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.