Shrien Dewani on the first day of his trial at the Western Cape High Court. Photo: Getty
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Shrien Dewani is on trial for murder, not for his sexuality

The young British businessman is accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in Cape Town’s township badlands.

High on the wall of the South African courtroom in which a British man is being tried for the murder of his wife hangs a relic of a previous era.

An ornately carved wooden crest, with a unicorn and a lion rampant, and beneath it that curious motto of the British establishment: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (roughly translated from Old French as “shame on those who think ill of it”).

That Britain’s royal coat of arms is still displayed in courtroom two of Cape Town’s High Court is most likely due to the debt of honour South Africa’s legal system owes its English progenitor.

But crest’s old-fashioned imprecation to trust in the righteousness of those who act on our behalf is one that, to my mind, could be as hopelessly out of date as the colonial attitudes which once subjugated this beautiful country.

For the past two weeks I have reported for various British media outlets on the opening skirmishes in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani.

Dewani, as some readers are likely aware, is the young British businessman accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in the township badlands which fringe this stunning city by the sea.

To my mind, the most significant evidence we’ve heard in Dewani’s trial so far has been the witness testimony of a local gangster who – in return for a discount off his prison sentence and, perhaps, the prospect of more to come – claimed that Anni’s murder was her husband’s idea.

But beyond this there is one theme, above all others, that has dominated both court proceedings and the media’s coverage of it: Shrien Dewani’s sexuality.

Briefly, Shrien Dewani is bisexual.

“I have had sexual interactions with both males and females”, a statement read into court on Dewani’s behalf declared on the trial’s first day.

“I consider myself to be bisexual. My sexual interactions with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs; including prostitutes [...]

“My sexual experiences with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”

Dewani’s admission prompted lurid headlines, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

The confession was interpreted by legal experts as a clever move designed to take the wind out of the prosecution’s sails by conceding as true that which they might claim Dewani denies – and also by challenging the court to disagree with the proposition that a person’s sexuality should have no bearing on his or her guilt.

But if Shrien Dewani had hoped sexuality might disappear as a theme in this trial, he will have been sorely disappointed.

On Monday this week, the trial heard from Simon Johnson, a perky young British man from the gay dating website Gaydar – a website, Johnson claimed in court, for which “privacy is of the utmost importance”.

The court didn’t hear whether Johnson had been compelled to give witness evidence or whether he volunteered to do so, but what he told the court might seem at odds with this claim to privacy.

Shrien Dewani, Johnson explained, had been a member of Gaydar for six years at the time of Anni’s death. His online nickname was “Asiansubguy”. He described himself as “a single gay man” and “passive sub guy” who was looking for a “dominant active guy”.

The court heard more detail about Dewani’s sexual predilections, much of it likely to be extremely embarrassing to him. But that, I think, is enough for now.

What on earth, I wondered as listened to Johnson’s patter, has any of this got to do with murder?

The Gaydar man had an answer. He confirmed that, according to the website’s records, Shrien Dewani logged into the site once on the day before Anni’s death and three times two days afterwards.

Okay. But what did he do online?

Unfortunately, that Johnson couldn’t say. This information was not retrievable from the site’s servers, he explained. But it was possible, he conceded under cross examination, that Shrien Dewani may simply have used Gaydar to send or receive innocuous emails.

Things got worse on Tuesday.

Mark Roberts, from Britain’s National Crime Agency, appeared in the witness dock to explain how he had, at the South African police’s request, searched a laptop computer once used by Shrien Dewani.

The computer’s large disc size meant Roberts hadn’t been able to sift through all the data it contained, so the IT expert used keywords to filter his search.

Roberts searched for the names of various people, places and websites which he thought might yield incriminating information.

He also searched for the words “gay, fetish, rubber and water sports”, he explained in court.

Just as I was wondering what forensic point Roberts and his South African taskmasters hoped to achieve using these search terms, prosecutor Adrian Mopp moved on to what was clearly meant as the meat of Roberts’ witness evidence: a cache of 53 sexually charged emails sent to Shrien Dewani from an unidentified “an older man” over a year before Anni’s murder.

There was a moment of breathless anticipation on the court’s press benches as we waited for these emails to be read into the court record.

But before they could be, Dewani’s barrister Francois van Zyl was on his feet, complaining that they were irrelevant to the case against his client.

Yes, they may be from one man to another man, van Zyl argued, but so what?

“Mr Dewani communicated with a third party about the situation in which he found himself”, prosecutor Adrian Mopp countered.

“He was confused about whether to get married or whether to come out....the man expressed a conflict within himself”.

“And what does that prove, motive to kill?” a clearly doubtful Judge Jeanette Traverso fired back. “I am sure that’s true for many, many people, including people in this court”.

The judge’s putdown was brutal, but Mopp wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t the fact that Shrien Dewani was gay that was important, the prosecution lawyer explained to the court, but that he had described himself, at different times, as being either gay, bisexual and straight. Which one was true?

Then came the kicker: a succinct explanation of the binary way in which Dewani’s prosecution appeared to me to understand the complex realities of human sexuality.

“A bisexual person is attracted to both sexes”, Mopp informed the court. “A gay person is attracted to one”.

Judge Traverso rejected the prosecution’s attempts to introduce the email evidence, ruling that the messages were of no relevance.

Having flown half way across the world to give his evidence, Roberts, the IT expert, was sent back home to the UK.

But the issue of Dewani’s sexuality is still unlikely to disappear from this trial. The court is expected, in the coming weeks, to hear from “The German Master”, a male prostitute Dewani has admitted paying for sex.

As for the relevance of what the Master has to say, that we shall have to see.

Shrien Dewani’s murder trial is still in its early stages and has yet to hear some of the most important evidence against him. He could be convicted of his wife’s murder, in which case concerns about his private life will, most likely, be the least of his worries.

But Shrien Dewani could be found innocent. If that happens he may have good reason to be angry, not just at the police and prosecution service that would have falsely accused him of a crime he didn’t commit, but for the needless airing of the most intimate details about his private life – secrets he will never now be able to hide.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit