It’s all fun and games until someone gets tortured

We laugh at Ramzan Kadyrov just as we laughed at Gaddafi – until he started killing his own people.

Dictators and autocrats are funny. Their mixture of vanity and hubris is a fertile ground for comedy. Even Hitler can be reduced to an absurd figure, dancing with an inflatable globe. Comedy is tragedy plus timing, and dictators certainly create an abundance of the former.

At the same time, laughter is a weapon. When the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave a speech and heard mocking cheers, rather than wails of excitement, he knew the game was up. When a repressed population no longer finds a tyrannical leader fearsome, it is a breakthrough; but when the west thinks of a dictator primarily as a joke rather than a threat, it is a problem.

There is a clear danger in allowing dictators to become jokes in the eyes of the west. Prior to the Arab spring, Colonel Gaddafi's incessant crimes against his own people were ignored in favour of colourful descriptions of his latest outrageous statement or choice of attire. It was only when the "eccentric" Gaddafi threatened to massacre his own citizens that the west realised once more that Gaddafi was not a benign jester.

Kim Jong-il's ludicrous claims – such as his round of 34 on Pyongyang's 7,700-yard championship golf course – are frequently remarked on, while his crimes are sometimes a footnote.

The latest short, brutal autocrat to mask his repugnant regime beneath a layer of amusing absurdity is Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who has turned Chechnya into his personal fiefdom through a mixture of human rights abuses, torture and murder.

The Chechen leader recently organised a football match featuring, among others, Diego Maradona, Luis Figo and Franco Baresi. It was clearly a propaganda exercise – and it worked. The photo above made it onto the back page of the Times.

The Guardian, meanwhile, posted an amused report from the match, with Kadyrov's "gruesome human rights abuses" not mentioned until the fifth paragraph, and even then only in passing. Indeed, from the start of March until today, the Guardian's only other story solely about Chechnya was another kickabout organised by Kadyrov – this time against an all-star team from Brazil.

Dictators should be laughed at, but when the media start to report predominantly on a regime's absurdities rather than its crimes, it plays into the hands of figures such as Gaddafi, Kadyrov and Kim – all of whom want the west to talk about anything except their crimes.

Satire has a place for undermining tyrants, but if the only reports that emerge from hellish countries such as Chechnya or North Korea are amusing pen portraits of their weirdo leaders then we forget about the boot pressed firmly on the neck of their citizens. That's not comedy, that's tragedy.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.