Sunday, September 30, 2007

Web Warriors and Censorship

In The Observer this morning, Nick Cohen looks at web censorship in the context of playboy models, social networks, Tory MPs, Burma repression and Uzbek born oligarchs. Britains blunderbus libel laws must surely have a limited shelf life in light of recent events.

"Britain's ludicrous libel laws make supposedly independent bloggers equally vulnerable. This month, Boris Johnson found that threats of legal action had closed his website, one of Britain's most popular political blogs. Bullies are always threatening to sue bloggers; few have the resources to fight a libel action and bow to their demands.

Closing Johnson's website, however, took repression up a step. Corporate lawyers from Schillings acting for Alisher Usmanov, the Russian oligarch who wants to take over Arsenal, threatened any website that carried accusations from Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan. Maybe the host site could have handled things better, but the effect was not only to close Murray's blog, but other sites, including Johnson's, even though the MP had not mentioned Usmanov. 'This is London, not Uzbekistan,' fumed Johnson. 'It is unbelievable that a website can be wiped out on the say-so of some tycoon.'

I'm afraid it's all too believable. Usmanov went for Fasthosts, the company that hosts Murray's website. It had no knowledge of the accusations and under our stifling laws, the longer it kept the site up, the greater its punishment could be. Even though Murray said he'd happily see the plutocrat in court, it had to close him down or risk losing hundreds of thousands in an argument not of its making. Business logic made censorship inevitable."

The need for and requirements to make a re-write of the UK libel laws real is discussed in detail at the Ministry of Truth.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blackwater Comes in for US Government Criticism for Causing Civillian Deaths in Iraq

Of the many mercenary companies (private security contractors) operating in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the US military effort, Blackwater USA has always had a high profile. Their reputation for agressive tactics and an all to ready tendency to resort to firepower appears to now be catching up with them. On September 16th the company was involved in a high profile incident in which at least 11 Iraqis were killed. The New York times is now reporting briefings against the company from both Bush administration and industry officials.
"The American security contractor Blackwater USA has been involved in a far higher rate of shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq than other security firms providing similar services to the State Department..."
And, in a more general and welcome move, which may go some way towards decreasing the rate of civillian casualties,
"On Tuesday night, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England sent a three-page memorandum to senior Defense Department officials and top commanders around the world ordering them to ensure that contractors in the field were operating under rules of engagement consistent with the military’s."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Usmanov's attack on free speech: Updated list of objectors

The list of people who declared their support when Alisher Usmanov’s lawyers, Schillings, managed to take down Craig Murray’s, Boris Johnson’s, Tim Ireland’s and Bob Piper’s blogs has now moved to the the new Bloggerheads site here. The list currently totals 302 blogs and sites and is still growing

The original post can still be seen at Chick Yoghurt. It served its purpose extremely well and helped galvanise extensive cross-spectrum support.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not a leg to stand on - Schillings confirm they won't sue Craig Murray

In a tacit admission of the validity of his claims, Schillings, the lawyers for Alisher Usmanov, have stated that they will not be taking legal action against former-ambassador Craig Murray. This is despite their heavy-handed, and frankly inept, attempts to close down discussion on the internet about Murray's claims.

In a futher blow to Schillings, the mainstream media is now starting to catch up with the blogs - an excerpt from the Guardian is posted below.
"Controversy over Usmanov's record has surfaced since he paid Arsenal's former vice-chairman David Dein £75m for a 14.5% stake last month, then rapidly increased his shareholding to 21%. In 1980 he was convicted of offences reported to include fraud, corruption and theft of state property and served six years in prison, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union he insisted the charges had been politically motivated and that he had since been formally pardoned by the Russian government. That version of events has been contested by Craig Murray, the British ambassador in Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004.

Murray spoke out then about alleged corruption and state-sponsored brutality and he remains a trenchant critic of the former Soviet republic. After the purchase of Dein's stake he drew attention to Usmanov's convictions on his blog and published further allegations, which Usmanov's lawyers, Schillings, said were defamatory and insisted be taken down by the internet server Fasthosts. Murray's whole blog has now been removed.

