Tunisia attack: the West’s response to the atrocity in Sousse is in alarming disarray

Independent on Sunday, 12 July 2015

Could the UK have reacted more constructively by helping beef up security in Tunisia?

In recent days, British holidaymakers have been arriving home on hastily arranged flights from Tunisia. The UK Government suddenly told British tourists to leave last week, claiming that a further terrorist attack is “highly likely” after 38 people died in Sousse at the end of June. Thirty of the victims were British.

New intelligence came in less than 24 hours before the decision was made, according to some sources. It also appears to have been influenced by the assumption that some of the gunman’s accomplices are still at large. But Western governments are split on the nature of the threat and how to deal with it.

According to the State Department website, the US has issued no specific warnings since the attack. On Saturday afternoon, a map on the website of the French foreign ministry ranked the terrorist threat in Tunisia below that in Libya, Algeria and parts of Egypt. A spokesman confirmed that France had not called on its nationals to leave Tunisia, reiterating existing advice that travellers should be “particularly vigilant”.

France was the colonial power in Tunisia and is no stranger to terrorist attacks: three French tourists died in an assault on the Bardo museum in Tunis in March. Several European governments joined France in declining to follow the UK’s example; Ireland and Denmark advised their nationals to leave shortly after the British government did so.

When I asked the Foreign Office whether it believed British holidaymakers were more likely to be targeted, a spokeswoman told me: “We only issue travel advice to British nationals and we judge that the level of risk to Britons is unacceptably high.” She said it was up to other countries to make decisions about threats to their citizens.

More than 3,000 Britons have had to cut short their trips and some are not happy about it. Neither is the Tunisian government, which said the UK’s stance was “what the terrorists want”. Around 400,000 people work in the tourist industry and the mass departure is a huge blow to the economy.

Two weeks ago, the Government said it had no evidence that British tourists had been deliberately targeted. The FCO spokeswoman told me that the “intelligence and threat picture” had developed considerably since then. But the high proportion of British casualties in Sousse could be a reflection of nothing more than the fact that tour companies make block bookings; I once stayed in a hotel in the town where almost everyone else was Russian.

Governments have a duty to protect their citizens but the disarray among Western countries is alarming. It makes me wonder whether the UK could have reacted more constructively, perhaps diverting a portion of the international-development budget to beef up Tunisian security. It’s heartbreaking that this beautiful country, which needs our support, is currently a no-go area for British travellers.

Machetes fail to main this human spirit

Independent on Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rafida Bonya Ahmed survived a brutal Islamic extremist attack; her husband did not … yet she speaks of compassion as well as anger

When a slight woman with cropped dark hair walked on to a stage in a London hotel on Thursday evening, she was greeted with an immediate standing ovation. Four months ago, Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband, Avijit Roy, were attacked with machetes by Islamic extremists in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Roy died and Ahmed was seriously injured, receiving deep wounds to her head.

At first glance, it is hard to believe that this lively and engaging woman has gone through such an ordeal. The only visible reminder is her left hand, which is missing a thumb after it was slashed off in the attack.

Ahmed travelled from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to give the annual Voltaire Lecture, organised by the British Humanist Association – the first time she has spoken in public since the attack. The lecture took place, poignantly, opposite Edgware Road station, where six people died in an Islamist bombing 10 years ago.

Like her late husband, Ahmed is Bangladeshi-American. Last week, she described how the couple’s ideas brought them together when she was living in the US and Roy was doing his PhD in Singapore; he came to her defence after she posted a critical comment about religion online. Roy later founded the Mukto-Mona (“Free Mind”) website, which provided a forum for Bengali secular writers.

This February, Roy and Ahmed decided to visit Dhaka, where Roy’s father is a retired professor of physics. They were leaving a book fair at Dhaka University when they were dragged from a bicycle rickshaw in a crowded street. Police officers made no attempt to intervene as the attackers rained down blows. The only person who came to help was a young journalist, who somehow managed to get the badly wounded couple into a car and drove them to hospital.

Shocking photographs later emerged of Ahmed, drenched in blood. Four months on, she still hasn’t been interviewed by police or asked to give a statement. In a curious coincidence of timing, the Bangladeshi government suddenly announced on Thursday that it had arrested 12 members of an extremist group, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (Aqis), suspected of involvement in Roy’s murder.

In May this year, the leader of Aqis published a video in which he said his group had targeted Roy and other humanist bloggers because they had insulted Islam. In an apparent reference to the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the video was entitled “From France to Bangladesh: the Dust Will Never Settle Down”.

Ahmed speaks about the most horrific evening of her life with astonishing composure, pausing to gather her thoughts and explaining that she is still taking heavy-duty medication. Her husband is one of three humanist bloggers hacked to death in Bangladesh this year: Washiqur Rahman was murdered in Dhaka in March and Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in the city of Sylhet, in north-east Bangladesh, in May.

The killings began almost two and a half years ago with the murder of another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider. Astonishingly, the Bangladeshi government reacted by cracking down on humanist blogs for supposedly “hurting religious feelings”, and arrested several bloggers. While it is clearly the bloggers who need protection, ministers have been under pressure from Islamic extremists who want a new blasphemy law and have published death lists. One such list contained 84 names, including the real identities of individuals who had blogged under pseudonyms for their own safety.

What is going on is a struggle over the identity of the modern state of Bangladesh. Its roots stretch back to the war of independence in 1971 when a number of influential clerics, including prominent members of the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, were accused of siding with Pakistan and committing war crimes. Three million people died and the accusations ranged from rape and torture to genocide.

