News in brief

Obama turning

When US president Obama came into office in January 2009 he promised to shut the Guantanamo detention centre within 12 months and to end military trials of detainees there. On 7 March, Obama finally abandoned these pledges when he announced the resumption of military trials at Guantanamo (after a two-year freeze), and set out rules for holding some of the detainees inside the camp indefinitely. The US congress has blocked attempts to house some of the detainees on US soil or bring them to trial in US courthouses, and foreign countries have been reluctant to take any Guantanamo detainees off US hands.

Bil'in 6-0

On 14 March, Israel released nonviolent Palestinian activist Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the chief organisers of weekly demonstrations against the Israeli separation wall near the West Bank village of Bil’in. A schoolteacher, Abdullah was arrested in December 2009 and subsequently convicted of “incitement” and organising illegal demonstrations. After being sentenced to 16 months in prison, he was recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Abu Rahma’s lawyer, Gaby Laskey, said: “I believe that the charges against Abu Rahma and his sentence were of a political nature to try and put an end to the nonviolent demonstrations in Bil’in.” In February, Bil’in marked six years of protests.

Nepal Crisis

The political crisis in Nepal’s faltering peace process continues to stagger on. On 3 March, Nepal’s Maoists, the largest party in parliament, agreed to join the new government headed by Jhalanath Khanal of the United Marxist-Leninists (UML).
Khanal is locked in a battle with his own party after winning the premiership on 3 February by secretly promising the Maoists that they would hold the home ministry in a new coalition government. It was reported on 17 February that Khanal had threatened to resign if his party did not accept his decision to award the ministry of home affairs to the “Maobadhi”.
It appears that the Maoists will only gain the security portfolio after a special demobilisation committee agrees a timetable, a process and a target number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ex-guerrillas for integration and rehabilitation. UML hardliners are demanding that all 19,000 PLA members be disarmed, and Maoist leaders stripped of their PLA security details, before the appointment of a Maoist home minister.
Infighting among the Maoists, meanwhile, has prevented the party nominating more than four of the 11 ministerial positions they have secured. There is no prospect of agreeing a new constitution by the deadline of 28 May.

Hashman 1-0

Animal rights activist Joe Hashman made legal history on 8 March by establishing that employers should not discriminate against people for holding anti-hunting beliefs. Joe was sacked from Orchard Park Garden Centre in Dorset in September 2009, just as celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright was convicted of attending an illegal hare coursing event – as the result of Joe’s covert filming.
The owners of Orchard Park Garden Centre, Sheila and Ron Clarke, keen supporters of the South and West Wiltshire Hunt, claim that his dismissal had nothing to do with his anti-hunting activism. Judge Lawrence Guyer said at the employment tribunal that Joe’s belief in the sanctity of life extended to his “fervent anti-foxhunting belief (and also anti-hare-coursing belief)” and that such beliefs “constitute a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.” Joe’s case for unfair dismissal will now proceed at a later date.

BAE learning

In early March, it became apparent that BAE Systems, Britain's biggest military manufacturer, was about to be punished by the US state department after the arms company's admission last year that it conspired to defraud the US and made false statements about its anti-bribery compliance programme. The guilty pleas, made to a US court, came as part of legal settlement with the US justice department on corruption-related allegations.
The admissions resolved conflicts with the justice department, but much to BAE's surprise they also triggered action by the state department, which is charged with ensuring that the US does not grant export licences to companies involved in corrupt or illegal practices.
BAE expects another fine and some form of debarment from the US military marketplace. In February, BAE warned that its income would fall by about 5% in 2011 as Western nations cut military spending.

Barclays £6.6bn error

We apologise to Barclays bank for wrongly reporting last month that in 2010 the bank paid a mere £113m in corporation tax to the government, on global profits of more than £5bn. In fact, it was in 2009 that Barclays paid a mere £113m in corporation tax to the government, on global profits not of £5bn, but of £11.6bn – a tax rate of 1%. On 7 March, Barclays announced that it handed nine senior bankers £88m in share awards in 2010 and chief executive Bob Diamond received a total package worth £23m. The latter award, in the eyes of the Barclays board, demonstrated the bank's “restraint”. The two heads of Barclays Capital, Barclays’ investment bank, received £90m between them in share awards from previous years (£30m plus each), salary and bonuses (£10m plus each) and a long-term incentive plan (£3m plus each).

