Mauritania: Tragedy Prompts Protests Demanding Justice, Legal Reforms

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Marking a week of protests to demand action after the rape and murder of a little girl, the march organised by Nouakchott-based women’s rights activist group “Etkelmi” (Scream) has attracted a lot of support and positive reactions from political elites and fellow activists. About 50 protesters set off at 5pm Tuesday, 5th November 2013, from the Ministry of the Interior to the Palace of Justice. The young women leading the march covered the entire distance in their bare feet. They were accompanied by family, friends and supporters of the victims of recent violent assault, including the husband and friends of Penda Soghe, a young wife and mother who was expecting her second child at the time she was savagely beaten, tortured, gang-raped and murdered, after being abducted on her way home from work at the beginning of April this year.


Once at the Judiciary HQ, there were statements of protest by supporters and several representatives of civil groups, to demand a change to the law in Mauritania relating  to rape, and the entrance gates to the building were covered in protest banners.

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The abduction, rape, and murder of six-year-old Khadji (Yaye) Touré, whose body was discovered Sunday, 27 October 2013 on the beach, not far from one of Nouakchott’s hotels, has shocked the entire community. The tragic details were unveiled against the backdrop of the annual Nouakchott short film festival, which had welcomed hundreds of guests from around the world. The Etkelmi event was the fourth protest in the past week.

The first protest saw more than a hundred people accompanying the bereaved family in a march to the Presidential Palace to demand serious action on the crime. The authorities responded by asking for a list of people who wished to attend a discussion, but no further news has been posted so far. News sites reported an announcement late on Tuesday, that police had arrested a man in connection with the abduction, and that he had confessed to murdering the little girl. There are some doubts about the veracity of this statement.

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Mid-week, a group of Mauritanian ex-pats living in Paris, which has staged weekly protests for the past several months, demanding a fair and transparent approach to registration procedures for Mauritanian citizenship, held a vigil in memory of the murdered child, adding their voices to the call for justice and legal reform.

On 1 November, 2013 the pro-morality activist group staged a protest immediately after Friday prayers in Nouakchott, which was also very well-attended.

It now remains to be seen whether this concerted effort can continue to build and raise awareness, eventually creating enough pressure to initiate the needed reforms. All those involved are aware there is little chance of making any real progress until after the upcoming elections, scheduled to take place on 23 November.

Online Security: Verification and Validation

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An overview of key points for activists to bear in mind for online security, or tactics to bring into play in case of an online incursion by members of anyone’s so-called “Cyber Army” – updated version of my December 2011 post “Battle Hardening Against Cyber Soldiers” for Cyber Security Awareness Month.

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When it comes to online security, your first responsibility is to yourself, and that has never been more clear than now, with the daily diet of revelations about the allegedly massive scale of global government spying and surveillance finally raising awareness. Of at least equal importance, is the need to stay alert to the risks your actions might create for others in your online network. Every time you share, tag, mention or otherwise connect someone else to your content, you are highlighting your relationship in the context of that content. A simple typing error, a hastily copied story, or unbridled haste to share without fact-checking, can alter that context dramatically, and potentially with rather more serious consequences that any of us previously imagined. Increase your personal security first, using the same logic as those flight safety rules about oxygen masks. Here’s a handy article from the New Scientist, about how to try and evade the NSA dragnet, to help you get started.

Being part of an online network means you need to be able to justify each of your online relationships, and pay attention to any unexpected changes. Harsh as it might seem, treat all former contacts, who reappear after an absence, with neutral (not hostile) caution. Accounts do get hacked, and occasionally, people do get recruited to “the other team” or put under pressure to reveal passwords. If you didn’t put a challenge/response protocol* in place with your trusted contact before they dropped off the grid, so you could verify their identity when they reappear at some future point, then you have to assume there is a 50% chance they are not the person you once knew until they can prove themselves to your satisfaction. Similarly, do not feel obliged to “follow back” or accept every friend request unless you feel confident about doing so. Set some standards for yourself about why and how you plan to grow your network. If you are simply feeling insecure, ego-driven, or lonely, be honest with yourself about your motivations, and try to keep them in check so that they don’t compromise your security.