Laura Tyler, of Schillings, said they did not intend to sue Murray directly because they did not want to give him a platform to express his views. Murray says he stands by the allegations, although he has no documentary evidence. "I was the ambassador in Uzbekistan. Usmanov is the country's most prominent businessman and it was my job to know about him."

Update: Parliamentary privilege appears to open the door wide open for the mainstream media as Craig Murray allegations are Repeated By Tom Wise MEP

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bloggerheads is back - well sort of...

Tim Ireland is now on back on line with a temporary blogger blog. He can be read at Check out the site for news of his campaign vs. Fasthosts, Schillings and Usmanov.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Red Cross Assessment Finds Iraq Situation Very Different from General Petraeus

A new assessment from the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasises that the humanitarian situation in Iraq is continuing to deteriorate. It appears to be completely at odds with the up beat message from General Petraeus on the success of the US surge in reducing violence. Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo writes from Geneva after returning from a recent field visit.
"The humanitarian crisis is continuing to spread, deepen and worsen. Security has deteriorated hugely over the last year, especially in recent months. The humanitarian situation is desperate.

On my mission to Iraq it struck me to what extent the main concerns for people in Iraq are security and survival. The danger is insidious. Violence can strike anywhere, anytime, anyhow, while you’re shopping or while you’re taking your children to school. Not only in Baghdad but in many other towns and several regions. You can see that life in Iraq is permeated by a deep-seated fear of what might happen next.

I think that’s what’s hardest for people there to live with. It’s even worse than the difficulties of everyday life - shortages of water and electricity, difficulty buying food because of the danger of leaving the house, limited access to medical care, etc. The hospitals are functioning badly and are swamped, very few qualified staff have stayed in Iraq, those health centres that haven’t closed down are only working intermittently, and even then they’re not functioning as they should be. Every aspect of life has become a strain. All this is forcing more and people to flee. They head for other parts of Iraq, or try to escape to other countries.

It’s very difficult to say how many people are affected by the conflict, or to give the number of displaced persons and refugees. What is certain is that several million people have emigrated and several hundred thousand have become internally displaced persons. The authorities have announced that they are going to close the border with Syria, which would make the situation even harder for people who want to leave the country."

Update on Craig Murray, Usmanov, and Fasthosts

The closure of Craig Murray's web site, and a number of others, by Alisher Usmanov has led to a massive reaction from internet bloggers from across the political spectrum. Their dismay at the shut down of free speach extends not only to Alisher Usmanov and his lawyers, Schillings, but also to the somewhat spineless hosting company, Fasthosts, who closed the server down before any case had been heard in court. Any host but Fasthosts is a growing call from Bloggers and we are supporting this action with a sidebar button from Ministry of Truth.

So, when will Craig's site be back? Fairly soon we are told and it will be hosted safely overseas from the UK. Will update with further details soon.

In the meantime, a nice review of the means and methods of Cyberactivism has been posted, looking at the Murray-Usmanov affair as a case study.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The fight back begins: Schillings 2 Blogosphere...192 and counting

Further to the closure of Craig Murray's web site yesterday, David Warner at AOL Sports has published a nice summary of the goings on with Schillings, Usmanov, Craig Murray, assorted bloggers et al. As it contains a number of useful links and comments we repost it below. For an update on how the internet is starting to respond, Chicken Yoghurt is a good place to start.
Arsenal Suitor's Lawyers Are Shutting Down Blogs Left and Right

"Yesterday, I suggested in this story that Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, is badmouthing Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire Russian steel magnate attempting to take over Premier League club Arsenal, because he wants to sell you a book he wrote about his experience in that former Soviet republic. It has become clear today, however, that whatever Murray is attempting to sell, Usmanov and his lawyers do not want anyone to buy it.

