Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Mail on Sunday reports on the ‘official secrets’ defence employed by the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in the case concerning Abdul Hakim Belhadj and allegations of the UK’s complicity in his rendition and torture.

Belhadj, who is suing the government, the former foreign secretary, and MI6’s former head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen, is one of two Libyans whose cases have recently come to light following the discovery of a cache of documents by Human Rights Watch in an abandoned residence in Tripoli. The other, Sami Al-Saadi, settled his case earlier this month with the government paying £2.2 million in an out of court settlement.

According to the Mail on Sunday, “…papers lodged at the High Court show that Mr Straw and Mr Allen have cited the Official Secrets Act, saying it prevents them from presenting a full defence…provok[ing] allegations of a cover-up over the scandal of Britain’s alleged involvement in the kidnap and handover of Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gaddafi.”

Belhadj is intent on pursuing his case in open court, a prospect which has prompted the government to admit that such legal challenges, and the ‘reputational and political costs’ they entail, lie behind the Justice and Security bill’s expansion of ‘secret trials’.

Two men and a woman have been arrested after a severed pig’s head was left at the door of the Thurnby Lodge centre in Leicester on Boxing Day.

The centre, which has been the target of local hostility and external agitation, has seen a number of protests in recent months after local Muslim group, As Salaam Trust, submitted an application to convert the disused Scouts Hut into a Muslim community centre.

The local imam, Moulana Mohammed Lockhat, said “We have been part of this community for five years and we do not understand why we cannot be accepted. We would love to, we’ve been trying to.”

Speaking of fears over personal safety expressed by Muslims who frequent the centre for daily prayers, Imam Lockhat added, “…putting a pig’s head outside isn’t going to change things, except maybe make us more determined than ever to carry on.”

Superintendent Mark Newcombe, from Leicestershire Police, said: ‘The only people using the community centre on Wednesday were from a local Muslim group and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the pig’s head was meant for them, and is the reason we believe this to be religiously motivated.

‘We have no tolerance for discrimination in Leicester, be that racially or religiously motivated, and we want members of the public to help us do all we can to find those responsible and bring them to justice.’

The local council put the plans out for public consultation earlier this month after experiencing sustained local opposition to the Trust’s proposals. A decision is expected to be taken on the future development of the site in January.

The Daily Telegraph covers the latest intervention by Stephen Lloyd MP to maintain the quality and scope of religious education in the teaching curriculum.

Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne and chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education, has expressed concern that government reforms to the teaching curriculum on RE and cuts in the number of university graduates qualified to teach the subject “will fuel bigoted attitudes.”

Arguing that a decent level of religious education in the classroom is necessary for pupils to filter out ‘fundamentalist views’, Lloyd said:

“I think that it is even more important today that our children learn about the range of different faiths, cultures and beliefs to give them the chance to gain a level of knowledge across the piste so they don’t just have to listen to what’s on the internet or what may be the fundamentally bigoted attitudes of their parents or peers towards other religions. It is becoming more and more important because of the globalised world.”

“I don’t think most children – if they are told that fundamentalist Islamic views are right or fundamentalist Christian views are right – are going to go on the internet and look at all the rational moderate details of all the different world religions as balance on their own.

“I think there’s far more chance for them to go online and find all the information that validates what they already believe.”

The claim that the internet would serve to reinforce bigoted views than challenge them is an interesting one and certainly of significance in light of the report, The Roots of Violent Radicalisation, by the Home Affairs select committee which concluded that the internet “is one of the most significant vehicles for promoting violent radicalism”.

The all party group is currently undertaking an inquiry into the problems faced by religious education teaching. The Education select committee published its report on the E-bacc last year and the government’s intent to exclude religious education as a component subject noting that ‘A survey of nearly 800 schools, conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), recently found that almost one in three secondary schools plans cuts to RE teaching’.

As presented by a school headmaster to the education select committee on the E-bacc and religious education –  “Tolerance will surely come only through understanding of each other’s religions, and understanding through education”.

The Daily Telegraph and The Times (£) have both reported today on the delays in the publication of the Iraq Inquiry report, which could mean that the report is not published “until late next year at the earliest”.

The Inquiry was set up to look into why the UK joined the invasion of Iraq, the military action and its aftermath, considering the period from 2001-July 2009.The papers state that one of the main causes of the delay is the government’s refusal to release key documents which it maintains are classified.

The Daily Telegraph states that “if the issue is not resolved soon it could be 2014 before the report sees the light of day.”

