Interpol: Red Alert

THE WAR THE WORLD FORGOT

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

To the northeast of rebel-held territory in the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan, in Sudan, there stands a small symmetrical hill, called Al Azarak. It is surrounded in the rainy season by lush green land which used to provide a good living for the small farmers who lived here. But no longer.

 

Al Azarak was the scene of bitter fighting between the SAF and the SPLA

Last April it was seized by the forces of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a multi-pronged offensive designed to overwhelm the forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army North (SPLA-N) in this central area of the Nuba mountains.

The offensive failed, and Bashir's forces were driven back on most fronts. Their only significant gain was this small hill, which is today the focal point of a tense military standoff. It now seems inevitable that when the fighting season resumes with the end of the rains in a couple of months, the trigger for renewed conflict will be the fight for this rather beautiful little hill.

This forgotten war began five years ago, just a couple of weeks before the partition of Sudan and the creation of the world's newest state of South Sudan. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile had fought with the south in Sudan's long and bitter civil war, but were left in the north after partition.

The people of these two areas had been promised a public consultation on their future. But instead, Sudan launched a pre-emptive war against them. The SPLA-N fought back. Today they, and their political movement, the SPLM-N, insist that they have no desire to be part of the newly independent South Sudan, run by their bitterly feuding former comrades.

Instead, they say they want the overthrow of Bashir, and the creation of a new, democratic Sudan, in which the decades of discrimination against the Nuban people is ended.

I visited the rebel-held areas in 2011 just as this new war began. In those days, although Khartoum had banned anyone from entering the territory, it was still possible to fly in and land on an improvised runway cut from the bush. Today Bashir's bombs have made that impossible. Instead you must travel illegally, overland, from South Sudan - and in the rainy season that can only be done on quad bikes, a journey that can take the best part of two days.

This is a cruel war, being fought on two fronts by the Sudanese government. The first is their conventional war with the SPLM North's army, the SPLA-N. That is a war no one is likely to win. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are far larger and far better equipped than the SPLA. They are also backed by a large number of mercenaries and militias. But the SPLA know the area, are much fleeter of foot and, as they will often insist, they are volunteers fighting for their homeland. After five years of bitter fighting neither side has made significant gains.

But the government's second front is far less conventional. It is a war against civilians. A war fought using bombs dropped randomly on civilian targets, effectively rolled out of the back of old Russian Antonov transport planes.

While we were there we passed schools, hospitals and farmsteads destroyed by government bombing. In Kauda, the rebels' administrative capital, the government hospital has been abandoned after three huge parachute bombs failed to explode. Today they still sit there, embedded in the ground, a permanent, lethal threat. And there is no one who can disarm them because all NGOs, including de-mining companies, are banned by Khartoum.

Further north, on the way to the frontline at Al Azarak, we met Fatana Kodi and Abduraman Alom. Two months ago their four young children were playing with two friends in their small farmstead when two government jets flew overhead and shelled their home. All six children died instantly. There was no conceivable military target in the area. As we arrived we could hear the drone of an Antonov plane above - a constant threat.

Mothers displaced by the SAF assault on the village of Al Azarak [Al Jazeera]

But there is another tactic that Khartoum is accused of employing, and perhaps the most sinister of all. Locals say the government is deliberately preventing humanitarian access to the area, using the denial of food and aid as a weapon of war.

They also accuse the government of targeting agricultural land - as at the hill of Al Azarak - in an attempt to starve out the population. Locals warn of a growing incidence of malnutrition and epidemics caused by the lack of medical facilities and vaccination programmes.

The Sudanese government rejects these claims completely. A spokesman accused the SPLM-N of "terrorising" the population. He described them as "a branch of the SPLM that misrules South Sudan," and claimed that "arms and salaries are transferred through the porous border".

Last month, Khartoum announced a unilateral ceasefire, describing it as a chance for the SPLA-N "to join the peace process and surrender their arms". It played well internationally but was dismissed as meaningless by people in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile who say fighting is largely suspended during these months anyway because the rainy season renders the government's heavy artillery immobile.

Last week the African Union-mediated peace talks stalled after Khartoum rejected the SPLM's calls on Khartoum to lift its blockade on humanitarian aid and allow access via Ethiopia. The government said the route could be used to supply weapons to the rebels. The SPLM-N, which believes Khartoum would use exclusive controls over humanitarian access strategically as a weapon of war, suggested a compromise whereby 80 percent came via the government and only 20 percent via Ethiopia, but that was rejected.

And so the people of both South Kordofan and the Blue Nile are preparing once again for the fighting to restart. It would mark the start of year six of this forgotten war.

 
Americas New Frontline Part 1
Diplomats or Warriors?

Interpol: Red Alert

Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

Benny Wenda still remembers the day when he found out he was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice. He had googled his name, and found the wanted alert.

A campaigner for the independence of his native West Papua from Indonesia, Wenda had been granted asylum in the UK. The Interpol Red Notice said he was wanted for offences involving the use of weapons and explosives, charges Wenda had long insisted were brought by Indonesia to silence him.

