Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

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GUANTANAMO BAY

'This is not the Dark Ages'

Azmat-U Begg just wants his son to come home
Azmat-U Begg just wants his son to come home

Moazzam Begg and his wife Sally had fulfilled a lifelong dream to teach and work in Afghanistan, moving to Kabul with their three children a few months before the events of 9/11. There they built wells giving access to fresh water in remote villages. When the US invaded Afghanistan they temporarily left for Islamabad. Their house was raided, and Moazzam was beaten up and taken away in the boot of a car by two US and two Pakistani soldiers. He was taken first to Kandahar, then Bagram airbase by the US military before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay. He has never been charged with any crime and has been denied any legal access. When five British citizens were released from the camp last month Moazzam was not among them.

Azmat-U Begg, Moazzam's father, has just returned from an arduous trip which took him, along with Terry Waite, Vanessa Redgrave and a delegation of other detainees' families, to lobby various institutions in the US to publicise his son's case.

He spoke in the Presbyterian Church in Washington where Martin Luther King delivered some of his most famous speeches. People shook his hand and hugged him, and candles were lit for those lost sons that nobody has heard from in such a long time. But despite support from others he remains genuinely perplexed at the lack of justice for his son. Jack Straw went to Washington just after their delegation 'and tried to block everything we were trying to do'.

The family have not heard from Moazzam since 23 October last year--he passes me the letter. It is short, and most of it has been crudely obscured in black marker pen by the US authorities. 'He has been in solitary confinement for ten months and the Tipton boys say he has been moved to Camp Echo, which is higher security, but why?' Moazzam has not been charged, has no legal representation and the 'nice woman' at the Foreign Office says there is nothing she can do. 'You can only guess what is happening. This is a gross violation of human rights--this is not democracy, it is something else,' he insists.

Mr Begg does not preach Moazzam's innocence as there have been no charges laid against him, yet he has been campaigning, despite ill health, unstintingly for his son. 'I try very hard to understand but I can't,' he says. 'He has been kept away from his wife and children for two years. He has been tortured. He told me that for one year he was kept away from all natural light. He couldn't see the sun, the moon--he couldn't see the sky at all. He has been deprived of the most basic treatment. Now he has been transferred to Camp Echo he cannot even walk in his cage. Before he told me he could stand and at least do some exercise alone. Now they have stopped him from doing that.'

He shows me some photographs of Moazzam's four children, including his 18 month old youngest son who he has never seen. 'Look at the children. It is common sense that he would never have put them at risk. At the time of his arrest there were leaflets dropped around Islamabad offering $5,000 for information on Al Qaida. It is a poor country--there are many stories of men being held in Guantanamo Bay who are simple rickshaw pullers and the like. My son should be brought back to this country. He should be tried in the country he was born and brought up in. I have no objection to that. If he is guilty then punish him, but if not let him go--this is not the Dark Ages.'

A retired bank manager, Azmat was born in India. 'I am a proud British citizen. I come from an army background, and my family served the British for generations. But now the government is saying we are traitors.

'I will go wherever I can to fight for justice for my son. I have lived all my life in the west. We're not fundamentalists, but now they are splitting society. They are trying to frighten people. Billions are being spent for security purposes, but to try and justify the amount they have spent and the statements they have made Muslims are being arrested. How can we be terrorists? We live here, we have families here, but now if you have one little beard you will be arrested. But our families will suffer the same as anyone is going to suffer. We are all living here peacefully--there are no signs of terrorism. It is the government's duty to protect us, but bullets and bombs don't have names on them--they affect everybody. It is our government who dropped the bombs on Iraq.'

The Birmingham suburb of Sparkhill is a long way from Guantanamo Bay. We go to the local shops, and people smile and honk their horns at him. A woman hugs him and says that every day she prays for his son. He has become a celebrity and the goodwill is palpable, although when Moazzam was first arrested there was some hostility towards Azmat and his family.

