Coronation crackdown: It couldn’t happen here…could it?

The heavy-handed treatment of anti-monarchy protesters at King Charles III’s ceremony is ominous

We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail. 

This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go. 

Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here. 

‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’

I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state? 

As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…

Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.

Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus

‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’

After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.

When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.

The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.

 Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong 

‘Continue standing up for your voice’

Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.

Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.

The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.

The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.

Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.

“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away. 

Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary

Defying the Taliban – A stark reminder of the collapse of Afghan women’s rights

Last Thursday, human rights organisation Anotherway Now hosted a screening of the Sky News documentary ‘Defying the Taliban: women at war in Afghanistan’. This was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Index on Censorship’s Editor-at-large Martin Bright.

Part of the discussion challenged the British government to create a route for Afghan women to apply safely for asylum into the UK. Zehra Zaidi, from the advocacy group Action for Afghanistan, said people need to show they are taking up the issue with the government. She added: “We also need to show it’s not a vote loser. That it’s the right thing to do, and the compassionate thing to do. We must keep fighting.”

The first of three documentaries looking at the fight for women’s rights in the world’s most hostile environments, Special Correspondent Alex Crawford travelled to Afghanistan over a year after the Taliban takeover.

Despite being a country where women’s rights plummeted under one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, we saw young women training as gynaecologists and paediatricians, with higher-level education currently allowed for women. However, with secondary education banned for young girls and women, it’s clear this will be a rare sight in the future. With medics generally only treating their same sex in Afghanistan, a ticking time bomb awaits.

What was striking is how women operated in the underground. Crawford used her network of contacts to show us a hidden world, including a safe house in Kabul run by rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, who is a 2023 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. A rare refuge from the brutal world outside, Seraj explained she takes in abused women and girls from all over Afghanistan, adding: “The Taliban don’t want us to exist. That’s why there’s no schools or work, or why women shouldn’t be walking on the street.”

Seraj doesn’t fear the Taliban though. “I find it ridiculous, insulting and annoyingly childish. But am I scared? No”, she said.

A secret network of schools also operates across Kabul, run by volunteers who teach maths and English to a younger generation of girls.

We’re shown secret workshops where women make art out of weapons and bullets; and make beautiful dresses where they can artistically portray their tough situation. Proceeds are used to feed their families, but also gives the women the freedom to expose their treatment in a male-dominated society. However, the freedom to artistically express is no longer an option for Farida (not her real name), once one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated painters. She said: “The Taliban burnt my gallery and said you can’t work on (paint) the faces of women.

“It killed me. We are empty. Now we don’t have hopes, and we don’t have dreams.”

Postcards of artwork by Farida that was smuggled out of Afghanistan (source: Sky)

During the post-screening discussion, Crawford explained the Taliban’s hypocrisy as the official reason given for banning women from attending medical school is male/female segregation isn’t possible, but female-only medical schools are closed anyway.

Zahra Joya, an exiled Afghan journalist and founder of Rukhshana media, urged everybody to keep the conversation about Afghanistan alive after the screening. She said: “This film shows the full-scale war against women in Afghanistan. Keep them in your mind and speak up.”

Calling for a show of hands from the audience, Zaidi asked the audience if anybody knew there is currently no asylum route into the UK for Afghan women. “There is none!”, she exclaimed. “None of those women in the film can apply to the British government for asylum. Our petition alone in August had 470,000 signatures to prioritise Afghan women and girls.”

Zaidi believed the Afghanistan crisis is being purposely mixed up with the small boats’ crisis and “illegal” migration bill, so it won’t stand on its own as a genuine issue in the UK. To wrap up, she offered her dream encounter with the British home secretary.

“I like a challenge. I see myself sitting opposite Suella Braverman inviting Afghan refugees to the UK if it’s the last thing I do!”

25 years of the Good Friday Agreement

A copy of the Belfast Agreement signed by the main parties involved and organised by journalist Justine McCarthy of the Irish Independent newspaper. Photo: Whyte’s Auctions

Every day the professional staff at Index meet to discuss what’s going on in the world and the issues that we need to address. Where has been the latest crisis? What do we need to be aware of in a specific country? Where are elections imminent? Do we have a source or a journalist in country and, if not, who do we know? During these meetings we are confronted with some of the worst heartbreak happening in the world. Journalists being murdered, dissidents arrested, activists threatened and beaten, academics intimidated and while we know that we are helping them by providing a platform to tell their stories it can be soul destroying to be confronted by the actions of tyrants and dictators every day.