*Establish a challenge/response protocol with your trusted contacts. This is an agreed question you can ask the other person and an agreed response they must give. Like a password reminder.

Tip: Do NOT use any of your existing password reminder Q&A’s

New accounts, especially breathlessly dramatic ones, should also be treated with measured caution. Wait for verification of all news, especially any that will have serious or long-term repercussions. We learned this the hard way when a very plausible fraud appeared on Twitter in the middle of protest and declared that bit.ly shortened links were blocked in Iran. The ensuing panic and last-minute changes caused a lot of people a great deal of unnecessary extra effort, and some of the suggested alternative link shortening sites are no longer operational, meaning that archived content which includes links using these now defunct services are effectively dead.

Breaking News” reports always seem to demand an urgent response, where in fact they should be treated as “unconfirmed news“. As we all know, a lie is halfway around the social network world before the truth has got its pants on. So, as always, wait and verify, verify, verify. Remember that even the most experienced social media users and big name mass media outlets like the BBC, MBC, CNN etc have all been fooled by fake news, or been too quick to rush to headlines without checking facts; at times, they are even revealed to be responsible for it . If you do happen to post a report in good faith, which later turns out to be false, you should be willing to spend at least as much time retracting it and letting everyone know, than the time you spent sharing it.

Mark unconfirmed status updates as UNCONFIRMED or UNCONF. Do not remove text that identifies news as unconfirmed when re-tweeting or re-posting.

did-the-world-s-nastiest-virus-try-to-self-destruct--49a5bfa353Be cautious with private message requests or emails containing sensational news, documents, image, videos etc. asking you to share news. Suggest to whoever sent it that they post it themselves and you (might) share their update. If they claim to be unable to use or create a social network account, suggest they use liveleak.com, where you can share images, documents, videos and post text updated using an alias. Run a search for the information being privately shared with you, to see if it can be verified, or if anyone is posting warnings about it.

Watch out for people re-using images from unrelated events. Use Google or Tin Eye to search for images by url or by uploading them. Try using Storyful’s Multisearch tool to help you verify news and look for more sources. What other tools do you know of? Add the best to your favorites, and share them often.

Check for images having been altered using special analysis tools like Image Metadata Manager or JPEGSnoop or the fotoforensics.com website.

As far as possible, try to stay transparent in your methods and analysis, and let your network help you by reaching out for help verifying reports, checking facts, or translating content.

ISERI Protests 12 Jan 2011 AlJAzeera cameraman hassledFake videos seem to be all the rage these days, while innocent cameramen are being murderedkidnapped or harassed, and citizen journalists – or indeed, anyone carrying a smart phone or camera – face increasing pressure from police and authorities. 

Here is my current list of suggestions, ideas and wishes for video checking and verification:

  1. Time and Date – video camera clocks can be changed of course, but we used to encourage activists in Iran or elsewhere to show us that day’s newspaper, social media status updates on a screen, or a live TV broadcast in the background of their video.
  2. Incentifying crowdsourced verification by rewarding the crowd. Not necessarily restricted to financial rewards, there are many different ways to motivate using more humanitarian methods, media coverage, thanking helpers with mentions, gamified social media decals etc – see this video for an example (at 10m42s) : 
    Digital Humanitarians: Patrick Meier at TEDxTraverseCity 2013
  3. Patience. There is often no good reason for the rush to post unverified news. This sense of urgency was more relevant four or five years ago, when mainstream media was thumbing its nose at “irrelevant, pointless” social media and users felt driven to prove their worth and expose the slow-footed traditional press. Now social media has gained almost universal acceptance, we should adjust the idea of competition to be first to break “all” news – at the cost of validity – and only apply it where it adds value, such as disaster relief.
  4. Details. We need to encourage those posting video to take the time to add important details – names, dates, locations, background facts, and tagging – for example, while also blurring faces of vulnerable subjects.
  5. Communication – it’s a 2-way street. We need to understand the importance of leaving comments of encouragement, feedback, guidance. At present, too much video is being posted and consumed in a communication vacuum.
  6. Archiving. Too many videos get pulled offline, and any video exposing serious abuse by authorities is at risk of being censored either formally or informally. There are sites that will save text or image content, but I don’t know of any reliable, consistent, centralised effort to preserve video or audio. It’s left to quick-thinking people to save these items privately.
  7. Translation. Really, this should be first on the list. The lack of organised, consistent volunteer efforts to crowdsource translation beggars belief. If you know anyone who can build an app for this, I have a rough design outline that’s been gathering dust for the past 4 years.
  8. Gratuitous violence and shock tactics are on the increase (and being pushed by Facebook and major news outlets when it suits them) and little good has come of it, if any.  People are being traumatised, becoming immune to it, or turning away. This is very damaging to the prospects of crowdsourced verification, because the gore factor is a deterrent to many potential helpers. I resist sharing the 18+ content being posted as relevant to human rights abuse, in the hope that, if we don’t encourage the trend by reacting, rewarding, or promoting, it will fall out of favour.
  9. We need an open source tool for video that works like JPEG Snoop, to extract information about the video, camera, settings, GPS etc.

