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In Scotland we have a tradition of coming together to celebrate Hogmanay. It is a time to celebrate friendship, for Auld Lang Syne, and to think of our hopes and resolutions for the New Year.
This will be the third New Year that my friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Al Khawaja will celebrate in prison in Bahrain where he is serving a life sentence for speaking out for human rights.
For someone who believes in humanity the 26th of June is always difficult. I don't generally pay too much attention to the myriad of international days marking a diversity of issues, but the international day in support of victims of torture has always been that bit more poignant. The continuing widespread use of torture around the world is not only a bitter litany of individual acts of brutality, but is also a slap on the face to all of us who believe in the capacity of humanity to make a better world.
One of the privileges of working with Front Line Defenders is that I meet more and more human rights defenders who continue their work on behalf of others in the face of repression. Many of these brave people have been tortured. They are not statistics or victims, they are survivors who sustain a determination to struggle for justice and human rights.
Kenyans took to twitter in the last days before their election to criticise foreign journalists and NGOs for talking up the potential for violence. There have been multiple fairly scathing comments with the hashtag #TellCNN because of what was perceived to be a sensationalist and ill informed report.
We drove out of Nairobi on Monday morning through near empty streets except for the long lines of voters queueing outside polling stations. We drove down to Machakos where we saw calm and peaceful Kenyans queueing more than a kilometre in one central location and another polling station that was almost empty about a kilometre away. In what became the theme of the day, the dignified determination of Kenyans to vote was leavened by some frustration at the quality of organization.
It has to be said that it is a hugely complex process given that voters are expected to cope with six different ballot papers and ballot boxes: President, Governor, Member of Parliament, Senator, County Women's Representative (one MP elected in each of 47 counties from an all women list) and County Assembly representative.
It was a little strange to hear the phrase “they don't like it because they want to be perceived as Robin Hood,” during a discussion in Spanish on attempts to close down independent community groups in the barrios of Caracas.
Seven years ago I visited the police state of Tunisia for the absurd UN Summit on the Information Society. Absurd because the UN was celebrating the information society in a decaying, corrupt dictatorship which led the world in internet censorship. We protested at the unjust imprisonment and torture of human rights defender Mohammed Abbou. We visited the hunger strikers who had launched a fast for human rights and democracy on 18th October.
It has of course taken far too long but the decision of the High Court in London to allow three Kenyans to proceed with a civil claim against the UK Government for torture is very welcome news. Sadly many of the victims that the UK now admits were tortured have not lived long enough to see this significant step towards accountability. The UK Government should now abandon their shameful attempts to deny liability and accept their responsibility.
It was interesting to spend a few days in South Africa last week and to hear some different perspectives from the media and from those I met with about the resignation of Kofi Annan and the unfolding developments in Syria. The Western media has been lamenting how the protection of civilians in Syria has been cruelly thwarted by the pesky Russians who are determined to maintain a naval base on the Mediterranean. Those I spoke with in Johannesburg were not lacking in compassion for the innocent victims in Syria, but they were much more critical about what they perceived as the duplicity and double standards of Western Governments.
The West is perceived to be seeking to topple an authoritarian regime in Syria not because of any commitment to the human rights of people in Syria, but because of a desire to weaken Iran. Several people pointed out to me that alongside a public strategy of blaming Russia the West has been quietly supporting the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm opposition groups in Syria.
It was good to have the opportunity to make a presentation at the OSCE Dublin Conference on Internet Freedom last week as it enabled me to raise the cases of human rights defenders Roza Tuletaeva (Kazakhstan), Maxim Efimov (Russia) and Ali Abdulemam (Bahrain). I also raised concerns about the UK Government's damaging proposals for mass surveillance of the Internet.
It was obvious 12 months ago that sentencing human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja to life in prison after torturing him and subjecting him to a show trial before a military court was a sign of weakness and desperation from the side of Bahrain's rulers. They were frantically trying to construct a conspiracy of foreign subversion even as all the world could see that the truth was bloody repression of peaceful protests. They even detained, tortured and prosecuted medical professionals who had had the affront to tell the truth about those who had been tortured and killed. The attempt at a cover up was a pathetic failure in spite of millions spent on Western PR agencies.
It is difficult to imagine what could be a greater insult to the Thai monarchy than the current operation by over-zealous officials of the country's Lese-Majeste law (article 112 of Thailand's criminal code). The law which is intended to protect the image of the royal family has increasingly been used in politically motivated cases with an overly broad interpretation and excessive penalties since the coup in 2006.