This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Looking for lost evidence

A little while ago the American evangelist Pat Robertson, while talking about the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, said it was time the United States took him out. Robertson would have to guide someone like me, an atheist, to the biblical reference that justifies the killing of a world leader to stabilise oil supply, but I am sure it is there amid the pillars of salt and jawbones of asses. Rather than argue with Pat on theological grounds through these pages, it would be far better to invite him to the UK to speak. Perhaps some liberal Christians might even help out by offering a formal invitation.

Pat’s public incitements to kill Chavez are a matter of record, so once in the UK it should be relatively easy for Charles Clarke to arrest him as a preacher of hate. If we can get him in after the new anti-terror legislation is passed, he could be detained for three months without charge and deported back to America. The trouble is that, as the US outsources torture to Egypt and Guantanamo Bay and retains the death penalty on its own shores, Britain would probably have to negotiate a special agreement with the US, to make sure Pat didn’t suffer any ill-treatment on his return.

These new “anti-terror” measures stand a good chance of becoming law. After the London bombings of 7 July and the alleged attempts on 21 July, the police asked for increased powers; they stand a good chance of getting them, too. Such was the sense of fear, outrage and shock, that Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, could have said, “In order to fight terrorism we need to be able to hold suspects without charge for three months, and we need new police cars: Porsches, with tinted windows. And new machine-guns, made of gold . . .” – and the Home Secretary would have considered it.

Naturally, holding a suspect for three months would make the police’s job easier, but then abolishing juries would make their job easier, too. And getting rid of the whole bothersome process of a trial and evidence would make policing a doddle. This might seem glib, but consider the number of miscarriages of justice that have occurred, and continue to occur.

On 12 October, a court began hearing the appeals of two Scottish men, Billy Allison and Steven Johnston, who were convicted of the murder of Andrew Forsyth in a frenzied attack in November 1995. During the trial the jury was told that “to bring home a conviction against Steven Johnston, the deceased would require to have died on Friday 3 November”.

Forsyth’s body was found on 9 November, and in 1996 Johnston was banged up for life for the killing. So was Allison.

However, evidence has come to light that Forsyth did not die on 3 November 1995. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission found four witness statements by people who claimed they had seen Forsyth alive days after the date police said he had died. This is crucial. If Forsyth was alive after that date, why did the court convict Johnston of killing him?

The eyewitnesses who gave statements included a newsagent, who claimed Forsyth came into his shop for a paper on 4 November. Another man saw Forsyth drinking in a bar on 8 November, five days after he is supposed to have died. Maybe Pat Robertson could help me out here: Jesus, too, was seen after His death, but did the Resurrection involve a pint and a quick read of the paper?

Crucially, the police did not disclose these statements to the defence team. Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the former Lord Advocate, said that “at best this is unacceptable bumbling incompetence, and at its worst . . . it may be criminal”. Equally alarming is that the Scottish Crown Office knew the police had withheld the crucial witness statements back in February 1997. Having previously claimed that “all statements taken by the police in this case” had been handed to the Procurator Fiscal, Deputy Crown Agent Norman McFadyen wrote on 3 February 1997: “It is now clear that the information which I had previously conveyed to you in my letter . . . was inaccurate and misleading in relation to the retention of the results of the enquiries of the police and the taking of statements.” If the authorities knew of the missing witness statements in 1997 why have these men waited until 2005 to get an appeal?

This is not the first time police have withheld or “lost” evidence in criminal trials. Perhaps the most notorious case was that of John Kamara, wrongly jailed for the murder of a Liverpool bookmaker. Kamara served 19 years in prison before being freed on appeal, when the police found a flabbergasting 201 witness statements proving that he could not have committed the murder. These 201 statements had not been released to the court.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the body that examines miscarriage-of-justice pleas, is actively working on 428 cases, with a further 347 waiting to be reviewed. So far, of the 235 the CCRC has examined and referred to appeal, 165 have resulted in the convictions being quashed, or the sentence reduced.

So will the power to detain suspects without charge for three months make the police more thorough in assembling their cases, or will it become easier to withhold and fabricate evidence? Maybe Pat Robertson’s hotline to the Lord can help out with that question when the preacher gets to our shores.

Friday, October 07, 2005

America is on the side of the angels

We expect politicians to say preposterous things: it's part of the pay-off for having them. They get into office, promptly ignore us and then berate us for not being interested in them. On the upside, we can always rely on them to utter something so ridiculous, it makes David Icke appear statesmanlike. Charles Clarke, for example, said he hoped to have abolished antisocial behaviour by 2010. For anyone interested in joining this vital debate, I'm spending New Year's Eve 2010 on Clarke's doorstep. As the midnight chimes usher in 2011, I'll be shouting "Wanker" through his letter box. At present, this is on the cusp of the legal definition of terrorist activity; God knows how it will be regarded by 2011. So if you want to join me, please bring body armour and three months' worth of reading material with you.

Despite believing we should never underestimate new Labour's reactionary capabilities, I am surprised to hear myself saying that "new Labour is losing ground to the Tories on international human rights", and "UK foreign policy should follow America's lead". Just saying these words sounds wrong, in the same way as choosing to play a Gary Glitter song does (though that doesn't rule out Blair walking on to "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)" at the next party conference). But, in the case of Burma, the neo-cons might just be on the side of the angels.

On 20 September came the publication of a report commissioned by Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic, dissident and Velvet Underground fan - so not too bad a chap) and Bishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prizewinner, anti-apartheid activist and easily the best dancer the clergy has ever put forward - again, not too bad a chap).

The report, compiled by the international law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, is called Threat to the Peace: a call for the UN Security Council to act in Burma. The report lists the abuses and horrors of the Burmese military regime and compares Burma's record with those of other countries that have come before the UN Security Council. Burma's case is unique, in that it ticks every single one of the boxes for international action. Let's run through them:

1) Overthrow of a democratic government - the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won elections in 1990 with more than 80 per cent of the vote but has never been allowed to take office.

2) Factional conflict - the "protracted and violent oppression of ethnic groups in Burma".

3) Widespread human-rights violations - use of forced labour and child soldiers; destruction of 2,700 villages since 1996; frequent raping of women from ethnic minorities by government troops.

4) Outflow of refugees - almost 700,000 refugees have come out of Burma in recent years.

5) Drug protection and drug trafficking - it's the Afghanistan of the Far East. Nuff said.

Burma surely qualifies as a candidate for international action, even before you also consider that its military budget is between 30 and 50 per cent of total annual spending - this despite World Health Organisation rankings for public healthcare that place Burma 190th in a field of 191 countries.

It is important to say that this is not a call for military intervention. I know the Americans are backing the demand to bring Burma before the Security Council, but they have not invaded every country that has been the target of Council action (it just feels like that sometimes). The call is for the international community to focus diplomatic pressure on Burma.

Yet the British government is not following America's lead on this, nor is it supporting the call to put Burma before the UN Security Council. At the most inopportune moment, Jack Straw and Tony Blair have developed a sense of independence. This means George Bush is now in a position to defend the UK/US alliance on the grounds that it enables him to curb some of Blair's reactionary excesses.

The Conservative MP John Bercow, joint chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, knows what should be done: "It is time the UN Security Council denounced this bunch of sadistic thugs . . . It should demand that the government of Burma stop abusing its own citizens, release all political prisoners and set out an agreed timetable for the transition to democracy. Failing this, the UN should apply rigorous, targeted economic sanctions to squeeze the junta until it bursts." A Tory said that!

Roger Lyons, a patron of the Burma Campaign, said: "This is the worst position the UK government could put itself in... The Tories and America have outflanked Labour on this issue."

No doubt Foreign Office mandarins will mutter about the British way of making protests in private, but where has this got us? The newly appointed Foreign Office desk officer for Burma was due to visit the country a few months ago but, according to Lyons, he wasn't given a visa. "This is an unprecedented slap in the face for the UK government," he said.

I might not expect much from politicians, but you would have thought, at a time when the Tories and the US are outflanking Blair, that he would do the right thing - if only as an act of self-preservation.