The sea rises and democracy falls in the Maldives

Independent on Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Maldives is one of the world’s upmarket holiday destinations, an archipelago of  turquoise lagoons and palm-fringed beaches. Until four years ago, visitors were unwittingly supporting a nasty dictatorship where beatings and torture were routine. Then, in autumn 2008, the dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was turfed out in the country’s first democratic elections. The new president was my friend Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner who soon began making a name for himself on the international stage.

I first got to know Anni, as he’s universally known, around 10 years ago. I met him in London and found him remarkably resilient for someone who had spent six years in jail, 18 months of it in solitary confinement. He is passionate about human rights, with a dry sense of humour and an apparently endless store of patience which convinced him that his Maldivian Democratic Party would one day triumph over the regime.

When he became president, Anni quickly established himself as an environmental campaigner, achieving almost rock-star status. He forced the world to recognise that the archipelago, which is only two metres above sea level, faces extinction because of global warming. His government set up a health system, pensions and the country’s first university. It struggled to modernise the judiciary, attracting criticism for some of its actions, but promoted the country as a functioning Muslim democracy. Last year, David Cameron even described Anni as his new best friend. But less than two months ago, Anni was deposed in an alleged coup.

Anni says he was forced at gunpoint to resign on television by military officers loyal to the old regime. He was placed under house arrest and the vice-president, Waheed Hassan, took over. As soon as Anni was released, he led a protest march in the capital, Male, where he was beaten up along with his party’s interim chair, Moosa Manik. Acccording to Amnesty International, another protest march earlier this month was violently broken up by the police, who used batons and pepper spray.

Outside the Maldives, Anni’s friends have watched these events unfold with horror. To begin with, the abrupt change of government didn’t receive as much attention as it deserved because it was stage-managed to look as though Anni had resigned of his own free will. But a campaign to restore democracy is gathering pace: the EU has expressed concern about political unrest in the Maldives and the Commonwealth has called for early elections.

Now there’s worse news for Hassan’s government in the shape of a documentary called The Island President. The film follows Anni’s career, showing him in the Maldives, where he witnesses coastal erosion, and moving easily among world leaders. It’s an affectionate portrait of an unassuming man, who suddenly finds himself taking calls from prime ministers and uses it to force climate change up the world’s agenda.

At the London premiere on Thursday, I was torn between enjoyment and anxiety, pleased to see Anni on the screen but worried about his safety and that of democracy campaigners in the Maldives. Earlier this month, Anni wrote an impassioned article and I don’t think I can do better than give him the final word: “The world has a duty not to sit passively by as the flame of democracy – for which Maldivians have fought so long – is snuffed out in our islands once again.”

To find out out what’s happening in the Maldives, you can use this link:


Blame the victim – a classic with wife-beaters

The sexual revolution, second wave of feminism, and a raft of equality legislation seem to have passed Dennis Waterman by

The Independent, Wednesday 21 March 2012

I could be wrong about this. I mean, what do I know about actors? But I’m not sure that going on TV and admitting that you gave your ex-wife a black eye is the smartest of  career moves. Then claiming that it was her fault for being cleverer than you seems  downright catastrophic, as well as bidding for a place in a category of men who are simultaneously not very bright and quick with their fists. I can only imagine it’s head-in-hands time at the BBC, which has announced a new series of New Tricks, and now has to deal with an astonishing admission of domestic violence by one of its lead actors.

In an interview for Piers Morgan’s chat show, Life Stories, Dennis Waterman admits that he hit the actress Rula Lenska on two occasions. He’s played hard men throughout his career, and the portrait he paints of himself in the late 1990s could be a parody of his TV roles. He says he’s “utterly ashamed” of hitting Lenska but what really does for him is a series of increasingly lame excuses, starting with his denial that she was ever a battered wife: “She certainly wasn’t a beaten wife, she was hit and that’s different.”

The purpose of this unconvincing distinction is, I suspect, to maintain Waterman’s distorted image of himself as a man who might get a bit rough at times, but isn’t a wife-beater. I’m sure something similar has been said many times by men who can’t bear to think of themselves as brutes who beat up women. But Waterman was only just getting started, and went on to propound a theory of provocation so offensive it’s hard to see how he can continue to be offered work by a publicly funded broadcaster. Domestic violence accounts for up to a quarter of recorded violent crime, and his remarks don’t just trivialise a serious social problem. Some of his statements can read as excusing violence against an intimate partner.