Which is why grabbing hold of good news stories helps keep us on track. The moments when we’ve helped dissidents get to safety, when a tyrant loses, when an artist or writer or academic manages to get their work to us. These are good days and should be cherished for what they are – because candidly they are far too rare.

It’s in this spirit that I’ve absorbed every news article, reflection and op-ed column discussing events in Northern Ireland 25 years ago. I was born in 1979, my family lived in London – the Troubles were a normal part of the news. As I grew up, the sectarian war in Northern Ireland seemed intractable, peace a dream that was impossible to achieve. But through the power of politics, of words, of negotiation, peace was delivered not just for the people of Northern Ireland but for everyone affected by the Troubles. That isn’t to say it was easy, or straightforward and that it doesn’t remain fragile, but it has proven to be miraculous and is something that we should both celebrate and cherish.

The Good Friday Agreement delivered the opportunity of hope for the people of Northern Ireland. It gave us a pathway to build trust between communities and allowed, for the first time in generations, people to think about a different kind of future. For someone who firmly believes in the power of language, who values the world of diplomacy and fights every day for the protection of our core human rights there is no single moment in British history which embodies those values more than what happened on 10 April 1998.

We can only but hope that other seemingly intractable disputes continue to see what happened in Belfast on that fateful day as inspiration to challenge their own status quo.

Salma al-Shehab becomes the latest Saudi prisoner to go on hunger strike

Salma is one of many Saudi prisoners of conscience to go on hunger strike

Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two and former PhD student at the University of Leeds, who in 2021 was handed a 34-year-long jail sentence for tweeting her support for women’s human rights defenders in her native Saudi Arabia, has gone on hunger strike.

Salma was arrested in January 2021 while on a visit home from the UK to see her family. She then faced months of interrogation over her activity on Twitter.

In March 2022 she was sentenced to six years in prison by the country’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) under the vague wording of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law, but this was increased on appeal to an unprecedented 34-year term followed by a 34-year travel ban.

The SCC was originally established to try terrorism cases but its remit has widened to cover people who speak out against human rights violations in the country. Salma is one of a number of people tried by the SCC who have been handed farcically long sentences for simply expressing their human rights. The SCC is the main tool with which Saudi Arabia has effectively criminalised freedom of expression.

In January this year, Salma’s sentence was reduced to 27 years after a retrial was ordered. During the retrial, the presiding judge denied Salma the right to speak in her defence.

Salma has been joined on hunger strike by seven other prisoners of conscience, who have been handed jail terms longer than those which would be handed out to hijackers threatening to bomb a plane.

In Saudi Arabia, prisoners of conscience often go on hunger strike to protest their treatment. Those resorting to this include women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, the blogger Raif Badawi, the academic and human rights defender Mohammad al-Qahtani, the writer Muhammad al-Hudayf and the lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair.

ALQST’s head of monitoring and advocacy, Lina Alhathloul, the sister of Loujain, said: “Knowing how harshly the Saudi authorities respond to hunger strikes, these women are taking an incredibly brave stand against the multiple injustices they have faced. When your only way of protesting is to risk your life by refusing to eat, one can only imagine the inhumane conditions al-Shehab and the others are having to endure in their cells.”

ALQST says that in previous hunger strikes, prison officials often wait several days before taking any action. “When they have eventually acted, it has been to threaten the prisoners with punishment if they continue their strike, and then place them in solitary confinement in dire conditions, subjecting them to invasive medical examinations and threatening to force-feed them. Phone calls, visitors and activities are also denied, in an attempt to coerce prisoners to end their hunger strikes,” the organisation said.

Salma and her fellow hunger strikers should never have been arrested and jailed in the first place for simply exercising freedom of expression that people take for granted in countries other than Saudi Arabia. They should have their sentences quashed and released from prison immediately.