Tony Blair should be fired as Middle East envoy, say former ambassadors

The Guardian reports: A group of former British ambassadors have joined a campaign calling for Tony Blair to be removed from his role as Middle East envoy after his recent attempt to “absolve himself” of responsibility for the crisis in Iraq.

The letter, organised by the makers of George Galloway’s film The Killing of Tony Blair, says the 2003 invasion of Iraq was to blame for the rise of “fundamentalist terrorism in a land where none existed previously”.

The signatories, led by Blair’s former ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton, describe the former prime minister’s achievements as Middle East envoy as “negligible”.

Other former diplomats to sign the letter are Oliver Miles, who was ambassador to Libya when diplomatic relations were severed in 1984 after the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, and Christopher Long, ambassador to Egypt between 1992-95. [Continue reading...]

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British embassy reopens in Tehran as Iraq crisis helps thaw Iran relations

The Guardian reports: William Hague has announced that the British embassy in Iran will be reopened as jihadist gains in northern Iraq have forced the west to reassess its relations with Tehran.

The foreign secretary said the circumstances were right to restore the diplomatic mission after a significant thawing in relations in recent months.

“Our two primary concerns when considering whether to reopen our embassy in Tehran have been assurance that our staff would be safe and secure, and confidence that they would be able to carry out their functions without hindrance,” Hague told MPs in a written statement. [Continue reading...]

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Major terrorism trial could be held in secret for first time in UK legal history

The Guardian reports: A major terrorism trial is set to be held entirely in secret for the first time in British legal history in an unprecedented departure from the principles of open justice, the court of appeal has heard.

The identities of the two defendants charged with serious terror offences are being withheld from the public, and the media are banned from being present in court to report the forthcoming trial against the two men, known only as AB and CD.

The unprecedented secrecy has been imposed on the proceedings after the Crown Prosecution Service obtained legal orders to withhold the names of the defendants and allow the trial to take place in private on the grounds, they said, of national security.

At the court of appeal in London, Anthony Hudson, representing the Guardian and several other media organisations, challenged the orders, which will allow a secret criminal trial to take place for the first time in legal history. [Continue reading...]

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Britain cancels three arms contracts to Sisi’s Egypt

Middle East Eye reports: Britain cancelled export licenses for three arms contracts to Egypt’s military backed government in October last year, fearing the arms would be used for internal repression, the Middle East Eye can reveal.

The contracts were cancelled during a prolonged correspondence between officials of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the legal team acting on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The lawyers claim that it was a result of their representations that a second review of the contracts was carried out in October. An earlier blanket suspension was implemented in August last year, after the mass shootings of protesters in Cairo.

Edward Bell, head of export control and organization wrote to ITN solicitors on 13 January that “we consider there is now sufficient information available about the situation in Egypt to consider each extant licence and new application on a case-by-case basis rather than applying the blanket suspension which we implemented in August”. [Continue reading...]

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British jihadists in Syria are playing into Assad’s hands

David Wearing writes: The results of new research reported by the Guardian this week on young westerners who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war provide some fascinating insights into their motivations, their interactions with pro-jihadi communities online, and the groups they join when they arrive in the war zone.

According to researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, many of these young men are driven by what, in their minds, are humanitarian concerns for their co-religionists and the Syrian people. An article by George Monbiot comparing them to volunteers in the Spanish civil war was apparently very popular among these foreign fighters. But the fact that most volunteers (among whom the British are the largest contingent) appear to be joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), or Jabhat al-Nusra to a lesser extent, shows that far from helping the anti-Assad cause, they are probably helping him to stay in power, and imposing yet more suffering on the Syrian population. [Continue reading...]

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Britain increasingly invokes power to disown its citizens

The New York Times reports: The letter informing Mohamed Sakr that he had been stripped of his British citizenship arrived at his family’s house in London in September 2010. Mr. Sakr, born and raised here by British-Egyptian parents, was in Somalia at the time and was suspected by Western intelligence agencies of being a senior figure in the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.

Seventeen months later, an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a “very senior Egyptian,” though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011.

