Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Defamation of Depp Continues

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Island on June 12, 2022.

Defamation of Depp Continues


Padraig Colman

In last week’s article, I warned that the Depp case was not over even though the jury had sung. In February 2019, Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation over a December 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post in which she claimed to speak for women who had suffered intimate partner violence.  Heard counter-sued Depp in August 2020, alleging that he had coordinated “a harassment campaign”. For Depp’s lawsuit, on June 1, 2022, a jury in Fairfax Virginia found that all three statements from Heard’s op-ed were false, defamed Depp, and were made with actual malice. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages from Heard. The punitive damages were reduced to $350,000 due to a limit imposed by Virginia state law. Heard was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and zero in punitive damages from Depp. In short, the jury believed Depp and thought Heard was lying.

Not Western Union

In their closing statements, Heard’s principal lawyers Elaine Bredehoft and Ben Rottenborn called on the jury to send a message to abused women everywhere by supporting Heard’s version of events. This was not an acceptable approach and should have been challenged by Depp’s team. They complained later but, as YouTube lawyer Emily D Baker commented, “that shit has left the horse.”

A jury is not Western Union. Its job is not to send messages but to decide on facts.

After the trial was over, Bredehoft did a number of TV interviews in which she made the same point and also trod on dangerous ground for a working lawyer by implying that the jury had not followed instructions to avoid reading about the case and that the judge was biased. She also referred to the Depp legal team holding “a victory parade.” In fact, Ben Chew and Camille Vasquez did not do any TV interviews until after Bredehoft had abruptly ceased hers. It may be that she had been reprimanded for her conduct by the judge. The trial is not officially over until June 24 and Bredehoft’s conduct veers dangerously close to contempt of court. She is also giving Depp further grounds to sue for defamation. Chew and Vasquez conducted themselves with dignity in their interviews, refusing to criticise their opponents – they used the word “disappointed” a lot.

The trial verdict was seen as a setback for the Me Too movement. I rejoiced at MeToo because it seemed to herald a significant cultural change which should be beneficial to women. I noted that the legal system was capable of finding out the facts about Harvey Weinstein and convicting him. Despite the alleged widespread misogyny demonstrated by the Depp case, Weinstein is still in jail. Calling out a woman for being a liar is not misogyny.

MSM and Misogyny

The MSM (mainstream media) have generally taken Heard’s side and not shown much interest in the facts. The Guardian’s take on the case has been particularly egregious throughout. It has run a number of opinion pieces which were short on fact and heavy on generalisation. In an article headed “An orgy of misogyny”, Moira Donegan wrote: “The strange, illogical, and unjust ruling has the effect of sanctioning Depp’s alleged abuse of Heard, and of punishing Heard for speaking about it. It will have a devastating effect on survivors, who will be silenced, now, with the knowledge that they cannot speak about their violent experiences at men’s hands without the threat of a ruinous libel suit. In that sense, women’s speech just became a lot less free.” It is no longer “alleged abuse”. It is no longer abuse. A Guardian editorial said, “There is a risk that, in future, other women who wish to speak or write about domestic abuse may be deterred by the fear of being sued by former partners.”

Throughout the proceedings the MSM had taken the side of Heard because she was seen to be representative of abused women. This ignores the obvious fact that thousands of women were rooting for Depp. Andrea Burkhart is an experienced criminal lawyer. She addresses the misogyny issue thus: “Mainstream media are saying that millions of women support Depp because they want to fuck him. That in itself is misogynist.”

The MSM cannot cope with the fact that millions of women, including real victims of violent abuse support and believe Depp. It is ironic that the MSM claims to be speaking in the public interest and on behalf of women but most women disagree with them. It ignores the high profile involvement of women. We are able to make our own judgement and it is insulting to be told by people who have not been following the trial that we are misogynist. 

At least some in the MSM had a sense of reality and justice. Jack Houghton of Sky News Australia wrote: “Individual cases of sexual or physical violence should not be conflated with others. Each allegation needs to be assessed in isolation. Many are true and many are not. That is why we have courts. Instead, many in the media want us to view cases as collectivised examples of cultural trends. The problem with this narrative is that when a court does find that a woman has lied about her experience, #MeToo activists find it hard to separate that notion from their reality.”

The MSM in general are proving to be sore losers. Even the Washington Post, which published the defamatory article in the first place, is showing no contrition for getting it wrong. I have cancelled my subscription. The view that one gets from the mainstream media is very different from what one gets from actually watching the proceedings and listening to YouTube discussions of the legal aspects. Someone who attended the court said there was no MSM there to report on it. The MSM has been struck with a cognitive dissonance cluster bomb. Tapes clearly prove that Heard assaulted Depp and berated him for running away and avoiding conflict.

The LA Times was so out of touch that it published an article saying that Aquaman star Jason Momoa had given evidence; he had not as anyone who had been watching the trial would have known. The LA Times was fooled by fake video of Jason Momoa.

YouTube Lawyers

I feel more qualified to comment on the trial than those commenting in the Guardian.I actually watched the proceedings live or in repeats. I listened to endless discussions on YouTube in which experienced, qualified, practising attorneys discussed the evidence and the technicalities of the procedures. A community developed. As with other online communities, there were fallings out and a couple of the participants seemed a little sleazy to me. Nevertheless, it was good to see productive friendships develop as they guested on each other’s YouTube channels. Ian Runkle travelled from Alberta, Canada to endure the rigours of the line and actually attend the hearings. Rob Moreton, who is a lawyer in Fairfax, Virginia also attended and gave Runkle bed and board and whiskey. Moreton does a channel called Law and Carpentry. He brought his knowledge of wood to debunk Heard’s story about the bed being damaged by Depp’s boot. He claimed the damage was caused by a knife and managed to locate a knife in the photo of the bed.

A number of other lawyers bring their helpful knowledge to YouTube in an entertaining and stimulating fashion : Peter Dragos, Bruce Rivers, Nate Broady, Daniel ShenSmith (an English Barrister who sheds light on the UK case). Quite a number of the YouTube lawyers are females who started out thinking that Depp could not win.One of them was Natalie Whittingham-Burrell who was busy with a double-homicide trial when the Depp trial began. As the Depp trial developed she began to change her mind. Eventually, she wrote an article about the trial which she could not get into MSM. Someone plagiarised it though. She published the article on Medium. In it, she says:”It is exceptionally difficult for a celebrity to win a defamation case. Like all other litigants, Depp had to prove that Heard defamed him by a preponderance of the evidence. However, as a celebrity, Depp had the additional burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Heard acted with actual malice in defaming him.” She continues: “Based on the rubric provided to the jury and the facts actually presented at trial, I came to a jarring conclusion: Amber Heard was not credible.”

“The call to “believe all women” as a solution to the problem with physical and sexual abuse is alarming, dangerous and counterproductive. This is best explained if we outright state the inverse: “disbelieve all men”. This framework asks for the public, the media and the courts to disregard the presumption of innocence. The problem with allegations of sexual abuse being swept under the rug, cannot be solved with treating those accused of abuse as though they are guilty without the accused being given an opportunity to be heard in a court of law.”

Taylor Lorenz

The Washington Post has gone to war with social media.The Washington Post was the paper that found out the facts about Watergate and brought about President Nixon’s resignation. The main lesson of that saga was that the cover up is usually more dangerous than the initial crime. When in a hole stop digging. The current iteration of the Post seems to have forgotten that lesson.

Taylor Lorenz published an article in the Post which set out to demonize those on YouTube who were covering the case. There are practising and experienced attorneys who have channels on YouTube and have brought their knowledge and expertise to analysing the proceedings and explained legal technicalities to lay people. They started out as individuals but have formed a community and have been appearing on each other’s channels. A British barrister is also contributing with his knowledge about the UK libel case against the Sun which Depp lost. He has started a petition to get that verdict overturned. There have been some fallings out in this community but generally they stick together and talk good sense.

Lorenz’s article was rather peculiar in that it mentioned some teenage Instagrammers that nobody had ever heard of. She quoted them as saying they made modest amounts of money from posting about the trial. One of them said he had gone on Instagram to see pictures of hot guys. These people are not influencers in the Depp case.

Her main thrust was against two YouTubers whose work I have found useful. “LegalBytes” host Alyte Mazeika is a lawyer and she has chaired many discussions involving other lawyers. TUG (That Umbrella Guy) is a mental health professional who has been investigating the Depp case for about six years and has come up with a wealth of information of which the MSM knows nothing.

Lorenz claimed in her article that she had reached out to those two for comment but they had not responded. They were able to prove that she was lying. The Post stealth-edited the erroneous claim from Lorenz’s report, though it remains unclear whether she herself removed the claim or an editor did the needful. I will not bore you with the numerous confusing corrections that have subsequently been made.

Lorenz’s main gripe was that YouTube “content creators” benefited from the courtroom frenzy by increasing their audience and making money. Lorenz alleged that according to Business Insider, Mazeika “earned $5,000 in one week by pivoting the content on her YouTube channel to nonstop trial coverage and analysis.” She also claimed that ThatUmbrellaGuy “earned up to $80,000 last month, according to an estimate by social analytics firm Social Blade.” TUG responded: “The Washington Post also FLAGRANTLY misrepresented my earnings report and needs to correct it. Social Blade says I made between $4.9k and $79.1k. They ADDED TO the highest estimate, over-reporting for dramatic effect.”

It is ironic that what has come to be called the legacy press is whining about YouTubers monetizing content when there are ads all over the Washington Post and the paper is owned by possibly the richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos. The YouTubers have got their hands dirty by actually digging out facts and some have queued up under gruelling conditions to attend the court. The MSM has not bothered to attend.

