself raises serious questions. What cannot be in dispute at this point is that two wholly innocent individuals were arrested three years ago on spurious grounds, and a highly regarded lecturer has now been suspended for citing numerous significant, evidence-based instances of alleged malpractice at the highest levels of the institution. If in either of these cases there has been a cover-up, or an abuse of process and power, it is paramount that we find out about it. No publicly funded institution should be permitted to function behind closed doors, and the University of Nottingham is no exception.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/two-arrests-suspension-accusations-of-islamophobia-nottingham-university-m

Work Elsewhere

Thursday 12 May 2011

I don't post all of my work on this website, because not all of it would fit. So here's a short update of some of the other things I've been up to which have appeared elsewhere.

Last week a story I spent a great deal of investigative work on was published in the Guardian, and was later followed up by several other national and international news outlets (Daily Mail, Speigel, the Independent, the Inquirer, Europa Press, MSN, Silicon Valley, ZDNet, Belfast Telegraph among others).

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize gold medal for peace with Justice at the Frontline Club. I attended and put together a write up of proceedings for Frontline here (more here and here, and audio here).

I also wrote a report on pre-emptive arrests and squatter evictions that will be appearing in next week's Big Issue in the North (read here), and have two features for the same publication in the works. Watch this space for more info. Much more coming soon. - RJG