The future of Saudi Arabia lies in Hamza Kashgari

(and incidentally, vice versa…)

On the occasion of Mawlidon February 4, 2012, Hamza Kashgari, a columnist for the Jeddah-based daily Al-Bilad, published three tweets about an imagined meeting with Muhammad, addressing him as an equal. One tweet read, “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”

30,000 agitated responses and several death threats later, Kashgari deleted the posts and issued a formal apology. But the damage had already been done. As of 6pm (GMT) today, a Facebook page entitled « “The Saudi people want the execution of Hamza Kashgari” » had 26,708 members, a figure larger than the number of people who have signed a petition urging the Saudi government to drop all charges of blasphemy against him.

Today, the High Court and Judge Datuk Rohana dismissed the habeas corpus application filed by his lawyers. Kashgari’s counsel, Surendran, told the press that Hamza was denied his rights as he was illegally deported back to Saudi Arabia, before commenting on Rohana’s decision, saying that the court had failed in its duty to safeguard personal liberties.

Hamzi may have been careless in mocking the religious authorities, and has certainly caused a lot of commotion within the Muslim community – Sheikh Nasser Al Omar wept as he pleaded to the King for Kashgari to be executed. A stopover in the Muslim nation of Malaysia (where he was arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport and sent back to Saudi Arabia) may not have been the best idea either, but nothing he did remotely resembles a capital crime. In any other country, his tweets would have gained him his 15 minutes of fame. Only two days ago (on his 88th birthday) did Robert Mugabe mock press reports claiming he was gravely ill with the words, « I have died many times. That is where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once ». Granted, a completely different situation, but nonetheless it demonstrates the absurdity of Saudi Arabia’s riculously severe and anachronistic enforcement of law and order. As Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, put it, « It is near certain [Hamzi] will not get a fair trial in Saudi Arabia, where religious scholars have concluded that he is guilty of apostasy and should be put to death. »

Kasghari’s case certainly brings to light the great juxtaposition that is Saudi Arabia. It is not the first time Saudi Arabia has made headlines with its controversial convictions. Just a few months ago, newspapers were filled with the stories of women protesting the driving ban. Although many who visit the country are charmed by its people’s courtesy and hospitality, sooner or later Saudi Arabia has to decide which century it belongs to. It cannot strive to become a place of modernity and advancement and at the same time restrict and regulate peoples’ freedom. If Saudi authorities go through with the execution of this man over a tweet, who knows what its future may be? A life is on the line, and even though Hamza Kashgari may merely be, at this point, a terrified human being, he in some ways dictates the future of Saudi Arabia. As the world holds its breath, Saudi Arabia can choose to divert from it’s typically despotic nature, or to completely overstep the mark. In the case of the latter (let’s hope not), how will the world react? In any case, it’s bound to be an eye-opening episode, so keep your eyes peeled…

“Khodorkovsky” – Jigsaw Falling into Place?

As Russia’s protest movement gathers momentum, the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is again on everyone’s lips. The organisers of the February 4th demonstration in Moscow are finalising a list of forty political prisoners, no doubt benefiting from public interest in his plight, whose release are their foremost demand, presidential candidates who once lauded his sentences have suddenly prioritised his clemency in their electoral manifestos and even messieurs Putin and Medvedev offered tentative signs of redemption.

Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky has in recent months revived international interest in the long-running case, all too often dismissed as emblematic of Russia’s entangled judicial anarchy. The hottest ticket at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, after reports of the directors’ copies being mysteriously stolen at a mixing studio in Bali and Berlin on the eve of its premiere, screenings have since trickled the world over.

Khodorkovsky is both a personal and an outsider’s interpretation of the case and Putin’s Russia. Tuschi, a German of direct Russian lineage, tries to relate to the country of today, his wide Tarkovskian shots of the surroundings of Khodorkovsky’s first Siberian jail evoking nostalgia and discomfort. But as he makes clear from the offset, he has only fully realised the case’s dimension while visiting Siberia on the trail of Yukos’ vanished assets, and is determined here to understand the man, his times, motivations and those of others for his downfall.

Drawing on an impressive host of witnesses, including relatives, Western and Yeltsin-era politicians and business and civil society associates, Tuschi delves into Khodorkovsky’s university and Komsomol years, upstart years in banking and rise to riches in Yukos, culminating in Putin’s vengeance which he aptly documents. He is even able to secure an interview with the man himself, during the second trial, a feat no journalist apparently has claimed since the arrest in 2003.

