Egypt’s Arab Spring reverts to a winter of fear and torture

The horrific death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, has turned the spotlight back on the state’s brutality

Independent on Sunday, 7 February 2016

When Egypt makes headlines these days, it’s usually for the same reasons as Syria and Iraq. Terrorist attacks by Islamic State (Isis) have not been so numerous in Egypt, but the destruction of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai peninsula, probably by a bomb, dominated the news last autumn. What gets less attention is a state of internal repression at least as relentless – some say worse – than the bad old days of President Hosni Mubarak.

The death of an Italian student, whose battered body was discovered in Cairo on Wednesday night, should challenge that habit of looking the other way. There is no doubt that Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old PhD student at Cambridge University, died a lonely and horrible death. Regeni went missing on his way to a birthday party in the centre of the city almost two weeks ago and his body was eventually found in a ditch in the suburbs.

A senior police officer tried to suggest that he’d been killed in a car accident, but marks on Regeni’s body, including what appeared to be cigarette burns, are consistent with torture. The student had cuts to his ears, appeared to have been beaten and was naked from the waist down, according to local reports. The Egyptian prosecutor in charge of the investigation said he suffered “a slow death”, an observation that has led to speculation that his killer or killers were trying to extract information.

The student’s research on Egyptian trade unions following the Arab Spring sounds inoffensive, but it could have put him in contact with opponents of the present government, which has cracked down on just about every strand of civil society. Even before Regeni’s murder, an Egyptian post-graduate student told me recently that he might have to change the subject of his PhD just to remain safe. But it emerged on Thursday that Regeni also freelanced for the Italian communist paper Il Manifesto, writing under a pseudonym to protect himself. Now that it appears he was murdered, there are fears for the safety of activists with whom he might have been in touch.

While the possibility of a robbery or a botched kidnapping has yet to be ruled out, critics of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi point out that what happened to Regeni is far from unusual. Sisi is a former head of the army who overthrew his predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013. He won a huge majority in the following year’s presidential election, but the government has remained jumpy, especially in the run-up to the anniversary of the popular uprising on 25 January 2011 that forced Mubarak out. That was the evening Regeni disappeared, amid a huge police presence in Cairo.

Three days later, an Egyptian news website claimed that police had arrested dozens of Egyptians and foreigners in Giza during an operation against “fugitives and violators”. What happens to individuals caught up in such round-ups has been widely documented by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and indigenous Egyptian groups that collect testimony about torture, beatings and other abuses.

In December, only weeks before Regeni was abducted, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) published a timely and shocking report on enforced disappearances. After talking to victims, families and lawyers, it documented 340 cases in a three-month period between August and November last year, with an average of three per day. Victims who were later released described undergoing various types of torture including electric shocks, hanging by the hands and threats of sexual assault.

The ECRF says that the blame for this litany of human rights abuses lies squarely with the Egyptian government, accusing it of allowing state security officers to torture people with impunity. Sisi’s administration says it is trying to find and arrest terrorists who threaten the security of the state, but many of the people affected have nothing to do with IS or the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, has pointed to unanimous agreement among NGOs that levels of repression “are extraordinarily high and perhaps even unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”. He writes that, far from being targeted on Islamists, repression is directed against “all actors and political forces who directly challenge the regime and its interests, including those young, secular revolutionaries who we once saw… as the future of a new Egypt”.

This represents a dreadful reversal for the high hopes created by the daily demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak. It also suggest that Egypt’s Western allies are making the same mistake as they did with other hard-line leaders in the Middle East, putting up with appalling levels of state-sanctioned abuse in the name of “stability”. During a visit to Cairo last summer, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, warned that human rights abuses could undermine the fight against terrorism. That was just days after Washington announced it would deliver eight F-16 fighter planes to the Egyptian air force as part of a $1.3bn plan to revamp the country’s military capability.

A preliminary post-mortem report has established that Regeni died from bleeding to the brain following blows to the head, a finding that does nothing to clear up the mystery around his disappearance. The death of a clever and personable young man is a tragedy for his friends and family, but it has a political dimension which can’t be ignored. Suspicions about the role of the security services are a testament to the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that haunts civil society in Egypt, five years after everything was supposed to get better.