Elaine Bredehoft said the trial should not have been televised but being televised meant that millions were watching and deciding whether Heard was credible. Millions will lose their trust in media if the MSM tell millions that they are mistaken. A majority of people watching the trial were female. I have read thousands of comment on YouTube and overwhelmingly the females, especially those who identify as abuse victims, despise Heard. Initially, Amber was believed. The allegations were treated seriously and investigated but were found wanting. Depp’s case was an uphill struggle but many who doubted him at the beginning ended up believing him. Many have taken the line, “We did support Amber and she played us.”

A lot of people will mistrust the MSM after this. You think they are doing real journalism but they have let you down. The Washington Post inserted a sour note into its coverage of the Congressional hearings on the attack on the Capitol. “Maybe someday, if democracy is again under attack, such a horrific event will seem more urgent than a verdict in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial.” Maybe someday we can rely on the MSM to report the truth. Whatever Taylor Lorenz might say many people place more trust in YouTube than they do in the legacy press.

Plumbing the Depps

A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Island on June 5 2022.

When Ms Elaine Bredehoft was delivering her closing statement, waving her arms around like a maniac, there was violent thunder and lightning as if the Gods were passing judgement.

I have been distracting myself from Ukraine and Sri Lanka with the soap opera that was the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard counter-defamation proceedings. Depp sued his former wife for $50 million because of an op-ed she, as ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) ambassador for abused women, published in The Washington Post, suggesting that he abused her, physically and sexually. Heard countersued for $100 million, saying that Depp mounted a “smear campaign against her”. The jury found mostly in Depp’s favour. Heard’s team is not accepting defeat gracefully.

Depth Charges from on High

Some loftily pronounced that they had no interest in celebrity culture. Some cried, “a plague on both your houses”, and declared that both parties were equally sleazy. The Lower Depps. Some declared that they did not like Johnny Depp or his lifestyle. Many more expressed a dislike for Amber Heard.

This is not about taking sides. It matters not a whit whether nonentities like myself “like” Depp or not. There are many things I find somewhat distasteful about Depp’s public persona: the tattoos, the jewelry, the drink and drugs, the smoking. I am an avid follower of Rock and Jazz and have been reading the music magazine Mojo since issue number one in 1993. However interested I am in the artists covered, I get irritated with endless narratives of drug-fuelled madness. How joyless the drug culture seems.

In my writing, I tend to be an observer and to present both sides of a case without having an opinion. This led many to accuse me of being a Rajapaksa shill. I honestly had no partisan or emotional attachment to any political camp. As an observer, I examined it and noted what seemed to me to be interesting, rather like observing pond life. It is neither here nor there if I like Depp or Heard. What is interesting is the absurd drama of it all. Who does not enjoy a courtroom drama?

It cannot be denied that the case has generated an insane amount of interest and a good deal of unpleasantness. Depp wrote some loathsome text messages and his alcohol and substance abuse led to bad behaviour. However, even before the trial, Depp could call on an army of fans (predominantly female, I would guess) to support him. Some have described Depp’s supporters as cult members. There have been allegations that some of the vitriol against Heard has been generated by his PR team using bots and AI. However, Cyabra, a Tel Aviv-based startup that analyzes online conversations and identifies disinformation, told Rolling Stone that almost 95 percent of the posts “are genuine people who love Johnny Depp.” Heard, during the trial, hired a new PR man, David Shane, who was probably trying to manage public responses and might be organising the bad loser follow up. Shane has a history of DUI arrests and a reputation as an alleged sex pest.

Mainstream Media

I watched most of the trial. Sometimes it sent me to sleep, sometimes it was fascinating. My associates on Facebook were not very interested in the case, so I did not get involved in much social media dialogue myself about it. I visited YouTube quite often but did not chip in with my thoughts. I spent a lot of time listening to experienced and practising attorneys who are provided me with a good education in the workings of the US legal system.

It is very striking that the view that one gets from the mainstream media (MSM) is very different from what I got from actually watching the proceedings and listening to YouTube discussions of the legal aspects. There was very little meat to chew on in the mainstream media. Someone who attended the court said there was no MSM there to report on it. Often the MSM writer wants to make a general point without sullying themselves with the facts. When challenged, they say “my article was not about that”, just as Amber Heard at first said her article in the Washington Post was not about her ex-husband. Writers claim that their theme is a wider one such as women’s safety or internet bullying

Mainstream media were late to the party, but once they had arrived they set themselves up as arbiters of truth and good taste and lectured us that we were morally deficient if we did not believe Amber Heard. They continue to do this even after the verdict is in. The Guardian is particularly egregious.

Polly Vernon, a columnist in the London Times, airily writes, “I’m told other black marks against her include her promising to donate to charity the $7 million she received in her divorce settlement from Depp — splitting it between the American Civil Liberties Union and a children’s hospital in LA — but failing to do so, citing the cost of the court case.” This is somewhat disingenuous of the writer.  The importance of this point is that it shows that she was lying to the High Court in London as well as to the court in Fairfax. The UK judge in Depp’s libel case against the Sun was influenced by Heard’s assertion under oath that she had given all the money to charity. There are rumours that UK authorities are considering a perjury action. Heard subscribes to the Humpty Dumpty school of linguistic philosophy -words just mean what she says they mean. She told Camille Vasquez that she uses “pledge” and “donate” “synonymous”, casting a smug look at the jury. She then took the line that she could not afford to make the donation real because Depp sued. She had been sitting on the money for 13 months before that and still has not paid it even though she was given financial assistance by the richest man on earth, Elon Musk. She was a bit cheeky to be giving it the poor mouth (An Béal Bocht), as we say in Ireland.

Message to Abusers

Dr Nicola Bedera, who studies sexual violence, says, “A defamation suit offers a perpetrator a deepening of the power disparities in the relationship and face-to-face contact with a survivor. Defamation cases are often a punishment for leaving.”  Depp’s lawyers objected (although not at the right time) to Heard lawyer Ben Rottenborn’s plea in his closing statement to the jury to send a message to the world about domestic abuse. Depp’s lawyers cited various precedents which support their argument that Rottenborn’s plea was unacceptable because this case is about Depp and Heard and not the wider world.

Alternative Facts

Aja Romano writing for Vox says, “The facts do not seem to matter to any of the people who have gleefully latched on to the image of Heard as a manipulative villain, as if she split her own lip, punched her own face, and pulled out clumps of her own hair.” Those who consider Heard manipulative do value the facts but find that Heard is presenting “alternative facts” not supported by evidence. She did not need to punch herself – photoshop will do the job.

Experts confirmed that these “two” photos were one picture which had been manipulated

“They perhaps forget that the project of #MeToo – the whole point – was to help imperfect victims. Those who were wearing the wrong thing, or were drunk, or were promiscuous, or loved their perpetrator, or had previously broken the law, or had lied before, or had a bad character, or seemed ‘a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty’.” That is not the issue in this case. The issue is who (if anybody) is telling the truth. Does helping “imperfect victims” mean tolerating perjury?

Watching Amber Heard on the stand reminded me of watching interviews with Boris Johnson or his robotic minions. Like Tory ministers, she was incapable of directly answering a direct question. I do not think she ever confined her answer to a simple “yes” or “no.” Her initial response was usually, “I don’t recall”, even when the question was about the testimony she herself had made only a few days previously. She continually tried to wrong-foot her questioner by undermining the validity of the question.

“Non responsive” is a frequent objection from Depp’s lawyers. That would be a frequent objection for politicians. It means that they are not answering the question asked but answering the question they wished they had been asked. Heard, like Boris Johnson, fudges and changes the subject and talks endlessly when there is no question pending. “Beyond the scope” is another frequent objection. A behaviour analyst came up with a good term to describe one of the techniques of a liar: “fluctuating specificity.” Heard goes into convoluted detail about irrelevant matters but is vague about important points. Another trait she shares with Tory politicians is that everyone is wrong apart from her.

Heard Immunity

One of the most bizarre episodes was the testimony of a Dr Spiegel as expert psychological witness for the Heard team. He seemed quite demented, shouting, gurning, staring open-mouthed with no words emerging, arguing with the lawyer and even the judge. Some dubbed him “Nosferatu.”

Many noted a resemblance to actor Christopher LLoyd

Many witnesses for the defence were of more benefit to the plaintiff than the defendant. Elaine Brederhoft, Heard’s lead lawyer, (renamed by one YouTube lawyer as Umbrage) alienated the jury and the judge by being petulant and arguing with her decisions on objections.

“What, if any…”

Depp’s lawyers were professional, calm and civil. Camille Vasquez emerged as a star (Umbrage repeatedly mispronounced her name and often referred to witnesses by the wrong name). Having a strong, capable young woman representing him says positive things to the jury about Depp. Even when she was being assertive and incisive, Ms Vasquez was respectfully disrespectful.

There are many who have claimed to have begun experiencing the trial with a predisposition to think that Depp would lose but have changed opinion as the proceedings unfolded. One of the YouTube lawyers attending the trial, Ian Runkle from Canada, said he had a friendly conversation with a woman who was an avid supporter of Amber Heard and had travelled a long way and queued a long time to be in the court. Runkle spoke to her again after Heard had been on the stand. She said, “I’ve changed my mind. She’s lying. I am so upset.” Heard proved to be a danger to herself in the witness box.

Heard’s legal team employed strange and unproductive tactics and some surmise that their strategy and professionalism is being derailed by a difficult client. Heard could be seen scribbling post-it notes and passing them to her lawyers. Their use of time seemed ill-considered. Elaine Bederhoft spent an eternity asking Depp’s friend for 42 years Isaac Baruch what make up Miss Heard was wearing on a particular day in May 2016. She persisted in asking him about Amika Cream after he had told her he had no idea what it was. Many are convinced she meant to say, “arnica cream”, which is used to treat bruises. Amika cream is a totally different product used on hair. She even asked Baruch what Miss Heard was wearing under her longcoat.How would he know?