Senior American and British officials said there was no link between the British government’s decision to strip the men of their citizenship and the subsequent drone strikes against them, though they said the same intelligence may have led to both actions.

But the sequence of events effectively allowed the British authorities to sidestep questions about due process under British law, mirroring the debate in the United States over the rights of American citizens who are deemed terrorist threats. The United States and Britain have a long history of intelligence sharing and cooperation in fighting terrorist threats. [Continue reading...]

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UK’s Muslim Brotherhood inquiry looks like response to pressure from allies

Simon Tisdall writes: David Cameron’s decision to order an investigation into the “philosophy and activities” of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as they relate to Britain, stems from a broader nervousness in western European capitals about a wave of Islamist extremism and jihadism fed by the chaos in and around Syria.

But Downing Street’s decision also looks suspiciously like a response to specific political developments in Egypt, where the Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and to external pressure from close British allies.

The US and Saudi Arabia were never comfortable with the Brotherhood’s ascent to power in the person of Mohamed Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012.

So when Morsi was overthrown by a military coup in July last year, the Obama administration, while bleating about the importance of democracy and the Arab spring, made no great objection.

The US, which for decades backed another dictatorial Egyptian general, former president Hosni Mubarak, with billions of dollars in aid, quietly embraced the new junta’s leader, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sisi represented a way of doing things that Washington was used to, even if was heavy-handed. Here, apparently, was a man they could do business with.

In fact, Sisi’s efforts to strengthen his grip on power as he prepares to stand for the presidency next month have outdone Mubarak for sheer bloody-minded repressiveness. [Continue reading...]

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Remembering Tony Benn (1925-2014)

f13-iconTony Benn interviewed by Anthony Clare in 1995.

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Ukraine crisis: The impact on nuclear proliferation

o13-iconSteven Pifer writes: Russia’s military occupation of Ukrainian territory on the Crimean peninsula constitutes a blatant violation of the commitments that Moscow undertook in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine. The United States and United Kingdom, the other two signatories, now have an obligation to support Ukraine and penalize Russia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine found itself holding the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, including some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed to attack the United States. Working in a trilateral dialogue with Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, American diplomats helped to broker a deal —the January 1994 Trilateral Statement — under which Ukraine agreed to transfer all of the strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination and to dismantle all of the strategic delivery systems on its territory.

Kiev did this on the condition that it receive security guarantees or assurances. The Budapest Memorandum, signed on December 5, 1994, by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter three being the depositary states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that is, the states that receive the accession documents of other countries that join the treaty) laid out a set of assurances for Ukraine. These included commitments to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and existing borders; to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence; and to refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine. [Continue reading...]

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U.K. seeking to ensure Russia sanctions do not harm British financial interests

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: Britain is drawing up plans to ensure that any EU action against Russia over Ukraine will exempt the City of London, according to a secret government document photographed in Downing Street.

As David Cameron said Britain and its EU partners would put pressure on Moscow after it assumed control of Crimea, a government document drawn up for a meeting of senior ministers said that “London’s financial centre” should not be closed to Russians. It did say that visa restrictions and travel bans could be imposed on Russian officials.

The picture of the document was taken by the freelance photographer Steve Back, who specialises in spotting secret documents carried openly by officials entering Downing Street. The document was in the hands of an unnamed official attending a meeting of the national security council (NSC) called by the prime minister to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. [Continue reading...]

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British ex-Guantanamo inmate denies Syria-related terror charges

n13-iconReuters reports: A British man once held at Guantanamo Bay turned human rights campaigner told a court in London on Saturday he would plead not guilty to providing training and funding terrorism in Syria, police said.

Moazzam Begg, 45, who was released without charge from the U.S. military prison in Cuba in 2005, was detained at his home in Birmingham in central England last week and charged with terrorism offences dated between October 2012 and April 2013.

He appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court on Saturday and was remanded in custody to appear at London’s Old Bailey criminal court on March 14.

It is the first time he has ever faced any charges.

Begg was held by the U.S. government at Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, then Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, for nearly three years after being arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.

After his release, he founded Cage, a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of people detained during counter-terrorism operations.