Julian Assange is nothing but a seedy egomaniac who believes himself to be above the law

Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2016

Men who are accused of rape are often scared, furious or both. Going through a police investigation is an unpleasant experience, but some allegations are so serious that they need to be tested by the criminal justice system. The same rules apply to everybody, whether they are an ordinary citizen or a global celebrity – and that’s the inconvenient fact that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is frantically trying to obscure.

Assange’s latest wheeze – asking a UN panel to declare that he’s been ‘arbitrarily detained’ in the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 – would be hilarious if there weren’t so many gullible people who will see it as a vindication of their hero’s desperate attempts to escape political persecution. The BBC is reporting that the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will rule in favour of Assange when it announces its decision tomorrow, a development which – if the reports are true – will make it a laughing stock.

Assange chose to knock on the door of the Ecuadorian embassy of his own free will, begging to be allowed inside because he’d lost his case to avoid extradition to Sweden. It wasn’t just that he’d lost, either; he lost spectacularly at every English court he went to, including the Supreme Court. That’s the highest court in the land, and not known for being a patsy of the ‘dark forces’ supposedly conspiring to destroy the Australian campaigner for truth, transparency and international justice.

If Assange really is a campaigner for all those things, he needs to explain why the basic legal processes that apply to the rest of us should be waived for him. It’s now more than five years since two Swedish women – both of them, as it happens, supporters of WikiLeaks – made serious allegations against him. To be clear (and because it’s sometimes denied by his more irrational supporters), those accusations included a count of rape as well one of unlawful coercion and two of sexual molestation. Assange has now spent so much time hiding from justice (costing the British taxpayer more than £12 million) that the statute of limitations on the lesser charges has run out. His problem, and the most likely reason he has dragged the UN into his deluded crusade, is that the rape investigation is still going on and will remain live until 2020.

It’s worth recalling that Assange was first interviewed by the Swedish police in August 2010. He left the country shortly afterwards and has refused to go back for further questioning. If the accusations are as flimsy as he insists, it’s difficult to see why he didn’t return, confident that he would be able to provide satisfactory answers.  Other famous men have had to go through similar processes, including the comedian Bill Cosby who has just been told that prosecutors in the US can proceed with a sexual assault charge dating back to 2004.

Assange has tried every legal avenue and some pretty outlandish ones to avoid the citizen’s basic duty of helping the police with their inquiries. His alleged victims, meanwhile, have been left in legal limbo. They’ve also been subjected to out-and-out character assassination, including baseless allegations that Assange is the victim of a ‘honey trap’.

He and his supporters have repeatedly claimed that there is a conspiracy to lure him back to Sweden and extradite him to the US, where he would face trial for leaking state secrets. They have never explained why it is necessary to do this, given that it would actually be easier for the US to extradite Assange from the UK than Sweden, which prohibits extradition on the basis of a ‘political offence’. (Remember all those angry headlines about the UK’s one-sided extradition treaty with the US?) But Assange is such a charismatic individual, in some quarters at least, that his fans would rather believe almost anything than the sordid truth.

Assange is a fugitive from justice, a man with such an inflated ego that he believes himself beyond the law. It is almost four years since the Supreme Court upheld a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Swedish authorities, and the British police have a duty to arrest him if he steps outside the embassy.  Every move he makes, no matter how bizarre, is calculated to do one thing, which is to create a smokescreen over these awkward facts.

Claims of a ‘honey trap’, the flight to the Ecuadorian embassy, this latest appeal to a UN body: they’re all part of the same process. Assange understands the value of publicity, using the language of human rights and persecution to bolster his own personal myth. But behind each step is an increasingly seedy individual who is seeking immunity from the criminal justice systems of two democratic countries.


Violence against women takes different forms. What happened in Cologne is different from a night in Birmingham

It doesn’t help anyone to pretend that women everywhere face identical problems

Independent on Sunday, 31 January 2016

I like the Labour MP Jess Phillips. I’ve never met her but she is refreshingly outspoken, saying what she thinks without worrying about the party line. She has been in Parliament less than a year but already stands out from her colleagues, not least because of her robust response to fellow MP Diane Abbott during a row over the lack of women in Jeremy Corbyn’s first Shadow Cabinet. Frankly, anyone who puts the appalling Abbott in her place gets a standing ovation from me.