He tells me of a woman he met in New York whose son was sent to Iraq to fight. He was young, had only just joined the army and had had very little training. When he got to Iraq he was deployed to defuse bombs and was killed in an explosion. 'She was so sad,' he says. 'These so called sophisticated governments who preach humanitarian values--they act like cruel barbarians.

'I just want simple human rights and justice. Recently when I have been speaking to large crowds of people I have asked, "Am I right or am I wrong?" Overwhelmingly people have told me I am right. I have been amazed at the response wherever I have gone, but Bush is the military dictator of the world. It is not just my son in Guantanamo. There are a lot of sons there.'
Julie Bundy


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Have you lost your savings as a result of the near-collapse of Equitable Life, the insurance company which failed to ensure that a £4.4 billion hole didn't appear in its finances? If so, don't expect Tom Davis's sympathy. Davis, one of the authors of the 818-page Penrose report into the scandal, says, 'You can't blame the shop if you buy tomato ketchup thinking its tomato soup.'

  • Tomato Soup
  • The Financial Times reports an increase in vertigo among city high flyers. 'Post 9/11,' according to Jim Batty from Securicor, 'there were a significant number of executives who moved their own offices down to the third, fourth, and fifth floors' by swapping with their workers. Nice to see those risktaking entrepreneurs leading from the front in the war on terror.

  • At least one aspect of Iraq's economy is booming--the employment of mercenaries. British firms have been among the biggest beneficiaries, with their pre-Iraq revenues increasing fivefold to over £1 billion. One company alone, Erinys, has a 14,000-strong workforce.

  • KOSOVO

    The myth of liberation

    Two French soldiers guard the burnt-out shell of a Serbian house in Kosovo
    Two French soldiers guard the burnt-out shell of a Serbian house in Kosovo"

    The latest outbreak of violence between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo last month revealed once again the stark truth behind Nato's US-led war against Serbia in 1999, and the subsequent colonial-style administration of the province. With 31 dead and a reported 3,000 Serbs ethnically cleansed, defence minister Geoff Hoon announced that he was urgently dispatching 750 British soldiers to quell the violence--while in the same breath absurdly claiming that 'very considerable progress' had been made in inter-ethnic relations since 1999.

    In fact Nato's war succeeded only in ethnically cleansing 200,000 Serbs and Roma from Kosovo, and giving the Albanians the upper hand over the Serbs, instead of the other way round. Just as the prewar situation had been oppressive for Albanians, so the postwar one has been for the remaining Serbs. This is hardly progress.

    Since the war barely a month has passed without serious inter-ethnic violence. The latest incident, involving the drowning of three Albanian children chased into a river by Serbs after a Serb was shot and seriously wounded, provoked mass anti-Serb attacks. Initially spontaneous, these attacks were soon being orchestrated by radical Albanian nationalists who believe that a US preoccupied with Iraq will accept the fait accompli of an 'ethnically pure' Kosovo as a quick fix to the province's destabilising violence.

    But other nationalists, such as the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader during the war, Hashim Thaci, have been keenly aware that conflict in Kosovo is the last thing the US needs at the moment Thaci has been busy imploring Albanians not to jeopardise their close relationship with the US, fearing that Washington might eventually opt for the partition of the province recently petitioned for by the newly elected Serbian government.

    The other ingredient in this explosive mix is the fact that Nato's 1999 war has not brought anything like real democracy to Kosovo--unless democracy means replacing rule from Belgrade with rule 'from 5,000 miles away in New York', to quote the complaint of Kosovo's sham prime minister Bajram Rexhepi, elected but powerless.

    Real power in Kosovo is wielded by Harri Holkeri, the UN's colonial-style governor, who administers the province on trust for the US, shored up by 20,000 troops who show no signs of leaving five years after the war's end.

    Kosovo is a mini Iraq. The US and Britain have brought the province neither peace nor democracy. Why should anyone think they can do better in Iraq itself?
    Dragan Plavsic


    PALESTINE

    A return to mass struggle?

    Palestinians protest at the murder of Sheikh Yassin
    Palestinians protest at the murder of Sheikh Yassin

    The assassination of Sheikh Yassin highlights once again the ruthlessness of the Israeli state. The official reason for the murder was retaliation for the suicide bombs that killed ten Israelis in Ashdod. But how to explain the timing? Media pundits have suggested it was a sop to appease the right wing in Sharon's cabinet following his proposed withdrawal from parts of the Gaza Strip, or else a means of denying Hamas any sense of victory from a unilateral Israeli pullout. But it is incongruous to argue there are elements more right wing than Sharon. His whole record of working for a Greater Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean suggests that he has no intention of ceding any land to, or of negotiating seriously with, the Palestinians. On the darkest scenario, retaliation generated by the assassination will be an excuse for Sharon to begin carrying out his long-held aim of ethnic cleansing.

    It is far more likely that the assassination is a means of staving off pressure from Washington in a presidential election year. Bush badly needs a foreign policy success such as a revival of the peace process. Under phase one of the defunct 'road map' Israel was required to withdraw from areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip re-occupied since 28 September 2000, and to freeze all settlement activity. Now, Sharon knows full well that the sheikh's murder is likely to unleash a torrent of attacks, including suicide bombings. He will have fabricated an excuse to put off yet again any serious concessions. As always, Israel carries out a major attack in order to provoke a reaction and then claim that 'Palestinian terror' makes negotiation impossible.

    More generally, the 700-kilometre apartheid wall that Israel is building to allegedly prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel is galvanising increasing layers of the Palestinian people of the occupied West Bank into a growing mass struggle that seems to represent a shift in the pattern of resistance.

    Since the current intifada broke out in September 2000, there have been three broad phases:

    (1) Sharon's provocative walk to the Al Aqsa mosque in occupied East Jerusalem provoked spontaneous mass demonstrations throughout Palestine. The Israeli police responded with live ammunition inciting armed Palestinian police to respond in kind.

    (2) Within a few months, a second phase emerged--a decline of mass activity which gave way to a combination of a very unequal armed struggle between Palestinian militias and the Israeli army, and suicide bombings. Mass action took the form largely of protests at the funerals of fighters or civilian victims of Israeli attacks.

    (3) With the confiscation of Palestinian land and the destruction of olive groves to make way for the apartheid wall, a new phase seems to be emerging. In recent months there has been a growing number of militant demonstrations involving unarmed direct action by West Bank villagers threatened by the wall. This development has been almost totally ignored by the British media.

    For example the village of Budrus, near Ramallah, was faced with enclosure by the wall, which would cut them off from all their land and contain only one gate to the outside world. On 30 December a bulldozer headed for the first olive grove to be destroyed. Hundreds of villagers marched towards it, including schoolchildren. They were greeted by soldiers firing teargas and rubber bullets. An old woman broke through the line of soldiers and ran towards the bulldozer, throwing herself into the hole it had dug. A small girl jumped into the bulldozer's scooper. That day the people marching to the trees, armed only with songs of freedom, forced the soldiers and the bulldozer to retreat.

    Since the events in Budrus there have been at least 13 mass demonstrations against the construction of the wall, with hundreds of unarmed villagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or taking direct action against bulldozers due to clear their land--in Mediya, setting one alight. The enormous courage displayed by the Palestinians was underlined by the fact that three were killed in the protest at Buddu.

    The new mass resistance recalls the militant days of the first intifada (1987-92) which generated an unprecedented level of collective activity--mass demonstrations, strikes and boycotts of Israeli goods--relying exclusively on activists armed with nothing more than stones pitted against the world's fourth most powerful army.

    Tragically, the Palestinians have neither the military nor the economic power to defeat the Israeli state on their own. But it is to be hoped that the current renewal of mass resistance will sound a clarion call to the Arab masses throughout the Middle East who alone have the capacity to defeat Zionism and imperialism in order to bring about radical change throughout the region.
    Sabby Sagall


    MARTIN'S WEB

    ANTI-FASCISM

    Platform for success

    Trade union general secretaries at Unite's launch
    Trade union general secretaries at Unite's launch

    The formation of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) heralds a new movement that can push the fascists into the background. Some 2,000 people attented the launch at the Astoria in London and this was followed up by a sellout event in which exciting new bands like The Libertines joined veteran anti-racists The Buzzcocks and The Clash's Mick Jones.