MoD £1bn error

On 2 March, defence secretary Liam Fox announced that troops now in Afghanistan could be among 11,000 military personnel who will be sacked as part of the cuts. Fox admitted he may have to cut more than planned under last year's strategic defence and security review (SDSR). Ministry of Defence sources said the department had identified a gap of “several hundreds of millions of pounds” between the MoD’s financial commitments and its allocated budget for 2011-12. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, the gap for this year may be £1bn. Cutting Reaper and Predator drones in Afghanistan would save an estimated £100m.

Poppy burning

On 7 March, Emdadur Choudhury, a member of “Muslims Against Crusades” (MAC), was fined £50 after being convicted of committing public disorder during the two-minute silence last Remembrance Day. Choudhury burned two large plastic orange poppies at an MAC demonstration in west London on 11 November. Khalid Mahmood, a Muslim Labour MP, described the fine as inadequate, saying: “We don't take it seriously enough, he hurt a lot of people. I really don't think it is acceptable to protest against people who have died for their country.” Choudhury said: “I did it for Allah. I did it to raise awareness that these so-called soldiers are the criminals. They are the ones who should be tried for war crimes.” During the two-minute silence, the Muslims Against Crusade demonstrators chanted: “British soldiers burn in hell”. Section 5 of the Public Order Act covers “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour”.

Western Sahara

A conference in Spain concluded on 12 March that the EU–Morocco fisheries agreement was illegal and immoral because it includes fishing in waters belonging to Western Sahara, a country illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975.
Juan Soroeta, an expert in international law, argued that the accord was illegal, because the natural resources of Western Sahara “can’t be exploited to the detriment of the population and without the approval of the legitimate representatives” of Western Sahara, in this case the Polisario Front, which rejects the accord.
Pressure is now being applied to members of the European Parliament to reject a new “accord of association”, which aims to liberalise commerce and agriculture with Morocco. The current wave of protests in the Middle East began in Western Sahara in November with a 12,000-strong tent city near the city of Laayoune, a protest against oppressive living conditions that was brutally broken up by Moroccan security forces.
On 5 March, a much smaller protest took place within Western Sahara. 200 demonstrators demanded higher salaries for the Sahrawi army, more support for victims of the war against Morocco and families of martyrs, as well as an end to corruption and nepotism.

No big banks!

On 5 March, the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warned that there could be another major financial crisis and accused major banks of being keen “to make money out of gullible or unsuspecting customers”. He called for major reforms.

No big state!

On 7 March, Birkenhead County Court was invaded by hundreds of anti-tax demonstrators intent on arresting judge Michael Peake. Peake was presiding over the bankruptcy hearing of Roger Hayes, one of the leaders of the right-wing British Constitution Group (BCG). Hayes had refused to pay his council tax (which he regards as illegal) as part of the BCG's “lawful rebellion” campaign. 600 chanting demonstrators reportedly blocked the roads outside the court for an hour after the disruption of the bankruptcy hearing. Some sat down in front of police vehicles. Six were arrested.

Bradley 0-22

On 2 March, the US army filed 22 new charges against suspected WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. The charges include the death penalty charge of aiding the enemy, as well as theft of public property or records, computer fraud, transmitting defence information and wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the internet knowing it would be accessible to the enemy. Bradley is being made to sleep naked each night and stand naked outside his cell each morning to receive his clothes. His lawyer claims this is to punish him for his response to warders suggesting that he was a possible suicide risk. He was reported as saying that if he wanted to harm himself he could do so with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops. Yet Bradley is not on suicide watch.

Who, me?

It has been reported that George W Bush called off a Swiss trip, his first abroad since the publication of his biography, Decision Points, where he admitted that he authorised “waterboarding” for Guantánamo detainees. The cancellation seems to have been prompted by the threat of an arrest warrant being issued (and planned protests) over US treatment of Guantánamo Bay detainees. Seemingly without irony, a Bush’s spokesperson announced: “We regret that the speech has been cancelled. President Bush was looking forward to speaking about freedom….” In Britain, Bush faces no such legal risk: under the police reform and social responsibility bill, the consent of the director of public prosecutions would be required for arrest warrants being issued for war crimes and human rights abuses committed abroad.

Nepal Crisis

After a long period of drifting, Nepal’s peace process is now in a dizzying tailspin. After seven months without a government, Jhalanath Khanal, the head of the (conservative) communists of the United Marxist -Leninists (UML), was voted prime minister on 3 February with the backing of the former guerrillas, the Maoist communist party. This support came after Khanal reached a secret seven-point agreement with the Maoist leader-ship, which he kept from his own party.
Once sworn into power, Khanal revealed the terms of the agreement, which his party then forced him to renege on. This then led the Maoists to refuse to enter the government, triggering a new crisis. One crucial broken promise was Khanal’s agreement to allow the Maoists to take the position of home affairs minister, in charge of internal security.
A key issue in the peace process is the fate of the Maoists’ 19,000 former guerrillas, who were originally promised integration into the Nepali army as a condition of ending the Nepali civil war. Khanal had agreed that the former fighters would form a new separate security force. This compromise has been withdrawn.