That’s why I’ve had to grit my teeth since Thursday evening, when Phillips appeared on BBC1’s Question Time and compared the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve to the situation faced “every week” by women on Broad Street in Birmingham. Phillips should know this is complete nonsense because she used to work for a charity, Sandwell Women’s Aid, which offers support to victims of sexual and domestic violence.

Like me, she will be familiar with the statistics on violence against women in this country, which are bad enough but show a picture of individual perpetrators. What happened in German cities was on a different scale, involving gangs of men and hundreds of reported assaults. There were 821 complaints to the police in Cologne, including 359 alleged sexual offences, all relating to the same evening. Meanwhile, a total of 31 serious sexual assaults were recorded over the past 12 months in the centre of Birmingham. I know as well as Phillips that many offences don’t get reported to the police, but the figures are so different as to make comparisons meaningless.

So does the nature of the attacks. Mass assaults on this scale, apparently with some degree of organisation, are a new phenomenon in Europe but not in Egypt, where hundreds of female demonstrators have been brutally assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Patterns of sexual violence differ from country to country, depending to a great extent on what is regarded as acceptable male behaviour, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that women everywhere face the same problems.

Unfortunately, that’s what Phillips has done. Instead of admitting that she made a rash remark, she told her local paper on Friday that there are groups of drunk men “in every city” and women have to “constantly worry about being felt up”. She still hasn’t acknowledged that what she’s talking about is very different from being surrounded by 20 men who – I’m sorry for being so graphic – try to thrust their fingers into your vagina.

Phillips is new to public life and the gladiatorial contests encouraged by programmes such as Question Time. But an injudicious remark is doing incalculable damage to her standing and the cause she and I both care passionately about. If Phillips can tell a fellow MP to “fuck off”, she needs to be resilient enough to admit her own mistakes.


In the Murdoch morality tale, Rupert always wins

The latest twist in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation suggests that the indignities of the phone-hacking trials and Leveson are clearly in the past

The Guardian, 30 January 2016

It’s the news they couldn’t wait to announce: James Murdoch has been reappointed chairman of Sky TV, proving beyond doubt that one of the world’s most powerful dynasties has got its mojo back. The news comes in a stunning month for the Murdoch clan, following swiftly on the announcement that James’s father Rupert is engaged to the former model Jerry Hall.

It’s a far cry from the dark days of 2012, when Murdoch’s younger son stepped down from his job running Sky in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. James had been chairman and chief executive of News Corp, the parent company of News international, during a period when intercepting mobile phone calls – including mine – was rife at the News of the World.

After the Murdochs gave evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating the hacking, MPs accused News Corp of “wilful blindness”and said its directors, including James and Rupert Murdoch, “should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”.

Almost four years later, James Murdoch was the only candidate put forward to the Sky board. His appointment as chairman was announced by Sky’s chief executive, Jeremy Darroch, during a conference call with the media, despite the fact that it’s hard to think of a more insensitive moment to reveal Murdoch’s return. This week, the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, had to deal with the distressing news that Levi Bellfield had finally confessedto the abduction, rape and murder of 13-year-old Milly in 2002.

Her parents, who gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry, said in a statement that the news of Bellfield’s confession was “devastating for a family that already had to endure so much”. It was the Guardian’s revelation that Milly’s phone had been hacked by someone acting on behalf of the News of the World that led to calls for a public inquiry in the summer of 2011.

For the Murdochs, it seems phone hacking and all the scandals that went with it are clearly in the past. Those awful days when James and Rupert had to appear penitent, shaking their heads over the failure of minions who inexplicably withheld crucial information from them, must feel like a bad dream. It’s not even as if James is the only one who’s got his job back: Rebekah Brooks was reinstated as chief executive of Murdoch’s British publishing business, News UK, in September last year.

All that embarrassment about the close links between Murdoch’s senior people and David Cameron – who now remembers her text offering a “country supper”? – is ancient history. Next time the Murdochs gather en masse, they could raise a glass not just to Rupert’s impending nuptials but one of the most successful PR strategies in living memory. The resignations, the displays of contrition, Rupert’s dramatic announcement about the “humblest day” of his life: they were what was expected and they were what we got. We should have known it wouldn’t last.