Statement one: “It’s not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her.” A favourite of wife beaters, this is what’s technically known as “blaming the victim”. According to this theory of human relations, women have been put on earth with a special task of never
challenging, annoying or upsetting men. It’s based on the myth that men can’t control their tempers, even if most adults of both sexes seem to do it perfectly well.

Statement two: “The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue, well. And if there is a time when you can’t get a word in… and I… I lashed out. I couldn’t end the argument.” Actually, to put it another way, Waterman did end the argument – with his fist. It’s a shaming confession of weakness and lack of self-control, which is probably why Waterman denied it for years, despite Lenska’s insistence that he abused her during their marriage. The fact that he thinks intelligence is a “problem” in women suggests that Waterman’s thinking about gender hasn’t evolved much since she divorced him in 1998.

Statement three: “I’d never done it before or since. But if a woman is a bit of a power freak and determined to put you down, and if you’re not bright enough to do it with words, it can happen. And it did happen in my case.” Few public figures would be relaxed about admitting on TV that they’re not very smart, but Waterman’s appetite for settling old scores apparently outweighs other considerations. Perhaps he secretly read women’s magazines in the 1950s, and grew up assuming that his wives (he’s had four)would have the decency to conceal their intelligence.

It’s always surprising to come across someone who’s so utterly unaffected by the time he’s lived through. The sexual revolution, the second wave of feminism and a raft of equality legislation appear to have passed the actor by, even though he was born in 1948 and in pole position to  join in. Lots of men did, and enjoy relationships with women in which both parties treat each other as equals. For those who don’t, there is a problem in the shape of a philosophical shift: behaviour that used to be regarded as private, such as knocking “the wife” around on a Saturday night, is rightly no longer overlooked by the state. Spain’s first equality minister, Bibiana Aido Almagro, put it well when she told the UN in 2009 that gender violence had “stopped being a personal or private matter” and is now understood as a question of public interest.

Waterman’s remarks have caused outrage because they run against this current. It’s clear his understanding of domestic violence is as outdated as his Victorian (in his own words) view that “there is a place for women at home”. At home or in the wider world, women are entitled to be safe, and there is never any excuse for assaulting a partner.

A facade of normality keeps dictator functioning

Independent on Sunday, 18 March 20 12

If a novelist were trying to imagine the internal world of a brutal dictator, it seems likely that extravagance, sentimentality and self-pity would emerge as themes. Only last year, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi offered an insight into the wastrel habits of his adult children, while the colonel’s evident surprise moments before his lynching suggested someone who hadn’t spent too much time worrying about his victims: “What did I do to you?” he asked. Gaddafi’s final words came into my head last week as I read leaked emails received and sent by another dictator, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and his wife, Asma.

In February, as his forces massacred civilians in Homs, Assad was feeling so sorry for himself that he sent his wife the lyrics of a song by the US country singer Blake Shelton: “I’ve been a walking heartache/ I’ve made a mess of me/ The person that I’ve been lately/ Ain’t who I wanna be.” Assad’s introspection, and his wife’s restless quest for diamonds and bespoke furniture, is so close to the stereotypical dictator’s family life that I couldn’t help wondering whether the emails were genuine. What is one to make of awoman whose mind is exercised not by the fire-blackened ruins in her family’s home city, Homs, but the necessity of obtaining a chocolate fondue set?

Several days after it was published in The Guardian, there seems to be agreement that the correspondence is authentic. I’ve often thought that dictators are just extremely wealthy people with armies, and their bad taste is both expected and a symptom of wider isolation; I don’t suppose advisors were lining up to tell Colonel Gaddafi how many people hated him, and until recently foreigners were falling over themselves to tell Asma al-Assad how fabulous she was. Who could forget Vogue‘s fawning profile, published last year under the headline “A Rose in the Desert” and describing her as “a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind”? Also last year, Harvard’s Arab Alumni Association announced an event in Damascus with the president’s wife – “a thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate” – as its keynote speaker.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had conversations with people who thought that because Asma grew up and was educated in London, she must be a civilising influence on her horrible husband. But I’ve never believed it’s possible to marry into such a notorious family without knowing what you’re doing. Now we’ve seen emails assumed to be from her father, a Harley Street cardiologist, advising his son-in-law how to respond to what appear to be graphic images of the torture of children by Syrian armed forces. The Assads’ modernity consists of surface things: listening to New Order, getting a Harry Potter DVD, discussing US TV shows.