At his home, Wenda told us of the fight to get his Interpol notice deleted, and the eventual conclusion - that the case against him was "predominantly political in nature". But it still left the question of how this could happen. How could a global policing organisation with the reputation of Interpol be used for apparently political ends?

It was a question we were to hear frequently during the course of our research, meeting several individuals who said they had been unfairly targeted for extradition and arrest.

In Brussels, Bahar Kimyongur, an activist who has campaigned over human rights in Turkey, told us how an Interpol notice led to his detention in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Turkey had alleged Kimyongur had links with terrorism, but when European authorities investigated they concluded that the charges didn't stack up. Nevertheless, it took sustained pressure before Interpol confirmed they'd deleted data about him from their systems. It also took a huge toll on his family, Kimyongur told us.

"Turkey had one single tool to crush me. It was Interpol," he said. 

For Nadejda Atayeva being on the Interpol wanted list led to a "terrible feeling of injustice". Nadejda and her father Alim were accused of embezzlement after Alim spoke out against authorities in Uzbekistan - charges they dismiss as complete fiction.

They were granted asylum in France, but, Nadejda said, the alert restricted her ability to travel and to tell her story. Interpol confirmed data about her was no longer on their records in 2015

Politically-motivated wanted alerts

An online trawl through Interpol's Red Notices shows summaries of cases. But there is no requirement to make Red Notices public. In addition, we discovered another kind of alert circulated via Interpol data bases. These "diffusions" are described as "less formal" than Red Notices, and also used to request the arrest or location of an individual.

While the overwhelming majority of Interpol wanted alerts are clearly entirely legitimate, human rights groups have suggested those that may slip through the net pose a threat to Interpol's requirement for political neutrality.

The UK-based NGO Fair Trials International is among those who have called on Interpol to introduce more rigorous checks, to ensure countries abide by Interpol's rules which forbid any intervention in activities of a political nature.

"Interpol has been allowing itself to be used by oppressive regimes across the world to export the persecution of human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents," said Jago Russell, Fair Trials' chief executive. "It has to get used to saying no to member countries."

'Completely Kafkaesque'

During the course of our investigation, we not only heard stories about politically motivated wanted alerts, but frustration when it came to getting information out of Interpol.

US journalist and media consultant Michelle Betz described her struggle to find out about a Diffusion Notice. Along with other NGO staff, Betz was accused of operating illegally in Egypt in 2011.

The charges were condemned as politically motivated - but some workers were given jail sentences in absentia. Betz then heard Egypt had asked Interpol for a Diffusion Notice. 

After months of attempting to contact Interpol directly, her lawyer got in touch with an organisation called the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files, (CCF) an independent body responsible for processing requests for access to information held by the organisation.

Things then took a strange turn. The commission informed her lawyer that they could contact Egypt about Betz's Diffusion, but that "in the present case, the consultation of Egypt" was "not advisable". Betz described her experience as "completely Kafkaesque". 

Following sustained pressure, the CCF eventually informed Betz that information about her had been deleted from Interpol's files. But she was not alone in expressing frustration over the body, the CCF.

In Amsterdam, Azer Samadov told us how he was detained in 2009 at Schiphol airport on the basis of an Interpol alert. Samadov had been an anti-government activist in Azerbaijan.

When several members of his movement were arrested he fled the country and ended up in the Netherlands where he was granted refugee status. The Dutch authorities eventually apologised for arresting Samadov. His lawyer then tried to find out what information Interpol held about him, contacting the CCF.

Six years on, the legal firm heard that the Interpol alert had disappeared, but this information came not from Interpol but the Dutch authorities. We asked the lawyer what he made of the CCF. His response: "Completely ineffective. It's a joke."

Greater transparency and scrutiny of wanted alerts

Bali, Indonesia, last autumn, was the setting for Interpol's 2016 General Assembly, a gathering of police chiefs from around the world. We went, too, in search of answers to the troubling matters we had uncovered.

Canada's Lost Women

Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

Sharon Johnson has made the same walk for the past seven years. On Valentine's Day, in the teeth of an Ontario winter, she marches to commemorate her sister Sandra, murdered in 1992.

Woven into this and so very many stories of loss is the question, why have so many of Canada's aboriginal women gone missing or been murdered?

Aboriginal women make up little over four percent of the country's female population, yet account for around 16 percent of female homicides. Nearly 1,200 aboriginal women have disappeared or met violent deaths in the country over the past three decades.

Travelling across three provinces, People & Power heard allegations about the police here, and arguments that the roots of violence against aboriginal women can be traced back to a bitter colonial legacy.

Ontario

This month Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported on one of the darkest chapters in the country's history. The removal of over 150,000 aboriginal children from their families to residential schools, places that became notorious for abuse.

On a drive through the Fort William First Nation Reserve outside the Ontario city of Thunder Bay, former Chief Georjann Morriseau described how this policy has impacted on generations, up until the present time.

"The residential schools were to take the Indian out of the child. When your children get taken away you kind of lose your sense of purpose," she says.

Leaving indigenous reserves, more problems could lie ahead in Canada's cities, she said. "Thunder Bay ain't even that big. If you take somewhere like Toronto and Vancouver, you're lost."

In their home outside Toronto, John Fox shared pictures of his daughter Cheyenne. A teenager giggling as the family cleared snow away; a young mother cradling a newborn baby son.