Depp’s expert witnesses, by contrast to Heard’s, generally seemed sane, presentable, lucid and authoritative and did not condescend to the court. Depp’s lawyers pointed out that people who had known him for decades were prepared to come forward to speak on his behalf. Umbrage’s response to that was that they had “come out of the woodwork” for their 15 minutes of fame. This included iconic supermodel Kate Moss who surely has fame enough.

By contrast, the only unpaid witness who appeared in person for the defence was Amber’s sister Whitney. The rest who only appeared on video were a crowd of hapless vampiric grifters (who are no longer friends of Heard) whom Depp had housed rent-free and supported financially and who had repaid him by becoming an extended network of co-conspirators against him. No good deed goes unpunished.

Amber Alert

Many in the MSM have bewailed the online mockery of Heard’s performance on the witness stand-it was most definitely a performance. It brought to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment on Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

Sometimes it seemed like outside forces were intervening. At one point, there was a sound like mobile phones going off. The judge said it was an amber alert which could be ignored. At another point, what seemed to be a divine light was shining down on Camille Vasquez at the podium. When Ms Bredehoft was delivering her closing statement, waving her arms around like a maniac, there was violent thunder and lightning as if the Gods were passing judgement.

The jury believed Johnny Depp and awarded him $10m for Heard’s defamation of him and $5m as punitive damages. That was reduced to $10.35 million due to a cap on punitive damages in the state. Heard was awarded $2 million after the jury endorsed one of her three claims relating to comments by Adam Waldman, Depp’s lawyer at the time of the London trial, in the London Daily Mail about arranging the scene in Depp’s penthouse to fool the police.

The blowback from the MSM has begun. More on this and on the UK trial later.

Filthy Lucre and the Londongrad Laundromat

Oliver Bullough, in his new book, Butler to the World: The book the oligarchs don’t want you to read – how Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals, writes: “When dictators want somewhere to hide their money, they turn to Britain. When oligarchs want someone to launder their reputation, they come to Britain.”

Transparency International claims to have identified at least £1.5bn of UK property owned by Russians accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin. Even the Home Office admits that the UK has seen “a significant volume of Russian, or Russian-linked illicit finance”, which is spent on things like luxury property, cars and school fees, and sometimes as donations to cultural institutions, such as the Royal Academy (Petr Aven – a banking magnate and collector, close to Putin was a trustee), the Tate Gallery (Russian energy tycoon Viktor Vekselberg was an honorary member of the Tate Foundation)  and universities (Oxford University has been urged to review its decision to accept £75m from Len Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man, to build the Blavatnik school of government.)

Len and Willie

Bullough runs Kleptocracy Tours of London showing tourists where the crooks and thieves live. Britain, he says has for too long been “easing their passage into global high society, hiding their crimes and generally letting them dodge the consequences of their actions.”  Bullough concludes: “They have real-life victims whose loss is far greater than Britain’s gain.”

Laughing Len

Russian Republic of Belgravia

Russia has been influenced by oligarchs since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the replacement of President Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1991. A lot of Russians made obscene amounts from the privatisation of Soviet industries, particularly petroleum, natural gas, and metal. They were greatly assisted in this by western accountants, lawyers and consultants, who descended on Moscow like locusts. Many Russian oligarchs found London attractive and found respectable British professionals very helpful and keen to share in their ill-gotten gains. London got a plague of locusts from Moscow in return.

John Sweeney wrote in Byline Times: “Six oligarchs who made their gold in the post-Soviet space and have been markedly opaque about Vladimir Putin have been markedly generous to the Conservative Party and/or Boris Johnson personally. They are, in alphabetical order: Vladimir Chernukhin and his wife Lubov, Viktor Fedetov, Alexander Lebedev and his son Lord Evgeny Lebedev, and Alexander Temerko. In plain English, they have all had snow on their boots.” 

Something Rotenberg in the State

Arkady Rotenberg was the owner of Stroygazmontazh, the largest construction company for gas pipelines and electrical power supply lines in Russia. He is a close friend of Putin since childhood and is his judo sparring partner.  Arkady’s brother Boris is another rich Russian living in London. Boris’s son Roman lived in the UK. His home address was given as a £3.3m house in Belgravia, which is owned via a Cypriot entity called Loktan Services. Alisher Usmanov has huge wealth all over the world and in UK had a big financial involvement in Arsenal and Everton football clubs.

There is no space here to give details of all the Russian oligarchs who have corrupted the UK with their obscene ill-gotten gains. Lootin’ with Putin is a report Richard Brooks and colleagues wrote for Private Eye, which can be downloaded free of charge as a pdf. More recent reports, such as Russian Asset Tracker project, provide yet more detail.

How Did They Get In?

Bullough writes: “Financial skullduggery isn’t just something that happens in the UK; there has been a concerted and decades-long effort to encourage it to do so.” As long ago as 1994, under John Major, the Conservatives introduced a “golden visa” scheme that handed residency rights to anyone who invested £1m. Tony Blair’s Labour government carried it on with enthusiasm and in 2008, Gordon Brown’s Labour government expanded the golden visa scheme.

Ken Livingstone, London’s leftist mayor from 2000 to 2008, said he wanted “Russian companies to regard London as their natural base in Europe”. In 2006, the same year that the Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London, Livingstone said that he wanted “Russian companies to regard London as their natural base in Europe”, and his office established a small department aimed at attracting Russian money to London.

When he was mayor of London, current prime minister Boris Johnson openly encouraged as many Russian oligarchs as possible to settle and spend money in London. Johnson said Russian billionaires should be encouraged to use British courts to settle disputes. “I have no shame in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires if you want to take him to the cleaners . . . take him to the cleaners in London. Because London cleaners will be grateful for your business.”

Reputation Management

In 2010, Gina Miller was approached on behalf of a Russian multimillionaire offering £30m to her philanthropic foundation. She declined and commented: “The ecosystem of enablers includes wealth managers, banks, private equity houses, accountants, lawyers – and the growing army of philanthropy advisers, lobbyists, and thinktanks – who have been complicit in the infiltration by those close to Putin of not just our political infrastructure, but our property market, businesses, charities, public bodies, arts, culture, and sports.”

It was a Tory MP, Bob Seely, a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, who used parliamentary privilege to name oligarchs and the professionals who serviced them. He said they were “not just obscenely rich people who are mates with someone” but part of the Kremlin’s “structure of control and power whether it is in east Ukraine or in the UK”.

Suppression of Free Speech

Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People shows how KGB men created the world’s most dangerous rogue state. Belton is currently a special correspondent with Reuters and formerly worked for the Financial Times.  She is diligent and well-respected and her brilliant book contains many revelations. Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, three other Russian billionaires and Putin’s energy company Rosneft sued Belton and her publishers, HarperCollins.

The lawyers they employed to destroy Belton and prevent her book from being published included Hugh Tomlinson QC. Tomlinson has generally been regarded as one of the human rights good guys. In 2000 he became a founder member of Matrix Chambers. Other founding members included lawyers who, became deeply involved in human rights: Cherie Booth QC, Professor Conor Gearty, Ben Emmerson QC, Lord Ken Macdonald QC, and Philippe Sands QC.

Tomlinson is on the board of actor Hugh Grant’s organisation Hacked Off, a campaign for a free but accountable press, which says it wants to hold “power to account”, not act as its servant. HarperCollins settled out of court agreeing to make changes to the text most readers wouldn’t notice. Although it never went to a full hearing, the case, according to Observer columnist Nick Cohen, cost HarperCollins £1.5m to settle in private. In effect, HarperCollins was fined a small fortune for publishing an anti-Putin book. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the villain Hacked Off was established to fight.

Browder Libel Case

Bill Browder had large investments in Russia with his company Hermitage Investments but became a crusader against Russian corruption. Sergei Magnitsky was a young lawyer working for Browder.

Magnitsky accused Russian officials of a massive tax fraud but was himself arrested and accused of the crime. While in custody he was tortured and died in 2009. Browder pointed the finger at Lieutenant Colonel Karpov, of the Russian Ministry of the Interior.

In 2013, Karpov hired a top legal team to sue Browder for libel through the High Court in London. The case was described as one of the worst examples of libel tourism – where foreign nationals, with little or no connection to the UK, use the High Court to pursue their disputes. Karpov’s legal team was led by top QC Andrew Caldecott, but he was instructed by the high-profile media lawyer Geraldine Proudler, who previously sat on the board of the Guardian‘s regulators the Scott Trust, which, in the words of CP Scott, the Manchester Guardian‘s great editor, exists to promote ”honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness and a sense of duty to the reader” at the Guardian.

Mr Browder won the defamation battle, Mr Justice Simon ruling, “His [Karpov’s] connection with this country is exiguous and therefore there is a degree of artificiality about his seeking to protect his reputation in this country.” Karpov refused to pay his £600,000 costs and remained out of reach in Moscow.

Slow Action

The British government is slowly imposing sanctions against the Russian oligarchs who have had such a poisonous influence on British life. The long-awaited Economic Crime Bill has been introduced to parliament. The government first committed to the changes six years ago. Even in January 2022, as Putin’s troops were amassing on Ukraine’s border, it tried to postpone the bill until at least 2023-4. It has taken a brutal invasion of a European country for the British government to act. It still shows no shame and continues to avoid the issue of whether Britain  wants a future where the nation is living off immoral earnings.

Britain’s Bloody Past Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 27, 2022, under the title “Leading the Way in Torture.”

The debate about Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the atrocities that have ensued has prompted a great deal of whataboutery. It has been hard to look at the irrefutable evidence of barbarity from Mariupol, Bucha and Borodyanka, and not to feel angry when someone pops up to refer one to John Mearsheimer’s view that Nato is to blame for the carnage and rape and to point out that terrible crimes have been committed by the US and British empires.

Documented Atrocities

The whatabouterists will have much to sustain them in them in Caroline Elkins’s new book Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Elkins is professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard. Her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005), won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It was also the basis for successful claims by former Mau Mau detainees against the British government for crimes committed in the 1950s. Barack Obama’s grandfather was amongst those tortured by the British in Kenya.

Obama’s Grandma

Just before the trial began, a previously unknown cache of 240,000 top secret colonial files, removed from Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, was discovered. Elkins’s first book was treated by many historians with condescension or hostility. She was vindicated by the “lost’ documents. Elkins was livid: “After all these years of being roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

Legalized Lawlessness

When people accuse me of being a western imperialist, I find it rather strange, as I am a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. Ireland was Britain’s first colony and served as a laboratory in which to test the techniques of torture and repression that it went on to apply all over the world. The same personnel are often used. Names of those who abused the Irish also crop up in South Africa, the West Indies, India, Iraq and Palestine. Many of the methods used by the British were similar to those used by Putin today. Elkins’s main thesis is that the atrocities committed by the British were not impromptu but the inevitable result of a system of what she calls “legalized lawlessness.

Boer War

Hitler learned a lot from Britain’s imperial methods. Britain invented the concentration camp in the early 1900s in South Africa, where it imprisoned Boer women and children in awful conditions. General The 1st Baron Kitchener of Khartoum, took command of the British forces in South Africa in late 1900 and introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign. The British burnt down homesteads and farms, systematically destroyed crops and slaughtered livestock, Tens of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly moved into the camps. An epidemic of measles killed thousands. Over 26,000 women and children perished in these concentration camps. Irishmen fought on both sides in the Boer War.


General Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, attended Midleton College in County Cork, Ireland. It was by his command that 50 troops, opened fire on a gathering of unarmed civilians, men, women, elders and children, at the Jallianwalla Bagh, in what later came to be known as the Amritsar massacre. Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab from 1913 to 1919, endorsed Dyer and called the massacre a “correct” action. Some historians now believe he premeditated the massacre and set Dyer to work. Many Indians blamed O’Dwyer, and while Dyer was never assaulted, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London in 1940 by an Indian revolutionary in retaliation for his role in the massacre. Michael O’Dwyer was born in County Tipperary, the sixth of the fourteen children of an unknown Irish land-owner of no great wealth.


The name of Winston Churchill crops up often in Elkins’s book. At the time of Amritsar he was Britain’s Secretary of State for War. He did not approve of Dyer’s actions. Churchill called the massacre “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.” He wrote to the Marquess of Crewe, “My own opinion is that the offence amounted to murder, or alternatively manslaughter.”

This condemnation did not mean that Churchill’s actions were always morally supportable. Winston Churchill was not loved by the Irish. My father described him as the man who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland to shoot civilians and burn villages.

Sir Henry Tudor

Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Hugh Tudor, KCB, CMG was a British soldier who fought as a junior officer in the Second Boer War and as a senior officer in the First World War. Tudor is now remembered chiefly for his roles in the Irish War of Independence and the Palestine Police during the British mandate.

In May 1920 he was appointed ‘Police Adviser’ to the Dublin Castle administration in Ireland and promoted to Lieutenant-General. His chief qualification for this post was his friendship with Churchill. Tudor had met Churchill in Bangalore in 1895, and the two men became lifelong friends. During the brief period when Churchill had served as an infantry officer on the Western Front in early 1916, he was posted to the same sector as Tudor.

When police and auxiliaries were killed by the IRA, their comrades often responded with reprisals against local civilian communities: some of these reprisals were spontaneous “police riots,” but others were organised and led by local police officials. Tudor’s own response to these outbreaks of arson and murder was weak and ambiguous: in a memorandum on discipline dated 12 November 1920, Tudor admonished his men to maintain “the highest discipline”, while reassuring them that they would have “the fullest support in the most drastic action against that band of assassins, the so-called IRA.”

In retaliation for the assassination of a team of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin, members of the Auxiliary Division and RIC opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing fourteen civilians and wounding at least sixty others. When undisciplined Auxiliaries burned down city centre of Cork, Sinn Fein were blamed. Very Putinesque!

According to Elkins, the term “”to duff someone up” originated in the Irish War of Independence. Douglas Duff trained in Ireland with the Royal Irish Constabulary, notorious for its violent tactics. Duff was then shipped out to Palestine, where he applied similar methods against Arab nationalists.

More about Tudor and Duff in Palestine next week. More also about Britain as world leader in torture.

Putin’s Bloody Past Part Three

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 30, 2022, under the title Journalists at Stake

Putin’s Bloody Past Part Three

Russia is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Crimean journalist Remzi Bekirov has recently been sentenced to 19 years in prison by a Russian military tribunal on a “trumped-up terrorism” charge.

There are credible reports published by the Association of European Journalists that Russian soldiers have been capturing and torturing journalists in Ukraine. Kidnapped by Russian troops on 5 March, Nikita (his name is changed for his safety) was held for nine days. He was beaten with an iron bar, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to a mock execution. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has collected and verified his story.

Moscow has already drawn up lists of prominent Ukrainian politicians, pro-democracy activists, journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, religious groups and Russian and Belarusian dissidents who fled to Ukraine from their own countries, to be targeted.

Hanna Churkina is a prominent member of a pro-democracy group called “Maidan Monitoring”. She says nobody should be surprised by this news. “This is what the Russians have been doing in the areas of Ukraine they’ve occupied since 2014, where many people have disappeared. Some were later found dead and many have never been found. Others are languishing in prison cells without trial. Some received long sentences after show trials.”

Murdered Journalists

According to the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), 58 journalists have been murdered in Russia between 1992 and 2022. Full details are given on their website. Some sources within Russia talked of over two hundred fatalities. While not all murders can be linked directly to the Kremlin, the frequency of these murders and their effects on Russian independent media certainly suggest, at the very least, complacency on the part of law enforcement officials. In any list of deaths, compiled by monitors inside or outside the country, Russia ranks near the top for deaths. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the homicide rate in Russia was among the highest in the world. There were over 500 contract killings in Russia in 1994. The CPJ lists Russia as “the third deadliest country in the world for journalists”. Russian Journalists died or were killed, the CPJ argued, because of the work they were doing and only one case has led to a partially successful prosecution.

Concern over the number of unsolved killings soared after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in Moscow on 7 October 2006. In June 2007, the board of the World Association of Newspapers passed a resolution, calling on the authorities in Russia to “investigate journalist deaths more vigorously”

For seven years, Politkovskaya refused to give up reporting on the war in Chechnya despite numerous acts of intimidation and violence. She was arrested by Russian military forces in Chechnya and subjected to torture and a mock execution. “The young officers tortured me, skillfully hitting my sore spots. They looked through my children’s pictures, making a point of saying what they would like to do to the kids. This went on for about three hours.”

She was poisoned while flying from Moscow via Rostov-on-Don to help resolve the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis but survived.

Russian readers’ main access to her writing was through Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper that featured critical investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs. From 2000 onwards, she received numerous international awards for her work. In 2004, she published Putin’s Russia, a personal account of Russia for a Western readership.

“It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies … society has shown limitless apathy … as the Chekists have become entrenched in power, we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.”

On 7 October 2006, she was murdered in the elevator of her apartment block. She had been shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head at point-blank range. In June 2014, five men were sentenced to prison for the murder, but it is still unclear who ordered or paid for the contract killing.

Russia in Syria

Putin ordered the Russian military in Syria, which was propping up the regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad,to destroy any threatening targets: “I order you to act as tough as possible. Any target that poses a threat to Russian military grouping or ground infrastructure has to be destroyed immediately.” Russia boasted about using Syria to test new weapons.

By 2021, Airwars, which monitors reports of casualties of all airstrikes, documented 23,000 civilian casualties from Russian military actions since 2015. The Airwars report for 2019 had recorded 710 Russian casualty events in Syria, killing between 1,099 and 1,745 civilians. 81% of the events were in Idlib, 13% in Hama, and 5% in Aleppo. The strikes mainly occurred during the Idlib offensive of May to September, with the single worst incident being the July 22nd strikes in Ma’arrat al-Numan which killed up to 42 civilians. A New York Times investigation confirmed Russia’s culpability in the latter. The investigation also detailed Russian attacks on the Martyr Akram Ali Ibrahim Al-Ahmad School in Qalaat al-Madiq on 28 April 2019.

In February 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported extensive use of cluster munitions by Syria and Russia, in violation of United Nations resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded that all parties end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas”. In June 2016, Russia Today, while reporting minister Shoigu’s visit to Hmeymim air base, showed incendiary cluster bombs being loaded onto Russian airplanes, identified as RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM due to clearly visible markings. Local witnesses reported that Russia used white phosphorus against targets in Raqqa and Idlib, causing civilian casualties.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that Russia was committing war crimes in Syria and deliberately targeting civilians, including rescue workers. Amnesty International documented attacks on schools, hospitals and civilian homes. In May 2016, the Russian delegation to the UN Security Council vetoed a statement condemning the air strikes on a refugee camp in Idlib on 5 May. In August 2019, over 19 civilians were killed within two days after Russian forces carried out air-raids on a “displaced persons camp” near Hass village in southern Idlib. The director of Amnesty’s crisis response program, Tirana Hassan, said that after bombing civilian targets, the Russian warplanes “loop around” for a second attack to target the humanitarian workers and civilians who are trying to help those have been injured in the first sortie.

A 2020 report by UN Human Rights Council for the first time directly laid responsibility on Russian Air Force of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets “amounting to a war crime”.

A recent World Bank assessment described the situation: “now moving into its eleventh year, the conflict in Syria has inflicted an almost unimaginable degree of devastation and loss on the Syrian people and their economy. Over 350,000 verifiable deaths have been directly attributed to the conflict so far, but the number of unaccounted lethal and non-lethal casualties is almost certainly far higher. More than half the country’s pre-conflict population (of almost 21 million) has been displaced—one of the largest displacements of people since World War II—and, partly as a result, by 2019, economic activity in Syria had shrunk by more than 50% compared to what it had been in 2010.”  

Casual callousness towards civilian casualties is a theme that runs through Putin’s reign. It is on display once again in Ukraine. In Ukraine, Putin continues to use the same tactics he used in Chechnya and Syria. Even at the sieges of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow and the Beslan school he used weapons of mass destruction that killed innocent civilians including children that he was supposed to be rescuing. Violence was used to prevent journalists publishing the facts. Today, in Russia itself, brutal methods are used to ensure that Russians only hear the lies the government wants them to hear. They are already using similar methods in Ukraine.

Putin’s Bloody Past Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March23 2022 under the title “Chechnya Conflict’s Repercussions.”

Apartment Bombings

In September 1999, more than 300 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in bomb blasts in four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk. Russian courts ruled that the attacks were orchestrated by Chechen-linked militants. However, some scholars, journalists, and politicians have argued that Russian security services probably organized the bombings. Prime minister Putin’s handling of the crisis boosted his popularity greatly and helped him attain the presidency soon after. The bombings, together with the Invasion of Dagestan, spread a wave of fear across Russia and triggered the Second Chechen War.

Chechen militants were blamed for the bombings, but they and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov denied responsibility. A suspicious device resembling those used in the bombings was found and defused in an apartment block in the Russian city of Ryazan on 22 September. Three FSB agents who had planted the devices at Ryazan were arrested by the local police. On 24 September 1999, head of FSB Nikolay Patrushev announced that the incident in Ryazan had been an anti-terror drill and the device found there contained only sugar. On 23 September, Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the inhabitants of Ryazan and ordered the air bombing of Grozny, which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War.

In 2000, seven people were convicted of perpetrating the Buynaksk attack. All the bombings, the court ruled, were ordered by Islamist warlords Ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Omar al-Saif, who had been killed. Five other suspects were killed.

An independent public commission to investigate the bombings was chaired by Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev. The commission was rendered ineffective because of government refusal to respond to its inquiries. Two key members of the Kovalev Commission, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, died in apparent assassinations. The Commission’s lawyer and investigator Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested and served four years in prison for revealing state secrets. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who defected and blamed the FSB for the bombings, was poisoned and killed in London in 2006. A British inquiry later determined that Litvinenko’s murder was “probably” carried out with the approval of Putin.

Dubrovka Theatre Siege

On 23 October 2002, 40 Chechen militants, allegedly led by warlord Movsar Barayev, took 912 hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, where the popular musical Nord-Ost was being performed. They were well-equipped with more than 100kg of explosives, about 100 hand grenades, three heavy bombs, 18 Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 pistols. Journalists, rights activists and the general public wondered how they managed to do this and guessed that rebels bribed policemen at road checkpoints.

Three days later Russian security services pumped some kind of sleeping gas into the hall, stormed it and killed all the attackers and up to 130 hostages, including nine foreigners. Most of the hostages died, not at the hands of the gunmen and women, but apparently because of the effects of the gas. Analysis of drug residue from the clothing of two British hostages and the urine of a third British hostage, by a team of researchers at the British chemical and biological defense laboratories at Porton Down, Wiltshire, England, indicated two fentanyl derivatives were used.

Efforts by MP Sergey Yushenkov to carry out parliamentary hearings were blocked by the pro-Kremlin majority. Nobody was brought to account for the deaths of 119 people in hospital after the “liberation operation” was completed, or for the inability of intelligence services to prevent the attack. Putin awarded FSB deputy director Vladimir Pronichev, who managed the operation, the title of Hero of Russia.

During the Moscow theatre siege, Putin was reportedly angered by the NTV television channel showing a rally of desperate relatives, demanding that Russia give in to the militants’ demands and withdraw from Chechnya. Soon afterwards, its director-general Boris Jordan was fired, and thereafter NTV lost any independence and objectivity.

Doubts over the handling of the crisis did not undermine President Putin. Like other crises and catastrophes in Russia, the effect has often been to consolidate his grip on power.


Another siege, this one at a school at Beslan, was another example of the callous incompetence of the Russian authorities and the feeble paranoia of Putin. On 1 September 2004, Chechen militants took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The Beslan school was next to the district police station. The siege started on 1 September 2004, lasted three days, involved the imprisonment of more than 1,100 people as hostages (including 777 children) and ended with the deaths of 333 people, 186 of them children, as well as 31 of the attackers.

Putin behaved then as callously towards his own people as he is behaving today towards Ukrainians. David Satter of the Hudson Institute said the incident “presents a chilling portrait of the Russian leadership and its total disregard for human life.” Some human rights activists claim that at least 80% of the dead hostages were killed by indiscriminate army fire. At least three, but as many as nine, Shmel rockets were fired at the school from the special forces’ positions. Shmel rockets are thermobaric weapons, described by a source associated with the US military as “just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine – igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.”

Scores of hostages were moved by the militants from the burning sports hall into other parts of the school, in particular the cafeteria, where they were forced to stand at windows. Many of them were shot by troops outside as they were used as human shields. According to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, “It was not a hostage rescue operation … but an army operation aimed at wiping out the terrorists.” Journalists saw two T-72 tanks advance on the school that afternoon, at least one of which fired its 125 mm main gun several times. The use of tanks and armoured personnel carriers was eventually admitted to by Lieutenant General Viktor Sobolev, commander of the 58th Army.

The day after the storming, bulldozers gathered the debris of the building, including the body parts of the victims, and removed it to a garbage dump.

The authorities tried to stop journalists reporting on the siege. The late Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had negotiated during the 2002 Moscow siege, was twice prevented by the authorities from boarding a flight. When she eventually succeeded, she fell into a coma after being poisoned on board an aeroplane. Several correspondents were detained or otherwise harassed after arriving in Beslan. Foreign journalists were also briefly detained or otherwise subjected to pressure from the security forces and material was confiscated from TV crews. The Georgian correspondent Nana Lezhava, who had been kept for five days in the Russian pre-trial detention centers, had been poisoned with dangerous psychotropic drugs. Raf Shakirov, chief editor of the Russia’s leading newspaper, Izvestia, was forced to resign. The paper had featured large pictures of dead or injured hostages and expressed doubts about the government’s version of events.

Putin did not make a public statement until the second day. He said during a meeting in Moscow with King Abdullah II of Jordan: “Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task.” That was the only public statement by Putin about the crisis until one day after the siege ended. In a televised speech, Putin said: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” Putin only visited Beslan once, a hurried trip to the hospital to see some of the wounded victims. He was criticised for not meeting the families of victims. He specifically dismissed the foreign criticism from abroad saying that the West wants to “pull the strings so that Russia won’t raise its head.” He avoided his usual ploy of blaming of Chechen separatists. This time he focused the blame on “direct intervention of international terrorism”.

More blood next week.

Putin’s Bloody Past Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 16, 2022, with the disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today.” The Russian embassy in Colombo subsequently called Ceylon Today to complain about the article. Their spokesman said he was “deeply disappointed’.

Vladimir Putin has not suddenly become a psychotic dictator.

From 2007 to 2013, Catherine Belton was the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. She currently works as an investigative correspondent for Reuters, based in London. In her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, she gives a good insight into the character of Putin as he rose to power.


Before the USSR fell apart, Putin was a relatively junior officer in the KGB. He has fluent German from his days in Dresden working with the Stasi, the East German secret police. Markus Wolf was head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division and was the Stasi’s number two for 34 years. Wolf and Putin’s former KGB colleagues claimed that Putin was a nobody in Dresden. Wolf mocked Putin’s receiving a Bronze Medal – even cleaning ladies got that.

According to a former colleague, the Dresden KGB men spent 70 per cent of their time writing pointless reports. Russian human rights activist Sergey Kovalev told writer Jonathan Littell: “You want to know who Vladimir Putin is, young man? Vladimir Putin is a lieutenant colonel of the KGB. And do you know what a lieutenant colonel of the KGB is? Absolutely nothing.” What Kovalev meant was that a man who had never even made full colonel was simply a small-minded operative, incapable of thinking ahead more than a move or two.

Putin was not that insignificant. He was an enabler and handler for murderous terrorists. It is ironic to hear Putin rail against the Ukrainian government being run by Nazis. He ran agents in neo-Nazi groups and continues to fund them today. He also infiltrated the extreme left. The Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader–Meinhof Group, was responsible for a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Among the 34 people that they killed were industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, the Dresdner Bank head Jurgen Ponto, and the federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback. Alfred Herrhausen Chairman of Deutsche Bank was a close adviser to West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. He was assassinated in 1989. Many of the group’s operations were executed with military precision, and the technology deployed was of the highest sophistication, which indicated state sponsorship.

According to a former member of the Red Army Faction who claimed to have met him in Dresden, Putin had worked in support of members of the group. Putin would be among the leaders in these Dresden meetings, with one of the Stasi generals taking orders from him. 

St Petersburg

After he retired from the KGB at the age of 39, Putin returned to his home city of St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). In May 1990, Putin was appointed as an advisor on international affairs to the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Sobchak had little interest in the day-to-day running of the city, so he left it to Putin. This gave Putin the chance to form business alliances and he also worked closely with the organised-crime leader, the one-armed bandit, Vladimir Barsukov.

Barsukov, nicknamed Russia’s Al Capone, was the founder of the murderous Tambovskaya Gruppirovka crime gang which seized national assets worth $100m. Barsukov was called St Petersburg’s “night governor” because he ruled the city after dark. Putin is said to have granted Barsukov’s oil company lucrative petrol concessions. In his book, We Need to Talk about Putin: How the West Gets him Wrong, Mark Galeotti tracks the links between the old Soviet criminal fraternity and the country’s modern-day rulers. Catherine Belton writes that after Yeltsin’s fall, “What emerged out of the chaos and collapse – and Sobchak’s ineffectiveness – was an alliance between Putin, his KGB allies and organised crime that sought to run much of the city’s economy for their own benefit.”