Those of us who had believed for years that the press was too powerful, concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of tycoons with the power to make or break governments, thought that the day of reckoning had finally come. How could any organisation survive the sordid revelations that emerged at the Leveson inquiry, costing the Murdoch empire millions in compensation and legal fees, along with the closure of a flagship title?

That’s why so many people who had suffered from intrusion were willing to appear before Leveson. Giving evidence about very personal matters is daunting, and most of us did it because we believed in the possibility of change. Now it feels as if we were hopelessly optimistic, failing to realise that the inquiry would be undermined by a process of attrition and a lack of political will. I still think it was worth it, but it’s hard to believe that so little has come out of a scandal that caused so much distress to so many people.

James Murdochhimself told us that the bad old days were over. Under questioning from the Leveson inquiry’s softly spoken interrogator, Robert Jay QC, he rejected the idea that power lay with the media during an election campaign. “I just don’t think that there’s that kind of old-fashioned power of big media proprietors being able to dominate the landscape,” he insisted.

Subsequent events tell a different story. Those politicians who tried to hold the Murdochs and other press barons to account have all but disappeared from view. The prime minister, who was bounced into setting up the inquiry by Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg, now has a parliamentary majority and doesn’t need to worry about an enfeebled opposition.

Along with George Osborne, Cameron headed the guest list at Rupert’s Christmas party in London last month, where they were joined by half the cabinet. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder who – Cameron or Murdoch – actually won the 2015 election.

Normal service has been resumed, in other words. In that sense, James Murdoch’s return to Sky is the final act in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation. It’s a morality play of sorts and one title fits: how are the mighty risen.


The Government’s pursuit of domestic violence victims living on benefits is cruel

Daily Telegraph, 28 January 2016

Every year, thousands of women in Britain suffer unimaginable levels of domestic violence. Even when they leave their partners, they are subjected to threats, harassment and physical assaults, sometimes in front of their children.

A single mother known only as A, who has just won a landmark ruling at the Appeal Court, is one of those victims – and her case exposes a troubling incoherence at the heart of the Government’s approach to domestic violence.

Up and down the country, refuge provision is being cut as local authorities slash their budgets. Women can end up moving several times, through no fault of their own, and find it hard to rebuild stable lives for themselves and their children. One alternative to a refuge place is a ‘sanctuary’ scheme, designed to protect victims in their own homes. In A’s case, the police spent thousands of pounds reinforcing the doors and windows of her council house, and creating a panic room with a link to the police station.

Her lawyers told the judges that she was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, stalking and death threats by her former partner. Without the panic room, she would have had to leave her house and put herself at risk (like many other victims of violent partners) of becoming homeless. Sanctuary schemes have existed since the 1990s and have allowed some women to stay in their houses or flats; by 2007, they were so successful that half the local authorities in England had put them in place.

Then the Coalition government changed the law relating to housing benefit claimants. Ministers said they wanted to tackle a problem of ‘under-occupancy’ and encourage tenants who had spare rooms to move into smaller accommodation; critics immediately dubbed it a ‘bedroom tax’ and highlighted a series of anomalies affecting vulnerable people, including the disabled.

The law was not aimed at victims of extreme domestic violence but it didn’t make exemptions for them either. Hence, the court heard that A had £12 a week deducted from her housing benefit because her panic room was treated as a ‘spare’ that she didn’t actually need.

Now her lawyers have argued successfully that the under-occupancy charge amounts to unlawful discrimination against women, and has had a particularly grave effect on victims of extreme domestic violence. It is estimated that 281 British households are in a similar situation and have had their benefits cut because of the change. A’s lawyers said she belongs to a “small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme, while they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence.”

Campaigners for victims of domestic violence welcomed the judgement, calling on the Government to change the law and protect women who need sanctuary schemes. But the Department for Work and Pensions said it intends to appeal to the Supreme Court.

That means there will be no change to the ‘bedroom tax’ policy in the immediate future and hundreds of women in A’s situation will continue paying. Yes, the numbers in this particular situation are small. But what this suggests is a lamentable failure by Government departments to talk to each other about policy on domestic violence. Sanctuary schemes are expensive to set up, requiring reinforced doors, steel bars, panic buttons and other emergency measures.