Judging by their emails, Asma al-Assad is a significant factor in strengthening her husband’s determination to stay in power. By maintaining a semblance of normality, she makes it easier for him to live with the terrible crimes he has commissioned. “If we are strong together, we will overcome this together… I love you …” she assured him in December. A few weeks later, she broke off a correspondence with a daughter of the Emir of Qatar, who had gently suggested that the couple might consider going into exile. Syria has been ruled by the Assads for more than 40 years, and this lawless gangster family has closed ranks.

All is vanity – and it’s gone viral over warlord Kony

Independent on Sunday, 11 March 2012

It has become an internet sensation. Celebrities have rushed to offer support. The White House has congratulated the people who made it. Within a couple of days of  being posted on YouTube, around 50 million people had watched Kony 2012, a short film about an African rebel leader. And I’m wondering whether I’ve seen the same video as everyone else, because when I watched it I wanted to throw up.

There’s no doubt that Joseph Kony is a nasty piece of work. His ridiculous Lord’s Resistance Army was responsible for countless murders, rapes and mutilations in his home country, Uganda, and he should be tried for crimes against humanity. But Kony’s soldiers were driven out of Uganda six years ago, leaving the country to get on with the process of rehabilitating child soldiers and girls forced into prostitution. Kony is thought to be hiding in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo – so remote, indeed, that he may have missed the fact that he’s been targeted by a parade of smug celebrities.

“Dear Joseph Kony, I’m Gonna help Make you FAMOUS!!!!”, Sean Combs (aka the rapper P Diddy) warned last week. Combs is so serious about “stopping” Kony that he’s mobilised millions of followers on Twitter, ordering them to retweet his message. Rihanna, too, has added her name to the roster of stars urging an end to the non-existent slaughter of children in Uganda. Famous people emoting in a cause they know nothing about is hardly novel, but the internet has dramatically increased opportunities to look naïve, or downright foolish.

The celebrities squaring up to Kony are responding not to facts but to the film’s saccharine tone and its unashamed narcissism. It’s all about feeling good in return for not doing very much, and the rest of us can share in the glow by wearing a wristband, buying a campaign kit, and putting up posters. The aim is to turn Kony into the world’s most wanted man, which will supposedly put pressure on the United States government and the Ugandan army, itself accused of human-rights abuses, to track him down. A more urgent case could be made for “stopping” a number of people still in power, including Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir – Kony’s main backer and an indicted war criminal – and President Assad of Syria.

The film was made by an American organisation called Invisible Children. Quite why its activists think they’re helping kids in Uganda by launching a celebrity wild goose chase is a matter for them. One of several significant facts not mentioned in the film is that their own government has refused to sign up to the International Criminal Court, which is the only body with the legal and moral authority to try notorious war criminals.

But the most astonishing thing about the campaign is its total insensitivity to questions of race, power and representation: the film demands that we look at a nasty black man, Kony, through the eyes of a winsome white child with blond curls who happens to be  the film-maker’s son. I’m not at all surprised it’s been greeted with anger and astonishment in Uganda.

Those who run Invisible Children have been accused of spending too much on administration and making films and not enough on helping children. But this is a morality tale for our times, showing what happens when well-meaning but utterly misguided people decide to utilise the power of the internet. Facts get lost, vanity goes viral – and a thuggish warlord trends on Twitter.

Kristy was a scapegoat for his vicious guardians

Independent on Sunday, 4 March 2012

Every now and then, a murder trial exposes a depth of human cruelty so profound that it cries out for an explanation. The torture and murder of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu, whose family was originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of those cases: how could such things happen in a tower block in east London? The pathologist who examined Kristy found 130 internal and external injuries. His elder sister, Magalie Bamu, 29, and her boyfriend, Eric Bikubi, 28, attacked the boy because they thought he was a witch. Three days ago, the pair were found guilty of murdering Kristy during a so-called “exorcism ceremony”.

There seems to have been an increase in this type of violence in the UK; the Metropolitan Police says it has investigated 83 cases of “faith-based” child abuse involving witchcraft in the past decade. One was the horrific torture and murder of eight year-old girl Victoria Climbié, from Ivory Coast, by her great-aunt and her boyfriend in 2000. Another was the case of Child B, an eight-year-old from Angola, whose torture by a woman believed to be her aunt and other adults was revealed in a child cruelty trial in 2005.