Your comments and suggestions are very welcome on these subjects – drop me an email through the contact form or leave a comment below.

Take responsibility for your online safety and security

  • Change to a strong password and keep changing it, if not daily then as often as you can.
  • Scan your computer to check for intrusions, keyloggers, rootkits, malware, and trojans and keep your security software up to date.
  • Make sure that your recovery details for websites like Twitter, FaceBook & blogs etc are accurate and up to date.
  • Protect the email accounts you use to register with websites and services.
  • Use https to access websites and services, so that when you do connect, the information you send is encrypted.
  • Copy and paste login names and passwords rather than type them.
  • Do not store unencrypted user names and passwords on your computer.
  • Protect files on your computer or on external storage devices or removable storage like flash drives, SD cards or USB sticks using encryption, such as TrueCrypt.
  • Use a password on all your devices.

Be alert for apparently innocent requests for information about your own or anyone else’s details, such as location, online activity, other connections, friends or contacts.

Slavery: Ancient and Modern

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A new 2013 Global Slavery Index has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, in which we read that Mauritania tops the list of countries where slavery is an issue, when ranked in proportion to population size. Many media outlets were quick to transform this into a headline, which has already blazed its trail through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are some important observations to consider when reading these headlines, which I want to highlight:

  • The index uses a broad definition of “modern slavery” which includes child marriage and human trafficking, including illegal immigration. In the case of Mauritania, what exists there, and is still being witnessed today, is descendant slavery, as found in several countries in the index, and which is anything BUT modern. The number of Mauritanian citizens being trafficked is so tiny it defies measurement, and while child marriage is legal under Sharia law, marriage itself is so popular that once again, the numbers are going to be incredibly difficult to determine with any measure of accuracy. Those cases of child marriage we do hear of are mostly in more remote, rural areas with scant statistical records.
  • The population of Mauritania has not been reported using an official census since 2000, and even then, the numbers were deliberately under-reported, as noted by the World Bank and the UN, the secondary sources used by this new index. All numbers for population for the past 13 years have been estimated and extrapolated from other data sources. These sources are studies which will also determine the scope of aid programs, a major source of income for successive, corrupt, governments of Mauritania. Therefore we must assume the numbers reported for those studies is impacted by the opportunistic greed of the ruling administration.
  • The percentage arrived at by the index is 4%. This is in stark contrast to the figure of 10% to 20% usually reported by NGOs and human rights organisations. No explanation is offered for this apparent discrepancy. Clearly, the government, which remains sternly in denial of the continued existence or practice of slavery in Mauritania, will consider this a major PR coup in its favour.
  • Hillary Clinton has noted that the new index is “not perfect” and therefore, we should expect to see changes to it as it develops over time.
Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed in land-grabs, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed under order of state officials, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

We must take the issue of slavery seriously, because it is widespread and damaging and goes against everything decent human beings hold dear. But we don’t need glossy reports or “world leaders” (see video below) moralising about the subject as much as we need to see real concrete plans about how this scourge is going to be eradicated, and sensible actions which offer practical help for the victims to regain a dignified independence as well as their liberty.

At the moment, it looks like the main concern about slavery as far as many states are concerned, is that the proceeds are part of the “grey economy,” and therefore those doing the enslaving are also avoiding paying tax. It would seem that governments are more comfortable with the notion of fostering the sprawling mass of aid and development organisations, and collecting income tax from their often very highly-paid executives, while the rest of the agencies’ funds are able to legitimately avoid standard company tax because they are registered charities.