John said Cheyenne had lots of friends at school in Thunder Bay, was bubbly and sociable. But when she moved to Toronto, her life was troubled. He says she was assaulted, became homeless, and got involved in sex work to survive.

Cheyenne's body was found in a Toronto suburb in 2013. The 20-year-old had fallen from an apartment block. But for father and brother the police verdict, that Cheyenne committed suicide, just does not seem possible.

"I think they disregarded her because she wasn't your average Canadian woman," says her brother Jonathon. "The fact that she was aboriginal pretty much threw her out, like garbage in a dumpster."

Toronto police told us their position was clear. They had done a thorough investigation. Cheyenne's ethnicity played no role in their investigation.

Manitoba

"When you find a 15 year old, wrapped up in a garbage bag, disposed of, like they're garbage in a river, it effects us all – indigenous or not." 

In Winnipeg, in the Province of Manitoba, Bernadette Smith described the death of another young aboriginal girl last August. A loss that led the community here to take things into their own hands; to drag the Red River running through this city in the hope of finding other remains, other evidence.

Bernadette says they had pushed police to do more, but they were not willing to help community efforts. "That was the whole premise of us doing this. Not having the confidence in them to find our women."

Bernadette's own sister went missing in 2008, aged 21. The crime is still unsolved.

Nahanni Fontaine, an advisor to Manitoba's provincial government, questions the years she says it has taken for families to have their voices heard. Years when she maintains calls to address the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal women disappearing or being killed, simply fell on deaf ears. "Nobody cared."

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) finally produced their findings last year: 1,017 aboriginal women were murdered from 1980 to 2012; 164 women went missing.

The RCMP would not be interviewed for our film. Nor did they answer our questions.

British Columbia

In Northern British Columbia, the RCMP is responsible for policing vast areas of wilderness. Winding through this wild landscape is Highway 16, connecting isolated communities, a road that has come to be known as "The Highway of Tears".

An RCMP task force is investigating 18 cases of violent deaths and disappearances here, dating back to 1969. Others have suggested up to 40 may have gone missing or been murdered around Highways 16, 97 and 5, the majority young aboriginal women.

Ramona Wilson, a bright 16-year-old student, went missing one June night in 1994. She told her family she had plans to go to a graduation party. Her murder too, remains unsolved.

"We just want to understand why there are no answers to these young ladies cases," says Ramona's sister Brenda. "It’s not acceptable to our families, and it's not acceptable to our communities that we don't have the answers we need." 

On top of frustrations over unsolved crimes, People & Power heard further disturbing claims about the use of excessive force in RCMP dealings with aboriginal people in this province, and a fractured relationship with indigenous communities.

One activist told us: "I've had so many women say to me – why would I ever call the RCMP?"

Calls for an inquiry

In March 2015, yet another international report, from a UN expert committee, joined voices calling for an inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women. It is a call rejected by the country's prime minister.

And so the rallies, the marches, the questions, continue. The stories told and re-told.

Before she walks, Sharon Johnson told us she prepares a feast, goes out into the bush and makes a fire.
"I ask the spirits of all the women to come, to talk about their lives. I ask them to come as I talk about my sister, as I tell her story."

Mozambique's

Gem Wars

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

In 2016 a great Mozambican journalist, Estacio Valoi, and I were led a short distance from a small village in Cabo Delgado Province, past mango trees and children playing football, to the village burial ground.  

There, standing by two recent graves, we were told a terrible story by two grieving fathers. They claimed that earlier this year their sons had been shot dead by members of the Mozambique police's Rapid Intervention Force. They also said that they were so scared of the consequences should they complain that they had taken their bodies and buried them, quietly, without even telling the authorities. 

It was a shocking illustration of the tragic and unexpected consequences of a discovery which - just six years ago - many hoped could transform the lives of local people and bring desperately needed development and prosperity to this region. 

It all began in 2009 when a local man found a small red stone in the ground. Within three years it was clear that these remote forests contained a treasure of huge value - perhaps the largest deposit of rubies in the world.  By 2012 a new partnership, 25 percent owned by a local company and 75 percent owned by British mining operation called Gemfields, had been granted a concession to mine 340 square kilometers of land.

So here is the story as it is perceived internationally: The mine has already been a great success and shows even greater promise.  Before actual production has got underway - they are still in a stage known as "bulk sampling" - Gemfields has sold rubies from this mine for a total of $120m in international auctions. It  has also made many pledges of social and corporate responsibility, including a pledge to commit at least 1 percent of gross sales from the ruby mine to fund "local social and environmental projects". 

And it has used their professed commitment to the ethical sourcing of gems as a key part of their marketing strategy - producing several promotional videos featuring their "global ambassador", Hollywood star Mila Kunis, as what Gemfields CEO Ian Harebottle describes as  "our face of ethical gemstones".

But as Estacio and I travelled and filmed in the concession area – talking to the people who live there and hearing their stories - it became clear this was not the way the locals see it.  For them, the issue is clear-cut.  They have always regarded this land as their own.  When rubies were discovered in it, they wanted a share of that wealth.  As things stand, the legal position is unambiguous.  Only the company has the legal right to mine the area and anyone who takes rubies from its concession without permission is breaking the law. But locals say they've seen few, if any, of the promised benefits from the company or from the bounty beneath their feet. 

