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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt