Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2019

A Constitutional Outrage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th August, 2019

Boris Johnson 7Queen Elizabeth this afternoon acceded to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request that Parliament should  be prorogued for about five weeks starting in the first half of September. The Prime Minister argued that this is necessary so that a new session of Parliament can begin following a Queen’s Speech in mid-October, but critics — including many within the governing Conservative Party — believe that the real reason is to limit the time MPs will have to challenge Mr Johnson’s plan for a No Deal exit from the European Union on 31 October (assuming in the meantime he is unable to produce a new Deal with the EU like a rabbit out of a hat). The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has denounced the government’s move as a “constitutional outrage”, a phrase echoed by Opposition parliamentarians, including the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I suspect the Queen was none too pleased either, but the terms of the unwritten British constitution are such that the monarch is effectively forced to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. However, the ructions are starting to be felt up and down the country. The Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, is reportedly on the verge of resigning and several senior former Ministers, including the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, have protested loudly. Half a million people signed a petition against the proroguing of Parliament within a matter of hours and thousands descended on Westminster this evening in a spontaneous demonstration against what many are calling “the coup”. Other gatherings are taking places in different parts of the country and social media are fizzing. Boris Johnson may think he has been extremely clever, but this could all lead to his having the shortest term of office of any British Prime Minister, or the break up of the United Kingdom, or both.

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A New Divan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th August, 2019

Genius Loci Weimar 2016 / Ackerwand / Foto: Henry SowinskiIn Weimar, where the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832, there is a monument: two solid seats, facing each other. They look as if they are waiting for two people to come along and exchange ideas across a divide that is nonetheless bridgeable. And that is indeed their function, actual and metaphorical, recalling the encounter between East and West, the Islamic world and the Christian, in particular the Persian poet Hafez/Hafiz (1315-1390) and Goethe. Hafez was born and died in the garden city of Shiraz and he wrote of love (towards favourites, whose gender is contested, thanks to the ambiguity of the Persian language), wine and religious hypocrisy. Not someone who the the mullahs at the head of the current Islamic Republic of Iran therefore might view with favour, one might imagine, though when I visited Shiraz some years ago (long after the 1979 Revolution), people in Shiraz still brought up Hafez’s name, and recited his poems. Even if one cannot understand Farsi the rhythm  is intoxicating. Goethe obviously felt this, too. His encounter with Hafez was through the translations of the gifted Austrian Orientalist and diplomat, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. In particular, Goethe was inspired by Hafiz’s work to write his own West-Eastern Divan, published in 1819 — a collection of lyrical poems suffused with the tastes and perfumes of the Orient and effectively an act of homage to Hafiz. Goethe’s work was not greatly appreciated by his contemporaries, unlike much of his output. But it caused echoes across many countries and resonates still today.

A New DivanTwo hundred years on, to mark the bicentenary of the original publication of East-Western Divan, the UK-based publisher Gingko has produced an admirable and elegant volume that is also an act of homage: A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East & West (£20) that is itself a celebration of artistic sensibility transcending geographical and ideological or religious boundaries. Edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson the volume contains poems by 24 authors, East and West, in nearly a dozen different languages, with English translation on the facing pages. The act of translation is itself at the heart of the project, as most of the poems in English are renderings by an English mother-tongue poet based on a more literal translation by a third party. To emphasize the importance of the nature and art of translation even more, there are three essays (among a few others) which follow the poems and which give added food for thought. The poems themselves are to be read and reread, some raising a smile, others a wince of pain, all inviting the reader to enter into the poet’s state of consciousness. Beautiful, certainly; troubling at times, particularly when one considers the traumas that the whole of the Middle East and North Africa has been going through in recent years. I think Goethe would have been intrigued, and I hope Hafez would have been proud — knowing that seven centuries after his birth, under the fiery reign of Timur/Tamerlane, his influence persists.

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Boris Johnson’s Hiding to Nothing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd August, 2019

Boris Johnson and Angela MerkelThe UK Prime Minister has been calling on his German and French counterparts this past couple of days, in an attempt to persuade them to alter Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU, specifically by dropping the controversial Irish “backstop”. Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have been emphatic that they will do nothing that could undermine the integrity of the European single market or possibly endanger the Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in an era of relative calm in Northern Ireland and is seen as vital by most communities on the island of Ireland. Frau Merkel, rather in the guise of a secondary school teacher giving a lazy student a bit of a dressing down, gave Boris Johnson 30 days to devise some workable alternative that would enable frictionless trade and movement between the Irish Republic and the North, but as no-one has been able to come up with a potential solution over the past three years the prospect of that do not look good. However, Mr Johnson’s spin doctors will doubtless portray as a victory the fact that the German Chancellor had suggested some amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement is possible, though that frankly will be clutching at straws.

