Posts Tagged ‘free speech’

Recently, Dear Reader, we have been pondering the matter of free speech.

Specifically, should it be absolute? Anyone able to say anything they like, unrestrained by the law.

We are referring, of course, to the Western world. It is clear that in authoritarian regimes the world over nothing like “free speech” exists, or ever has. But as we argue that liberal democracy is the best form of government to adopt, no matter who or where you are, it is surely fair to ask – sensible, indeed – to ask whether all the shibboleths of free speech are, in fact, practically defensible.

One of the key schism lines in world opinion is around the concept of “Criminal Defamation”, where the expression of an opinion is taken to damage a Government, and therefore put the civil peace at risk. What are (or should be) the rights of the state in seeking to restrain comment that can be considered injurious to the whole.

(This is not the same as Civil Defamation, where an individual has a a right to sue another individual (or corporation) for saying or printing something about them that they consider to be both untrue and harmful of their reputation, causing loss. No one seriously argues that Civil Defamation should be abolished – although the bar is set so high in the United States, for example, that defamation laws are essentially unenforceable, with predictable consequences.)

With Criminal Defamation, ironically, Great Britain, the country which bequeathed the infamous legacy of criminal defamation to states like India, where it is currently being heatedly debated, abolished the law in 2009.

Such laws are believed to date back to the early 17th century, when the invention of the printing press enabled political writings to be circulated far and wide easily and inexpensively through pamphlets, thus broadening the scope of public debate. The Court of the Star Chamber (the English court of law from the late fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century), fearing that criticisms against the royal authority, regardless of their truthfulness, may disturb public peace, began charging the critics with the criminal offence of “seditious libel”.

Evidently, a kind of faux civil peace, resulting from the English citizenry’s ignorance of their State’s corruption, was preferred over the knowledge of truth because any exposure could have potentially led to the downfall of the government. This perhaps explains the origin of the well-known adage, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

Not surprisingly, famous England-American political theorist Thomas Paine, who helped inspire the American Revolution, was also charged with seditious libel in England because of his insistence on the right of the citizens to overthrow the government in the second part of his work Rights of Man. Even though Paine would have been happy with the fact that seditious libel was finally abolished in England, such laws continue to thrive to this day in many countries, and even in some democracies.

Indian law, for example, provides for imprisonment to anyone “who brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India”. This law was enacted by the British to keep the Indian freedom movement in check. Not surprisingly, both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and MK Gandhi were charged with sedition, arrested, and jailed for six years and two years respectively. Like the pigs taking over the farm in the novel 1984, the incoming Indian authorities duly left the laws on the books.

But isn’t it reasonable to disallow unfettered free speech is the result is the overthrow of a peaceful, beneficial state? The answer, of course, is that the question is a fallacy. In a democracy, the government’s behaviour should withstand any such scrutiny in the “court of public opinion”, and if it does not, well, essentially the Government does not deserve to survive. Even if the change of Government may be painful. Truth, here, is elevated above social discord, and few would argue, for example, that a corrupt or inept Government should not be subject to completely free criticism.

The problem is that the view of what constitutes a “peaceful, beneficial state” can vary widely. Just as someone may consider a Government corrupt or inept, but another may not, even when presented with the same evidence. This is before we even get into utilitarian considerations such as “the Government may be corrupt, but it’s helping a lot of people and things are going pretty well, so let’s all pretend it isn’t corrupt and leave things be”. That’s the pertaining situation throughout much of Asia currently, for example.

Currently Governments around the world are reserving the right to restrict free speech where that speech is designed to overthrow their rule by violent means. But from a libertarian point of view, this can be problematical. Many would argue it should be illegal to say “Government A is evil, so go and get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”.

But should it be equally illegal to say “Government A is evil, in my view it is morally justified for someone to get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”?

The difference is the width of a butterfly’s wing, but it could be argued that the latter is legitimate comment – a bona fide intellectual opinion – whilst the other is incitement to murder. Yet the latter will today get you just as locked up just as quickly in many Western democracies as would the more direct statement. The argument employed here is that the fractionally milder comment might have exactly the same effect of encouraging violent action, and therefore seeking to discern a difference is mere semantics, especially if the Government’s primary goal is to preserve its status and prevent violence.

Where the line is drawn in such matters is an on-going debate.

How, for example, does one parse the case of Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), the American soldier of Wikileaks fame, who dumped vast amounts of classified information onto the world stage in pursuit of his belief that the public had a right to know what was being done – often illegally – in their name.

Manning languished in a dire mental condition in an American military prison – arguably the subject of ongoing mental torture from the authorities – for telling the world … what? That American helicopter gunships were cheerfully slaughtering Reuters journalists and innocent civilians on the ground through hopelessly loose rules of engagement? Or that world leaders say one thing to each other’s faces, and another to their advisors, and yet another to the public? What part of what Manning revealed – do people think they were either too stupid or too irresponsible to be told – which resulted in no harm to anyone, you will recall, as confirmed by the CIA –  whether they were told by Wikileaks or by the newspapers round the world who gleefully re-reported the treasure trove of documents.

The incident was hugely embarrassing for many Governments, to be sure, but was it truly harmful? And why was Manning not protected by concepts of free speech? By all means argue that he contravened the rules of his military service (which is what he is technically being punished for) but should he have, if we believe what we say about free speech being sacrosanct, actually have been praised? Feted, even?

Why was he banged up in solitary when the journalists who re-reported him are free to pursue their careers, and the media barons free to bank their profits?

What led us to this pondering?

Yesterday, on radio in Melbourne, a “One Nation” Senator, recently elected in Queensland through the vagaries and lunacies of Australia’s Senate voting system, was given free range to spout his ludicrous theories that the United Nations were trying to impose “One World Government” on the planet through fear mongering on man-made climate change, change which wasn’t happening. That there was no empirical evidence that CO2 was causing global warming, or that if we scrapped all human fossil fuel emissions overnight it would make any difference to the state of the planet at all.

Mr Roberts has apparently also written numerous reports claiming climate change is an international conspiracy fostered by the United Nations and international banks to impose a socialist world order. According to the Sydney Morning Herald at least one report cites several anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, including notorious Holocaust denier Eustace Mullins among its “primary references”.

According to the SMH Mr Roberts, who used to work in the arch-polluting coal industry, also sent a bizarre affidavit to then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 demanding to be exempt from the carbon tax and using language consistent with the “sovereign citizen” movement.

Anti-government, self-identified “sovereign citizens” claim to exist outside the country’s legal and taxation systems and frequently believe the government uses grammar to enslave its citizens.

NSW Police say such people “should be considered a potential terrorist threat”.

In an affidavit he sent to Ms Gillard in 2011, Mr Roberts identified himself as “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul”, representing a corporate entity he termed MALCOLM IEUAN ROBERTS.

In the document, Mr Roberts demanded to be exempted from the carbon tax and compensated to the tune of $280,000 if Ms Gillard did not provide “full and accurate disclosure” in relation to 28 points explaining why he should not be liable for the tax.

Mr Roberts addressed the affidavit to “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” and presented her with a detailed contract he expected her to sign.

That stylisation of names is said to be commonly used by “sovereign citizens” who believe the use of hyphens and colons is a way to evade governments’ use of grammar to enslave their citizens. Roberts has recently confirmed that he wrote the affidavit, but has stated that he is not a ‘sovereign citizen’.

The new Senator, who received 77 below-the-line first preference votes, will take his Senate seat on August 30 and will receive a taxpayer-funded base salary of $199,040, plus staff and entitlements.

The price of free speech is often very high indeed.

But the biggest price we pay is not monetary. It is seeing our public institutions – our broadcasters, and Parliaments – invaded by rogues, charlatans, and the frankly deluded, spouting theories that seek to mislead and derail intelligent debate under the guise of promoting “truth”.

 

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An ongoing debate about laws to tackle “hate speech” is busily making headlines in the USA in particular, but is a hot topic elsewhere as well.
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We are firmly of the belief that free speech cannot be absolute, in any civilised society.
Defamation laws exist because they protect individuals from being lied about.
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“Jon So-and-So fiddles with kiddies” would, quite rightly, be considered illegal to say or print without proof, as it would damage Jon’s reputation, and possibly cause him to find his safety endangered, too.
 