Cage accused British authorities of “retraumatising” Begg by refusing to grant him bail, saying this was part of a campaign to criminalize legitimate activism. [Continue reading...]

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Guantanamo activist’s arrest sparks debate on foreign support for Syria

Moazzam-BeggThe Toronto Star reports: The arrest in Birmingham of Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and outspoken critic of Britain’s counterterrorism policies, has sparked a debate about foreign support for Syria’s conflict and accusations that the activist’s detention was politically motivated.

Begg, a 45-year-old British citizen who spent more than three years in Guantanamo before being released in 2005 without charge, was one of four people arrested in a terrorism sweep by West Midlands police Tuesday on suspicion of facilitating terrorism overseas.

Although it is rare to identify detained suspects who are not charged, West Midlands police confirmed Begg’s arrest to local media due to “high public interest.”

“All four arrests are connected,” Detective Superintendent Shaun Edwards told The Guardian, referring to Begg and a 36-year-old man, a 44-year-old woman and her son, aged 20, who were also taken into custody. “They were all preplanned and intelligence-led. There was no immediate risk to public safety.”

He added: “We continue to urge anyone planning to travel to Syria to read the advice issued by the Foreign Office.”

Begg, who was reportedly also questioned on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp, is the high-profile director of the London-based organization CAGE.

Through his advocacy work, he has met with foreign ministers, deputy prime ministers and Britain’s Lord Chancellor. According to a cable released through WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg once commended Begg as an ally in the sensitive task of settling Guantanamo detainees whom the Pentagon has cleared for release.

Begg has found himself targeted by Western security services in the past and recently had his passport confiscated. In 2011, he was barred from boarding a direct flight from London to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech. He was told he was being turned back in case the flight was rerouted to the U.S. [Continue reading...]

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British government aims to block extremist videos posted on foreign websites

n13-iconBBC News reports: The government is attempting to block all online extremist videos that help to radicalise impressionable young men.

The Home Office is in talks with internet companies to refuse access to violent films that are hosted abroad.

The plans have been drawn up by James Brokenshire, the ex-security minister who was promoted to immigration minister after the resignation of Conservative colleague Mark Harper.

Ministers are keen to tackle the threat from jihadists in Syria.

One minister told the BBC that about 2,000 Europeans are thought to be fighting in Syria, including at least 200 known to the British security services. [Continue reading...]

Leaving aside the issue of government officials being empowered to determine what constitutes an “extremist video,” the idea that such videos are driving force behind radicalization is dubious to begin with. How does the British government propose to insulate impressionable young men from the radicalizing effect of simply watching the news? And how long before news reporting itself gets overseen by a new Ministry of Information?

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Britain’s police state extends its powers

Henry Porter writes: There are two striking images of modern Britain in this week’s news. The first is the story that crime in Britain is at a 32-year low, which confirms evidence in statistical trends that, like most western countries, we are becoming a more orderly and law-abiding society.

The second is provided by the police, which, while suffering a thoroughly deserved collapse in their own reputation, seeks to draw a picture of chaos and misrule that demands ever harsher and more invasive policing techniques. Five years after the financial crash, the police are making the case for deploying water cannon to deal with expected “austerity riots”, when it is blindingly obvious that Britain has passed through a very difficult period without widespread disorder (the riots that began in Tottenham two years ago were mostly a failure of policing, not a response to economic conditions) and, moreover, the economy and employment have both picked up.

But the far more worrying development is the unscrutinised rollout of the police automated numberplate recognition system (ANPR) for tracking vehicles, which, according to Nick Hopkins’ report, currently stores 17bn images in its archive and is set to increase its capacity by 2018 to read and store 50-75 million separate vehicle sightings a day.

This is a very powerful surveillance system and the important thing to remember is that the decision to cover Britain’s motorways and town centres with cameras that track the movements of innocent citizens is that it was never debated by parliament. [Continue reading...]

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Devastating dossier on ‘abuse’ by UK forces in Iraq goes to International Criminal Court

The Independent reports: A devastating 250-page dossier, detailing allegations of beatings, electrocution, mock executions and sexual assault, has been presented to the International Criminal Court, and could result in some of Britain’s leading defence figures facing prosecution for “systematic” war crimes.

