NS Christmas campaign: Show your support for Anas al-Shogre

The Syrian activist disappeared in May 2011 and hasn't been seen since.

Christmas is nearly upon us and the New Statesman Christmas Campaign is drawing to a close. In the past month, thousands of people have shown their support for Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, sending cards to those at risk of persecution and abuse and letters demanding justice to authorities around the world – from Honduras to Japan.

To those of you who have written a card or sent an email on behalf of one of the groups or individuals, thank you.  

Former prisoner of conscience Chekib el-Khiari – who was serving a three-year prison sentence for speaking out against government corruption in Morocco, before being pardoned by the Moroccan king after great public pressure – has written of the impact each letter and card he received had for him. He told Amnesty, “Every week I was waiting for those letters. I was reading them again and again, thinking of those people who took five minutes, or maybe more, to write or to draw. Five minutes of their time gave me the energy to survive two years of unlawful imprisonment.”

Sometimes, it is about cheering the spirits of the wrongly imprisoned. Sometimes though, it is about demanding justice for them. So as the curtain falls on this year’s Write for Rights Campaign, I would urge you to take action for one more person: Anas al-Shogre.

Anas, 24, was arrested in May 2011 in the Syrian city of Banias, and has not been seen since. Syrian authorities have not said where he is being held. Nor have they given reasons for his arrest. Local activists and Anas’ family believe the young political activist is being held for his involvement in calling for and leading protests in Banias, and for speaking to various media outlets about human rights violations committed by the Syrian authorities.

Since pro-reform protests broke out in February 2011, thousands of suspected opponents of the government have been arrested and many, if not most, are believed to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Amnesty has the names of over 720 people reported to have died in custody during this period. A staggering figure.

To date, Anas al-Shogre is not one of the names on that list.

However Amnesty is concerned that Anas is at real risk of torture and is being held for peacefully exercising his basic right to freedom of expression and assembly and so would be a prisoner of conscience.  

This year so much bloodshed, carnage and devastation has occurred in Syria.

The number of deaths reported since the start of the conflict is huge, reported to be as many as 40,000. Yet there is a real danger that casual observers to this conflict are becoming immune.

Those who can become immune to these atrocities are in a somewhat fortunate position. Thousands of men, women and children both living in Syria and elsewhere – cannot ignore this tragedy. This year the US journalist Marie Colvin’s family will mark their first Christmas without Marie.  The Colvin family is not alone. Thousands of families will be marking their first turn of the year without their loved one. The al-Shogre family will mark their second New Year not knowing where their son, brother, cousin is.

To observers the situation appears dire and beyond hope. But as Amnesty has seen in the past it is incredible the impact that public pressure can have upon a situation.  This is why I would ask you over this Christmas period to take five minutes out to send a letter to the Syrian authorities calling for the release of Anas al-Shogre immediately and unconditionally.

It may seem like an impossible feat. But as we’ve seen at Amnesty in the past, the seemingly impossible can become a reality.

To help free Anas, click here.

For more information about Write for Rights visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write
 

Syrian activist Anas al-Shogre hasn't been seen since May 2011.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.