“Gays fiddle with kiddies, they shouldn’t be teachers” is, however, acceptable. That’s legal to say in the USA and elsewhere, despite the fact that child abuse in the gay community is way below that in the heterosexual community.
Any gay person driven to suicide by this slur or others, (and sadly there are many of those, especially teenagers), or beaten up as they walk down the street, sacked from their job, or worse – murdered in a gay bashing incident, which happens with tragic regularity – well then, that’s OK, it’s free speech and if it stirs up that sort of reprehensible behaviour, well, you know, we’re sorry, but it’s free speech.
No. That’s too high a price to pay for some spurious “right” to spout bile and filth.
 
If you can’t see what a ludicrous, Kafkaesque double standard this knee-jerk defence of the right to say anything, anytime really is, then sadly we can help you no further.

Two quite different stories making news today reveal how the descent of political debate into hatred and abusive propaganda can have an awful effect on innocent lives.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we are often in discussion with friends, colleagues and commentators who essentially believe in unfettered free speech. We often hear an argument which runs something like this: “The correct response to this nonsense is ridicule: given the oxygen of publicity, these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths. It is more important to preserve the liberty of all at the price of allowing nutters to say what they like, rather than curtail freedom of speech.” This argument is advanced regularly by the right in America, but is by no means limited to there. It occurs in all corners of the blogosphere, it is evidenced by recent moves by the Australian Government, just as one example, and it is a favoured line by libertarians worldwide.

Disgusting "humour" like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of "free speech" protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

Disgusting “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of “free speech” protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

We respect the passion of those who advance this argument against, for example, anti race-hate legislation, but over many years we have come, reluctantly, to disagree with it.

Yes, we recognise that the “elephant in the room” is “Where do you draw the line once you start to censor free speech?” but we nevertheless also believe that a line must be drawn.

And the reason for that line being drawn is the encouragement given to those who would take extreme ideals and translate them into real-world violence, whether because they take the comments to their logical conclusion, seeing no moral distinction between holding a violent thought and acting on it, or merely because they are mentally unhinged.

We see no desperate need to be able to advocate ridicule and violence that justifies the fact that it leads, as night follows day, to real injury and death for innocent people.

For example, in recent days we have seen yet another shooting perpetrated by members of the far-right in America.

A day before going on a shooting rampage that left two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander dead, Jerad Miller, one of the killers, posted this on Facebook:

“The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.”

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Witnesses reportedly said Miller, 31, and his wife, Amanda, shouted, “This is a revolution” and “We’re freedom fighters” when they ambushed the officers who were on their lunch break at a pizza restaurant.

If their social media accounts are any indication, rants about attacks and disgust with authority were a common thread in their lives.

“To the people in the world…your lucky i can’t kill you now but remember one day one day i will get you because one day all hell will break lose and i’ll be standing in the middle of it with a shot gun in one hand and a pistol in the other,” Amanda Miller posted on Facebook on May 23, 2011.

 After killing Police Officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were having lunch having clocked off, and taking their weapons, police said the Millers fled across the street to a Walmart store, where they shot and killed customer Joseph Wilcox, 31, who apparently confronted the shooters with his own weapon, before apparently taking their own lives in a suicide pact.

SurvivalistThe couple, who married in September 2012, moved from Lafayette, Indiana, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in January of this year. Photos on 22-year-old Amanda Miller’s Facebook page shows the couple celebrating Christmas with family two weeks before departing for Nevada. In one photo, she poses with copies of the “Shooter’s Bible” and “Extreme Survival.” “My new books that my Grandma Paula got me!” she wrote on Facebook. The merging of influences between the “survivalist” community, gun aficionados and extreme militia-style groups, laced with racist and white supremacist groups, is a key concern for both community organisations and law enforcement in America.

It is not the lawful promotion of legal activities or legitimate opinion that causes concern, rather it is the ability of those on the fringe of those movements to hijack the genre and spread concepts of ‘legitimate’ violence to the soft-minded.

According to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Jerad Miller had a long history of arrests and convictions for drug offences while in Indiana.

In a July 8, 2013, video he posted to YouTube, he vents about the government making a profit from an ankle monitor he has to pay for and wear while under house arrest. He also rants about the local courthouse and questions why citizens need permits.

“You have to go down to that big stone structure, monument to tyranny, and submit, crawling, groveling on your hands and knees,” he says on the video. “Sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me or maybe communist Russia.”

On Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a neighbour said the Millers might have been planning a larger attack on an unidentified court building. According to the story, the couple’s next-door neighbour and friend was holding documents for the couple that included detailed plans to take over a courthouse and execute public officials. Other reports link the couple of the recent Cliven Bundy ranch saga when armed militia lined up against government officials to protect the ranchowner’s right to continue to illegally graze his cattle on public land, although hard evidence has yet to be produced that they were there. UPDATE 12 June, video has now emerged of Jared Miller speaking at the Bundy ranch, from which he and his wife were asked to leave because of their extreme views.

JokerJared Miller used the handle “USATruePatriot” on another YouTube account where video titles included “second amendment logic,” “Would George Washington use an AK?,” and “Police confiscate guns and threatened to kill me.”

In two videos, he stands in front of an American flag dressed as the Joker and rambles about what it would be like to be president of the United States.

“A new world order under the Joker,” he shouts while belting out an evil laugh.

Jerad Miller’s profile picture on Facebook is of two knives behind a mask and the word “PATRIOT” in stars and stripes. Much of his social activity was centered on Second Amendment gun laws, government spying and drug laws. Six days before Sunday’s rampage, he posted on Facebook that, “to stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”

“We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war. We face an enemy that is not only well funded, but who believe they fight for freedom and justice. … We, cannot with good conscience leave this fight to our children, because the longer we wait, our enemies become better equipped and recruit more mercenaries of death, willing to do a tyrants bidding without question. I know you are fearful, as am I. We certainly stand before a great and powerful enemy. I, however would rather die fighting for freedom, than live on my knees as a slave.”

Investigators with the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center aid the Millers’ web writings were typical of right-wing, militia-type thinking. But the SPLC’s intelligence files don’t show the couple to be members of an organized group.

“It’s just the two of them doing this crazy thing that the two of them decided to do,” the director of the SPLC’s intelligence project commented.

The ADL says in the past five years, there have been 43 separate incidences of violence between domestic extremists and U.S. law enforcement. All but four of the attacks were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, according to the ADL.

“The two police officers who lost their lives are only the latest in a series of casualties in a de facto war being waged against police by right-wing extremists, including both anti-government extremists and white supremacists,” Mark Pitcavage, ADL director of investigative research, said in a written statement. “Some extremists have deliberately targeted police, while others have responded violently when meeting police in unplanned encounters. The killings are not the effort of a concerted campaign, but rather a series of independent attacks and clashes stemming from right-wing ideologies.”

It is the propagation of these ludicrously extreme ideologies – of left and right, which is where strands of political thinking actually merge, in our opinion – that needs to be carefully examined. The capacity for unhinged individuals to create mayhem is simply too obvious to allow their mental furies to be whipped up. Indeed, anti-terrorism experts now say that the ability of propaganda materials to provoke murderous behaviour by previously unobserved and not-formally-aligned individuals is actually their biggest headache. As “spectacular” attacks on a more alert West have declined, so the capacity to use words to enrage and empower lunatics becomes a more ever-present threat. One madman with a “dirty” low-blast nuclear weapon (which apparently is not that difficult to create if you can access the right materials) could take out the population of a small city. Anywhere.

pakistan attackMeanwhile, the other end of the scale was also on tragic display. Thirty people – ten of them insurgents – were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport.

The assault has left Pakistan’s nascent peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in tatters and officials in the northwest reported that some 25,000 people had fled a restive tribal district in the past 48 hours, fearing a long-awaited ground offensive.

The assault on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was just the latest spectacular offensive to be launched by the TTP in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.

Authorities were checking reports that seven airport workers were trapped in cold-storage facilities after apparently shutting themselves inside to escape the carnage.

“We are looking into this and according to the families some seven people were trapped inside the cold storage and were in contact with the families on cell phone,” said Abid Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority.

bodiesThe attack began just before midnight Sunday. Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three detonated their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.

“The main objective of the terrorists was to destroy the aircraft on the ground but there was only minor damage to two to three aircraft,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference at the airport late Monday. “Pakistan’s national assets are safe and secure.”

The administration in Washington condemned the attack and offered to assist with the investigation. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the airport siege and a separate attack in the southwest targeting Shiite Muslims which a local official said killed at least 24 pilgrims.