In 2009, a war crimes tribunal was set up and nine Jamaat-e-Islami leaders were eventually indicted. The party’s former leader, Ghulam Azam, was sentenced to 90 years and died in prison last year. Several other defendants, including its current leader Motiur Rahman Nizami, were convicted and sentenced to death. Controversially, some humanist bloggers supported both the trials and capital punishment for those convicted of war crimes. Posts on social networking sites suggested that Roy would be killed if he returned to Bangladesh but with the secular Awami League in government, the couple didn’t think they would be at risk. Last week, Ahmed described their decision to return as a miscalculation, and said they were still suffering from jetlag when they were attacked.

She spoke eloquently about her sense of loss and outrage, which has not shaken her commitment to humanism. “Don’t lose your faith,” the owner of a restaurant in Atlanta advised her recently when she ate there with her daughter. Ahmed pointed upwards and said: “I don’t see anything up there.”

Ahmed seemed almost bewildered by the warmth of her reception in London. She is thoughtful and generous, acknowledging the depth of her grief and rage but insisting on the need to have compassion for others. “It is not just ourselves, but each other, every trafficked slave, every murdered writer, every lost and lonely mind, that are important and have value,” she said.

She is still working out how best to continue the work she did with her husband, but it is hard to see such an extraordinary woman as a victim. With her quick mind and infectious laugh, Rafida Bonya Ahmed is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Alison Saunders is doing a good job as DPP. Of course she shouldn’t resign

Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2015

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is facing calls to resign in the wake of her U-turn over whether to prosecute Lord Janner for child sex offences. Joan Smith explains why this brave woman should stay in her job

A witch-hunt is under way.  The target is the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who should resign, we are told, because she took the ‘wrong’ decision in the case of Lord Janner. On Monday, after a review by an independent lawyer, Saunders reversed her decision that the peer, who suffers from dementia, should not be prosecuted on ‘historic’ charges of rape and sexual assault.

‘Sack her!’ came the cry, as though Saunders had been caught out in a misguided personal campaign to let sexual predators off the hook. The fact that a great deal of legal opinion is on the DPP’s side seems not to count at all in such circumstances. Nor does the fact that Saunders has done her best to rebalance the rights of victims and perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual assault, to a point where she has been accused of showing too much sympathy for victims.

I can understand how upset Janner’s alleged victims were by Saunders’s original decision. I’m not a lawyer but the decision seemed to me finely balanced, pitting the right of victims to have their allegations aired in court against a medical diagnosis that says their alleged abuser does not have the capacity to defend himself. What is clear is that the peer’s behaviour should have been investigated more thoroughly years ago.

Saunders believes he could have been prosecuted on at least two occasions. It is those missed opportunities that should be under scrutiny now, not her rather brave decision to submit herself to a review process set up by her predecessor, Kier Starmer. Janner was still a Labour MP when the allegations first surfaced, and it should not be forgotten that he received robust cross-party support when he stood up to deny them in the House of Commons in 1991.

Equally striking is the fact that the grounds for demanding Saunders’s resignation this week represent a 180-degree turn on the previous (and equally strident) accusations against her. Five months ago, when the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidelines on consent in rape cases, the reaction was almost as hysterical; Saunders was accused of being too sympathetic to victims in a slew of articles that conjured up the old stereotype of women who supposedly ‘cry rape’. She was called ‘politically correct’ and accused of being part of the ‘all-men-are-rapists brigade’. Her offence? The apparently outrageous assertion that men need to be able to prove that a woman had consented to sex with them.

Of course it is nothing of the sort. Everyone – women, men, police officers and lawyers making decisions about whether or not to prosecute – needs to be clear about the legal definition of consent. The guidelines spelled this out and tackled a series of rape ‘myths’ which have no basis in fact but discourage victims from reporting serious assaults. Those myths range from the unproven assertion that women accuse men of rape just because they changed their minds afterwards to the notion that silence can be taken for consent.

This was another brave move on Saunders’s part and it was met by shameless recycling of the very myths she sought to dispel. Her concern is the huge number of rapes – four out of five, according to senior police officers I have talked to – which don’t get reported because victims fear they won’t be believed. The number of reported rapes soared by 68 per cent from 2005/6 to 2013/14, but there was only a 17 per cent increase in charges in that period.

Saunders’ first move as DPP was to announce a campaign to target violence against women and secure more rape convictions. She’s lobbied judges to warn juries about rape myths and backed improved victim support (particularly in stalking cases) so that women know what to expect in court. Almost 100,000 criminal cases were launched against abusive partners last year – taking into account new definitions of abuse, such as revenge porn and coercive control – with a record 68,601 successful convictions.

In the 18 months she has been DPP, it has become clear that Saunders is not afraid of taking unpopular decisions or challenging powerful interests. She’s made a lot of enemies, in other words, not least among journalists angry about the way she defended the decision to prosecute tabloid reporters in the wake of Operation Elveden. It’s also clear that she’s shaking up the criminal justice system in ways her critics find uncomfortable.

Sometimes that means challenging ill-founded assumptions which stop victims of sexual violence getting justice. Sometimes it means taking into account whether a sick man is able to mount a proper defence, and getting that decision reviewed when it is challenged.

I’m sure Saunders didn’t set out to be popular but I’m disgusted by these attacks on her integrity – and her courage.