Against this background, then, it is perhaps not surprising that many hundreds of local people have started illegally digging (along with hundreds of migrant workers from neighbouring countries) within the concession area in an attempt to find some of the ruby red wealth which they feel has so far been denied them. This illicit mining has created tension, which in turn has led to conflict and thus to allegations that local security forces, including Mozambican police officers and private security companies, have been using excessive force, including beatings and shootings, to protect the assets of the legal mine owners. 

But, significantly, those allegations have now been echoed by the local chief prosecutor, Montepuez's Attorney General,  Pompilio Xavier Wazamguia. He told us that he knew of 18 deaths by shooting since 2009 - most of which, he said, could be linked to security forces guarding the mine. 

Some locals we spoke to claimed the figures were even higher. Certainly the two grieving fathers we met by that village graveside believe their sons are among that hitherto uncounted number. 

There are, of course, at least two sides to this story, different perceptions of who is entitled to what, who is right and who is wrong.  But, internationally at least, only one version of that story has been heard until now. This film lets you see more of the picture.  

Trump and the Ethics

of Foreign Aid

Trump and the Ethics

of Foreign Aid

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

One of US President Donald Trump's first acts in office was to sign an order tying US foreign aid to the issue of abortion.

Under the new policy, "Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance", any foreign aid organisation that wants US funds cannot "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in foreign countries".

For Trump supporters, this was a major victory from a pro-life president. For opponents it was a "global gag rule": the reinstatement of an aid and abortion policy that's been part of the American political landscape for decades, introduced by successive Republican presidents, rescinded by Democrat administrations.

 Critics have claimed Trump's version goes far further than previous edicts extending the abortion and aid rule to a huge range of international initiatives on HIV, TB, and even advice on clean water.

The US administration has also faced allegations that far from "protecting life" the Trump policy could lead to a global increase in maternal deaths and unsafe abortions.

Sarah Spiller and Callum Macrae travelled to Mozambique in southern Africa to investigate the impacts of the new Trump policy and the questions it raises.

Rendition Revisited

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English
An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English
A two part documentary filmed in Guantanamo Bay, America, Morocco and Europe
Part 1

 

Campaigners in the US, North Carolina have demanded an investigation into what they say is their state’s complicity in a post 9/11 programme of kidnap and torture.

The CIA’s ‘rendition programme’ led to individuals being abducted and taken on flights to foreign prisons and ‘black sites’ across the globe where they were subjected to severe brutality including sleep deprivation, physical and psychological abuse and waterboarding.

People and Power travels to the US to hear claims that North Carolina was central to the CIA programme whilst authorities turned a blind eye to what was happening.

Former senior intelligence and military personnel who served in the Bush era tell Al Jazeera about their fears for the future given US President Donald Trump’s expressed views on torture, and the appointment this year of a new director for the CIA, Gina Haspel.

CIA Director Gina Haspel headed a secret ‘black site’ in 2002 where a prisoner was subjected to waterboarding. She’s since said the intelligence agency would not re-introduce a programme of what was called ‘enhanced interrogation’.

Colonel Steven Kleinman, a career military intelligence officer, says he does not believe CIA Director Gina Haspel’s assurances. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State General Colin Powell, comments that in respect of torture and CIA Director Gina Haspel: ‘I have no doubt Donald Trump would get her out of the way post-haste if she objected and put someone in there who wouldn't object.’  Colonel Wilkerson also calls on the US Administration to declassify a 6000-page report into the CIA programme of rendition, detention, and interrogation. An executive summary of the findings was made public by the US Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014.  ‘We ought to want to see those 6000 pages of the whole report because if the executive summary gives any indication that report does two astounding things, categorically: it says torture doesn't work and it says we tortured, and we tortured extensively.’

A former CIA operative, Glenn Carle, who says he refused orders to inflict abuse, tells Al Jazeera of his impressions of a CIA interrogation camp in an unnamed country; a place where he says prisoners were subjected to sensory deprivation in a bid to gain intelligence. ‘We think unconsciously that the sun will rise once a day and then will set at the end of the day. That is one of the defining unthought of realities of life. Not If you are in the hands of the CIA. We can make the sun shine or not.’

In response, the US Department of Defence referred Al Jazeera to public statements at CIA Director Gina Haspel’s public confirmation hearings. The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr, declined to comment on de-classifying findings into the Senate inquiry into CIA torture.

In Austria, a victim of the CIA’s programme, Khaled El-Masri, describes his imprisonment, before the CIA realized he was innocent, flew him to Albania and then dumped him in a remote location. El-Masri is now taking the latest in a series of legal actions against the US Administration.

Mark Fallon a former special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the NCIS, sounds a sombre warning given US President Trump’s stated view that torture works.

 ‘Torture as a tactic is not only ineffective it is counterproductive and dangerous. You have President Trump, who is enamoured with torture, who has a thirst for brutality. I'm afraid that we're setting the conditions to return back to practices of brutality and state sponsored torture.’