Time out

According to official figures, nine members of the armed forces have applied for discharge as conscientious objectors since the Afghanistan war started in 2001, it was disclosed at the end of January. In the previous 10 years, 13 navy personnel and one soldier applied for CO status. In February 2010, based on a Freedom of Information Act request, the Independent revealed that British soldiers have gone AWOL on more than 17,000 occasions since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Walk out

On 8 February, Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG) handed in a 10,000-name petition against a nuclear power station at Bradwell, Essex, to energy minister Charles Hendry. BANNG chair Andy Blowers expressed particular concern about the dangers of high-level wastes on a site at sea-level liable to serious flooding and coastal damage over the next 100 years.

Cut cut cut?

In its defence review in October, the British government announced that it would postpone the crucial “main gate” decision to replace Trident until 2016 – after the next general election. However, through a freedom of information request Greenpeace learned in mid-January that in the “assessment phase” over the next four years the ministry of defence plan to place orders for several items ahead of the main gate decision.
These “long lead” items for the first submarine include elements of the hull, propulsion systems, power plant, combat and life support systems, raising the question for Greenpeace: “what’s left to buy and how much is all of this going to cost?”
Long lead items also include the nuclear reactor cores for the first three submarines. CND estimates these costs at £2.1bn.
Greenpeace observe: “It sounds like if we don’t watch out we’ll get to the 2016 vote only to find out that we’ve already bought a large part of the first submarine, we’re already tied into various contracts, and the familiar voices will be saying to us that it’s cheaper to go ahead with business as usual than scrap Trident.”

Who, us?

Good police news. Only 27 police officers (out of 13,157 tested) were positive for drugs in the past two years. Drugs detected included cocaine, cannabis and amphetamines. Surprise, surprise: the force with the largest number of detected drug users was the Metropolitan police.
Bad police news. Over the last two years, police officers in just two areas (Staffordshire and Cheshire) have caused more than £100,000 worth of accidents and car crashes – in their own car parks.
A report to Staffordshire police authority said: “Accidents within police stations remain an issue.” Good police news. For safety reasons, Cambridgeshire police have been banned from patrolling a children’s play park after 8pm because it has no lights and is too dark.
More good news. As many as 13 of the 43 police authorities in England and Wales will this year refuse to pay their dues to the association of chief police officers (ACPO), because of its lack of accountability and its bloated size (when the rest of the police force is being cut). ACPO is currently running a deficit of £423,000.

You, that's who

The British national public order intelligence unit (NPOIU) was set up in 1999 under the control of the association of chief police officers to meet the perceived threat from “domestic extremism” and “protest”. After the recent unwelcome “outing” of undercover officers including PC Mark Kennedy (see PN 2530), on 28 January, the NPOIU was put under the control of John Yates, assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan police – Britain’s most senior officer in charge of counter-terrorism. Infiltrating protest movements is now officially part of the anti-terrorist effort.

All in this together

We discovered in mid-February that bail-out bank Royal Bank of Scotland is set to pay taxpayer-backed bonuses worth up to £1.1bn to its staff. Bail-out bank Lloyds Banking Group is paying its outgoing chief executive Eric Daniels a £1.45m bonus in shares. As PN went to press, major banks were expected to offer their staff bonuses of around £6bn. On 18 February, it emerged that Barclays bank paid a mere £113m in corporation tax to the government in 2010, on global profits of more than £5 billion. Over the same period, Barclays paid £1.5bn in cash bonuses to top staff, and a further £1.2bn of longer-term awards.
The New Economics Foundation reported in mid-February that taxpayers are subsidising British banks by more than £30bn a year on top of the bail-out package that prevented their collapse. The main subsidy comes with the government’s implicit guarantee to rescue banks seen as “too-big-to-fail”. Such banks can borrow money more cheaply than companies at commercial risk. Investment bank Goldman Sachs enjoyed a bumper year for pay and bonuses in 2010, despite a 38% drop in profits, with chief executive Lloyd Blankfein receiving a 233% increase in his basic pay from $600,000 to $2m in 2011.
Staff overall enjoyed $15.3bn in pay and bonuses. Elsewhere, £160m in taxpayers’ money is to be used to underwrite a loan to a Caribbean tax haven that is struggling to pay the salaries of its teachers, nurses, doctors and police. The Turks & Caicos islands, seized by Britain in 2009, charges no income tax or capital gains tax, and is used by rich Britons to avoid paying taxes in the UK. Meanwhile, the world’s super-rich spent 53% more at Christie’s auction house in 2010 than they did in 2009, a rise to £3.3bn. Sotheby’s auction total rose by $2bn to $4.3bn (not counting private sales). Porsche sales in 2010 were up 25%. Rolls Royce sales rose 171%. At the beginning of February, the world’s largest luxury goods group, LVMH, reported record revenues for 2010: £12.5bn, up from £10.5bn in 2009.
LVMH wines and spirits experienced a 19% rise in revenues. Recovery was particularly strong for prestige cuvees such as Dom Perignon and Krug. Champagne consumption in the UK is back to pre-recession levels.
The general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, said: “Bankers are toasting their telephone-digit bonuses while the rest of the country reels from more than a fifth of young people being out of work.”
Thousands of services for the disabled, the mentally ill and the elderly, and hundreds of libraries and sports centres, are to close this year as a result of cuts imposed after the financial crisis.