With new, harsher penalties being announced by the UK for anyone found guilty of trafficking, there is a great deal of justifiable public concern for the fate of the victims in all this, which is not clear from the statements being issued. These concerns are echoed in every country where trafficking or slavery is a problem. In Mauritania, for example, “international pressure” has led to a succession of rules, laws and proclamations from the government of the time, paying lip-service to the exhortations of donor organisations and countries willing to invest or otherwise bring revenue into the state coffers, with humanitarian strings attached. Yet each time the regime has banned or outlawed the practice of slavery, it has led to groups of people being “freed” by their former owners out of panic and fear, rather than concern. This has created a group of socially isolated former slaves, cast out of a bad but familiar situation, into an even more extreme state of insecurity, with no food, shelter, or work, and lacking even a basic education.

How extreme? Bad enough that some of them were forced to seek shelter in the refugee camp built to house those displaced from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. What happened when they were supposedly discovered? The UNHCR refused to feed them, and stopped issuing food rations to the entire camp, provoking a riot during which the food stores were broken into and rations seized by angry, humiliated, hungry, people with nowhere else to go and no other choices. That camp has been open since January 2012, and those Mauritanians were there almost from the start, but they were initially useful in boosting numbers for fund-raising appeals and supplying dramatic subtext to help justify the deployment of French and other military forces in Mali. Now, they’re surplus to requirements. Ironically, it is against the law to be homeless in Mauritania, land of the nomad. Expelling these Mauritanians from the refugee camp will subject them to risk of arrest and possible imprisonment, and certainly to harassment.

Such groups are likely to be found in every country where slavery is a current issue, and several where it has supposedly been eliminated, although their situations will vary. They all need support, and it should be delivered with as much publicity and enthusiasm as the speeches and statements and statistics, if not more.

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Iran in Syria: Death buys chocolate

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Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Dutch TV reporter Roozbeh Kaboly and the Nieuwsuur team have put together this report, with English subtitles, based on a video said to show Iranian troops training militia in Syria, using a village school as a base.  The man being interviewed has been identified as Revolutionary Guards Commander Esmail Heydari, who reportedly died in Syria a few weeks ago, and was later given a public funeral in his hometown of Amol, about 180km north of Iran’s capital, Tehran. He describes the mission, working with teams which are on 25-day rotation, adding that some were previously trained in Iran. Part of the mission’s objective appears to be securing access for Hezbollah to deliver weapons and supplies.

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Followers of human rights abuses in Iran, used to reading about the indescribable torture and cruelty dispensed to prisoners in the “special” IRGC detention centres and isolation wards, may be surprised by the smiling, relaxed, countenance of this commander. Heydari reveals the secret of his team’s success on their training mission is that they treat fighters with respect, “We haven’t paid them or anything,” he comments. Respect is a sentiment Heydari claims to extend to the local people: for example, by driving military vehicles slowly in civilian areas to avoid raising dust. While driving through a village Heydari says was deserted until his unit came to the area and cleaned up, he greets children warmly, offering candy. “When we came, there was no human being,” says Heydari. One of his team responds, “There are still no humans now, just Arabs.” The Nieuwsuur translation then relates the cameraman suggesting the Iranians also offer candy to the women they are passing on the road, but misses what I consider to be an implied threat in the reply: “We’ll give them some(thing), and you can film.” This is more typical of the IRGC behaviour I am familiar with.

The regime in Iran celebrated his death by burying Commander Heydari with honor, as a martyr who died defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab, granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed.

At least 6 more videos were posted to YouTube by the admin of a rebel group’s Facebook page, and were later verified by France24 journalists working with translators, who helped to produce a detailed analysis. The links to the original videos were shared on Twitter, but were either shared only with selected contacts, or the settings were later changed to prevent public access. Copies of the videos, which seem to show Iranian military officers working with soldiers from Syria’s regular army, giving them advice and instructions for combat, can be seen here.