According to Tom Dunmore at, Craig Murray's web site was taken off line today after sustained pressure on Murray's web hosting provider from Schillings, the London law firm representing Usmanov. What's more, Schillings has also managed to put the kibosh on political site Bloggerheads three days after Tim Ireland wrote this piece on Schillings' cease & desist letters.

Web sites for English politicians Boris Johnson and Bob Piper were also taken down in part because they fell under Ireland's purview. In addition, Pitch Invasion and Arseblog have both received legal pressure from Schillings to remove any links and references to Murray and his accusations of Usmanov's criminal past.

The timing of this latest attack is quite interesting, as it all went down the same day that Chelsea sacked Jose Mourinho, all but guaranteeing that nobody in the mainstream media would be paying any attention to it. Unfortunately for Schillings, their success in taking down these web sites has resulted in this story being publicized all over the web.

Political blog Chicken Yoghurt has compiled a list of blogs that have publicized this story as a result of both Murray's site and Ireland's sites being taken down. Several dozen sites are now screaming censorship at Usmanov and Schillings for their actions, and it's hard to say they don't have a point.

It appears Schillings has fallen victim to something our pals at Techdirt like to call "The Streisand Effect." Back in 2003, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer in an attempt to remove an aerial photo of her California home from the Internet, despite the fact that the photo was part of a publicly funded coastline erosion study and wasn't even labeled as her home. As a result, photos of her house were published all over the web within days.

A similar situation happened last year to Diebold when internal memos discussing their easily hackable electronic voting machines were leaked to the web, and a group of students at Swarthmore College published the memos to the web. Diebold attempted to have the memos removed, claiming the students were committing copyright infringement. The company was successfully sued for issuing unlawful takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and forced to pay $125,000 in damages.

Interestingly enough, a blogger called Sepisticle published a takedown notice from Schillings and then removed it after Schillings claimed it was a "copyrighted letter."

Much most interesting, though, is that for all their claims that Murray is libeling their client, Schillings has not actually sued Murray for libel. They have told anyone who will listen that Murray's book, Murder at Samarkand, is defamatory against Usmanov, but it's been out for more than a year, and they have never taken any legal action against Murray. Instead, they seem more focused on getting any mention of Murray and his allegations against Usmanov removed from the web -- and as the Streisand Effect teaches us, that's pretty much impossible.

If Murray's goal was to make Usmanov look like a thug, then mission accomplished, and it may be why the remaining Arsenal board members are redoubling their efforts to prevent Usmanov from taking over the club. If Murray ever finds his way back to the Internet, this story could get even nastier. Let's just hope nobody finds any polonium-210 in their soup because of this."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Craig Murray site closed by Fasthosts due to legal threats

As many of our readers will know, this site was first launched in support of Craig Murray and his election campaign in 2005.

We have just heard that the company hosting Craig Murray's own web site have decided to close it after receiving threats from lawyers acting for Alisher Usmanov.

Fasthosts appear to have caved in under the pressure that has been applied to them following the posting of a number of articles on Usmanov. Craig has consistently maintained his position regarding the truth and validity of his comments regarding the Uzbek-born oligarch.

As detailed by Chicken Yoghurt, "the family of websites that Tim and Clive (whose site is also down) look after are also currently AWOL. So if you’re missing the online presences of Craig Murray, Bob Piper or Boris Johnson, now you know why they’ve gone."

British Casualty Monitor Update 20.09.07: UK casualties decline in Iraq

The fortnightly update of Ministry of Defence data on British casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has now been completed up to 31st August. In Iraq, total casualties for 2007 have now reached 1379, while in Afghanistan, total casualties for 2007 have crossed a notable threshold, and now stand at 1001.

However, the data from August does show some good news. The impact of the withdrawal from Basra City at the beginning of September has yet to be reflected in the statistics for Iraq but the ceasefire, negotiated with elements of the resistance as part of that withdrawal, already seems to have led to a significant reduction in UK casualties. The three month average combat casualty rate showed a notable reduction for the first time in over a year, with casualties dropping by about half between July and August.

In Afghanistan, the 3 month average combat casualty rate has also reduced but casualties in August did actually increase compared to July. The trend in this conflict remains uncertain.

News round up:

Debate continued on whether Britain is failing its armed forces at home with reports of soldiers and their families ‘living in disgraceful conditions’.

In Afghanistan, the Telegraph reported that British troops are left without medics, an accusation that forced an official response from the Ministry of Defence.

Meanwhile, despite the British withdrawal from Basra and plans for troop withdrawals, the prospect of further conflict in the region escalated. Fox news reported that U.S. officials were crafting plans for bombing Iran, and the path to this new war was sketched out in further detail, as Bush was described as setting America up for war with Iran. With that in mind, the US requested deployment of British troops to the Iranian border has to viewed with some concern.

Monday, September 17, 2007

US Mercenary Company Banned from Iraq after Killing Civilians

From BBC online
"Iraq has cancelled the licence of the private security firm, Blackwater USA, after it was involved in a gunfight in which at least eight civilians died.

The Iraqi interior ministry said the contractor, based in North Carolina, was now banned from operating in Iraq. The Blackwater workers, who were contracted by the US state department, apparently opened fire after coming under attack in Baghdad on Sunday. Thousands of private security guards are employed in lawless Iraq. They are often heavily armed, but critics say some are not properly trained and are not accountable except to their employers.

The interior ministry's director of operations, Maj Gen Abdul Karim Khalaf, said authorities would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have used excessive force. "We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime," he told the AFP news agency. All Blackwater personnel have been told to leave Iraq immediately, with the exception of the men involved in the incident on Sunday..."
See also: Congress weighs rules for private security firms in Iraq

Iraq Poll Indicates 1.2 Million War Deaths

A household survey, conducted in Iraq by market research agency ORB, has indicated that about 1.2 million deaths have occurred from war-related causes since 2003. Like the previous Lancet surveys, these figures represent an estimate of total deaths, not just civilians.

The convergence between this survey result and a projection estimate calculated by Just Foreign Policy is striking. The Just Foreign Policy estimate is derived by extrapolation from the Lancet 2006 mortality survey (pdf) combined with trends in media reported fatalities, and today stands at 1,044,607. Taking into account the probable size of the survey confidence interval, the results are very similar. The poll also found that 48% of war-related deaths had been the result of gunfire, a figure very consistent with the 2006 Lancet survey.

However, despite the convergence of the two results there are, in our opinion, a few issues with the survey as it is reported:
  • The methods employed in the survey are not described in the detail that would be expected for a scientific publication. It is therefore not easy to understand, for example, how they constructed their sampling plan and subsequently applied sample weighting during analysis.
  • Confidence intervals (a measure of statistical certainty) for the reported percentages are not given.
  • The number of injuries recorded is actually less than the number of deaths (1.1 vs. 1.2 million . This result is not what would be normally expected unless the respondents are only reporting very serious injuries. The definitions used in the survey are not made clear.
  • Karbala, Al Anbar and Irbil were not included in the survey for security and administrative reasons.
Therefore, while the results are of the expected order of magnitude and very consistent with previous surveys, a degree of caution is required in interpreting their significance. However, in any event, the existence of a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq remains irrefutable.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Iraq, the US Surge, and Statistics

When General David Petraeus presented his report (pdf) to the US and the world this week, he made important claims about a decrease in violence and casualties. The first key figure from his presentation is reproduced below. He claims that firstly, there is a decreasing rate of attacks on US troops and related targets, and secondly, there is a decreasing rate of civilian casualties associated with the surge. But how reliable are the data used to make the claims and how well does it compare to other available sources of information?