Part 2

The US naval base at Guantanamo Bay Cuba has become a notorious symbol of America’s war on terror.

Former US President Barrack Obama wanted to close it down.

US President Donald Trump has vowed to keep the detention facility open and ‘load it up’ with ‘bad dudes’.

Filmmakers travelled to Guantanamo to find out what this might mean for the future - and to examine claims that a CIA programme of torture and kidnap from 2005 to 2009, is impeding a quest for justice following the 9/11 atrocities, a deadly attack on US soil.

Five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks face death penalty trials in ‘military commissions’ proceedings at a secret multimillion-dollar legal complex at Guantanamo, set up to try captives in the US ‘war on terror’.

But seventeen years after the attacks, defence lawyers say an unwillingness to disclose top secret, classified information on abuse in the past is leading to an ‘interminable delay’ in the legal process and bringing accused men to trial.

For their part, the US Department of Defence says that they strive to ensure the process is ‘as transparent as possible when balanced with requirements of national security.’

‘There is no time limit placed on the process, which is geared toward fairness, rather than an arbitrary deadline”.

Filming under strict conditions at the Guantanamo naval base, People and Power hears about plans to upgrade facilities that under President Trump are now part of an ‘enduring mission’.

At one time, an estimated 780 prisoners were held at Guantanamo. Forty prisoners remain, some cleared for release under the US Obama administration.

In Morocco, the family of a man, cleared for release but still incarcerated, describe their hopes that a brother and nephew will come home.

‘I want to hug my brother and I want to be close to him,’ says Mustafa Nasser.

‘I want him to come back and remember all the memories we have together. I want to see him.’

But this hope is set against the stated position of US President Donald Trump, who has said there should be no more prisoner releases from ‘Gitmo’.

Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith – whose organisation has represented eighty prisoners released from Guantanamo – describes those cleared for release at Guantanamo, but still imprisoned as ‘pawns’ in a ‘political game’.

When asked the US Department of Defence did not reply to questions about the process at Guantanamo, whereby prisoners cleared for release, might now be freed. 

The Catalonia Trial:

Justice or Vengeance?

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

America's New Frontline

An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

The US is bound by shared history to Africa  - a history that has been a source of much pain and conflict.

Recently, however, there have been two significant developments which may define the relationship between the US and Africa for decades to come.

The first is a legacy of the Bush administration - a brand new military command for Africa - called Africom.

The second is the election of Barack Obama, a man with African roots, as US president.

In a special two-part series Rageh Omaar travels to the US and through East and West Africa to investigate the American strategy for the continent.

Africom was a consequence of the so-called war on terror. In Somalia, Rageh explores how this war created the very threat – a violent Jihadi movement – it claimed to be fighting, and what this meant for Somalia's future.

 

Moving north, Rageh looks at US involvement with governments in the Sahel, a region rich in mineral resources. Africom troops are providing arms, military support and training in response to a perceived extremist threat.

But critics say, the threat is internal dissent and US policy risks creating, as in Somalia, the real issue.

The Delta region of West Africa provides Africom's biggest dilemma. Rich in oil resources, the region is vital to US future energy needs.

Africom offers military training to local governments here – including Cameroonian troops involved in the brutal suppression of their own people.

Can Obama make a decisive break with the path set in Africa by the Bush administration? Until rhetoric is seen to govern practice, Obama and Africom seem set to repeat past mistakes and become further involved in a messy, self-fulfilling prophecy.

NO FIRE ZONE

Outsider Movie Production Production in association with ITN and Channel 4

The film – with dramatic new testimony and evidence – tells the terrible narrative of the last 138 days of this awful war. Just five years ago, in January 2009, the government of Sri Lanka launched its final offensive against the secessionist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers. Two weeks into the final assault the government declared the first  "No Fire Zone" and encouraged between 300,000 and 400,000 Tamil civilians to gather there, for their own safety. The government then launched a deadly, sustained and deliberate shelling campaign on this and subsequent  zones. The story of what happened next is told in vivid detail by our central characters.

The suffering of the trapped civilians was terrible – and recorded on a day to day basis on small cameras and mobile phones. Makeshift hospitals set up in abandoned schools were targeted and civilians denied adequate food and medicine by the government. The agony of the trapped civilians was compounded by the Tigers who refused to let them leave – and shot some who tried.   One UN report estimated that as many as 40,000 died in just a few weeks.  A more recent UN report suggested the death toll could reach 70,000 or even more.

The government believed they would get away with this because they had excluded international witnesses from the war zone.  But there were witnesses:  The people who were trapped there. Their extraordinary testimony and incredible footage is at the heart of this film, and has been carefully and meticulously assembled to create a terrifying and compelling account.

Then in the final days of the war another terrifying series of atrocities and war crimes were committed by Sri Lankan soldiers against captured fighters. Crimes of torture, execution and sexual violence – all filmed as grotesque war trophies by the perpetrators themselves.

This unique film brings together the latest evidence to emerge from these terrible days.  And then it brings to story up to date describing the surprise election of a new president, but warning about the lack of progress towards justice and ending the repression of the Tamils of the North and East.