According to one former local FSB officer, it was a business that consisted of “murder and raiding.” According to former senior KGB officer Yury Shvet, with the help of Putin’s men in City Hall, the St Petersburg sea port became a major hub for smuggling drugs from Colombia into Western Europe. The Tambov gang also controlled the port of Stockholm. When Barsukov became a threat to him, Putin airlifted in police commandos from Moscow in a “full military operation” to grab Barsukov – then flew him straight back to Moscow where he was jailed for 23 years for ordering killings, extortion, money laundering and fraud. Putin tamed the mafia, and deployed them in the interests of the state, as defined by his regime.


Putin became president in 2000. He did not handle his first crisis well. The nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in an accident on 12 August 2000 in the Barents Sea, during the first major Russian naval exercise for over ten years, and all 118 personnel on board were killed. The response of the Russian Navy and government was lethargic and incompetent. Officials lied to the public and the media, just as they lie today. Putin authorised the Russian Navy to accept British and Norwegian offers of assistance only after five days had passed since the accident. Help from other countries’ ships had previously been offered and refused. When rescuers finally got in after seven days, they found a written note that indicated that some could have been saved if the effort had been made earlier. They died waiting.

On Monday 14 August, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated that the accident had been caused by a serious collision with a NATO submarine, although he gave no evidence to support his statement. Senior commanders of the Russian Navy repeated this account for more than two years after the disaster. Many who desired a continuance of negative relations between Russia and the West supported this scenario. NATO was blamed even then.

Belton’s sources see the Kursk incident as revealing of Putin’s character failings. He was the hired manager, expected to serve only a few years, and did not seem to be up to the job. Putin initially continued his vacation at a seaside resort. Belton writes, “When disaster struck, such as the sinking of the Kursk submarine, he had a habit of withdrawing, paralysed into inaction, sometimes as white as a sheet.”

One can see on YouTube a volatile meeting where angry relatives shout at Putin. The distraught mother of a sailor scolds naval officers before being forcibly sedated and removed from the meeting. A nurse takes out a syringe and drugs the grieving mother, who collapses and is carried away on a stretcher.

When Putin was interviewed by Larry King, Larry asked him “what happened to Kursk?” Putin said “She sank” with a sly smile.


The second war on Chechnya began on 1 October 1999, when Putin declared the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his parliament illegitimate. On 5 October 1999, a Russian tank shell hit a bus filled with refugees and at least eleven civilians died. Two days later, 35 civilians were killed when Russian Su-24 fighter bombers dropped cluster bombs on the village of Elistanzhi. As many as 350,000 civilians out of the approximately 800,000 residents of the Chechen Republic fled to neighbouring countries. On 21 October 1999, more than 140 people, including many women and children were killed by a Russian Scud short-range ballistic missile strike on the central Grozny marketplace. Eight days later Russian aircraft carried out a rocket attack on a large convoy of refugees heading into Ingushetia, killing at least 25 civilians including Red Cross workers and journalists.

The Russian assault on the capital city, Grozny, began in early December. The battle ended when the Russian army seized the city on 2 February 2000. According to official Russian figures, at least 134 federal troops and an unknown number of pro-Russian militiamen died in Grozny. The separatist forces also suffered heavy losses, including losing several top commanders. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said that 2,700 separatists were killed trying to leave Grozny. The separatists said they lost at least 500 fighters in the minefield at Alkhan-Kala. The siege and fighting devastated the capital like no other European city since World War II. In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth.

More blood next week.

The Madness of Tsar Vlad?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 9, 2022

Madman on the Button

One of the most entertaining and yet frightening books I have ever read is Anthony Summers’s biography of Richard Nixon. The apt title of the book is The Arrogance of Power. Nixon had Kissinger tell the North Vietnamese: “Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry–and he has his hand on the nuclear button.” White House chief of staff HR Haldeman said that Nixon called this ruse the “madman theory,” the purpose of which was to frighten his opponent into submission by seeming to be dangerously unpredictable. Summers demonstrates that Nixon was, in reality, quite bonkers a lot of the time, with excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs stoking his congenital paranoia. Trump managed to be even more chaotic and unpredictable without the benefit of alcohol. Trump did it on diet coke. Hitler was teetotal and vegetarian.

The advantage with Nixon and Trump is that they could be removed. The arrogance and power mania of Putin seems to be unrestrainable. Those who are supposed to be advising him are reduced to gibbering wrecks. Public dissent is brutally repressed, with even small children being arrested for placing flowers outside the Ukrainian embassy. Enemies are poisoned and the press closed down. Putin plans to stay in power until 2036, which means that he would have been at the helm for 36 years.


There has been a good deal of speculation about Vladimir Putin’s mental health. Apparently, Putin does not drink much and is very keen on physical fitness.

Nevertheless, he continues to make wild and mendacious statements. At the dawn of the nuclear age, strategic theorists warned of the danger of a madman with his finger on the nuclear button. Putin has told his defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, to put the nuclear arsenal on alert. A nuclear power station has been in flames after being hit by Russian artillery. Milos Zeman, the Czech president and long one of Vladimir Putin’s staunchest supporters, called Putin a “madman” because of the invasion of Ukraine. French president, Emmanuel Macron, has been trying to talk some sense to Putin but has been frustrated after lengthy conversations. He said Putin had changed since they had last met at the Elysée palace as recently as December 2019. Putin was “more rigid, more isolated” and was off on an “ideological and security drift”.

Social Distancing

A picture of a recent meeting of Macron and Putin neatly symbolises Putin’s paranoia. The two men sit at opposite ends of an unfeasibly long table. Similar distances are pictured at meetings with security chiefs and oligarchs. Putin’s innate tendency towards insularity has been exacerbated by his obsessive precautions against Covid. He apparently listens to almost no one, He is now reliant on a shrinking group of advisors who are too frightened to advise. This means that his view of the world is warped and delusional. He has spent too much of his time alone reading books about philosophy and weird theories about Russia’s historic place in the world. He appears out of place in the world of today, with an unhealthy obsession with his own greatness.

James Clapper, the former director of US National Intelligence, in an interview with CNN, said, “I personally think he’s unhinged. I worry about his acuity and balance.” Even if he is not clinically certifiably insane, his sense of reality seems to have become warped after being in power for too long already and no-one daring to oppose him.

Russian security expert and writer Andrei Soldatov believes the defence minister, Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoigu, is still the most influential voice the president hears. “Shoigu is not only in charge of the military, he’s also partly in charge of ideology – and in Russia ideology is mostly about history and he’s in control of the narrative.” Shoigu is in charge of the nuclear weapons.

Rational Man

Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian: “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history.” Patrick Cockburn, writing on Counterpunch before the invasion, seemed to be of the camp that saw Putin as a rational actor. “Western media may suggest that he is isolated in the Kremlin, his judgement eroded by two decades in power. But this should probably be dismissed as crude propaganda.” Cockburn is generally noted for his good judgement but he got it wrong here. Cockburn mocks “the war hysteria gripping political, defence and intelligence elites in the US and UK.” Putin did invade. Does that mean he has gone mad? I wonder how Cockburn feels about that now.

Is Putin behaving like a high functioning psychopath? ‘Theodore Dalrymple’, is the pen name of Anthony Malcolm Daniels, a cultural critic and psychiatrist.Much of Dalrymple’s writing is based on his experience of working with criminals and the mentally ill. He wonders if Putin is taking steroids. The previously butch Putin “has undergone a gestalt switch: invulnerability has been replaced by its opposite, unseen danger with every breath.” Dalrymple says, “People can be mad and realistic at the same time. Their paranoia has a self-fulfilling quality: if you behave as if people were against you, people will soon begin to behave as if they were against you. The origins of the problem become lost in a vicious circle of historical recrimination.”

Paranoid Vision

Michel Eltchaninoff is editor-in-chief of Philosophie magazine and a specialist in the history of Russian thought. He is the author of Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, which is a fascinating read. Putin has developed, over decades, a vision of the world that is paranoid but coherent. It is a paranoia for the nation as well as himself. Putin often quotes a strange theory expounded by Lev Gumilev. Russia’s passionarnost must not be constrained. Russia carries the power and potential of a young people. He is obsessed with the idea that the West is determined to “Keep Russia Down.” Russia has for centuries been the victim of an attempt to contain and dismember it. Europe has collapsed into decadence, crushed by the weight of its humanism and political liberalism.

Putin has regularly consulted a collection of political essays titled Our Tasks, the major work of Ivan Ilyin, who died in 1954. Ilyin believed the West planned to “dismember Russia, to subject her to western control, to dismantle her and in the end make her disappear”. The method, according to Ilyin, will be the hypocritical promotion of values such as “freedom” in order to transform Russia into “a gigantic Balkans”. These countries will inevitably attempt to seize territories such as the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, central Asia and, especially, Ukraine.

Deadly Victim

In December 1999, Putin published a lengthy treatise setting out his vision for the country’s future.  He warned that Russia, for the first time in centuries, was in danger of becoming a second- or even a third-rate power. He stated that it was his personal mission to prevent that and to reclaim Russia’s rightful place as a global power. He wants victory over a West that he blames for the fall of the Soviet Union, for the weakness of Russia in the 1990s, and for the uppityness of the old Soviet republics.

The events in Ukraine in 2014 have been itching away at him. In March 2014, he said: “The politics of the containment of Russia, which continued throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. There is a constant attempt to push us back into a corner because we have an independent position, because we stand up for ourselves.”

