Jonathan Fryer

An Historic Moment for the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th February, 2015

Thousands of Kurds from across Europe gathered in Strasbourg this afternoon for a rally by the city’s stadium. As one of their foreign guests I gave the following short speech in English, simultaneously translated into Kurdish:

image We are gathered here under the Strasbourg sun at what I believe may be an historic moment in the long struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights in Turkey. Yesterday, a petition with more than 10 million signatures, calling for the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was delivered to the Council of Europe in this city. It was a remarkable tribute to the determination of the Kurds and to the growing solidarity from people across Europe.
Tomorrow, 15 February, in Ankara, the HDP and AKP are due to publish the framework of an agreement for a settlement of the Kurdish question and to declare their intention to move towards making Turkey a genuinely democratic republic, with a new constitution. If this does indeed happen it will mark a giant stride forward.
Of course, we cannot take success for granted. There have been so many disappointments as well as hopes regarding Kurdish rights. At times it has seemed that the government in Ankara was taking one step forward and then one step back. But an agreement is possible, with sufficient good faith on all sides.
I know that from the experience of my own country, Britain, where decades of
political strife and violence in Northern Ireland were largely laid to rest by the courageous Good Friday Agreement, which integrated the IRA and its political arm Sinn Fein into the mainstream, with an agreed ceasefire, power-sharing and the release from prison of militants. So it can be done.
Finally, I would like to send two messages to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Firstly, Mr President, please carry forward measures to ensure that Turkey’s Kurds enjoy full cultural and political rights in the future. And secondly, Mr President, please release Abdullah Ocalan so that he can sit at the negotiating table with all the dignity of a free man.

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Kurds Petition for Abdullah Ocalan’s Release

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015

imageKurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.

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Sargent’s Portraits of Artists and Friends

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th February, 2015

Saregent 2Sargent 1The American artist John Singer Sargent was often dismissed in the latter half of the 20th century as a darling of high society who was commissioned to produce sumptuous portraits of the rich and famous. In recent years, the critical appraisal has tended to be kinder and the exhibition of his portraits of artists and friends that opened today at the National Portrait Gallery in London should see it sky-rocket. Sargent was prolific, but his work is by no means much of a muchness. Moreover, as this wonderful exhibition shows, his artistic sensibility, as well as his technique, evolved in fascinating ways throughout his life, the early part of which was spent wandering round Europe with his family;,later he had bases in America and London. As well as the formal representations of the great and the good there are sensitive pictures of struggling artists and other friends or characters who interested him, as well as evocative renditions of place. At one stage Sargent was clearly experimenting with Impressionism. His mural work — most spectacularly visible in Boston — is represented in the NPG show by photographs, which along with the concise but illuminating texts posted round the gallery help one to get a deeper understanding of the man and his diverse visions. In short, the exhibition is a triumph and is well worth a special expedition.

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The Theory of Everything

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th February, 2015

The Theory of EverythingWhen a film is tipped for the Oscars I often go to see it with a sense of dread that it won’t be as good as the critics say. And I confess that theoretical physics is about as far away from my comfort zone of interests as anything could be. So I was braced for disappointment, even boredom, when a friend persuaded me to accompany him to The Theory of Everything yesterday. But how wrong could I be! The true-life story of Stephen Hawking, his ground-breaking academic work, the physical effects of his motor neurone disease and the complex relationship that he had with his wife, make a compelling cocktail that is likely to lift any viewer through the whole gamut of emotions from tearful empathy to belly laughs. The setting of Cambridge University (even if a few liberties are taken by mixing views of different colleges) adds to the romanticism of the film, against which the physical deterioration of Dr Hawking is shockingly stark. James Marsh’s direction is masterful; I can think of few contemporary films that are so carefully measured and executed. The actors are remarkable, and none more so than Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. His performance is a tour de force. The film should sweep the BAFTAs and the Oscars, but even if it doesn’t, all those in involved in it can pride themselves on knowing they have produced an amazing movie that will linger in people’#s minds for a long time.

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Two Feisty LibDem Women for Tower Hamlets!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th February, 2015

Elaine BagshawTeena LashmoreThis evening Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrat members gathered at Oxford House in Bethnal Green to choose our two candidates for the general election in May, for the constituencies of Poplar & Limehouse (which I fought in 2010) and Bethnal Green & Bow (where Ajmal Masroor lifted the LibDems to second place last time). I’m pleased to say that both constituencies have chosen feisty women for May 2015, who will be able to strike a different note above the noise of the macho slug-fest in the borough between Labour and Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s “Tower Hamlets First”: Elaine Bahsaw (Poplar & Limehouse) and Teena Lashmore (Bethnal Green & Bow). Elaine both lives and works in Poplar & Limehouse and is well known within the Liberal Democrat party as a former Chair of Liberal Youth. Teena Lashmore works in Tower Hamlets and lives in the neighbouring inner London borough of Hackney, where she has been very active in the anti-racist group Hackney United. That has been a role model for community interaction in Britain, not least for the cooperation between the Jewish and Muslim communities (Hackney’s Cazenove ward notably has two Jewish councillors and one Muslim, all LibDems) and so her experience will be very useful in multicultural Tower Hamlets. Choosing two women candidates, including one from an ethnic minority, also means that London Liberal Democrats are starting to look more like the city where the party operates, which was an ambition I tried to promote when I was Chair of the region from 2010-2012.