But that has to be offset against the cost of putting a woman and her children into a refuge, often miles from home, and supporting them until they can be rehoused. A couple of years ago, on a visit to a refuge, I met a woman who had been forced to leave her home because of threats from her ex-husband. She’d moved to the other side of London to get away from him, which meant giving up her job and support from family and friends. She had to claim benefits, her children went to new schools, and the entire family lived in a single room for months. The disruption in such cases is enormous, and so is the cost to local authorities and Government departments.

Sanctuary schemes and panic rooms aren’t the solution in every case. But as more victims of domestic violence come forward, we need to think about how best to provide secure environments for women who are in fear for their lives.

Last year, the Metropolitan Police recorded more than 146,000 domestic offences in London alone, a 12 per cent increase on the figure for 2014. Almost a third of notifiable domestic offences involve violence with injury, leaving victims in terror of further assaults. In Britain, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. A recent study by charity Agenda found that 1.2m women and girls in England are living with the impact of physical and sexual abuse.

Need is increasing, while resources are being stretched to the limit. Whatever you think about the change to housing benefit entitlement, it cannot be right that victims of extreme domestic violence are facing this petty charge – solely because they need to be safe.

Litvinenko inquiry: when it’s Putin, different rules apply

Unless events take an unexpected turn, the Russian president is unlikely to be held to account for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko

Independent on Sunday, 24 January 2016

In August 1940, Leon Trotsky was attacked at his heavily guarded home in Mexico City. His assailant, a Spanish communist called Ramon Mercader, gained access to the compound by pretending to be a sympathiser, but he was actually working for the Russian secret police, the NKVD. Once inside Trotsky’s study, where the exiled revolutionary was writing a biography of Stalin, Mercader pulled out an ice axe and struck him on the head.

Still conscious, Trotsky was rushed to hospital, where he died the next day. Although Mercader struck the fatal blow, Trotsky was in no doubt about the true identity of his assassin: three months earlier, after an armed assault on his compound, he had written an article entitled “Stalin seeks my death”. Mercader served a long prison sentence in Mexico, but Stalin showed his gratitude by presenting his mother with the Order of Lenin.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Last week, in one of the most extraordinary reports ever to emerge from a British public inquiry, it was claimed that the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was probably murdered on the personal order of Russia’s head of state, President Vladimir Putin. As politicians reeled from the findings of Sir Robert Owen’s inquiry, David Cameron described the killing in the centre of London in 2006 as “state-sponsored murder”.

That was the accusation made by Litvinenko himself, in a statement published posthumously by one of his friends. The circumstances of his murder in are well known by now: the cup of tea with two former KGB officers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, from whom he hoped to get private security work; the stomach cramps that got worse over the next few days; the shocking diagnosis of poisoning with polonium-210; the fact that his body was so radioactive that he had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin. What wasn’t expected, or not in such bald terms, was the inquiry’s conclusion that there was a “strong circumstantial case” that the Russian state was behind the assassination.

In a chilling parallel with Stalin’s behaviour towards Trotsky’s assassin, the inquiry highlighted Putin’s favourable treatment of Lugovoi in the years after the murder, suggesting it demonstrated the Russian state’s approval of the killing. Sir Robert’s exceptionally damning report claimed that the murder involved a conspiracy at the highest level, planned from as early as 2004. It said that the operation was probably approved by Nikolai Patrushev, then director of the FSB, which took over from the KGB in the 1990s.

The prospect of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material and using it to kill civilians has worried the security services for years, with supporters of al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS) regarded as the most likely culprits. But the person accused of ordering the first assassination using radioactive material is a serving head of state; Russia is suspended from G8 meetings after Putin’s annexation of Crimea but Cameron, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and other world leaders meet him regularly at G20 summits. Can they really turn up for the 2018 World Cup in Moscow and exchange chit-chat with Putin about the prospects for their national teams, as though nothing has happened?

In the sober surroundings of the High Court in London, Russia’s head of state has been linked not only to the Litvinenko murder but to a pattern of state-sponsored assassinations: “Leading opponents of President Putin, including those living outside Russia, were at risk of assassination,” the report stated. The list of Kremlin critics who have met grisly ends is lengthy, even if only the most famous make international headlines: the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down at her apartment building in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006; the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after being badly beaten; and the politician Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated on a bridge near Red Square last year.

What is different now is that the accusation comes from an unimpeachable source, after a year-long public inquiry that had access to secret intelligence. Following publication of the report, European arrest warrants were issued for Lugovoi and Kovtun, but Putin would undoubtedly claim immunity from prosecution as head of state. Unless events take an unexpected turn, he is unlikely to be held to account at home and Russia is not a member of the International Criminal Court. But the travel bans and asset freezes announced last week by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, are hardly commensurate with the gravity of the accusations against the President’s inner circle.

At the very least we need a British version of the Magnitsky Act, which was passed in the US in 2012 to punish Russian officials complicit in the lawyer’s murder. But something else is missing. When Islamists attacked Paris twice last year, world leaders showed a united front against international terrorism. The silence of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was striking last week, but where were Hollande, Merkel and other European leaders? Putin can stick two fingers up at a single government but EU-wide restrictions on all current and former FSB officers would be another matter.

Sadly, the French President chose Thursday, the day the Litvinenko inquiry published its report, to announce that he wanted closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against IS. The jihadists have seized headlines with sickening attacks on civilians in European cities and the Middle East. But they do not possess the apparatus of a state, including access to radioactive material from closed nuclear facilities. Putin does, and a head of state who stands accused of ordering political assassinations is as great a threat to international peace and security.


Church attendances are in decline as people search for community in outpourings of grief

Independent on Sunday, 17 January 2016

I suspect that many more people will listen to Bowie’s music than go to church this weekend, and that’s a good thing

As it happens, I know exactly when I last set foot inside a church. It was in Sicily last summer, when I went to see a painting by Caravaggio which hangs in a small Catholic church in Ortigia. I haven’t been inside an Anglican church for ages, and that’s something I share with the vast majority of the population. In a country where around three-fifths of us say we’re not religious, only 760,000 people attend Sunday services. That is according to the Church of England’s own attendance figures, which have just been published.

The church has been in decline for years, and it didn’t help matters last week when Anglican leaders made a desperate and discreditable attempt to appease conservative bishops who oppose homosexuality. With brilliant timing, it then emerged that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is joining talks with other Christian churches about a proposal to fix the date of Easter. This lofty announcement was accompanied by a warning that competing franchises (Anglican, Catholic, Coptic) have been arguing about this since the 10th century, so we shouldn’t expect an agreement any time soon.

There is a temptation to ask why they can’t get a move on – ecclesiastical time clearly proceeds at a glacial pace – but I’m wondering why it should be left to the church at all. At present, the date of Easter varies by up to 35 days, creating a logistical nightmare for schools, shops and people who work in the leisure industry. They would benefit from having a fixed spring break each year, so why is the government waiting passively for the churches to resolve an arcane theological argument? One of the things I like about the modern world is that employees have an entitlement to holidays, but that has more to do with recognition of workers’ rights than religion

The only time church attendance goes up is at Christmas – 2.4 million people went to a Christmas service in 2014 – and that says more about tradition and an impulse to do something together than belief in God. The monarchy, the other institution charged with meeting these needs, is doing a bit better, at least on the face of it, but that’s because it has managed to insert itself into popular culture in a way the church hasn’t. The younger royals appear endlessly in celebrity magazines where they share the same pages as pop stars and contestants on “reality” TV. There’s been a corresponding decline in deference, with their appearance subjected to the same critical scrutiny as that of Oscar nominees. Only this weekend, a Daily Mail writer lamented Prince William’s appearance, plaintively asking, “What has happened to the handsome prince of my girlhood fantasy?”

It’s not hard to see a blurring between royalty and celebrity here, with the royals well aware that it works in their favour, even if they don’t love it. It reached the height of absurdity recently when the TV presenters Ant and Dec conducted a fawning “interview” with Prince Charles, not long after rather more probing broadcasters revealed the lengthy contract he expects them to sign in advance. It’s all about control and media management, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the arrangements for the Queen’s 90th birthday raise questions about how much the Royal Family cares about its supposedly central role of bringing the country together.

The centrepiece is a lunch for 10,000 people in the Mall in June, invoking memories (for older people) of the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. “We hope that people in Britain and across the Commonwealth will dust off their picnic tables and join us in celebrating this very special occasion”, declares a website set up to promote the event. But the Patron’s Lunch is open mainly to individuals involved with charities supported by the Queen, and they will have to pay £150 each for the privilege of sharing a “hamper”. It features prominently on the website but the only thing I can tell you about what’s inside is that the food will be provided by the official sponsors, including Marks & Spencer. I’m quite fond of M&S but £150 is a bit steep to sit at a trestle table and nibble some of their ready-made hors d’oeuvres.

An exclusive bash of this sort misses the point, even by the monarchy’s standards. It’s been clear for years that even the most secular societies yearn for individuals and events capable of overriding the differences between us, temporarily at least. Politics can’t do it and religion certainly can’t, which is why the demise of a single well-known person sometimes has such a massive effect.

When people talked about the death of David Bowie last week, they were also talking about themselves and the culture they grew up in. These outpourings of grief are not an entirely benign phenomenon but they highlight a space left by the decline of organised religion, which a combination of humanism and popular culture are trying to fill. I suspect that many more people will listen to Bowie’s music than go to church this weekend, and that’s a good thing.


Cologne New Year sex assaults are a wake-up call: all women have the right to feel safe

If we can teach refugees our languages, we should be able to teach them about the importance of equality

Independent on Sunday, 10 January 2016

During a conference in Berlin last month, I asked a young German woman how she felt about Angela Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders to more than a million refugees. She said she supported the Chancellor but the policy had caused painful arguments among her friends, most of them recent graduates like her. The issue they disagreed upon was the potential impact on Germany of mass migration from countries where women’s rights are barely acknowledged.

It would be easy to dismiss the anxieties she expressed as a covert expression of xenophobia, but I don’t think that was her motivation. Many migrants come from countries where women have low status and little legal protection; it is only two years since Morocco repealed a law that allowed rapists of under-age girls to escape prosecution by marrying their victims. I keep hoping that one of the benefits of mass migration into Europe will be an opportunity to empower women and girls, giving them the confidence to demand rights I take for granted.

A much more disturbing possibility – that some migrant men violently reject the idea of gender equality – is why the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have caused such heart-searching. Other German cities, including Hamburg, reported sex attacks on a smaller scale, while a police chief in Finland made the startling claim that migrant gangs “had similar plans” to commit sex assaults in Helsinki. He said three asylum seekers had been arrested.

Cologne’s police chief stood down on Friday, after his force faced accusations of trying to conceal the fact that some of the men involved in the assaults were migrants. The slow police response is frustrating because, more than a week after the attacks, the job of identifying men who committed mass sexual assaults is increasingly difficult; I don’t think there’s much doubt that the police failed victims and made a bad situation worse by leaving the attackers’ identities in question. But I also don’t think we should query the accounts of women who say their assailants appeared to be migrants and the attacks were organised. A leaked police report described victims being forced to “run the gauntlet” between ranks of “extremely intoxicated men”.

It is this aspect of the Cologne assaults which has caused the greatest outrage. Rape and sexual assaults are not unknown in European cities but organised sex attacks by gangs in public spaces are a new and terrifying phenomenon. New to Europe, that is: there are striking parallels with what happened to women during mass demonstrations in Egypt during the Arab Spring. The CBS correspondent Lara Logan thought she was going to die after being seized and stripped by a mob, but most of the victims were Egyptian women who had rushed to join demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.

“I was completely sexually assaulted by groups of men, pulling on me, grabbing every inch of my body,” said one young woman who was attacked in Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, in 2011. It was not an isolated incident: on a single day in 2013, more than 80 women were brutally assaulted by gangs of men during further demonstrations. In countries where women have few legal protections, some men behave as if they own the streets.

Even in Tunisia, which is widely regarded as having one of the best records in North Africa on gender equality, women describe sexual harassment as “our everyday experience”. In Egypt, where feminist organisations have existed since the 1920s, a recent UN report suggested that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. A study in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Studies found that almost three-quarters of victims wore the veil, making a nonsense of Katie Hopkins’s sarcastic proposal in the Daily Mail that she might now have to “buy a burka and get it over with”.

Hopkins is just as wrong when she suggests that “some Islamic and Arabic men” have no respect for white women. Men who commit such attacks have no respect for women, period, and are just as likely to be violent towards their wives, sisters and daughters. It’s sometimes forgotten that many migrants are women and children, and even more likely to suffer from the effects of deeply entrenched sexist ideas than European women. In that 2008 study almost 63 per cent of the Egyptian men interviewed openly admitted they had harassed women.