To assess the first claim we looked at the data for US casualties compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. The two images below are graphs we produced of their fatality and wounded monitoring tables for the period September 2006 - 2007 and July 2006-2007 respectively. It can be seen that the pattern is somewhat different than the graphs of attack rates shown above by Petraeus. While the graph of US fatalities does show a marked decline between May and July this does not correspond to the period of the surge. The 'surge' may be considered as either comprising February 2007 onwards, or, comprising the period of the surge offensives, which Petraeus presents as occurring from 16 June onwards. In either event, by August the downwards trend has stopped and fatality rates are no longer declining. Current fatality rates during September this year are 2.8 deaths/day, higher than they were in September 2006 when the death rate stood at 2.6/day.

Examining the available data for injuries reveals a similarly inconclusive picture. Between July 2006 and July 2007 (months for which complete data are available) it is impossible to identify any period of decline that relates to the surge.

It should also be noted that as the US were surging in Bagdhad, the British were themselves experiencing a dramatic upsurge in attacks and casualties in the south of Iraq, the two events being perhaps more closely linked than either government may wish to acknowledge.

In conclusion, we have to say that there is no evidence, as yet, to suggest a decline in US casualties relating to the surge. The decline in attacks reported by Petraeus is therefore puzzling. Assuming that the decline shown by his attack rate is accurate, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that attacks by the Iraqi resistance against US forces are becoming more effective and deadly. This is no good news for the US.

The second major claim made in the presentation by Petraeus is that civilian casualties have declined.
"Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45% Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December."
If true, this is obviously an encouraging statement for all concerned, but the first problem is the source of the data that he cites. There are many serious deficiencies in 'host and coalition' reporting capacity in this area. Indeed, the Iraqi government recently refused to share its figures with the UN after the UN produced much higher estimates of civilian deaths. As for the US military, its previous commander of the Iraq campaign General Tommy Franks, infamously claimed "We don't do body counts". While this assertion was wisely taken with more than a pinch of salt, the US military has no known capacity for reliably recording or reporting total civilian casualties. So why should this current and very convenient claim on a decline in casualties be taken seriously now?

Looking at other sources of data shows: some support from the media monitoring project, Iraq Body Count, for a small decline in casualties, but nothing like the 45% reduction claimed by Petraeus. Media monitoring data of Iraqi civilian and security force casualties maintained by Iraq Coalition Casualty Monitor shows no clear trend associated with the surge.

But maybe the Iraqi people should have the last say on the success or otherwise of the surge. The BBC summarise the results of a poll of Iraqis indicating that "About 70% of Iraqis believe security has deteriorated in the area covered by the US military "surge" of the past six months".

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Riverbend makes it to Syria

A bit off the mainstream for this blog but, having followed her story for a couple of years, I couldn't help but post this excerpt from Baghdad Burning.
"I cried as we left- in spite of promises not to. The aunt cried… the uncle cried. My parents tried to be stoic but there were tears in their voices as they said their goodbyes. The worst part is saying goodbye and wondering if you’re ever going to see these people again. My uncle tightened the shawl I’d thrown over my hair and advised me firmly to ‘keep it on until you get to the border’. The aunt rushed out behind us as the car pulled out of the garage and dumped a bowl of water on the ground, which is a tradition- its to wish the travelers a safe return… eventually.

The trip was long and uneventful, other than two checkpoints being run by masked men. They asked to see identification, took a cursory glance at the passports and asked where we were going. The same was done for the car behind us. Those checkpoints are terrifying but I’ve learned that the best technique is to avoid eye-contact, answer questions politely and pray under your breath. My mother and I had been careful not to wear any apparent jewelry, just in case, and we were both in long skirts and head scarves...

...The first minutes after passing the border were overwhelming. Overwhelming relief and overwhelming sadness… How is it that only a stretch of several kilometers and maybe twenty minutes, so firmly segregates life from death?"