The information in question includes “Tony Blair’s private messages to George W Bush in the run-up to the war, which are expected to show that Mr Blair promised Mr Bush Britain would back a US invasion before he had the backing of Parliament. The documents also include intelligence papers relating to MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Joint Intelligence Committee.”

The paper states that Sir John Chilcot, who chairs the inquiry, wrote to the Prime Minister in July warning that the publication of a ‘balanced, fair and accurate’ report “was being hampered by the Cabinet Office’s refusal to allow him to publish documents on which his conclusions are based”, and which he “wants the public to be able to see for itself”.

One source told the Daily Telegraph that “Sir John is hoping to send letters out to people next summer to invite their responses to any criticisms he might intend to include in his report.” The source stated that the inquiry would have to wait on the responses and then consider if the responses mean that the wording of the report needs to be altered.

The paper adds that the government has yes to disclose documents relating to a conversation which took place days before the 2003 invasion between former leaders George Bush, and Tony Blair, despite being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner earlier this year. The government previously stated that the documents would present a “significant danger” to UK-US relations.” This, and other examples of the government’s lack of cooperation with the inquiry mean that the inquiry’s deadline has progressively slipped from its original 2011 target. That Whitehall has resisted calls for transparency in publicly disclosing certain information is not surprising given its attempts to shroud itself in even more secrecy through legislation for secret trials in civil courts. The government nonetheless owes it to the public to be open about its motivations for involvement in a war which has not only been extremely costly –both in human and financial terms, but also very unpopular amongst the British public.

The Independent front page today carries the story that Prime Minister David Cameron is pushing for more ethnic minority representation amongst parliamentary candidates to boost the party’s support amongst ethnic minorities, over fears that a failure to do so could ‘spell disaster’ for the party at the next election.

According to the paper, “Senior party figures are pointing to last month’s defeat for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney – who was largely shunned by black and Hispanic voters – in the US presidential election as a warning of the costs of ignoring Britain’s rapid demographic shifts.” The party is “basing the strategy on the success of the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which boosted its electoral fortunes partly by increasing its support among voters born outside the country”.

It states that MPs and candidates are being advised on how to increase and improve engagement with ethnic minority communities, such as more frequent appearances on ethnic minority media and “gain[ing] expertise on issues that particularly affect such groups.”

The MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell has described the problem as an ‘existential issue’ for the party in the long term. He commented that, “In the short term we have got to focus on everybody who didn’t vote for us at the last election.”

Reading West MP and Tory vice-chairman, Alok Sharma, who is in charge of the strategy told the Independent that he hoped the party and parliament more widely would become more “reflective of the country we live in”.

A study carried out by the Runnymede Trust following the 2010 election found that the Conservative Party got just 16% of votes from the ethnic minority community, whilst 68% voted for the Labour Party. The paper states that without closing this gap, “their poor polling among non-white communities threatens their control of between 10 and 15 parliamentary seats and undermines their hopes of capturing 10 to 15 other seats held by Labour with small majorities.”

The revelations of the Conservative Party’s worries are not altogether surprising, and reflect earlier remarks from the former party co-chair, Baroness Warsi, that the party needs to focus more on ethnic minority voters if they are to win a majority at the next election in 2015. Research commissioned by the former deputy-chair of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, and published this year found that there is a significant gulf between the party and ethnic minority voters. According to the report, ‘Degrees of Separation’, the single most important factor for non-white voters who said that they would never vote Tory “was the view that Conservative policies have shown that they are hostile to people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds”. In addition to this, the perception that the Conservatives do not stand for fairness was an important factor for Muslims who said that they would never vote Tory.

The 2010 Speakers Conference report, which was published following the 2008 conference on parliamentary representation, asserted that much more needs to be done to address the under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled in the House of Commons. It set out a number of recommendations to increase these groups’ accessibility to Parliament such as fostering local activism; diversity-awareness training and funding to support these under-represented groups. The report also maintained a need to change the ‘culture of our political parties’. It would be interesting to see to what extent the Conservative Party has taken on the recommendations of the report- the low rates of popularity amongst ethnic minorities would indicate that whatever efforts the party has made have not borne much fruit.