Ban was “deeply concerned by this upsurge of violence across Pakistan” and urged the government to increase its efforts to address terrorism and religious extremism, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

The bodies of the 18 victims – including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.

The charred remains of two cargo terminal employees were later recovered on Monday night, to bring the total dead to 30, Qaimkhani said.

PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement “commending the bravery” of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai – who is battling his own Taliban insurgency – condemned the attack in a statement.

The attack took place just three kilometres (two miles) from the Mehran naval base, which the Taliban laid siege to three years ago, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour operation.

The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.

Latest revenge

The TTP said the brazen attack on the airport was its latest revenge for the killing of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Talks to end the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency have been under way since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted and more than 300 people have been killed in militant strikes since then. Analysts say Sharif is under pressure to act and risks angering the army if he does not authorise a swift retaliation.

Thousands flee tribal district

In restive North Waziristan tribal district some 1,000 kilometres north of Karachi, residents and officials told AFP 58,000 people, mainly women and children had fled the area for different parts of the northwest, fearing a long-awaited offensive was imminent.

The exodus has increased rapidly in recent days, with more than 25,000 fleeing their homes in the last 48 hours alone, a government official in Peshawar said.

“I am taking my family to a safer location,” said one resident who did not wish to be named.

The latest rumours of an operation began after government talks with the TTP broke down in April, and were further stoked by the air strikes and the widespread distribution of a leaflet from a local warlord last week warning residents they should leave their homes by June 10. An offensive in North Waziristan has been rumoured for years but analysts remain cautious about whether the military has the capacity to attempt such a move without assistance from the Afghan side of the border where militants are likely to flee in the event of an attack.

What do we think?

Well, this new survey revealing that 92% of Pakistanis report having seen hate speech online is sobering indeed. We cannot imagine it is much different elsewhere. It may well be that we are crucially under-estimating the role of hate speech online in creating real-world violence.

Whether it is three dead in a shopping mall, thirty dead in Pakistan, or tens of thousands maimed, made homeless, or killed in conflicts all over the world, it is surely the power of words to justify the unthinkable that should concern us.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

Whatever the root causes of societal tensions, and the world is full of injustice, to be sure, both minor and major, the casualacceptance that “violence is the answer” is a cancer that grew up in the relativist 1960s and has been growing and spreading ever since.

It must be said that the instinctive resort to violence is, unquestionably, exacerbated by the wanton use of government force, official and unofficial, whether it is foolhardy killings of people by gung-ho police officers, (a trend which seems to be increasing), the assassination of leaders such as Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, drone strikes, dis-proportionate attacks on the Palestinian community by the IDF, the fuelling of the contras and others slaughtering hundreds of thousands in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, the massacres of Chechen civilians, the slaughter of Tamil civilians, and so many more examples the list could be virtually endless.

 

We are concerned here with the knee-jerk resort to violence, with the assumption that such violence is warranted in all cases by national interest, rather than the admittedly more complex discussion of when and if violence could be justified. Governments everywhere seem, to our eyes, to be becoming far too wedded to the idea of “shoot first and ask questions later”, both domestically and internationally. It is a slippery slope, and we seem to be sliding down it, willy nilly.

And while government continues to behave as if life and liberty are irrelevant to their own interests, so individuals will consider they are similarly exempt from moral restraint, as we saw with Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

And yet, none of us are exempt from moral restraint. When we all cry, in bewilderment, “How could someone do such a thing?” it is because we are from the sane majority, those who would no more shoot a fellow citizen on the streets over a political or religious principle than we would try to fly to the moon by flapping our arms.

And yet, that same sane majority cowers silently behind the free speech argument while others pour mental filth into our communities unchallenged and unrestrained.

In our view, it is not enough to outlaw someone actively arguing and presumably planning for armed revolution, it is also necessary to curb the enthusiasm of those who “wink” at the concept of it, who pat elements on society on the head and murmur “There, there, settle down children”, when they should actually be as outraged as us that anyone can actually voice the type of vile propaganda that leads individuals to gun down women’s health practitioners, attendees at a Holocaust museum, or a Jewish school.

We do not pretend to know where or how the line should be drawn in each and every case. We simply feel we know hate speech when we hear it, and we don’t want to hear it. So as a starting point for the debate:

Killing people is wrong. Always wrong. Under any circumstances. It is an inadequate, tragic and awful way for us to resolve our differences, whether with a neighbour over a wall or a neighbouring country over a border.