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

ACLU Files Lawsuit to Require Disclosure on Human Costs of War

From the American Civil Liberties Union

"NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union is filing a lawsuit today against the Department of Defense (DoD), demanding that it comply with a Freedom of Information Act request to release documents regarding civilians killed by coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There can be no more important decision in a democracy than whether to go to war, yet this administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to control the information that the American people need to make informed judgments," said Ben Wizner, an attorney in ACLU's National Security Project. "The government’s refusal to comply with the ACLU’s FOIA request unlawfully obstructs the public’s right to know the true costs of our nation’s wars."

The ACLU sought records from several components of DoD more than a year ago, but has received documents only from the Department of the Army. The Army has provided thousands of pages of documents chronicling civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those documents include new evidence of coalition forces’ involvement in civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nearly 10,000 pages that the ACLU is making public today include courts martial proceedings and military investigations regarding the possible wrongful death of civilians. The documents released by the ACLU today are available online in a searchable database at:

"The secrecy that surrounds the human costs of these wars keeps Americans from knowing what is being done in our name," said Nasrina Bargzie, an attorney in ACLU's National Security Project. "When the exigencies of war and the Pentagon’s policies interfere with the free flow of information, we must rely on our own government’s documents and records to help Americans make informed decisions."

Since U.S. troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress information about the human costs of war.

The ACLU pointed out that during both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Department has instituted numerous policies designed to control information about the human costs of war. These policies include:

  • Banning photographers on U.S. military bases from covering the arrival of caskets containing the remains of U.S. soldiers killed overseas;
  • Paying Iraqi journalists to write positive accounts of the U.S. war effort;
  • Inviting U.S. journalists to "embed" with military units but requiring them to submit their stories for pre-publication review;
  • Erasing journalists' footage of civilian deaths in Afghanistan; and
  • Refusing to disclose statistics on civilian casualties.

The files made public today cast further light on the killings of Iraqi and Afghan civilians in the conflict zones."

The full press release and links can be read here

Monday, September 03, 2007

British Casualty Monitor Update: 03.09.2007

The fortnightly update of Ministry of Defence data on British casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has now been completed for the period up to August 15th. In Iraq, total casualties for 2007 have now reached 1321, while in Afghanistan, total casualties for 2007 so far now stand at 924.

We have now also added a graph of fatality rates, in addition to total numbers, for British troops since the start of the Iraq war.

Resentment and pull-back in Iraq

The rising fatalities illustrated by this analysis seem to be feeding into a growing and publicly stated resentment within the armed services. The BBC report:
"A belief that Iraq is unwinnable, fears that Afghanistan could go the same way and an overwhelming feeling that the government has not looked after the Armed Forces properly in return for the sacrifices they make"
Pull back and withdrawals continue, with the British leaving one base in Basra and, according to this official statement from the MOD, the pull back to the last remaining base at the airport is expected in the next few days. The Times and others are reporting that, in fact, the pull-out was completed last night. This is obviously not to the liking of all.
"A senior United States military adviser has expressed "frustration" at British forces in southern Iraq. Gen Jack Keane, architect of the US "surge", said the British are more focused on training Iraqi troops than controlling "deteriorating" security."
Although, Gordon Brown has ruled out setting a timetable for the final withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, saying they still have "an important job to do", the first public signs of real divisions between George Bush and Gordon Brown over Iraq emerged. The American President said:
"We need all our coalition partners. I understand that everybody's got their own internal politics. My only point is that whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, we've got more work to do."
However, the former head of the British army, Gen Sir Mike Jackson, and another experienced senior officer from the Iraq war, Maj General Tim Cross, both poured severe criticism on the US strategy in Iraq, calling it "intellectually bankrupt".

Tensions in Afghanistan between US and UK forces

In Afghanistan, the British have gone on the record to request US special forces pull out of Helmand to reduce civilian casualties and start to try and re-build a hearts and minds approach.

The lethality of US air power once again led to British casualties and questions why it always seems to happen to them. And in terms of the future for the British in Afghanistan? A parliamentary committee released a report back in July with stark if carefully worded warnings:
"The language of the report is careful, measured. But there is no mistaking the central message - things are going badly, alarmingly wrong in Afghanistan."