It could have been me

Mansour was snatched from a bus last year and beaten, and has been held in prison ever since. His cr

Mansour Ossanlu is the leader of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company. At 7pm on 10 July 2007 he was snatched from a bus driven by one of his members, bundled into a car and beaten by men in plain clothes. He has been in prison ever since. Amnesty International believes he is a prisoner of conscience, held solely on account of his peaceful trade union activities, and that he should be released immediately and unconditionally.

It is not the first time Ossanlu has been detained. In December 2005, bus drivers in Iran went on strike to call for better pay. Many union leaders, including Ossanlu, were arrested. He spent nine months in detention over the next year, and was reported to have been involved in a dispute with prison officials during which his head was struck, resulting in damage to the retinas in both eyes. He was denied treatment, and there were worries that he might go blind. It was only after a concerted campaign from Amnesty and trade unionists around the world that he was allowed treatment.

Permits and protections

Mansour Ossanlu was working peacefully for better conditions for workers in Iran and to end laws that curtail their rights. His "crime" was simply to be a trade unionist. His union is free and democratic, but has been subject to repeated harassment by the security forces, as it is not recognised by the authorities as a legitimate trade union body. In January 2006, after Ossanlu's first arrest, bus workers went on strike to demand official recognition of their union and to call for his release: up to 1,000 union members were arrested and more than 40 bus workers who took part in the strike were dismissed from their jobs.

Independent trade unions are not permitted in Iran. Workers have few legal rights or protections and union activists are regularly beaten, arrested, jailed and tortured. Government bodies select who can stand for union posts and all public sector jobs.

Trade unions in Iran are represented by a body known as the Workers' House, whose leaders are also subject to selection criteria imposed by the state. The Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company resumed activities in 2004 after a 25-year ban; it is still not legally recognised.

Ossanlu is a 48-year-old family man courageous enough to stand up for his rights and those of his fellow workers - an ordinary person who has become involved in extraordinary events. We share a common belief that workers' rights are human rights and must be protected; and that working men and women have a right to join together to form trade unions. Like many of Ossanlu's fellow workers, I was out on the streets protesting at his arrest. But I was in London, where my greatest worry was getting as much media attention for his case as I could; they were in Tehran, where being a trade unionist is far more dangerous.

Support from afar

Shortly before his arrest, Ossanlu had travelled to Europe to build international support for an independent Iranian trade union movement. During a visit to Amnesty's London office, he said that appeals from members and trade union activists had "made us know that we were not alone. When I was in prison and heard of all the support from so many thousands of miles away my spirits rose. In this struggle, it is very valuable. This campaigning has also disclosed the repression and made sure that the authorities know that they are being watched by the outside world."

It is this global advocacy, from trade unionists and other supporters of human rights, that helps to keep the brave ones like Mansour Ossanlu going in their vital struggle for human rights. And that is reason enough for us to ensure that our support doesn't falter.

For more information and to take action visit: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/ tradeunions

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?