    There is much to do in the coming months to create a movement on the ground that can halt the BNP and the opportunity to build UAF at grassroots level is clearly there. The BNP is already feeling the heat--complaining that UAF is 'unfairly' branding it a Nazi outfit! This is yielding results. Ex-BNP Burnley councillor Maureen Stowe said that the BNP needed to be exposed for what it is and stopped in its tracks. She is supporting Unite by speaking out at rallies. She says she was conned, and that the Nazis have nothing to offer working class people.

    Binding the UAF coalition together are the trade unions. The TUC has called national mobilising committees in Birmingham and London to help organise mass leafleting on the days of action at the beginning of April. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has called on every trade unionist to join the leafleting. Socialists have an important role to play in making sure this initiative succeeds. It's not only the top leadership that takes anti-fascism seriously.

    CWU general secretary Billy Hayes is the UAF treasurer, and noticeable at the Astoria launch were delegations of trade unionists, not only from Greater London but from across the country. Hayes, to cheers, pledged full backing for every postal worker who refuses to deliver Nazi election material. The support of virtually all the major unions and the TUC, along with faith groups and anti-racist organisations, creates the opportunity for activists everywhere to mobilise real forces against the BNP.

    The urgent task now is to build a UAF at the grassroots to reflect the breadth at the top of the coalition. Regional UAF rallies are now being planned and built for across Britain. Given the stunning success of the launch rally, the message round the country must be aim high and you can mobilise significant numbers. They will be needed if anti-fascists are to dent the Nazi vote in the June elections.
    Weyman Bennett
    For more details telephone 020 7833 4916 or go to the website www.uaf.org.uk to join Unite

    Martin

    Pick your site

    The 20th anniversary of the miners' strike offers an opportunity to examine how the internet has been used to archive and record British trade union history. Unfortunately the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is one of the few British trade unions not to have a website, so material relating to the miners and their history is limited, or from a right wing point of view. The BBC has part of its site [1] devoted to the anniversary, and while its archive of images, film and interviews is extensive, it can be unusual. It includes, for instance, an 'animated map' that allows you to watch the 'UK's coal mines disappear'. Nevertheless, it does give you a good overview of the year-long struggle.

    A more sympathetic view of the miners is given at the website of NUJ member Martin Shakeshaft, a photographer who covered the strike.[2]

    The defeat of the miners in 1985 led to a period of sackings, victimisation and pit closures. The campaign to get Justice for Mineworkers who suffered as a result of this has an extensive website[3], with information on civil liberties, women's support groups and a strike chronology.

    The lack of effective solidarity is one of the major reasons for the strike's defeat, yet it is surprising that the TUC's website doesn't even record the anniversary. Their history and archive site 'The Union Makes Us Strong' [4] prefers to dwell on past glories, concentrating on two major moments of British working class history the 1888 Match Girls' strike and the 1926 General Strike. Both sections have many documents, images and archive material relating to the events (including over 2,000 pictures of the General Strike).

    This site also gives access to hundreds of TUC reports of its annual meetings-- allowing you, according to Brendan Barber's introduction, to see how the working people of Britain responded to 'the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the General Strike'.

    Finally, following on from an earlier article about trade unionists on the web, Geoff Brown emails to suggest the Labour Start website[5]. Its caption is 'Where Trade Unionists Start the Day', giving you the chance to read about and offer solidarity to workers' struggles today.
    Martin Empson
    E-mail ideas, suggestions and comments to martinempson@hushmail.com


    A Message for Our Readers

    This is the last issue of Socialist Review to be edited by Lindsey German. Lindsey has been editor since 1984 in which time Socialist Review has established itself as the biggest selling socialist monthly magazine in Britain, and an indispensable read for those involved in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement today. From the following issue Peter Morgan will be editing Socialist Review.


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