The involvement of kindoki or African forms of witchcraft in these cases has produced sensational headlines. Some black churches in London have been accused of carrying out “exorcisms”, legitimising the idea of demonic possession in the minds of their followers. But the most important fact about accusations of witchcraft, wherever they occur, is that they are a form of scapegoating.

Thousands of vulnerable adults, most of them women, were tortured and murdered in Europe at the height of the witch-hunting craze. In societies where sudden death from  illness was common, along with other calamities such as failed crops, credulous people looked for scapegoats. More often than not, they settled on women who were different in some way – unmarried or widowed, living alone or with animals for company. Accusations that they had cast spells, changed themselves into animals or were able to fly were common, and had lethal consequences. Now very similar accusations are being made against children and teenagers in the UK, and for similar reasons.

Within hours of arriving from Paris to spend Christmas in London, Kristy Bamu was accused of bringing kindoki into the flat his eldest sister shared with her boyfriend. Kristy and two other sisters, aged 11 and 20, were beaten, but the girls were spared after they “confessed” to being witches. Kristy was so frightened that he wet himself, which led to him being singled out for the prolonged torture that ended in his murder.

Victims of “faith-based” violence are usually the weakest members of a family, children or teenagers whose behaviour is perceived as different or difficult, and at the mercy of aunts, uncles, step-parents and boyfriends who have little or no affection for them. Among a few African families, living in cramped conditions and struggling financially, the temptation to find a scapegoat may be as real as it was in 15th-century Europe.

That doesn’t alter the fact that accusing a vulnerable family member of witchcraft is often the prelude to prolonged and sadistic child cruelty. That’s what these cases are really about: child abuse, cruel and unrepentant, in which the victims are demonised and then blamed for the injuries that are inflicted upon them.

Phantom by Jo Nesbo

Harry Hole seems ready to take any risk to catch an evil drug dealer in Jo Nesbo’s stark thriller

Sunday Times, 4 March 2012

One of the strongest selling points for any crime novelist is an instantly recognisable serial character. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is as famous as his creator, Ian Rankin made his name with Rebus and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander occupies a unique place in contemporary crime fiction. Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian policeman, Harry Hole, is a recent discovery for most British readers but Nesbo’s novels are already selling in millions.

In the early novels, Hole was a police inspector in Oslo, and his personal problems — alcoholism and tortured relationships — seemed to go with the job. But Nesbo’s breakthrough novel, The Snowman, left him missing a finger and separated from the love of his life, Rakel. Nesbo never pretended that these events were anything but emotionally devastating for Hole; his last novel, The Leopard, had the detective leaving he police force and trying to obliterate his sorrows in Hong Kong.

Where The Leopard took Hole to Africa, in search of a killer who used a murder weapon of astonishing cruelty, Nesbo’s new novel, Phantom, sees him back in Oslo with the disfiguring scar he acquired in The Leopard. He is trying to find an elusive drug dealer who is wreaking havoc among the city’s addicts and his reason for returning to Oslo is personal: Rakel’s son, Oleg, now a teenage drifter, has been charged with the murder of another young addict.

According to the few police contacts still willing to talk to Hole, the young man’s guilt is pretty well established; the victim died in a squat used by Oleg, who had gunshot residue on his hands and left his DNA on the corpse. But Hole’s stubborn belief in the boy is the one thing he has to offer Rakel, and he sets about investigating the circumstances leading up to the murder with his usual tenacity. The dead boy sold drugs on the street, persuading addicts to switch to a new synthetic compound known as “violin”, and Hole is convinced he needs to find the drug baron who got him involved in the trade.

Nesbo is a powerful writer and there are some wrenching scenes. On a prison visit to Oleg, Hole finds a young man he barely recognises, who immediately begs him to muggle a dose of “violin” into his cell. The scenes between Hole and Rakel are equally fraught, making it clear she will do anything to get her son back and raising questions about the sincerity of her feelings for Hole. These are more complex emotions than are to be found in many crime novels, and there is a bleakness about them that suggests the plot is unlikely to offer much in the way of redemption.

Hole’s physical scars begin to seem trivial as he takes risk after risk, becoming so careless of his own safety that his life seems to hold little value for him. This is not merely another jaded detective, worn down by years on the job and reluctant to submit to authority, but a human being in the grip of an existential crisis. Hole is searching for a connection to a more innocent time, before his job impinged on others’ lives and, he believes, set the young Oleg on this disastrous course.

Consciously or not, Hole is looking for a reason to go on living. His pessimism pervades the novel, creating a fictional version of Oslo that’s unrelenting and melodramatic, but a bigger problem is the highly artificial device Nesbo adopts to maintain suspense. This is a series of passages in the voice of the murdered young man, a rambling final testament in which he teasingly reveals his character — and a corruption so ingrained that he was ready to sell his adoptive sister — as well as the truth about his relationship with Oleg.

As the novel approaches its climax, he also confirms the devastating truth that Hole has been edging towards. It’s been signalled for many pages and, despite a clever plot twist involving the identity of the drug baron, the final chapters deliver a punch that’s far from unexpected. Nesbo is brave to enter such stark emotional territory, but the novel cannot help but feel overburdened by the weight of Hole’s despair.

Translated by Don Bartlett


Can Murdoch’s new title survive its association with this tarnished brand?

Hacked Off, Tuesday 28 February 2012

Sue Akers speaks with the flat, unemphatic delivery of someone whose job doesn’t usually involve addressing a public inquiry. On Monday morning, I was sitting in the area of the courtroom reserved for ‘core participants’ and I felt the atmosphere electrify as the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner started giving evidence before Lord Leveson. A ‘culture of illegal payments’ at the Sun’….a ‘network of corrupted officials’….clandestine payments amounting to thousands of pounds: Akers didn’t need oratorical flourishes to make her point.

As she spoke, other phrases came into my head. ‘The Sun is not a “swamp” that needs draining’….’its journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang’….’a huge operation driven by politicians threatens the very foundations of a free Press’. That was Trevor Kavanagh a couple of weeks ago, under a headline characterising the police investigation at the Sun as a ‘witch-hunt’ which had ‘put us behind ex- Soviet states on Press freedom’.

I wasn’t surprised that Kavanagh took this line. It’s been clear to me since the Leveson seminars in October last year that there are some very worried men (most of them are men) in the newspaper industry, and they come from a culture that believes the best form of defence is attack (hence Rupert Murdoch’s decision to bring forward the launch of his new Sunday paper last weekend). What astonished me about the Kavanagh piece was that anyone took it seriously.

Plenty of hard-headed journalists who normally ask for evidence accepted Kavanagh’s claims at face value, overlooking even his obvious howler about the News International investigation being ‘the biggest police operation in British criminal history’. (It isn’t. It doesn’t even come close.) Outrage spread: sources were being put at risk! Fifty-quid lunches were being treated as bribes! The cherished freedom of the British press was at stake!

What Akers described at the Leveson inquiry suggested a rather different picture. Rejecting claims that journalists were being investigated for buying the ‘odd drink or meal’ for public officials, she talked about ‘multiple payments’ which amounted to £80,000 in one instance (that’s a hell of a lot of lunches). She talked about a Sun journalist drawing more than £150,000 in cash over the years to pay sources, and the use of friends and relatives as conduits to disguise the source of the payments. She also said that journalists appeared to have been “well aware” that “what they were doing was unlawful”.

Akers quite rightly didn’t give names, and the individuals who’ve been arrested have th right to be regarded as innocent unless a court decides otherwise. But what’s emerging at Leveson is a picture of a newsroom which relied not on ‘whistle-blowers’ – who don’t need to be paid because they’re acting in the public interest – but corrupt public officials. And the stories acquired through these methods were not massive scandals but ‘salacious gossip’.

There have been other significant revelations this week, including an internal NI memo showing that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks knew in 2006 that more than a hundred people had been targets of phone hacking. We’ve also learned that the police were aware in the same year that Glenn Mulcaire had the new identities and contact details of people in the witness protection programme, a leak that potentially put lives at risk.

A single rogue reporter at the News of the World. A rogue newsroom that had to be closed down. A witch-hunt at the Sun that threatens press freedom. None of the excuses have stood up to much scrutiny, and damaging revelations continue to pour out at Leveson. Can Murdoch’s spanking new Sun on Sunday survive its association with this tarnished brand?