Killing people is just plain wrong. And saying it’s sometimes OK to kill people is wrong, too.

Let’s just start there, and work on?

Russia jails Pussy Riot protest punks for two years

(AFP and others)

Pussy Riot demonstrators (from left) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Aliokhina during their trial. This is what courage looks like. Assange, Pussy Riot, Bradley Manning – see a pattern developing? Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

A Moscow court Friday handed a two-year jail sentence to three feminist punk rockers who infuriated the Kremlin and captured world attention by ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s main church.

The European Union immediately called the decision “disproportionate” while Washington urged Moscow to review the case and thousands rallied across world capitals calling on the Russian strongman to set the Pussy Riot members free.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three young protesters had displayed a “clear disrespect toward society” by staging a “Punk Prayer” performance just weeks ahead of Putin’s historic but controversial March election to a third term.

“Considering the nature and degree of the danger posed by what was done, the defendants’ correction is possible only through an actual punishment,” she said to a few cries of “Shame!” and “This is not fair!” from the packed courtroom.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina — 22 and 24 respectively and both mothers of young children — and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich exchanged glances and laughed nervously as they listened to the marathon verdict reading from inside a glass cage.

“I did not expect the verdict to be so harsh,” Samutsevich’s father Stanislav quietly told reporters after his daughter was led away.

But co-defence attorney Nikolai Polozov said the three “will not be asking (Putin) for a pardon” for what they consider a purely political act. (And quite right too, in my opinion, as asking for a pardon implies an acceptance of guilt.)

The trio had pulled on knitted masks and stripped down to short fluorescent dresses near the altar of Moscow’s biggest cathedral on February 21 before belting out a raucous chorus calling on the Virgin Mary to “drive out Putin”.

To many they represented prime examples of disenchanted youth whose support Putin could almost certainly have counted on at the start of his 12-year domination as both president and premier.

The state-appointed judge opened the hearing with dozens of passionate supporters of the band and the Russian Orthodox Church being held apart by riot police and Western diplomats jostling with reporters for a spot inside the courtroom.

Witnesses saw about 60 Pussy Riot fans – ex-chess champion and fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov among them – being taken away into waiting vans by police during more than three hours of hearings.

The once-unheralded band members have already been held in pre-trial detention for five months despite international protests about their treatment by Putin’s team.

The US State Department expressed immediate concern “about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences”.

“We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the case “puts a serious question mark over Russia’s respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process.”

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the sentence “excessively harsh (and) not in harmony with the values of European law.”

The ruling was handed down as Pussy Riot release rallies hit major world cities and celebrities ranging from Paul McCartney and John Malkovich to Madonna and Bjork decried Putin’s tough stance on dissent.

A spokesman for the Russian leader said Putin had no say in the court’s decision and argued that the women always had the option to appeal.

“He has no right to impose his views on the court,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the PublicPost.ru website.

Putin had earlier this month said he thought the band members should not be judged “too severely” while stressing that he strongly disagreed with what they did.

The jailing capped an initial 100-day spell in office spell for Putin in which he has breached reforms put in place by his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev with new curbs on protests and political groups with foreign sources of income.

Yet the moves – all stemming from Putin’s charge that Washington was funding the historic protests against his return to the Kremlin last winter – appear to be backfiring.

A poll published on the front page of the Vedomosti business daily on Friday showed Putin’s approval rating slipping to a post-election low of 48 percent — a notable slide from the 60 percent he enjoyed around his May inauguration.

There were some initial signs that the polling data and international pressure may force the authorities to adapt their approach.

Leading ruling party member Andrei Isayev called the sentence “harsh” and noted that Putin had yet to speak his full mind on the matter.

And a senior Church council issued a formal statement calling on the state “to show mercy for the convicted within the framework of the law.”

Mechanic Michael Allison faces 75 years in jail for recording police

Mechanic Michael Allison faces 75 years in jail for recording police - this is his story

This story has just been brought to my attention in a different arena, and it shocked me. I think it will shock you.

I fear that in all those countries who regularly laud themselves for being “free”,  there is an extremely worrying trend to erode the rights of the individual, and to boost the powers of the state.