General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the British Army; former defence secretary Geoff Hoon; and former defence minister Adam Ingram are among those named in the report, entitled “The Responsibility of UK Officials for War Crimes Involving Systematic Detainee Abuse in Iraq from 2003-2008″.

The damning dossier draws on cases of more than 400 Iraqis, representing “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

They range from “hooding” prisoners to burning, electric shocks, threats to kill and “cultural and religious humiliation”. Other forms of alleged abuse include sexual assault, mock executions, threats of rape, death, and torture.

The formal complaint to the ICC, lodged yesterday, is the cumulation of several years’ work by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). It calls for an investigation into the alleged war crimes, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute.

The dossier, seen by The Independent on Sunday, is the most detailed ever submitted to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor on war crimes allegedly committed by British forces in Iraq. The court has already acknowledged that there was little doubt that war crimes were committed. [Continue reading...]

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How Zionist terrorism threatened Britain after World War Two

Calder Walton writes: Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 [Britain's domestic counterintelligence and security agency] was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi (“National Military Organization,” or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for “Freedom Fighters of Israel”), which the British also termed the “Stern Gang,” after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years — blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state — legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5′s involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang.

MI5′s involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism.

As World War II came to a close, MI5 received a stream of intelligence reports warning that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were not just planning violence in the Mandate of Palestine, but were also plotting to launch attacks inside Britain. In April 1945 an urgent cable from MI5′s outfit in the Middle East, SIME, warned that Victory in Europe (VE-Day) would be a D-Day for Jewish terrorists in the Middle East. Then, in the spring and summer of 1946, coinciding with a sharp escalation of anti-British violence in Palestine, MI5 received apparently reliable reports from SIME that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to send five terrorist “cells” to London, “to work on IRA lines.” To use their own words, the terrorists intended to “beat the dog in his own kennel.” The SIME reports were derived from the interrogation of captured Irgun and Stern Gang fighters, from local police agents in Palestine, and from liaisons with official Zionist political groups like the Jewish Agency. They stated that among the targets for assassination were Britain’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was regarded as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the prime minister himself. MI5′s new director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe, was so alarmed that in August 1946 he personally briefed the prime minister on the situation, warning him that an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility, and that his own name was known to be on a Stern Gang hit list.

The Irgun and the Stern Gang’s wartime track record ensured that MI5 took these warnings seriously. In November 1944 the Stern Gang had assassinated the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, while he was returning to his rented villa after a luncheon engagement in Cairo. Moyne’s murder was followed by an escalation of violence in Palestine, with incidents against the British and Irgun and Stern Gang fighters being followed by bloody reprisals. In mid-June 1946, after the Irgun launched a wave of attacks, bombing five trains and 10 of the 11 bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring states, London’s restraint finally broke. British forces conducted mass arrests across Palestine (codenamed Operation Agatha), culminating on June 29 — a day known as “Black Sabbath” because it was a Saturday — with the detention of more than 2,700 Zionist leaders and minor officials, as well as officers of the official Jewish defense force (Haganah) and its crack commandos (Palmach). None of the important Irgun or Stern Gang leaders was caught in the dragnet, and its result was merely to goad them into even more violent counteractions. On July 22, the Irgun dealt a devastating blow, codenamed Operation Chick, to the heart of British rule in Palestine when it bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the offices of British officialdom in the Mandate, as well as serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine.

The bombing was planned by the leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, later to be the sixth prime minister of Israel and the joint winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. On the morning of July 22, six young Irgun members entered the hotel disguised as Arabs, carrying milk churns packed with 500 pounds of explosives. At 12:37 p.m. the bombs exploded, ripping the facade from the southwest corner of the building. This caused the collapse of several floors in the hotel, resulting in the deaths of 91 people. In terms of fatalities, the King David Hotel bombing was one of the worst terrorist atrocities inflicted on the British in the twentieth century. It was also a direct attack on British intelligence and counterterrorist efforts in Palestine: both MI5 and SIS — the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 — had stations in the hotel. [Continue reading...]

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