The issue may have increased in salience to the party since the 2011 census data release on religion and ethnicity. The statistics show that the proportion of the population which comes from an ethnic minority background has increased to 14%, whilst Muslims mow make up 4.8% of the UK population. However, the extent to which the party will succeed in boosting its image amongst ethnic minorities before the next election is questionable, particularly given high-profile set-backs to the aim of boosting support amongst ethnic minorities. Last month, allegations were made against the party’s newly-appointed election campaign chief, Lynton Crosby, that he told London Mayor Boris Johnson to “concentrate on traditional Tory voters instead of ‘f****** Muslims’, whilst discussing Johnson’s campaign for re-election as London Mayor. It is also interesting to see the push for ethnic minority votes in the Conservative Party in contrast to similar initiatives in other parties such as the Respect Party, where the targeting of ethnic minority voters in previous by-elections has been described as ‘divisive’.

The Croydon Advertiser recently reported that a Greek Orthodox school is being taken to the High Court after it banned a female Muslim pupil from wearing a headscarf.

The nine year old student started wearing the headscarf in year 5, however the parents of the girl pulled her out of the school following the decision to ban her from wearing the headscarf.

The headteacher of St Cyprian’s Greek Orthodox Primary Academy, Mrs Magliocco, told the paper that “The decision not to allow her to wear a headscarf was taken by the governing body. The school has a very particular uniform policy which is shared with parents and, as head, I must follow the plan.” She stated that the uniform plan was discussed with the parents before the girl started at the school.

According to the paper this is the parents’ second attempt to have the case heard at the high court. The paper adds that “There is no mention of a ban on headscarves in the uniform policy on the school’s website”.

A trustee of the Croydon Mosque & Islamic Centre commented that, “We encourage schools to be a little less strict and allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves if that is what they want to do.”

In a previous case concerning Muslim religion dress in school, in 2006 the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that a female student at a school in Luton could not wear a jilbab to school. Whilst the student, Shabina Begum, wore a headscarf, the school uniform policy did not allow for the jilbab. The court qualified however that its decision was based on the need to protect the rights of other female students from pressure to adopt the more conservative dress. Shabina fought her case based on the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Islamophobia Watch draws our attention to a press release issued by the civil liberties organisation, Cage Prisoners, on the Court of Appeal’s recent decision to overturn the conviction of a man for disseminating terrorism publications. The Court ruled that no causal link could be established between Ahmed Faraz’s selling of terrorist publications and the carrying out of acts of political violence. The ruling comes a year after Faraz was imprisoned.

From the Cage Prisoners’ press release:

“One year on from his imprisonment, the quashing of Ahmed Faraz’s conviction for the dissemination of terrorism publications, is a great victory for freedom of expression in the UK.

“In a damning judgement, the UK Court of Appeal rules that no causal link could be presented that publications produced by the Maktabah bookshop would inspire acts of political violence or terrorism. They said that it was incorrect of the trial judge to permit evidence that those who had carried out acts of terrorism had owned copies of the books or DVDs and that it was a short cut to a conviction.

“The judges further explained that when the extent of acts of political violence are considered, the percentage of those who might have read Maktabah publications was very small and so such a causal link was entirely onerous.”

Asim Qureshi, of Cage Prisoners, commented that the decision is “warmly welcomed as it highlights that incidental links to acts of political violence or terrorism should never be criminalised, particularly where causality is tenuous at best.”

The initial conviction of Faraz is one example of the exceptionalist manner in which Muslims have been treated under terrorism legislation in the UK and illustrates the way in which the freedom of speech of some Muslims, who may hold unsavoury views has been curbed, despite claims that the UK protects freedom of speech. The implications of such prohibitions for free speech are considerable. As Fahad Ansari, writing in the New Statesman stated at the time of Faraz’s conviction, “to believe or to even discuss an Islamic mode of governance, the political union of Muslim countries in a caliphate and issues related to military jihad and foreign conflicts seem to have become synonymous with “glorifying” terrorism. Now that the dissemination of books which promote and advocate such ideas is being criminalised, the logical next step may be to try and ban the ultimate source of all Islamic political thought – the Qur’an itself – as Dutch politician Geert Wilders once proposed.”

One can only hope that the judiciary’s decision to overturn the conviction will send a message to the government in line with the view expressed by the Independent Reviewer for Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC– that some aspects of counter-terrorism legislation need to be rebalanced to respect fundamental liberties.

Islamophobia Watch draws our attention to the findings of a study carried out by Jonas R Kunst, David L. Sam, and Pal Ulleberg, into Muslims’ perceptions of Islamophobia, published in the International Journal of Intercultural relations. Whilst a lot of research has been carried out on Islamophobia in wider society, this particular study aims to fill the gap in knowledge of how Muslim minorities themselves perceive Islamophobia.