 
 
 
 
 
Canada's Lost Women
Americas New Frontline Part 2
A Self fulfilling prophecy
 
Mozambique's Gem Wars
 
Trump and the Ethics of Foreign Aid
 
Rendition Revisited Part 1
Rendition Revisited Part 2
 

The hearings for Spain's "trial of the century" have finally ended.

Most of the defendants - Catalonian politicians and civic leaders accused of sedition and rebellion after calling a referendum on independence - have gone back to jail to await sentencing. Some are already approaching two years in custody. If found guilty some of them could face up to 25 years imprisonment.

But Spain's profound political and democratic crisis shows no sign of reaching a resolution.

There is little doubt that the decision of the Catalonian government in 2017 to hold a referendum on independence from Spain was, technically, unlawful: An act of civil disobedience born out of frustration over constitutional provisions which mean such a referendum cannot be legally held without the approval of the Spanish government.

But the decision of the Spanish government to treat the referendum as a legal problem to be dealt with by the police and the courts, rather than as a political issue requiring a political response, has plunged Spain into what is arguably the biggest test of its relatively young democracy since the death of former Head of State Francisco Franco in 1975. We have been following the crisis as it has unfolded.

On the day of the referendum, the world was shocked by television images of Spain's paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, seemingly ruthlessly beating and attacking unarmed civilians attempting to cast their vote. For the government, it was an extraordinary public relations disaster.

The police used truncheons and plastic bullets against voters, physically dragging others, seemingly irrespective of their age or vulnerability, away from polling stations and forcefully seizing ballot boxes, whether full of voting slips or not.

According to the Catalan government, over 1,000 people trying to vote were injured.

In our film, one young musician describes how he lost the vision of one eye when he was hit directly by a plastic bullet fired by the Guardia Civil outside a polling station in a primary school in Barcelona.

But what made these images particularly disturbing was that the police response could not be dismissed simply as an over-reaction to a small group of protesters or activists. In fact, around half of Catalonia's registered electors tried to vote that day, defying both the police operation and a thinly veiled threat by a spokeswoman for the government of the centre-right People's Party, who warned on television that anyone who went to vote with their family would "be at risk", adding that to do so would "expose kids and your family to a risky situation, and an illegal situation".

In the end, 43 percent of eligible voters succeeded in casting their vote - and having them counted. Others were seized, uncounted, by the state authorities.

When the result was declared, 92 percent had voted yes to independence. But that figure conceals a confused reality. Catalan parties and politicians opposed to independence had called for a boycott of the referendum. If the half of eligible voters who didn't vote were broadly against independence, it would suggest Catalonia is fairly equally divided on the issue. The trouble is we don't know. And the Spanish government, now led by the centre-left Socialist party, shows no sign of agreeing to the constitutional changes required to make such a referendum possible or legal.

What we do know is that a series of decisions taken by both the Catalan and the Spanish governments following the referendum plunged Spain into a profound democratic crisis. A crisis which has divided the country, raising serious concerns about the independence of the Spanish judiciary and awkward allegations of an abuse of judicial process.

In the tense days that followed the referendum, the Spanish government declared its intention to suspend the Catalan parliament. The Catalans responded by declaring independence - and three days later Spain's attorney general announced that the leading members of the Catalan government were to be charged with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds. These were extremely serious charges. Rebellion, in particular, suggested the accused were guilty of instigating or taking part in an armed insurrection or violent coup, for which they could be sentenced to up to 25 years in jail.

Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont fled the country - along with three other accused - arguing they could better continue to fight if they were free. Twelve others, politicians and civil society leaders, were charged. Most were refused bail and taken into custody.

The decision caused real concern in some sections of the judicial establishment. Former Supreme Court judge Martin Pallin told us the case should never have been brought before the criminal courts.

"It should never have been treated as a crime," Pallin said. "There was violence, but it should have been considered as public disorder or as any other type of delinquent behaviour, but never, never as a crime of rebellion or sedition."

From the first day of the trial, the government rejected any suggestion that the judicial process had been tainted by politics. But it was a tough proposal to defend. And it seemed that with every day that passed it became tougher - not least because of a unique provision in Spanish law which allows citizens and organisations to act as "people's prosecutors" in some trials.

This led to the extraordinary situation where Spain's resurgent far-right populist party, Vox, became official coprosecutors of the Catalan twelve, along with the state solicitor and the attorney general.

Almost as soon as the trial began, judicial attempts to rise above the political fray became even more difficult. On the second day of the trial, the Catalan independence parties in the Spanish government voted against the ruling Socialist Party's budget proposals - and brought the government down, forcing a snap general election.

As Spain prepared to go to the polls, several of the Catalan defendants and the two prosecuting attorneys from the far-right Vox party all stood as candidates.

One of the Catalan defendant's lawyers, Andreu Van Den Eynde, told us: "It's political from the very beginning. You have a case that's based on … the criminalisation of an ideology. And then we have a prosecutor which is a political party. So everything is political here." That is a charge roundly rejected by Spain's centre-right People's Party, the party in government when the referendum took place and the charges were laid.