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel MacronFor his part, President Macron was in jovial mood, joking to Boris Johnson that he could always use a small table in the Elysée Palace as a footstool (which the clown then promptly did, creating a very unfortunate image). But M. Macron was adamant that there is no alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement and that Theresa May got the best deal for Britain that was available. He also twisted the knife in by saying that of course Britain could still revoke Article 50, and thus stay a member of the EU under its current terms, at any time up until leaving day. That date, Boris Johnson has said, will be 31 October, come hell or high water, but if his government persists with that line then a No Deal crash-out is highly likely. Even the British government’s own analyses predict that would be an economic disaster and special interest groups such as farmers are alarmed that their livelihoods could be almost instantly wiped out. Despite devoting huge sums of money into “preparing” for disruptions to food and medicines supplies in the case of No Deal the government cannot guarantee there will not be a crisis. O)r indeed civil unrest. The Prime Minister and the arch-Brexiteer Tory media are already blaming the EU for this looming catastrophe. But be in no doubt: the fault lies firmly at Boris Johnson’s door.

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Once upon a Time in Hollywood ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th August, 2019

Once upon a Time in HollywoodI have always abhorred violence, so Quentin Tarantino has never been one of my favourite directors. Indeed, I walked out of a screening of Pulp Fiction in Havana, to the disgust of my Cuban companion. But the director’s latest movie, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, got such positive preview hype that I thought I had better try it out — and I am glad I did. It’s over two-and-a-half hours long — admittedly with a couple of longueurs in the middle that could have been pared down — but most of it is hugely entertaining, inventive, quirky and a film buff’s dream. The movie is sprinkled with countless celluloid references, like hundreds and thousands on an ice cream sundae. I particularly enjoyed the stand-off between “Bruce Lee” and Brad Pitt’s character, stunt man Cliff Booth, when Booth refers to Lee as Cato, like the character who springs surprise attacks on Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, though I can understand why Lee’s family and friends are not amused. Cliff Booth works for his great mate, actor Rick Salton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is on a downward career slide oiled by a considerable amount of booze. His playing the baddie in Wild West “B” movies provides Tarantino plenty of opportunities for nods to that genre. The film itself is firmly set in 1969 Hollywood and is pitch-perfect when it comes to the period setting: the cars, the clothes, the dreadful shows on daytime TV. But when Charles Manson’s “Family” materialises one just knows things are going to get nasty behind their superficial hippy loopyness. Brad Pitt really comes into his own staring them down, but as “Sharon Tate” has been popping up in several short interludes and becomes increasingly pregnant, one imagines (or at least I did) that we are about to witness the slaughter of her and her friends. Wrong. That’s not what happens at all. The carnage when it comes is so unexpected and played partly for comic effect that one’s emotions are kicked about like a rubber ball, while rooting for the dog at the centre of the action. There is so much else in the film that is genuinely hilarious that even this loather of violence couldn’t squirm in his seat, let alone make for the door. So although this is not a perfect masterpiece, I believe it is a bloody fine film.    

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Nicosia beyond Barriers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th August, 2019

Nicosia beyond Barriers.jpgNicosia has a population of little more than 200,000, yet Cyprus’s capital contains more complexities and stressful memories than far larger cities. For three decades, from 1974, the city was physically divided, by the euphemistically-named Green Line, that had literally been drawn with a green pen on a map, though the polarisation of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot people — with accompanied ethnic cleansing — predated that by several years, latterly becoming almost absolute. Add to the island’s mix the legacy of the Venetians, the Ottomans, Armenians, the colonial British, then the conscript army of the occupying Turks in the North, refugees from Syria and Lebanon, followed by black Africans (without even mentioning post-Soviet Russians) and you have an extraordinary human pot-pourri, not always giving off the sweetest of perfumes. In the 1990s, when the island was still rigidly divided, I used to love slipping with my British passport through the forbidden zone and past the fabled Ledra Palace Hotel — transformed into a barracks for UN troops — hopping between two worlds in a way that was forbidden to most Cypriots, and inevitably reminiscent of earlier shuttling as a journalist between East and West Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. But this privileged access also left me feeling uneasy sometimes, an unease that intensified when the Republic of Cyprus (i.e. Greek Cypriot) was allowed into the European Union, while the Turkish-occupied north languished in a sort of half-way-house limbo.