When I was growing up, in the UK, my Mum used to say to me “the best thing about this country, Stephen, is that your Dad fought for the right for you to say whatever you like, and we have free speech here as a result”.

That simple thought – that so long as one was not being defamatory or merely insulting, one was permitted to speak one’s mind openly and fearlessly on any topic – has guided my life ever since.

And I have tried to imbue it in my daughter, in my turn.

HMS Clare, 1941

One of the destroyers my Dad shipped on, the somewhat wobbly HMS Clare, in 1941

Mum lost her husband aged 46, a kindly but broken man, worn out by six years fighting the Nazis on tin-pot, turn-turtle lend-lease destroyers. (Those on board these ships (a valuable gift from the Americans at the start of the war) were more worried that they were always about to capsize than they were going to get a torpedo up their collective arses.) She was no great intellectual, but when she contemplated his sacrifice, which must have hurt her so badly, she drew comfort from the fact that “We can say what we like here, because of what your Dad did”. I used to try and talk to her about his sacrifice, and hers, but she would always brush it off, with an embarrassed wave of the hand. “It was just what we had to do, Stephen. We had no choice.” And she would say no more.

This essential freedom, paid for with the blood of millions, is so much a component of my social and intellectual DNA that I fear my world would crumble if it was seriously challenged. I would, without a backward glance, head for the barricades to defend my right to say anything I damn well please, so long as it adheres to the basic rules of civilised democratic behaviour.

That’s why I have so much admiration for the stand taken by this man in Illinois. This story goes directly to just such simple, core democratic freedoms as the right to free speech. How can recording the actions of police in public be a felony offence, equivalent to rape or murder? Especially when the police are specifically permitted, by the same laws, to record citizens? It’s just so ridiculous it beggars belief. The story, still running, is covered in this 14 minute (or so) You Tube video. It’s a long time, 14 minutes, in our time-poor world, but I think everyone who values our freedom really should watch it.

 

Although I suspect, watching him being interviewed, that Michael might be one of those annoyingly vexatious people who invariably clog up public policymaking and government, I am nevertheless in awe of his personal courage. I hope someone makes a Hollywood movie of his fight, which I trust will ultimately be successful, as that would reach more people than a thousand speeches or learned academic papers. And I trust Illinois, and America as a whole, is thoroughly embarrassed by his plight. Because whether or not he is, essentially, the type of character that causes officialdom to roll its collective eyes at his nuisance factor, the fact is that our democracy needs such nuisances to stay healthy and meaningful.

Whether it is this man’s fight to oppose this ludicrous statute (that is on the books in 12 states in America), or the rendition of subsequently-proven-to-be-innocent citizens to third world countries for torture – or to Guantanamo Bay – or the more swingeing statutes of the Patriot Act or its equivalent in the UK, Australia and elsewhere, or, indeed, the now blanket CCTV coverage of our streets, I believe I see evidence for a creeping disregard for our personal liberty in the West that is gathering pace. And fast.

There are what appear to be serious, intelligent people in Illinois defending this law. Look at the prevarication of the public officials. Can you see shame on their faces? I can. But I also see a determination to protect their turf at all costs,  instead of responding, as they should have, with a cheery “Hell, yes, what were we thinking?” and an apology. I note, also, that the state legislature failed to overturn the law.

Look: I think that police in modern society do a difficult and thankless job, and in general they deserve our wholehearted respect. But if they are operating within the law, as they must, then they should have no fear whatsoever of being recorded, whether in audio or video.

I mean, what is the difference between what this man did and jurisdictions insisting that police interviews are now recorded? It makes good sense in a police station, to protect the interests and bona fides of both the accused and the police, but not on the streets? Huh? What’s with that?

On this, as so many other issues, like climate change and casual violence on the streets, we seem to be suffering from what biologist David Suzuki called “Boiling Frog” syndrome.

Drop a live frog in to a beaker of boiling water and it will struggle to get out. But put it in a beaker of cold water and raise the temperature in steady one degree increases, and it will not, just sitting there as it gets sicker and sicker from the rising heat, until it becomes unconscious, and eventually dies.

I think our beakers are being heated up, in oh-so-many ways, and we are just sitting still and taking it. And it scares me.

Aux barricades, mes camarades.