Wash out

150 students at a Catholic school in Colchester, Essex, walked out of lessons in protest after two girls were reprimanded for walking into a lesson hand-in-hand. After news of the protest spread on Facebook, over 100 teenagers staged a sit-down in the playing fields, carrying placards and singing: “We shall not be moved”.

Books out

On 5 February, protests against the closure of 450 library services took place all round the country, ranging from a “shhh-in” in Sheffield to a flashmob in Cambridge. Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire saw the first protest march in the town’s history on Saturday, followed by an occupation of the library on Wednesday. North Yorkshire plans to cut 24 of its 42 libraries.

Guns outs

People close to Batasuna, the political wing of ETA, the Basque separatist guerrilla group, launched a new nonviolent political party on 7 February. The separatists hope that the new party, Sortu, will be recognised and allowed to stand in elections – Batasuna itself is banned. ETA declared a ceasefire in September and made the ceasefire permanent in January. The Spanish government has refused to reciprocate in any way.

Cut cut cut

While many major military projects continue (including the interventionary Astute submarine, cost: £3.9bn for three subs), there is a pleasing roll call of military cutbacks, including the sale of HMS Invincible, the aircraft carrier involved in the Falklands war, which was sold to a Turkish scrap dealer in early February. Sale price: over £2m.
Military cuts mean that Britain is to finally halt its warship patrols of the Caribbean, operating since the Second World War, it was announced in February. (A supply ship with a Lynx helicopter will remain in the region.)
Twelve Chinook helicopters promised to British troops in Afghanistan are now “subject to negotiation”, defence procurement minister Peter Luff announced on 1 February – indicating possible delays in deployment and/or reductions to the number ordered. (These 12 helicopters were in addition to the 10 already due to deploy in 2012-13.) MoD officials are also reported to be looking to reduce the number of Tornado bombers from 134 to 60 (saving £300m a year), and to abandon 50 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft bought three years ago (purchase cost: £4.5bn).
On 13 February, the RAF sacked a quarter of its trainee pilots. (£300m has been paid in training the 100 pilots to be cut.) NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen plaintively warned on 7 February that the European members of NATO had cut their military spending by $45bn over the past two years, a figure equivalent to Germany’s entire military budget.

Kettle off

Internet protest service Sukey, which helps demonstrators to avoid being “kettled” or penned in for long periods by police, will be rolled out for the anti-cuts demo in London on 26 March. Sukey displays real-time police and protest behaviour via an app for smartphones and texting for other mobiles.

Western Sahara

At the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in February, hundreds of Moroccans forcibly prevented the holding of a conference of solidarity with the Sahrawi people. About 500 Moroccans stormed the room with Moroccan flags, shouting insults, snatching the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from the podium. Western Sahara was invaded and occupied by Morocco in 1975.
Speakers Pierre Galand, Belgian senator and Willy Meyer, Spanish MEP, were among those beaten and shoved during the incident. The meeting, “Western Sahara: Africa’s last colony”, was held the next day, 9 February, in the same location.
As PN goes to press, the EU is planning to extend for one year a fisheries agreement with Morocco that includes Western Sahara’s waters, which generates over 70% of fish caught under the agreement, it has been estimated.
Western Sahara Resource Watch said: “The commission has shown complete disregard for international law by not consulting with the people of Western Sahara as the United Nations demands.” In cultural news, there is a new French arthouse documentary about the Sahrawis (Lost Land/Territoire Perdu), and Irish photographer Andrew McConnell’s Western Sahara portrait series “The Last Colony” won first prize in that category in this year’s World Press Photo contest.