Ledra StreetInevitably, foreign visitors tend to gravitate either north to Kyrenia or south to Limassol, to savour the sea, but it is Nicosia, inland, that is the troubling and sometimes troubled heart of Cyprus, even now that many tensions have calmed. And it is Nicosia that is the subject of an ambitious and enchanting new anthology of short stories, poetry, prose poems, memoir, reportage and fantasy: Nicosia beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City (Saqi, £12.99), edited by Alev Adil, Aydin Mehmet Ali, Bahriye Kernal and Maria Petrides. The voices are diverse, with women’s being particularly strong, not surprisingly given that the project was the child of the Literary Agency Cyprus, a women-led literary and arts movement based in Nicosia. But the selection encompasses a striking diversity of genres and perspectives. One moment the reader sits with a writer in a cafe near the Green Line in Ledra Street, watching with irony the cats and birds who flit casually from one side to the other; the next one is cruising in the city’s most popular gay pick-up park. Rather than separating the book into sections that group topics or literary forms together, the work of the 50 contributors is all mixed together, so one stumbles from one fascinating line of thought and mode of expression to another, wondering what will come next. What really impressed me, however, is that the whole collection has an under-current of nostalgia and loss, a sadness that is part mourning and part celebration — what the Portuguese call saudade. The whole can be read productively in a few sittings, but I suspect that this is also a book into which many readers will dip on return encounters.

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Yes, I am a “Collaborator”!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th August, 2019

Brexit march March 2019In the latest grotesque twist in the Alice in Wonderland alternative reality of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain, the Prime Minister has denounced as “collaborators” those who wish to prevent a No Deal crash-out of the EU on 31 October. That presumably includes noble souls such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the 70 MPs and members of the House of Lords who have taken legal steps to try to stop a No Deal Brexit (to be heard in the Courts during the first week of September) as well as the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who has become a knight in shining armour defending British democracy. I suspect the choice of the word “collaborator” is the work of Dominic Cummings, the unelected demon “genius” at the heart of 10 Downing Street’s operations. And of course it comes hard on the heels of the dismissal of the independent judiciary as “traitors”, in the words of headline writers of some of Britain’s more disgusting Press, including the Daily Mail, the Sun and of course the Daily Telegraph, which until recently was paying Boris Johnson a reported quarter of a million pounds a year to spew out his own anti-EU poison. This is all part of a calculated campaign to whip up anger and possible violence among the arch-Brexiteer public (who are not a majority). No wonder some pro-Remain MPs have had to call  on police protection or even move home. As an arch-Remainer myself — who doesn’t want any sort of Brexit, let alone a No Deal Brexit, because of the harm this will do to the country — I believe we must stand up to this vilification and the slew of lies being put out by Number 10 and the Brexit camp. Moreover, I shall embrace warmly the pejoratively-intended term “collaborator” — rather as the Religious Society of Friends in the 17th century embraced the mocking word “Quaker” employed by their detractors. I am proud of being a Collaborator with our 27 fellow EU member states, who have been working together to make Europe and the world a better, safer and more prosperous place. I am proud to be a Collaborator with all those millions of people who have rallied to the anti-Brexit cause and who are increasingly organising themselves in a Remain Alliance. It is is the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world who are undermining Britain and its global standing. History will condemn them for it, but we must try to stop them first.

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With Friends Like John Bolton…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th August, 2019

John Bolton 2The hawkish US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is in London for a couple of days, schmoozing Boris Johnson’s Brexiteer government. Though he is dangling the prospect of a significant US-UK trade deal after 31 October — whose terms will doubtless be more beneficial to Washington — his real motive for being here is to try to turn the screws on Britain to stand up against Iran. So far the UK has remained firm in its determination to try to salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal, from which the United States withdrew, and is thus more closely aligned with its European partners, France and Germany, on this issue. But the failure of the Europeans to rally round in support of a British suggestion to put together a maritime presence to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz means that the Brits have had to join a US-led operation instead. John Bolton will be trying to persuade the Conservative government that it should go further and throw its whole weight behind the US strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Tehran, by strengthening sanctions. The Americans have even sanctioned the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been an important figure in trying to calm tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. The last Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, established a good working relationship with Mr Zarif, but it is doubtful that his successor, Dominic Raab, will do the same. So the risk of Britain’s being dragged into a new military conflict in the Gulf (remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003?) is very real. Meanwhile, Mr Johnson (at the behest of special adviser Dominic Cummings, one wonders?) has instructed British diplomats to start withdrawing from joint meetings and initiatives with our EU partners even though we are still officially a member state. This will inevitably push us further into the arms of the Trump administration. No wonder Donald Trump — a self-declared Boris Johnson fan — and John Bolton look so happy. But frankly, with friends like John Bolton, who needs enemies?