It would be naïve to assume that men with unacceptable attitudes towards women will undergo an instant change of heart on arriving in countries with a commitment to gender equality. The problem hasn’t been helped by a chaotic asylum system which has encouraged the survival of the fittest; some statistics suggest that a disproportionate number of asylum seekers are unaccompanied young men. But the problem can be managed through education and a direct challenge to views which are inherently sexist or homophobic. If we can teach refugees English or German, we can also teach them about the importance of equality and human rights.

What happened in Cologne and other European cities is a wake-up call, but not the one claimed by far-right organisations such as Pegida, which held a rally in Cologne on Saturday. Even Merkel hasn’t quite got it, talking last week about “the feeling women had… of being at people’s mercy”. The one thing we know beyond doubt about the people who committed sex attacks in German cities is that they were men, a fact which should move women’s rights to the top of the agenda.

A strong, confident Europe should be perfectly capable of doing two things: protecting people fleeing vile regimes while upholding the principle that every woman has a fundamental right to feel safe in public space.


Hate crimes, a locked-room mystery and some very modern murders

The Sunday Times, 3 January 2016

Increasing numbers of people are looking after disabled or elderly relatives, often without much outside support. In Eva Dolan’s stark new novel, After You Die (Harvill Secker £12.99), the police are called when a mother caring for her severely disabled teenage daughter gets abusive phone calls and discovers that her car has been vandalised. It is Dolan’s third novel based at a hate-crimes unit in Peterborough, where her detectives work on a category of offences that has only recently been recognised.

The mother, Dawn Prentice, blames the damage on local kids who resent the special treatment her daughter has received following a climbing accident. A few months later, Dawn is stabbed to death, leaving her daughter to die of neglect in her bedroom; it isn’t clear to DI Zigic and his team whether Dawn’s killer intended the girl to die or if she is an unintended victim of the frenzied attack on her mother. This harrowing plot requires all of Dolan’s skills as a novelist, confirming that she is able to tackle sensitive subjects without sensationalism.

Adrian McKinty’s thoroughly engaging crime novels are set in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s when paramilitary violence was a daily threat. His detective, DI Sean Duffy, is a scruffy cynic based in Carrickfergus whose idea of a good day out is volunteering for a bit of riot duty. In Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail £12.99), McKinty has had the brilliant idea of challenging him with a locked-room mystery straight out of the golden age of detective fiction.

A dead woman is discovered early one morning in the courtyard of Carrickfergus castle, where she appears to have thrown herself from the ramparts. The castle has been locked all night and there’s no evidence of foul play, but Duffy is worried by the fact that she is wearing the wrong shoe on one of her feet. His suspicions increase when he learns she is a journalist from London, in Northern Ireland to cover a visit by a group of Finnish investors. This is a classic plot with modern twists, but it is Duffy’s character — sexist and self-aware by turns — that powers the book to its inevitable conclusion.

Samuel Bjork is the latest Norwegian crime-writing sensation. His debut novel, I’m Travelling Alone, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday £12.99), has appeared on bestseller lists in half a dozen European countries. Bjork is the pen name of Frode Sander Oien, a well-known playwright and singer, who hid his identity for several months after the book was published in Norway two years ago.

The novel opens with a disturbing scene in which a dog walker finds the body of a six-year-old girl hanging from a tree; around her neck is a sign used by a Norwegian airline to identify children who are travelling without an accompanying adult. It is the first in a series of murders that perplexes his detectives, veteran investigator Holger Munch and his troubled protégée, Mia Kruger. For all the power of the opening, however, Bjork seems more interested in his detectives’ psychology than the plot, and the killings are too elaborate to be credible.

The title of Claudia Pineiro’s latest novel, Betty Boo, translated by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon £8.99), is also the nickname of her main character, Nurit Iscar, a novelist who has been reduced to ghost-writing other people’s memoirs after her last book was mauled by the critics. Down on her luck, Nurit feels she can’t refuse when a newspaper editor invites her to write about the killing of an Argentinian industrialist who lived in an exclusive gated community in Buenos Aires. This is a mordantly funny novel about murder, friendship and the state of journalism from an Argentinian writer who has been compared to Patricia Highsmith.