The study was carried out with a sample of 1,344 Muslims who live as minorities in European countries (French-Maghrebis; German-Turks; German Arabs; and British-Pakistanis). As part of the research, a ‘Perceived Islamophobia Scale’ was developed, comprising of three subscales of Islamophobia (‘general fear; fear of Islamisation; Islamophobia in the media’)

Significantly, across the groups, the participants “appear to experience the highest level of Islamophobia in the media.” The study suggests that this is more so the case in the UK than in Germany and France from where the other samples were drawn.

Another finding of the study is that British Pakistanis perceived the lowest levels of Islamophobia of all the groups in the study, with French Maghrebis perceiving the highest levels of Islamophobia.  German Arabs and Turks came between these groups.

The study attributes these differences in perceived Islamophobia to a number of factors. It suggests that the lower perception of Islamophobia amongst British Pakistanis may be due to the relative historic accommodation of “religious pluralism…and freedom of religious association” in comparison to other western multicultural societies. This sharply contrasts with the policy of laicite, or secularism adopted by the French state which has involved “a quite aggressive division between the state and religion”. The paper states that “this public climate may, in turn, explain the high perceptions of Islamophobia among the French-Maghrebis in the present study”. Similarly, the authors suggests that the level of perceived Islamophobia amongst German Muslims- higher than the UK but lower than in France, may also reflect the ‘public climate towards Islam and Muslims in Germany’, as being “more heated than in the UK, but less heated than in France”.

Finally, the study found that irrespective of personal experiences of discrimination, perceiving belonging to a group that is feared in society has a negative effect on Muslims’ psychological health, such as perceived stress and psychological distress. The authors state that as a result, “solely enforcing strict anti-discrimination laws upon an otherwise islamophobic society seems unlikely to protect Muslims from psychological harm.”

The authors recommend that policy makers and the media take onboard the findings of the study. Given the harmful effects that perceived Islamophobia can have on Muslims, it is advised that those in public policy as well as the media campaign in manners that scrutinise and refute “negative clichés about Muslims and Islam” with the aim of ‘internally changing’ “their populations’ group norms and attitudes”.

The study’s findings shed light not only on the way that European Muslims perceive Islamophobia in their societies, but also on the psychological impact that these perceptions have on the relevant communities. The issue of Islamophobia pervading public discourse and becoming acceptable has been raised in relation to countries across Europe, including the UK. As a report by Amnesty International published earlier this year stated, “Regrettably, some political parties’ messages and the portrayal of Muslims in some sections of the media reinforce [stereotypical and negative] views” of Muslims. That the media is perceived as most Islamophobic in this study comes as no surprise, particularly in the UK where the vilification of Islam and Muslims by the press has been noted in a number of studies.

The authors’ recommendations- that both politicians and the media take action to challenge anti-Muslim prejudices, are imperative to moving forward. In relation to the media in the UK, the publication of the Leveson report has created an opportunity for both politicians and the media to reflect on and reform the reporting of Islam and Muslims. In particular, the Leveson report makes recommendations which address the inflammatory and discriminatory reporting of Muslims, namely a third party complaints clause and powers to act on alleged discriminatory reporting. Though the industry has expressed concern over these recommendations, you can write to your MP via asking them to support the implementation of the recommendations. You can find out more by following the link here.

The full article in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations is available to download here.

A briefing paper published by Amnesty International last week drew attention to the dire situation affecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Greece. The paper, entitled, ‘Greece: the end of the road for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’, documents the obstacles that many migrants face once they arrive in Greece. A number of the cases and evidence which the report draws on relate to migrants arriving from Muslim countries such as Syria and Pakistan, and the report explicitly points to a “dramatic increase in the number of racist attacks by members of extreme right wing groups”.

Some of the key points in the briefing are summarised below:

Arriving in Greece- Many of those that reached Greece by sea in 2012 were fleeing the conflict in Syria, including many families with small children. However the report states that “despite this, the new arrivals were – and continue to be – detained in police stations in overcrowded, often unhygienic, conditions or provided with no shelter at all.” The report points to one case in June 2012 where a boat carrying seven Syrians was deliberately sunk by a Greek police boat, leaving people to swim to the Turkish shore.

Detention- Amnesty International highlights how in one detention centre where asylum seekers have gone on hunger strike over alleged ill-treatment and poor detention conditions, a riot broke out in November which was “reportedly sparked by the tearing of a Koran by police guards”.

Racist attacks- The report emphasises that since 2010, “asylum-seekers, refugees and irregular migrants, as well as the unofficial mosques, shops and community centres they have developed, have been targeted in racially-motivated attacks,” and that there has been “a dramatic rise in the number of attacks throughout 2012”. A rise in xenophobia and far-right sentiment, is an important factor in the increase in the rise in racist attacks. The report notes the election to parliament this year of 18 members of the ‘aggressively anti-immigrant’ Golden Dawn party.