In recent weeks he has been re-iterating these ideas in a less coherent manner. This was wussy whingeing from a man with deadly weapons. He was saying to the West, “You didn’t want us to be friends, but you didn’t have to make an enemy of us.” That noble newspaper, the Sun, had no doubt that Putin had gone bonkers. “Gone was the shrewd geopolitical operator of old as on Monday he made his intentions clear with an obsessional rant about Ukraine.” The controlled and detailed rant made it clear that he does not even accept the idea of Ukraine. He claimed, falsely, that it had never really been an independent state and said it was “madness” that republics were allowed to leave the Russian Empire. This was not just about Ukraine. Every former Soviet state was in danger.

More next week about Putin’s psychopathic history.

Ukraine Part One

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 2 2022

Apparently the invasion of Ukraine is a defensive measure. It beggars belief to even contemplate Ukraine as a genocidal terrorist state and Russia as a liberal human rights defender.

Little Victims

Many years ago, I set out to write a short poem about my father on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. It developed into a longer meditation on the malignant forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crush common people and sweep them away. The great tides of history, of isms and empires, buffet little people, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for years or generations. I noted that all over the globe vicious wars, disintegrating nations and dying empires still today produce a flotsam of refugees. Great men discount little people. On the TV, I see ordinary Ukrainians in drab winter clothes calmly queuing at the supermarket. Most are masked against Covid but they wave at the camera. What are these people being punished for?

Wise Men Say

It is difficult fully to comprehend what is happening in Ukraine, why it is happening, why it is happening now. I turn to the wise commentators in newspapers and magazines. I look for enlightenment from Sri Lanka’s Leading Public Intellectual, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka.

Putin’s pushback: The context of Russia’s Ukraine move

Let us have a closer look at that “democratically-elected President”. I am reading a fascinating book by Oliver Bullough called Moneyland: Why Thieves And Crooks Now Rule The World And How To Take It Back. Bullough visited Sukholuchya, in the heart of a forest outside Kyiv, the lair of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. The palace was open to the public after the revolution. “Ukraine is perhaps the only country on Earth that, after being looted for years by a greed-drunk thug would put the fruits of his and his cronies’ execrable taste on display as immersive conceptual art: objets trouvés that just happened to have been found in the president’s garage.”

 “It was a temple of tastelessness, a cathedral of kitsch, the epitome of excess.” A Ukrainian citizen had written his opinion: “How much can one man need? Horror. I feel nauseous.” Apparently, Yanukovich needed to spend extended periods on the toilet. He also liked watching television. “While Ukraine’s citizens died early, and worked hard for subsistence wages, while the country’s roads rotted and its officials stole, the president had been preoccupied with ensuring his constipation didn’t impede his enjoyment of his favourite television programmes.”

Bullough writes, “Ukrainians’ wealth had been stagnant for years, he had accumulated a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as had his closest friends. He had more money than he could ever have needed, more treasures.”

There is no doubt about the corruption of this democratically elected president. He left plenty of evidence behind. “In their haste to leave, the president’s aides had dumped 200 folders’-worth of financial records into the harbour, hoping they’d sink. But they didn’t. Protesters fished the papers out and dried them in a sauna. They provided a glimpse into the heart of the financial engineering that had allowed Yanukovich to fleece the country.”

Is it any surprise that Ukrainians preferred to join the EU rather than joining the “Eurasian Economic Union”, a Soviet-style alliance of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with a fraction of the influence of the EU? Many Ukrainians see EU membership as a means of securing their independence, not undermining it. Jayatilleka normally likes revolutions and has written about “ethical violence.” He does not seem to be a pacifist, categorically opposed to bloodshed. Many Ukrainians saw the ousted Yanukovich as corrupt and autocratic and as a stooge of Russia. Like his mentor in Moscow, Yanukovich used extreme methods to deal with protests. Few have mourned his departure to comfy exile in his beloved Russia.

I note that part of Putin’s stated mission is the “denazification” of Ukraine. Jayatilleka supports this view. The number of hate-motivated incidents in Ukraine has indeed grown steadily. Radical far-right groups have existed in Ukraine since the 1920s and it is true that they do now represent a sophisticated and politically influential element of society. The election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April 2019 by a landslide of over 73% on an anti-corruption and rule of law platform raised hopes that the government would take a firmer stance on this issue. Progress has been achieved since Zelenskyy took office. The historian Timothy Snyder has pointed out that Russian speakers have more freedom in Ukraine than they have in Russia. Russian aggression has given social legitimacy to far-right groups and the invasion is likely to give them further strength, undoing the progress achieved by Zelenskyy.

Are those Ukrainian citizens in the supermarket aware that they are being denazified? That child killed in the shelling of an apartment block in Kharkiv – one less Nazi? By the way, the Ukrainian president is Jewish and a Russian speaker. On March 1, it was reported that Russian missiles hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial, a site marking a massacre of Jews in the city.

“To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…,” Zelenskyy tweeted.


Prominent figures, known as Putin-Versteher (Putin-understanders), in Germany are being accused of bringing shame on the country and themselves by trying to explain or justify the Russian leader’s actions. The tabloid Bild described some politicians as “Putin Streichler” (Putin caressers) who ignored widespread evidence of Putin’s crimes.

Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian: “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history.” According to Steele, “What happened this week is that Putin lost his patience, and his temper.” Lost his patience about what? Putin says he does not seek a revived Soviet Union (or a revived Tsarist empire, presumably?) He has said, “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” He claims to want a buffer zone that would be “not anti-Russia”. He accuses the Ukrainian government of reneging on the Minsk agreement, which sought to give the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk substantial autonomy. According to Putin, Ukraine’s neutrality is compromised by the mission-creep of NATO and the deployment of offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders. Sixties memories of Russian missiles in Cuba and NATO missiles in Turkey. Ukraine cannot join NATO as long as Russia prevents her from securing her borders.

Speaking and writing back in 2015, John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, strongly blamed the West for Putin’s actions regarding Ukraine. “US and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.” Mearsheimer does not seem to have changed his views. Just before the invasion, he said: “The only way this can be resolved is with the US and NATO saying that Ukraine will not become part of NATO. The Russians want it in writing. And I think this crisis will go away once this happens.” This rather ignores the wishes of the people of Ukraine. Perhaps he might be excused for this. I used to write a monthly column on Europe for the Sri Lankan business magazine Echelon. I also warned of the dangers of NATO and the EU moving to the East, including Ukraine. Things look rather different today and nothing can justify Putin’s brutal attack. The people of Ukraine do not want Putin and they do want the EU. Putin has given them a good reason for joining NATO

Jayatilleka seems to be saying Putin should not be blamed. “In short, the map does not show Russia moving towards the West but a hostile military alliance, NATO, moving towards Russia, even in periods where Russia had a policy and leaders soft on the West.” The Good Doctor seems to have a tin ear for mundane reality. What have Ukrainians done to bear the brunt of Putin’s anger? His article is about large amorphous entities like NATO and “The West”. The breakable, brittle individuals are invisible, beyond the Good Doctor’s capacity for human feeling. Everyone else is seeing those pensioners standing in front of tanks.

Matthew Ancona looks at that from a different perspective. “Yet his bid to annex Ukraine is a perfectly logical response to decades of Western appeasement and half-measures in response to his atrocities. Time after time, he has watched us choose inaction or feeble slaps on the Russian wrist. Why wouldn’t he think he could get away with it, yet again?”

Reckless Adventurism

According to Dr Jayatilleka, Russia’s actions have been “a defensive reaction to a trend that dates back to the turn of this century and Millennium”, a reaction to “a combination of reckless adventurism and hypocrisy on the part of the West.” He blames Hillary Clinton for the disastrous intervention in Libya. I have often agreed with him about Western hypocrisy. Can he explain why the people of Ukraine are being punished in 2022 for what Hillary Clinton did in 2011?

The man on the right of this picture has just been ordered by Putin to put nuclear forces on high alert because of ‘aggressive statements’. The man on the left of the picture is a Sri Lankan who defends Putin.

The Good Doctor states, “Sri Lanka, like China and very much for the same reasons, is allergic to separatism and irredentism and stands for state sovereignty.” I recall Dr Jayatilleka himself standing against separatism in the good old days. I do not think “allergic” is an apt word here. Allergies are caused by your immune system mistaking a harmless substance for something harmful. This is not a harmless substance. If separatism had succeeded in Sri Lanka, the result would have been more than a few coughs and sneezes. Separatism might be appropriate in some circumstances, for example, Timor-Leste or West Papua. No war is like any other. The Good Doctor calls this “context”.

Sovereignty in Context

Dr Jayatilleka won my respect and support in 2009 for his doughty defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. I offered my humble support to those like him, Godfrey and Amar Gunatilleke, Rajiva Wijesinha, Malinda Seneviratne, Gomin Dayasri, David Blacker and Michael Roberts who were resisting the pro-LTTE propaganda fostered by foreign NGOs and western governments. I joined with those who tried to counter false accusations of human rights violations peddled by the West. I joined with those who resisted the forces of separatism and condemned foreign intervention in the sovereign state that was and still is Sri Lanka.

Ukraine was a sovereign state. It has been invaded by a foreign state that has far greater military capability, including a nuclear arsenal. Is it not “reckless adventurism” to threaten to use nuclear weapons in this “context”? Putin justifies his aggression by mimicking the West’s justifications for humanitarian interventions like the one to protect Kosovo in 1999. I did not support that intervention but I do not think it was similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to pray it in aid now smacks of whataboutery, or what the BBC’s Mark Urban has called “Kosplay”. It beggars belief to even contemplate Ukraine as a genocidal terrorist state and Russia as a liberal human rights defender.

Kate Maltby writes: “Any readers who still buy Putin’s line that Ukraine is naturally ‘Russian’ territory might like to consider how some of his arguments – that it is a small state historically dominated by a large neighbour, in which some of the inhabitants still speak the language of its former occupier – might go down if Great Britain were to launch a land invasion of the Republic of Ireland.” Speaking as an Irish citizen, I can confidently say that it would not go down well with me or many of my compatriots.