"I cannot accept that, it's just propaganda," party spokesperson Jose Ramon Hernandez told us. "I will never share any doubt about the independence of the judiciary at all. We are a full democracy, there is no risk of freedom of the speech." Though he added, somewhat surprisingly: "I think there is too much freedom of speech," explaining, "everyone can say whatever and with no consequences." He went on to say he thought the trial would spell the end of the Catalan independence movement.

But now there is a hiatus. The Vox prosecutors have taken the seats they successfully won in the election last month. The Catalan defendants, who won their seats, were allowed out of jail to be sworn into parliament - only to be suspended two days later by the government.

So Spain's crisis is on hold. But contrary to Hernandez's prediction, the Catalan independence movement has been revitalized by recent electoral successes and is warning of renewed political conflict should the defendants be found guilty - while Spanish nationalists from the centre and far-right are warning of the consequences should they be found innocent or be pardoned.

Spain's crisis appears to be far from over.

The Catalonia Trial: Justice or Vengeance?
An Outsider Television Production for Al Jazeera English

Part 1:

It's a bright October morning and we're in Brussels where hundreds of people with disabilities are protesting on the streets. One of their claims is that European countries are ignoring international conventions designed to end the segregation of disabled people in state institutions - and, in some cases, their mistreatment, neglect and abuse.

There's a strong sense of deja vu. I first reported on abuses against people with disabilities in state institutions in Romania for People & Power five years ago. When I confronted a Romanian minister with the shocking evidence we'd gathered, he said he was "outraged" and vowed to take action to protect vulnerable citizens.

But what's happened since? As you'll see in this first episode of what turned into a two-part investigation, we've been back to Romania in search of answers. I'm sad to say that what we found is deeply dispiriting.


My journey began in the county of Maramures with human rights lawyer Georgiana Pascu, who's monitored conditions inside Romania's state institutions for disabled people since 2003. She'd contacted me about a discovery she'd made in September 2019.

At a state institution for residents with intellectual disabilities, she'd found people locked in chambers made of plexiglass around 2.5 metres high. Three were tied to beds.

The authorities maintained that disabled people were put in these "isolators" on the recommendation of a doctor, when they were "agitated", "self-destructive" or posed a serious threat to themselves or others. Pascu described the constructions as cages and made an urgent complaint.

During our visit, we saw that the constructions had been dismantled, and heard residents had been relocated. But then we learned that isolation chambers could still be used for disabled people in the future here
When Romania joined the EU in 2007, the country promised to improve the treatment of people with disabilities here. So, why were there still allegations of neglect and abuse?

Our inquiries took us next to the county of Sibiu, to an institution for disabled adults near the village of Talmaciu. Footage we obtained from this place showed a youngster wandering the grounds with arms strapped beneath a jumper. In a building where more than 40 severely disabled residents live, conditions were bleak and spartan.

There was also a vicious attack last year. Thirty-two-year-old Vasile Sitzer was brutally assaulted by another resident. When his sister saw him in intensive care, she was told his eyes had been gouged out.

Among the questions raised in the aftermath were allegations that there had been previous "serious incidents" of violence here between residents - and suggestions Vasile was tied to a bed when he was attacked. The authorities insisted to us that Vasile was not tied up (or under restraint) during the assault and say they took all necessary measures to resolve the incident.

However, for Mugur Fratila, an independent psychologist, brought in to investigate what happened here, the case raised far wider questions about institutionalised state care in this country. He told us bluntly: "These people are considered citizens of no value."


The Romanian government didn't supply a statement in response to our inquiries over the abuse of disabled people in the country. But for many, the question is why state institutions for disabled people here continue to exist at all?

In the city of Timisoara we met an extraordinary survivor of institutional state care. Elisabeta Moldovan - Eli to her friends - has written a deeply personal account of growing up in the country's state homes.

She now lives in her own flat and is working with a local charity to refurbish apartments to help those move out of state institutions. Every individual, she told us, should have the freedom to live outside state homes, to live in the community.

In fact, the right of disabled people to live independently is a key policy of the EU, and like other EU member countries, Romania has received millions in aid from the EU for its disabled citizens.

In 2014, I revealed how some of this money had been spent. Not on closing institutions but renovating them. And that EU money had also gone into Romanian institutions where there were allegations of serious human rights violations.

During our investigation this time around, we heard further allegations about the mistreatment of disabled people in state institutions in receipt of EU money - and it wasn't just in Romania.

Our investigation took us over the border to Hungary and to an institution for youngsters and adults with disabilities called Tophaz, around half an hours' drive from Hungary's capital Budapest.

Footage and photographs taken inside this institution in 2017 show a disabled boy strapped beneath his clothes, a young man tied to a radiator, among other distressing images. The NGO who reported this said what made the case even more alarming was that the institution had received EU funding.

Steven Allen from the Validity Foundation told us they began a lengthy correspondence with the European Commission, but that the Commission failed, in his view, to take responsibility for what had happened at the state home. This, he says, is morally unacceptable when EU taxpayers' money is at stake.

We asked the Hungarian Government for a response to allegations about human rights violations at Tophaz but received no reply.


Back in Brussels, disability campaigners had mounted a symbolic protest near the offices of the European Commission. It was a cage with the banner: 'This Project is funded by the European Union.'

We then spotted an EU Commission official coming down the road to find out what it was all about.