Operating on a budget of a mere €400,000 and little-known to the outside world, Tuschi has produced the most wide-ranging account yet of Khodorkovsky, at least for the benefit of a wider audience. But despite his pains to show the efforts to secure representation from the “other side,” namely the Russian government and its partners in the plundering of Yukos, the documentary appears starkly one-sided, its few opposing interventions coming in the unreliable shape of Dmitri Gololobov, the company’s former leading laywer. Tuschi’s lack of appreciation of the truly criminal confines of the 90s, and glossing over of Khodorkovsky’s more dubious activities in those years, even when mentioned, are worrying. In a film that searches for answers to Khodorkovsky, the many assembled testimonies are disparate and often unrelated, rendering the product at times disjointed and incoherent.

Unscrupulous and plundering oligarch, now reformed man of principle, embodying the political and moral compass of which Russia has for so long been bereft? This documentary, while ambitiously trying to answer that conundrum, does not quite decisively do so. A more conclusive account will doubtless take its time.

“Section Spéciale”: A Showcase For Unjustified Justice

On Thursday 6th October, the Amnesty International group of Strasbourg hosted a showing of the film “Section Spéciale” at the Odyssée cinema with Jean-Paul Costa, then President of the European Court of Human Rights, present to answer questions surrounding the topic of human rights violations throughout time.

“Section Spéciale” is set during the emergence of the Vichy government’s rule in “la zone libre” of France. The plot goes somewhat like this:

During the occupation of France, a young German naval officer is killed in Paris by a group of leftist activists. The Vichy government seeks to appease the Germans by locating the perpetrators and agreeing to the execution of six people, and a special section is set up for this purpose. The section consists of judges who are either too ambitious, too cowardly or too inhumane to refuse such work. Several communist militants, although innocent of the crime, are immediately imprisoned and tried by a closed court. A week after the murder on the subway, three alleged “terrorist” Communists are executed.

The film shared the Best Director prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. Even today, it represents the universality of human rights violations occurring all over the globe, and not just under unstable rule or in developing countries. Atrocities like those committed in the Second World War take place everyday around us, and the difference between right as wrong has not changed.

Europe has learnt a lot from the World Wars: the existence of multinational institutions based on a liberal concept of co-operation which have flourished for the past decade, and World War Three has yet to occur. But we still see human rights violations on an everyday basis. Do governments still feel the need to justify crimes by committing crimes themselves? It is concepts such as the death penalty and other drastic « justification » methods that bring to light the question, “What really is justice?”

Justice is a term we use everyday without batting an eyelid. In a simple sense, and at least to me, justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but also the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this. People pay the price for crimes committed, and families of victims almost always seek justice, whether it is to aid the grieving process or simply to «make things right ». But sometimes this hunger for justice, and the pressure put on governments to supply it, leads to what I can only deem as “unjustified justice.” An excellent case for this concept is the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia. Although evidence initially pointed to Troy Davis as the murderer of Officer MacPhail, the proof against him disintegrated with time. Four witnesses admitted in court that they had lied in their testimonies, four witnesses implicated another man as having killed Officer MacPhail and three original state witnesses described police coercion during questioning, including one who was 16 years old at the time of the murder. Yet the execution still took place, even as the evidence for Mr Davis was no longer substantial.

In the film, the flames of totalitarianism had to be stoked with innocent blood, and it is especially convenient for governments if the accused are thoroughly expendable in their eyes. In Europe, 92% of states have abolished the death penalty, but in the United States, the statistics are alarmingly different. 34 out of 50 states still use the death penalty as a form of punishment, although a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder, including life with no possibility of parole or restitution to the victim’s family (39%), life with no possibility of parole (13%) or life with the possibility of parole (9%).

The plot of the film and the case of Troy Davis are both prime examples of how justice is often served solely for justice’s sake. Justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but more often we are seeing hurt and harm inflicted on someone for their wrongdoing, more simply known as revenge. Compensating measures of justice for wrongdoing, is not justice at all. Fair, perhaps, but not at all reasonable. It is here that one can see the fine line between justice and revenge, a line that is still traversed by individuals and governments to this day.