For once, there are some interesting comments on Colombo Telegraph. Old Codger wrote, “What would Dr Jayatilleka say if India decided to annex our NE on the grounds that it and India were in the same empire before 1948, and is ethnically similar?” Dr Gnana Sankaralingam commented: “India should follow this example, by firstly taking over Kachchativu which was conceded on friendly basis and now Srilanka has betrayed that goodwill by toying with China. Next they should get Tamils to declare independence, and when Srilanka troops unleash violence, ask them to call for help from India. This will make Indian invasion and annexation legal. Unfortunately India does not have this cleverness or bravery to exert its authority, unlike Russia.” I do recall that some have considered Dr Jayatilleka to be an Indophile.

The Good Doctor gives a wrist slapping to those voicing concern about the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk. His chief rebuttal tool is tu quoque or whataboutery. According to Dr Jayatilleka, we should remember that the breakup of Yugoslavia and the brutal war that followed was triggered by foolish people recognising the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. Are we wrong to recognise the independence of Ukraine? There were various reasons for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The nation was something of an artificial botch-up not likely to last forever – like the USSR. Yugoslavia was a volatile mix of ethnic groups with cultural and religious differences stoked by memories of WWII atrocities committed by all sides. Among the nations who did not immediately recognise the two newcomers were Serbia and the USA.

Putin’s popularity has been sinking since the Russian economy collapsed in 2009. In 2012, Russians protested against his fraud-ridden reelection, making him insecure and paranoid about hostile efforts to topple him from power. If he thought the invasion would be a diversion he is wrong. The streets of Russian cities are full of protesters against the war. The ATMs are empty. The ruble has plummeted.

I search in vain in Dr Jayatilleka’s article for any trace of empathy for the people of Ukraine. What have they done to deserve Putin’s wrath and his bombs? In fact, in a rather short article he covers Yugoslavia, Syria, Sri Lanka, China, Iraq, Libya, Georgia, Russia and, of course, there is space for a cameo walk-on for his other hero Fidel Castro. There is not much about Ukraine itself in the article and there is certainly no explanation of what the country did to get itself attacked.

It is alleged that thermobaric weapons have been used in Okhtyrka. The blast wave can last for significantly longer than a conventional explosive and is capable of vaporising human bodies. They create a vacuum and suck the air out of the lungs. Cluster bombs were used in Kharkiv. There have been indiscriminate attacks on residential buildings. Children have been killed. The prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague has announced that he will launch an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Many have come to the conclusion that paranoia has caused Putin to lose his mind. More next week on his reason and his reasons.

Free Speech

This article was published in Ceylon Today on February 23, 2022

I am in London at the moment and I was recently a witness to a good deal of controversy caused by a comedian called Jimmy Carr.

A joke he made on Netflix about the Holocaust and the Nazis’ treatment of the Roma sparked off the old debate about censorship and the freedom to offend. I do not intend to repeat the joke, not because it is offensive, but because it is pointlessly offensive. Worst of all, the joke is not remotely funny. I have written a lengthy essay about why I am offended by jokes which depict Irish people as stupid. My disapproval of such jokes is somewhat diluted if they make me laugh. I have not argued that people should be punished for telling these jokes. I recognise that I do not have the right to be protected from offensiveness.

My first foray into social media was with Open Salon (OS). As this was an American enterprise, there was a lot of talk about the First Amendment. I noticed that many Americans would bring up the topic of censorship at the drop of a cliché. One had only to mildly disagree with these right wing snowflakes and they would cry: “you will not silence me!” To object to Carr’s joke is not to try to silence him. My essay about Irish jokes was triggered by a bizarre post on OS in which the writer “humorously” suggested that the solution to the “Irish problem” was to send all the Irish to Holland where they would be incompetent and drunk enough to flood the place and subsequently perish by drowning. Imagine someone writing a humorous post entitled “Solution to the Jewish Problem” or “Solution to the African-American Problem” in which the solution consisted of extermination of a race by drowning. Hitler had a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Auschwitz Memorial and the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate were among those who condemned the joke.  World heavyweight champion boxer Tyson Fury, who is from an Irish Traveller family (and 6’ 9” tall), said he would chin the comedian because of his joke about gypsies dying in the holocaust.

Strictly Come Dancing judge Robert Rinder MBE (some of whose family were slaughtered by the Nazis) said the audience who “clapped, whooped and cheered” at the joke were “complete incorrigible turds”. Think about those people. Carr might find ways of rationalizing his behaviour but how can they justify theirs? Last year, Netflix faced walk-outs from staff members over a Dave Chappelle comedy special, in which the comic was accused of targeting transgender people. At the time, Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos claimed: “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” I will come back to that idea of real-world harm.


I did have a look at the performance in question so that you don’t have to. The joke itself was not as shocking in the context of a 55 minute show as it was as a brief and brutal soundbite. Warnings were given. Carr says: “Tonight’s show contains jokes about terrible things. Terrible things that may have affected you and the people that you love. But these are just jokes. They are not the terrible things.” I personally do not buy Carr’s arguments in favour of the joke. I do not see anything positive, apart from publicity for Carr, to compensate for the sheer nastiness.

People who know Carr have claimed that he is a kind man in private. What is the point of Carr having a private inner core of kindness while going out into the world and encouraging large groups of people to mock the vulnerability and stigma associated with a victimised minority? One does not have to be a proponent of cancel culture to suggest that at a time of social tensions it is not a good thing to release such toxic energy into the world. Words have consequences.

Speech that causes “offence” can be more dangerous than just hurting the feelings of some snowflake bleeding heart liberal. Sticks and stones might break bones but so can words break bones in the real world. In the House of Commons recently, the prime minister deliberately uttered words that he knew to be false and the result was that a few days later the leader of the opposition was attacked by a violent mob repeating the prime ministers words. The words of white supremacists can be rebutted with more words but it is unlikely that their behaviour will be altered by rational argument. Very often words can leave a person from an ethnic minority bleeding or dead.

Freedom to Lie

Philosopher Nigel Warburton describes John Stuart Mill’s “model of the arena in which discussions take place”. This is “something like an idealized academic seminar with opinions calmly delivered on each side and truth emerging victorious and invigorated from its collision with error.” A legislative chamber should be such a venue. There are occasions when the Sri Lankan parliament does not provide the opportunity to consider calmly delivered opinions. The House of Commons exists, with codes of conduct developed over centuries, to enable truth to emerge from debate. However, the reality is that the current (as I write) prime minister comes to the dispatch box every week and repeats the same lies, even when his untruths have been definitively exposed. Labour’s Dawn Butler was expelled from the house for refusing to retract her statement that the prime minister was lying.

Ian Blackford of the Scottish Nationalist Party was sternly reprimanded by the Speaker for asking the question: “prime minister, are you a liar?” Blackford was ejected from the chamber for refusing to retract his assertion that the prime minister had “misled the house.” The prime minister exerts the freedom to lie. Butler and Blackford are censured for expressing the truth.

Free speech helps a polity to run more effectively. A principle of free speech protects a wide range of expression, wider than any reasonable person could or would want to endorse. We have to protect free speech even for those whose views we find deeply offensive. Free speech is for bigots too.

The Heckler’s Veto

Cancel culture employs ‘the heckler’s veto’. This is the notion that if someone in your potential audience is likely to be offended by what you say you should not be permitted to speak, or at the very least you should have the decency to restrain yourself.

Trans activists exercise the right to call gender critical commentators “bigots” or “transphobes”. Critics of trans activists have their freedom of speech curtailed, endure bullying and threats, sometimes lose their jobs, sometimes suffer violence.

Can’t Silence the Internet

There are arguments in favour of anonymity but it provides opportunities for scurrilous behaviour. The Internet has allowed those willing to use unscrupulous methods freedom to communicate globally with a low risk of being traced. Freedom without accountability. Colombo Telegraph provides a good example. Most of those making comments do not use their real names and cannot be traced. This might seem like openness but it is an effective way of shutting down rational debate by bullying.

Some of the issues thrown up by the free speech question might seem trivial. I have been following a thread on Facebook about an article concerning Holocaust Memorial Day by a blogger who calls himself Old Holborn. One of the Facebook commenters summarised the issue: “the true lesson we should learn from Holocaust Memorial Day is that we should be allowed to be rude to people on Twitter.” People died on the Normandy beaches so that Old Holborn could enjoy freedom to insult. Another commenter said: “to equate infringement of his right to being an arse on the Internet to being a victim of the holocaust is fatuous in the extreme.”

People shout loudly “You will not silence me!” Fat chance. Some states are working very hard to control their citizens’ access to information from the Internet, using every technical device at their disposal but it is difficult to silence so many voices. Such attempts should be resisted because even minor restrictions of liberty help the process of erosion. While being mindful of the dangers of hate speech we should be vigilant against acts of censorship which make further curtailments of liberty easier to achieve. Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.”

Wisdom entails openness. To be a serious thinker one has to acknowledge one’s own fallibility. Progress is possible when our ideas have been subjected to criticism and all objections considered. There are many things we cannot know for certain because they are outside our lived experience. Timothy Garton Ash writes: “How can I know what it is like to be a Muslim, a Roma, a Kurd, a lesbian or a conservative Catholic, if we have not been able to explain it to each other?”

Freedom and Slavery

There is a fine balance here. Freedom for some might infringe the liberty of others. Jeremy Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

Freed slave Frederick Douglass declared: “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech,” and he noted that there exists not just a right to speak but a right to hear. “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Free speech applies to us all, and that right is rooted in our humanity, the inherent dignity of man.

I will conclude with another quotation from Timothy Garton Ash: “Now we are experiencing what I hope is a temporary diversion to something which most kindly might be called illiberal democracy, but perhaps more accurately, in the language of political science, electoral authoritarianism, and from an open society to a more closed society. Therefore the defense of free speech for the defense of an open society is more important than ever.”

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