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Brexit Is Now a Religious Cult

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th August, 2019

Brexit Deal No DealWhen the British electorate voted in an advisory referendum three years ago about whether they would prefer to remain in the European Union or leave, the Conservative government foolishly declared that it would implement the “decision”. In the event, the result was very close (approximately 52:48) and although no mature democracy had ever proceeded with such a drastic constitutional change on a slim simple majority, the Government then began the complex divorce proceedings from our 27 European partners, with the opposition Labour Party nodding approvingly from the sidelines. Theresa May, who had taken over as Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation and flight from frontline politics, oversaw the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement (designed to precede detailed plans for a future relationship between the UK and the EU), but that was then rejected by Parliament — three times. Mrs May subsequently also fell on her sword and Boris Johnson — who since childhood has aimed to be “World King” — took over, proclaiming that he will lead the country out of the EU on 31 October, “do or die”, deal or No Deal. Meanwhile, the pound sterling has tanked and the economy is heading for recession, yet warnings about the probably dire consequences of a No Deal have fallen on deaf ears.

Dominic Cummings 1In this era of post-Truth and alternative facts Hard Brexiteers just don’t want to listen to anything that does not chime with their own fantastic vision of a post-European Britain as a land of milk and honey, unicorns and fewer foreigners. And significant numbers of them are becoming increasingly strident in their antagonism towards people who don’t agree. Remainers are often denounced as traitors and in the most extreme cases, some supporters of the EU (including MPs) have received death threats. In the meantime, a significant part of the mainstream media has become evangelical in its championing of Brexit. Indeed, the whole Brexit phenomenon has taken on a quasi-religious tone. Fundamentalist, even. I am not saying everyone who voted Leave or who still/now believes Brexit is the right course of action is a fundamentalist, but a hard core are and they seem to have the upper hand. They are prepared to sacrifice not only other people’s well-being in their dogmatic propagation of their faith but also many aspects of our British democracy. Installing Dominic Cummings in a key position in 10 Downing Street was a deeply undemocratic and retrograde move and similarly Boris Johnson’s veiled threats of proroguing Parliament or otherwise bypassing MPs’ control as October 31 looms is deeply sinister. Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with a Cabinet of Hard Brexiteers who increasingly resemble a cult. Far from uniting the country as the Prime Minister brazenly claims he will do, he is leading it along a dangerous and divisive path. The fundamentalists now argue that No Deal is the logical outcome of the 2016 referendum, but that possibility absolutely was not on the ballot paper, which is why a new public vote is needed to see what people really want/ No wonder most of the outside world is aghast.

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The Times Takes Aim at Qatar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 5th August, 2019

The Times QatarIn an unusual move for a “quality” daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, The Times of London has called on the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to investigate the paper’s findings in its investigation into alleged Qatari sponsorship of Islamist fundamentalism and has argued that the British government should isolate Qatar if the tiny Gulf state chooses to be “in opposition to the West”. This very much echoes the tone of the Gang of Four Arab states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), which imposed sanctions on Qatar two years ago, listing a series of what they saw as offences, not least Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the centre of The Times’s investigation, however, is the client list of the Al Rayan Bank, which has over the past 15 years established itself as the largest and most effective provider of shariah-compliant financial products in Britain. Headquartered in Birmingham, the bank has around 85,000 customers, but The Times highlights 15 — notably several Islamic charities, as well as the satellite television station Peace TV — as having links with terrorist organisations or of advocating Islamist ideals and aims which undermine British values and norms. Some of the charities mentioned have indeed had their accounts frozen or closed by other banks, including Lloyds and HSBC, and The Times argues that Al Rayan — which is 70% owned by Masraf Al Rayan, Qatar’s second largest bank, and 30% by the investment arm of the country’s sovereign wealth fund — should do the same.