The film appears to have been recorded by Hadi Baghbani, a young Iranian documentary maker, who reportedly died during an incident on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, where he is said to have been on a 10-day assignment, his second such visit. A second group of Iranians reportedly died while on the road in Syria, either because of a traffic accident or because their driver was killed by a sniper. The rebels believed to have found Baghbani’s video camera, the Idblib-based Dawood Brigade, which released the video, claimed responsibility for “most” of the deaths in an interview with al-Aan TV. The group’s spokesperson, Hosam Alsermene, told Al-Jazeera that they killed about 15-20 members of an Iranian team after hearing about their Syrian operations. Their identities and operational details were confirmed after taking possession of mobile phones and the video camera of an independent journalist who just happened to be there. The 30-year-old filmmaker received a burial ceremony in his hometown of Babolsar, Iran.

Hadi Baghbani

Hadi Baghbani

It’s not completely clear, from the available accounts, how the bodies were returned to Iran. Can we assume that this happened with the help of Syrian authorities or the militia which were being trained? Alternatively, other Iranians still present in Syria might have been able to repatriate the dead themselves.

Defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab

In July 2012, it was reported that about 5,000 Shiite Muslims were living in the neighbourhood of the shrine, including some who fled there to seek refuge from sectarian violence. Local youths armed with sticks were said to be defending the site, with Iran alleging clerics in Saudi Arabia had issued a fatwa demanding its destruction. A group of 48 Iranians, including members of the IRGC who claimed they were in retirement and making a pilgrimage to the shrine, was taken hostage in August 2012, before being traded in exchange for 2,130 prisoners of the Syrian regime in January 2013. Abdel Nasser Shmeir, interviewed by Al Arabiya and presented as the commander of Al-Baraa Brigade, claimed the hostages, plus their Afghan interpreter, were members of a 150-strong group sent to Syria by Iran for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. Shia news organisations claim that the shrine is now being protected by hundreds of Shia militants from Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Recent reports say a custodian of the site, Anas Romani, was killed, and the building damaged, when it was attacked by mortar shells in July 2013.  The Syrian government accused militants of the attacks.

What if change never comes?

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Are you waiting for change? Change that was promised to you in the last election campaign, or the one before that, or even earlier? What if that change never comes? The clips in this video highlight something we all know but either ignore, or feel powerless to change. Politics is losing its appeal, the lines are blurring, and political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, seem to be singing the same tired old tune.

Having allowed ourselves to be seduced by bold political promises ay election time, when we look back we often see that, in reality, very little has changed. Certainly it feels like there have been very few significant changes for the better in recent years. It’s common to see articles complaining about how “they” – usually meaning one or other political leader – have failed to introduce beneficial changes, while at the same time introducing unexpected changes that have a negative impact, or are imposed on us without consultation. However, what should ultimately determine genuine change at the political level, is the extent to which we, as individuals, want that change. It should depend on whether we are willing to accept change, and the costs or benefits it brings.

But we also know that people do not always welcome or enjoy change. Much of the time, it scares them and makes them feel anxious and insecure. Even beneficial changes, like getting married, having a baby, or starting a new job, are among the most stressful events in our lives. The politicians making those bold speeches about “change” know this too. In fact, they rely on it to prevent people complaining about broken promises, or banding together to demand consultation on important changes, or campaigning to repeal new laws that represent abuse of power.

If you really want ‘change you can believe in’, start by believing in your power to think and reason for yourself. Learn how to step back and resist the impulsive urge, or urgent authoritative command, to jump to conclusions or follow the herd. Give yourself permission to not have an opinion, at least until you have had time to consider all the evidence and to think critically, outside of the margins of the information being presented to you. Be OK with “I don’t know yet” or “I’m not sure yet” and even with “I might never know.” You don’t have to believe everything you hear or read. You don’t have to be a “follower” just because someone else is a “leader.”

The strange part is, we all accept that we don’t and can’t have the answer to absolutely everything, but we can easily be swayed to react in a certain way whenever we are reminded of just how much we don’t know, or if we are made to feel threatened. These are cheap vaudeville tricks, which have earned their place in the entertainment industry, but they can take on a darker aspect when used by statesmen, media, or corporations, to manipulate public opinion. Uncertainty is not the enemy, it’s one of the most fundamental principles of life. Don’t give it up without stopping to think or question.

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