Thursday, June 29, 2006

When Bankers are treated like Terrorists

Critics of hastily arranged anti-terror legislation have long been warning that the laws allegedly intended to make us safe would ultimately remove our civil liberties step by step and put us all at the mercy of Big Brother's overreaching government. Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than today's demonstration by an unlikely group of protesters: business executives petitioning Downing Street about the inequity of Britain's new extradition treaty with the US.

In a letter to Home Secretary John Reid, prompted by the lost battle of three NatWest bankers to fight extradition to the US, the businessmen complain that the existing arrangement is inequitable because US officials have to offer less proof of wrongdoing than their UK counterparts. The US can ask for the extradition of UK citizens without any prima facie evidence of any misdemeanour, and the Home Office will simply rubber stamp the request. "We are extremely concerned that the current arrangements for extradition to the US expose British business people to unique and serious risks," they say in their letter. "Not only are our arrangements non-reciprocal but they deprive British business people of the opportunity to defend themselves, under UK jurisdiction, against allegations of conduct which patently should be heard in a UK court."
David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew were wanted by the US authorities as part of the fraud investigations following the Enron scandal. Ironically, the three are supported by Liberty who first fought the new extradition treaty on behalf of Barbar Ahmed, a so-called terror suspect whom they would most certainly not have supported in his struggle for justice. And this is precisely the point: The British people are turning a blind eye at government infringing the rights of individuals because those individuals are only "Muslim terrorists". When the chicken eventually come home to roost and they realise that those very same laws are also going to be used against them, it is too late to shed tears.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Africa looking East

The British government is eager to keep Africa on the agenda and make sure the promises of Gleneagles last year are kept. Whilst during the original life aid campaign of the 80's headed in the Bob Geldof the then Thatcher government wanted to earn tax on the donations, the New Labour government is genuinely interested in eradicating poverty in Africa, or is it?

At the G8 summit in Gleneagles it was difficult to get firm commitment from the participating governments. A package of debt relief was promised, but soon everybody back paddled and a convenient way of not having to pay up was attaching conditions. Debt cancellation had to be subject to reform and progress on human rights – the old stick and carrot approach.

Now, suddenly, there is renewed urgency. Tony Blair launched the Africa Progress Panel chaired by Kofi Annan and funded by Bill Gates. Did Africa weigh heavy on the conscience of Britain, the colonial power who after withdrawing direct rule successfully kept the continent enslaved through burdening them with unpayable debt? There might be a much more sober explanation for the flurry of renewed interesting Africa: Africa has turned her back on Europe and America. In fact, Africa doesn't need them anymore.

After having raped the continent for decades, the colonialists are beginning to realise that Africa has attracted a new suitor, China who is courting African countries and distributing carrots rather than beating them with a stick. Already, China has cancelled $1.3 billion of debt in 31 African countries. China is interested in resources, but is providing infrastructure and consumer goods and is gradually expanding her political influence where Western arrogance had assumed everlasting control. At a African-Chinese trade summit more than two years ago Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe urged African leaders to turn their back on Britain and the US and focus on better relations with China who respected African countries. This call is now being heeded to such a degree that even the Council on Foreign Relations is concerned about it.

China's multi-billion dollar investment in Africa is free from interference and with not strings attached, but it is not non-political. China is also selling arms to African nations, gradually shifting their dependency from the West to the East. Quietly, away from the public eye, resource rich Africa has once more become the battle ground for world domination. Rather than the sudden concern of politicians like Tony Blair about starving children, it is probably the competition by the new rising super power which prompts the self-declared International Community (which has a heavy Western tilt) to want keep Africa on top of the agenda.

China has sat back and watched how the power game is played. Slowly they are getting better at it than their teachers. Which also puts an interesting twist on the Anglo-American venture in Afghanistan. Russia was defeated by Afghan guerrillas armed by the US. If China clandestinely supplies the Taliban with equipment, the Brits, who have only just gone back, will find their stay even more deadly this time than when they first ruled India, and America will slowly bleed to death.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Who wants to close Guantanamo?

Amnesty International Bahrain has proposed an online petition to the US Congress for closing the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The petition, entitled 10,000 Voices for Justice, also calls for the detainees not to be transferred to another country where they will face further violations of their human rights.

At the same time the UK has just deported a second detainee held without charge under terrorism legislation from Belmarsh High Security prison to Algeria. A home office spokesman said that "The British government is grateful to the Algerian authorities for their co-operation in facilitating the deportation of this individual." Whatever assurances the Algerian government might have given about not mistreating people deported to them from Britain, they are, given their factual record of human rights abuses, hardly worth the paper it was written on – that is if anything was ever put in writing at all.

The Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, detention without charge and trial, extraordinary rendition flights – they all indicate that the principles of accountability of the state and legal protection for its citizens, which Western countries claim to uphold, have become a farce. East London saw the second occasion of an innocent man being shot by anti-terrorism police. Luckily for the Bengali Mohammed Abdul Kahar he survived, unlike the Brazilian Charles de Menezes murdered in cold blood on the London underground in July last year.

Police have apologised in this latest Hollywood style crime bust, but the apology was half-hearted since at the same time they stated that they had no choice, and Home Secretary John Reid even warned that there would have to be more raids like that in the future. He also said: “The police are acting in the best interests of the whole community in order to protect the whole community and therefore deserve the support of the whole community in doing what is often a very dangerous job often involving difficult decisions.” This sounds very much like Alice in Wonderland. It is based on the assumption that the moment innocent people are targeted in an anti-terror raid, they are no longer innocent. The truth is that the whole community suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the police and can no longer feel safe from being terrorised by government sponsored hysteria. Allegedly the whole episode was brought on by a hoax call on an anti-terror hotline. If you have neighbours you don't like, now you know what to do about it.

What recent events also show is that the general public has lost its conscience and become insensitive to the injustices perpetrated by the state in their name. This even includes the Muslim communities who are the express target of the draconian measures put into place after government-sponsored terror acts like 9/11 or 7/7. The prophet of Islam, Muhammad – peace be with him – described the Muslim nation (ummah) as like a single body which reacts with shaking and fever if any of its limbs suffers. I am doubtful whether this is still the case. The petition mentioned at the beginning of this article only aims for a humble 10,000 signatures. So far, there are just over 2000. Maybe a few mouse clicks in support of brothers held inhumanely in a notorious prison camp are just too much to ask.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The joys and woes of customer support

Technology is a wonderful thing until it goes wrong. Most companies lack an understanding that poor customer support can destroy the loyalty of existing customers more quickly and lastingly than it is possible to attract new customers with good design and innovation. Some European companies are slowly beginning to learn that lesson.

British electricity and gas supply company Powergen, for example, have decided to close their call centres in India and serve customers calling for support from within the UK. Call centre operators in India may be cheap, but unless they have been sufficiently trained in a knowledge of British geography and customs they are of little use to callers from the UK. My own experience tells me that the companies who wanted to save in labour cost did not spend the extra money in training.

Amongst the worst culprits are telephone and software companies as well as internet service providers. I remember having been charged VAT during an online purchase on top an already VAT inclusive price when buying a software item from ScanSoft, now called Nuance. Naturally, I wanted a refund. When calling their support line I found myself having to explain to a poor chap in the Far East the concept of VAT and that prices can be quoted as inclusive or exclusive of tax. In the end I had to put my request in writing to the company's registered address.

To add insult to injury many companies make money from their inefficient customer service provision by insisting that enquirers call a high-rate number and thus part with their hard earned cash whilst navigating numerous automated switchboard options, being put on hold endlessly, or trying to explain their concern to someone totally incompetent to deal with the most simple of matters. Thankfully there is a website providing alternative standard geographical numbers for those high rated ones: Where a freephone number is also quoted, I always choose that one in revenge to make the profiteering company pay.

However annoying an unnerving it is to have to spend hours in trying to resolve a simple problem, over time one accumulates an interesting array of fireside stories during those encounters with inapt customer support departments. Here are some gems: I phoned an internet provider (Onetel) about a problem with their webspace only to be asked by the technical support staff answering my query what "ftp" stood for. When I translated it to "file transport protocol" he admitted never having heard of that before and promised to transfer me to a colleague. Whilst being put on hold I got conveniently cut off. It took a total of two days to eventually be told by somebody who knew their own company's procedures that in order to obtain web space for a Onetel broadband account you have to open a pay-as-you-go dial-up account first which you will never need again afterwards.

Or take Group 3 Technology Limited, a company who actually wanted me to review their new internet phones, but whose technical support was unable to release the pre-programmed phone numbers to permit actual calls to be made. Needless to say that the review did not go in their favour. Another favourite of mine are the people from Comodo Personal Firewall, an excellent product until they decided to mess it up with an unnecessary upgrade. Whilst everything worked fine before the upgrade, the firewall refused to let any traffic through after the upgrade was installed. The email answer I got from their support was: "Hope you are having problem with LAN, since we don't seem to be getting such an issue with any of other customers." Thanks for the good wishes I thought and reinstalled the earlier version, after which everything worked just right again, except for the occasional nag screen that there is a new update available. If only they tested these "improvements" before tormenting the unsuspecting end user.

I had a similar problem with Nero. Their latest update destroyed the compatibility with other DVD recording software. Others had similar experiences which they posted on the web. As is common for software companies, they always blame the software from another vendor first, but since uninstalling the update returned everything back into a working state, only the update could be blamed. To be fair to Nero they eventually admitted that it was their problem and promised to work on a solution for future updates. But then they are based in Germany, not England.

Anglo-American software companies seem to employ a strategy of putting customers off by insisting they first of all restart Windows, or even reinstall it, before addressing the concern you called them with. I'm no friend of Microsoft software, but reinstalling Windows is not the panacea for every badly behaving program, and if you do it whilst talking to them on a high-rate phone number they are probably making more money from support calls than from selling their software in the first place. Maybe that's the general idea. By the way, when the hosting provider very recently had a server outage for two days running - caused by a physical move of the server as later transpired - they put an automated tape on their support number blaming a Microsoft update and asking people who wanted to talk to a customer support advisor to go to their support website instead, forgetting that this very website was also down!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Zarqawi Bin Laden factor

Coalition forces in Iraq were in desperate need for good news after the formation of the new Iraqi puppet government itself did not deflect the negative perception of the failed invasion by United States and United Kingdom forces. Whilst Blair was padding himself on the back during his visit to Baghdad for having played midwife to this illegitimate government under occupation, the rest of the world considered the role of the US and UK in Iraq already as a lost venture. In their interview with the Iranian president, for example, the German magazine Der Spiegel repeatedly and without prompt referred to the war in Iraq as having been lost by the Americans, saying "The United States has suffered a de facto defeat in Iraq", and "The United States has practically lost this war."

Enter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who was credited with every little hiccup encountered by the occupation forces in order to show how powerful an enemy the CIA-sponsored al-Qaidah really was. Like good script writers for a sitcom they now finally wrote him out of the picture with a glorious departure. Just as he was presenting a menacing face of the enemy to justify the continued operations by the coalition forces in Iraq he now, posthumously, helps to show that the Iraqi forces, who were credited with killing him, are finally up to the job and that with the help of the Americans they are turning the situation around.

There is only one thing the script writers must now be very careful about and that is not to resurrect him because of his popularity hitherto. Bin Laden, for example, a man dependent on a dialysis machine who could never have survived the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan in a cave hideout keeps popping up with recorded messages. Writing him out of the script now will be a lot more difficult, although eventually we might get this erstwhile most wanted man identified by "finger printing and facial recognition" amongst the bodies of a blast devastating a mosque or a residential dwelling. But because Zarqawi never quite gained the same kind of notoriety he might inadvertently be credited again with some insurgency action by a pundit who did not remember his demise. If the Americans want to succeed in their media war on terror they must ensure that this leader of the foreign fighters in Iraq (indeed, this is how he was often described, as if Bush and Blair were leaders of native Iraqi soldiers) will never be raised from the dead.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

German magazine defies Holocaust hate laws

The German magazine Der Spiegel has landed a major coup in its latest edition not for doing a rare exclusive interview with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but for allowing him to express views which would have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence had they been stated by a German national. It is not clear whether this was the intention of Der Spiegel, which in an editorial distanced itself from the remarks by the Iranian president, but the publication will have been as decisive a step towards scrapping the thought crime laws dating from the period of allied occupation as the publication of "Crabwalk" by the famous German author Günther Grass a few years ago.

Grass' book was the first to break the taboo of talking about Germans and Germany in other terms than those of the evil perpetrators when dealing with the Second World War. He highlighted those "Other losses" and gave German readers the sense that they, too, had been victimised by those events. Discussing the Holocaust and the shadow it cast over Germany and generations of Germans, however, remained taboo, and German citizens would not only be punished for "defaming the memory of the dead", but even for not balancing any remarks casting doubt on the official holocaust dogma with the usual mantra of the eternal victimisation of Jews who were thereby absolved from any culpability for whatever they have done or might do to anybody else. In 1997, for example, a German court found Udo Walendy guilty not for knowingly publishing lies but for publishing a "one-sided" account of history and not giving sufficient attention to alternative interpretations. He was charged of having "on a very scholarly-historical basis" published quotations and facts that contradicted "in many specific points, the accepted version of German guilt for the Holocaust and other National Socialist crimes". Freedom of speech? For Walendy, Deckert, Toben, Rudolf and Zündel it comes at the price of several years in prison.

So Der Spiegel filled several pages with a rebuttal of what Ahmedinejad had to say, but it allowed him to question the veracity of the official Holocaust version, let him get away with saying that if the Holocaust happened as claimed and Germans or Europeans were collectively guilty then Israelis should be repatriated to Europe, and if it didn't then there was even less justification for the Palestinians to suffer occupation and injustice at their hands. The Iranian president was even allowed to challenge the anachronistic situation where scientific research into the Holocaust is punishable by prison under German law should it result in findings unfavourable to or objectionable by the Jewish lobby and he was given permission to say that the young generation of Germans should not be made to feel guilty for whatever their great grandparents might have done and that Germans should stop allowing themselves to be humiliated by the Zionists after having paid reparations for decades.

So far there has been condemnation of Ahmedinejad – who performed infinitely better in this interview than in his lengthy letter to the American president – but no threat of legal action against Der Spiegel. If this published interview remains unchallenged in the courts then it should now be permissible in Germany to report the views of Holocaust revisionists, and as long as the revisionists themselves are not German no charges would be brought. Germans, hitherto forbidden from discussing these issues, might now do so simply by quoting what others have said without adding their own opinion or judgment. The first cracks in the political and legal edifice to protect the Holocaust industry from criticism have started to appear and are likely to widen over time.