Al Rayan BankNo-one is suggesting that Al Rayan Bank is itself in violation of banking regulations; it has always complied with FSA/Financial Conduct Authority guidelines. Rather, it is the nature of some of its account holders, which range from the Finsbury Park mosque (formerly the base of radical preacher Abu Hamza, now in jail in the United States) and charities with links to Hamas. Some of those are currently the subject of investigation by the Charity Commissioners, just as Peace TV — which is a platform for extremist preacher Zakir Naik, who is banned from Britain — has been referred to Ofcom. But as I said in a couple of TV interviews for Sky News Arabia  this afternoon, by urging the British government to get directly involved, The Times is upping the ante considerably. The timing cannot be coincidental, as clearly the advent of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Priti Patel could be a game changer. But would Britain really go on the diplomatic offensive against Qatar, as the Gang of Four and their allies would like? Qatar is a huge investor in this country, owning flagship properties such as the Shard, Harrods and the Savoy Hotel — even a stake in British Airways. So far London has remained relatively neutral in the inter-Arab spat around the Gulf, but could that be about to change? What is certain is that not only will Al Rayan Bank be pleading its innocence in the affair but we can expect some heated ripostes from Doha as well.

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Wanted Man: Mukhtar Ablyazov

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th August, 2019

Mukhtar AblyazovWhen I first went to Kazakhstan in 1994, the fledgling nation was struggling to get on its feet. As the train I was travelling on trundled across the steppe from the then capital of Almaty to the frontier of Uzbekistan, old women wrapped up against the cold stood by the side of the track selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on. With US dollars, a visitor could live like a king for a pittance. But while the bulk of Kazakhstan’s population was having difficulties making ends meet, a smart but not necessarily honest minority were cannily seizing the opportunities offered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union to make fortunes for themselves. One such was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh theoretical physics graduate from Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute. In 1992 he started supplying different areas of the newly independent country with basic commodities such as salt, sugar, tea, chocolate and medicines, establishing a multi-sector private holding company, Astana Holding, He then moved into the energy sector, being appointed head of the state-owned Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company in 1997. After turning that into a profitable operation, in a rapid rise he was appointed Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade. For a while, at least, he enjoyed the favour of the then all-powerful President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But that was not to last.

Mukhtar Ablyazov bookFast forward to 2005, by which time Mukhtar Ablyazov was Chairman of BTA Bank, which within three years had become the largest financial institution in the country. Blessed with colossal natural resources, from hydrocarbons to precious metals, Kazakhstan’s economy was starting to take off dramatically and oligarchs with the right connections were making huge fortunes. But all was not well with BTA. Auditors from Pricewaterhouse Coopers discovered a $10 billion shortfall in the bank’s accounts — and Mr Ablyazov was subsequently accused of embezzling a substantial chunk of that. He had meanwhile accumulated an impressive property portfolio on both sides of the Atlantic — including a mansion on Hampstead’s Bishop’s Avenue, “Billionaires Row”, and an estate in Surrey. BTA launched legal proceedings against their former Chairman in the British High Court; the judgment went against Ablyazov, but he managed to slip out of the country — using a false identity and a cheap bus to France, according to Gary Cartwright, a Brussels-based journalist and author of the slim volume Wanted Man: The Story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (Cambridge International Press, £9.95). In France, Ablyazov found himself the subject of an extradition order to Russia and spent some time in a French jail. Yet various human rights organisations as well as several members of the European Parliament campaigned to have that situation reversed on the grounds that he was the victim of political persecution and had a valid claim to asylum. He had indeed set up a putative opposition party and maybe even aspired to replace Nazarbayev one day in a fully democratic Kazakhstan.

BTA BankBut as Cartwright’s book outlines, the Ablyazov affair has murky tendrils that stretch into many countries, tax havens such as Luxembourg and networks of criminals and intelligence agencies. Ablyazov even stands accused of ordering the murder of his predecessor as Chairman of BTA bank, who was “accidentally” shot by a rifle when the car he was travelling in on a hunting expedition went over a bump in the road. The story is indeed worthy of popular fiction or a high-drama film and maybe one day that will happen. In the meantime, Ablyazov is assumed to be lying low in France, playing his guitar and hanging out with a close network of family and friends. Gary Cartwright’s book only skates over the surface of this extremely complex and intriguing affair, and it is very much the case for the prosecution (supported by some documentary evidence). As such, it whets the appetite rather than providing a definitive account. Presumably one day that will be written by someone, but for the present one is left with unsettling insights into the unseemly underbelly of not just Kazakhstan but of so much of the post-Soviet world, as well as elements of the support systems that dodgy oligarchs have been able to rely on across the EU, ranging from lawyers to false NGOs and sometimes gullible politicians. And in a world in which false news and alternative facts increasingly rule it may prove to be the  evil of a task to find out the whole truth.

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