The report expresses concern that there is a lack of willingness to report such incidents, particularly when irregular migrants are themselves vulnerable to arrest and detention. This has led to a “climate of impunity for the perpetrators of such attacks”. One example given in the report is an attack on a barbershop ran by a Pakistani man. Following a police investigation into the attack, police arrested one man who worked in the shop and another man who was present during the attack. Neither of the men had documents. There were however, “no reports of arrests of those responsible for the attacks”.

Statistics from one organisation found that of 87 recorded incidents of racist violence between January-September 2012, “more than half … were connected with extremist groups that acted in an organized and planned manner”, including those associated with Golden Dawn.

The report concludes that although there is a burden on Greece caused by migration particularly given the economic crisis, “this cannot excuse the impediments that deny people their rights, the xenophobic rhetoric, or the racist attacks.” It recommends that Greece uphold its obligations under international and EU law to protect and respect the rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It explicitly states that Greece must “Combat the increase in racial discrimination and related violence, including by publicly condemning all such intolerance, and by prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators of such acts.”

Concerns over a rise in racism in Greece have been raised by public figures and NGOs across Europe. The popularity and electoral success of the far right in Greece is particularly worrying, but sadly is only one of the more extreme cases in a pattern that has emerged across Europe, particularly in a climate of increasing economic difficulty. The targeting of asylum seekers, refugees and other irregular migrants is disturbing given the already-vulnerable situation which such communities face.

The lack of public importance that has been attached to the issue is also of serious concern. For example, a report recently published on hate crimes in the OSCE region drew attention to racist and anti-Muslim crimes in Greece; however no official data was given for either. This is surprising given the scale of the issue in Greece over the past few years. In another shocking illustration of the lack of seriousness, or even impunity, with which racism is dealt with in Greece, a report published this year by the Institute of Race Relations noted that there has been just one prosecution for racially motivated crime since 1999.

The full report by Amnesty International is available to download here.

The Guardian’s front page story today covers the £14 million payout by the Ministry of Defence to Iraqis alleging illegal detention and torture by UK forces.

The paper claims that almost one thousand cases exist with the MoD payout covering 205 successful claims so far. This year alone, 162 Iraqis were paid a total of £8.3million, and “lawyers representing former prisoners of the British military say that more than 700 further individuals are likely to make claims next year.”

Most of those compensated are male civilians who claimed they were tortured and mistreated in various ways including beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and being forced into stress positions for prolonged periods.

According to the paper, many of the complaints relate to the actions of a “shadowy military intelligence unit called the Joint Forward Interrogation Team (JFIT) which operated an interrogation centre throughout the five-year occupation.”

Hundreds of films shot by interrogators show UK forces “threatening and abusing men who can be seen to be bruised, disoriented, complaining of starvation and sleep deprivation and, in some cases, too exhausted to stand unaided”. One former soldier told the Guardian how prisoners were dragged around an assault course and beaten. Lawyers representing the former JFIT prisoners have described the interrogation centre as Britain’s Abu Ghraib”.

An MoD spokesperson responding to the compensation claims said that the ‘vast majority’ of British soldiers in Iraq “have conducted themselves with the highest standards of integrity and professionalism”. He added that all allegations of misconduct would be thoroughly investigated to bring those responsible to justice.

The article notes the High Court hearing next month of a judicial review into “the MoD’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into the abuses”. Campaigners and lawyers for the victims maintain that the government is “obliged to hold an inquiry to meet its obligations under the European convention on human rights”.

The MoD denies that a public inquiry is necessary given the establishment of the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT) to look into the allegations. The IHAT has however, been dogged by claims of ineptitude with panel member Louise Thomas resigning over its activity resembling “little more than a whitewash”.

The allegations of torture, mistreatment and misconduct by British soldiers serving abroad in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan has received much attention in recent years with ongoing claims against the Government. Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi last week agreed a £2.2 million compensation package after filing a lawsuit against the UK Government over claims of complicity in his rendition and torture. An investigation was also called for this month to investigate the alleged killing by UK soldiers of four teenagers in a village in Afghanistan.

A public inquiry into alleged abuses committed by British soldiers abroad would go some way to dispel the notion presented by the former chief legal advisor to the British Armed Forces in Iraq, Nicholas Mercer, that there exists ‘a cultural resistance to human rights’ in the British Army.