The official, EU Commission Director Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, joined a protester in the cage and I took the opportunity to ask her about human rights abuses. The director said that they tried to ensure that wherever EU money is in question, abuses don't happen.

But evidence we were to gather in Part 2 of our investigation  raised yet further questions about just this - and in another EU member state held up as a model when it comes to using EU aid to close state institutions and reform care for disabled children, youngsters and adults.

Part 2:

It's July 2019 and we're in Bulgaria, a country sometimes held up as a model for tackling the appalling mistreatment of disabled children and youngsters in the past - and for closing the large state institutions in which it took place.

One part of this reform programme is the creation of what are called "small group homes"; places for up to 15 children and youngsters that - it's said - are about family life, community living.

But when we meet a team from a US-based charity in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, they tell us that what they've seen inside these group homes has left them profoundly shocked: That far from being a family environment, what they've witnessed on visits to 24 group homes and five day-care centres across this country is "abuse, neglect and segregation".


The charity - an NGO called Disability Rights International (DRI) - was gathering evidence for a report published this November and its researchers shared their footage with us for this film.

Some of the scenes are deeply distressing. Beyond welcoming interiors, behind a locked door, a man is naked, in isolation. In another centre, they see a barred wooden construction - clearly designed for containment. They're told it's used for a young blind boy at night-time, apparently kept there when there aren't enough staff to ensure his safety.

"We documented cages in institutions 25 years ago," Eric Rosenthal from DRI told us. "They've gone from being the old wire cage to a nice piece of furniture. It is totally humiliating for any child, put in there precisely because there aren't the staff."

Returning to Bulgaria this October, we were to hear more concerns about staffing in this country's group homes.

We met two young women who asked us to disguise their identities. They told us there was a range of disability in the home they lived in and there weren't enough workers.

"We don't feel that safe there," one said. "If, for example, someone has a crisis, the staff on shift cannot attend to those who need extra care."

People & Power - Europe's recurring shame   Man in pen in a group home, Bulgaria [Courtesy Disability Rights International] 
Like other EU member states Bulgaria has received millions in aid from the European Union to promote a programme of "de-institutionalisation." But on their visits to Bulgaria, the NGO DRI, gathered disturbing evidence inside group homes which had been in receipt of EU funding, including, at one home, footage of a young man put in a pen.

On top of this, we heard allegations of violence.

Lawyer Aneta Genova took us to see a group home for youngsters with disabilities in Gabrovo, another place that's received EU funding in the past. Last year, in a shocking video leaked to the local media, a worker here was seen repeatedly assaulting a resident lying in a bed.

Genova has visited a range of group homes across the country and told us that she wasn't that surprised by the footage. "My first thought was that this is everywhere, not only here," she said.

On a journey to the city of Stara Zagora, disability advocate Kapka Panayotova said he's furious about money being spent on group homes in her country. We were on our way to meet her friend Lucy, who lives in a large institution on the outskirts of the city.

Taking us down the bleak, impersonal corridors and into her shared room, Lucy tells us her story. She's lived in residential care for most of her life and she's been at this institution since 1995. She works as a librarian, but, she says, she's still living here because she's caught in a vicious circle. Her earnings mean she's above the threshold for state housing, but she can't afford to pay for adaptations she needs in a privately rented apartment.

Officials have suggested Lucy moves to a group home, a suggestion, she says, is utterly at odds with how she wants to live her life. "They cannot comprehend that the normal life that they want - I want as well."

In a statement to People & Power, the Bulgarian authorities dismissed the US NGO Disability Rights International's conclusions as "tendentious", "not representative", and "aiming to underestimate the process of deinstitutionalisation in Bulgaria".

They said they'd closed 116 specialised institutions in Bulgaria and that a very small number of children with disabilities in the country are placed in residential care. They rejected suggestions that money for group homes was spent on buildings rather than staffing. Most reform is funded by the state, they said, with over 450 million euros ($501m) allocated from the state budget and 260 million euros ($289m) from the EU.

They also strongly denied there were human rights violations in Bulgarian group homes.


Before we put our findings to the European Commission in Brussels, we wanted to find out more about an important convention, ratified by the EU in 2010 and thus to which all its member states are signatories. It's called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and it sets out the right of disabled people to live in the community.

We asked Special UN Rapporteur Catalina Devandas what she made of allegations that the EU has put money into group homes in member states where an institutional culture may still exist. This was wrong, she confirmed.

Sitting down with EU Commission Director Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic we questioned her about EU funding and human rights violations. If the Commission had information on these, she told us, they would go into them deeply. Abuses were not acceptable under any circumstances.

An adviser interrupted off-camera to say that the EU has "instruments" in place for possible abuses. So, how often, I asked, had sanctions been used?

The director said that in the European Social Fund they did not have any reports of any reason to stop funding.

When it came to the UN Convention, she continued, this was "a human rights" approach, and "does not define what independent living means". It was important to ask people with disabilities how they wanted to live.

"I wish you would recognise what we have been doing," the director concluded. The EU "pays a lot of attention, cares a lot."

 

Europe's Recurring Shame

Europe's Recurring Shame Part 1
Europe's Recurring Shame Part 2
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