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UK Misses the EU Boat — Again!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th February, 2015

Angela MerkelFrancois HollandeAngela Merkel and Francois Hollande are in Kiev today and tomorrow will move on to Moscow — all in aid of trying to mediate a peace deal between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels on Eastern Ukraine. They are to be congratulated for confronting head-on the most serious threat to security in the European Union’s neighbourhood since the Cold War. They are right to believe that the European Union should be pro-active in its commitment to peace and stability, not only within and between EU member states but in the neighbourhood as well. But where is Britain in all this, or more precisely David Cameron? The UK is a major player in NATO operations, but under Mr Cameron it has increasingly side-lined itself from EU activity. The Ukraine peace initiative would have been stronger with the involvement of the three most powerful member states: Britain, France and Germany. But once again, as so often over the past half century and more, the British government has left it up to a Franco-German alliance. David Cameron might claim to be too busy to drop everything to go to Ukraine and Russia, though Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande cleared their diaries for the trip. Besides, Mr Cameron had no problem dropping everything recently to go cap in hand to Riyadh, to pay his respects to the Saudi Royal family. No, what I fear is all to obvious is that the Prime Minister didn’t want to be seen as doing anything too ‘European’ out of fear of UKIP and his own Tory backbench MPs. So once again The UK has missed the boat at a crucial moment in the EU’s evolution. And Mr Cameron should hang his head in shame.

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London 4 Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd February, 2015

River ThamesEurope HouseLondon is without doubt Europe’s premier city, as well as being one of a handful of truly global cities. Its population has now topped 8.6 million and a third of the inhabitants were not even born in the UK, let alone in London. Immigration has been a large part of the secret of the UK capital’s success, including in recent years the inward migration of citizens of the 27 other EU member states, from France to Poland, Portugal to Greece. For Britain to leave the European Union would be a disaster for London, I believe, as many foreign businesses are here because it is a gateway to the rest of the EU, as well as having an attractive regulatory environment. So it is essential that there is a strong London voice to keep Britain in the EU, not least as there may be an IN/OUT referendum, in 2017 (according to PM David Cameron) or possibly even earlier. So I am delighted to be part of the relaunch of a London section of the European Movement — London 4 Europe — which will be campaigning hard to make the case for Europe, alongside the national European Movement, organisations such as British Influence and others. Earlier this evening I was elected a Vice-Chair of London4Europe, which will be operating on a cross-party basis, reaching out to voters and opinion-formers young and old. And even if the political parties may mainly be thinking in terms of national issues between now and the general election on 7 May, we will be helping to build a groundswell of opinion that will acknowledge the benefits of Britain’s EU membership and of cooperation with our European partners.

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Keep up the Pressure to Free Al Jazeera Journalists

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st February, 2015

Al Jazeera trialIt is great news that for once the rumours proved to be true and that Peter Greste, an Australian former colleague of mine at the BBC, currently employed by Al Jazeera, has indeed been released after 400 days in a Cairo jail. He is now returning home to join his family. However his Arab colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed still remain behind bars. Their only “crime” is that they were doing their job, reporting on events in Egypt at the time that President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. The trial was a travesty and although it got a lot of international media coverage thanks to my friend Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian and others, foreign governments did not do enough to pressure the Egyptians to release all the journalists. I fear that now the Egyptian government will revel in its perceived “humanity” in releasing and deporting the foreigner Peter, but we must not forget those who remain behind. Freedom of the media — and of expression generally — is under huge pressure right across the Middle East, including in countries that are seen as firm allies of the West. The moral authority of nations such as the UK and the United States can only thrive when it stands up for its liberal principles — which means London, Washington and other capitals need to be making clear that authoritarian regimes cannot expect political, financial and military support unless they respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

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Donizetti and Dementia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th January, 2015

Grosvenor ChapelDonizettiDementia is a growing problem in the UK as the population grows older, but at least there is a growing understanding of the needs of people with dementia and of their carers. It affects people from all walks of life, even the affluent burghers of Mayfair, which is why the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street runs a programme of Hymns and Pimms, occasions for those living with dementia or memory loss or who care for someone who does to come together for friendship, singing and refreshments in beautiful surroundings. Last night, the church hosted an Opera Gala, compered with camp good humour by Anthony Harris, and starring Ellie Edmonds, Samuel Pantcheff, Sophie Pullen and William Smith, with Elliott Launn on the piano. The group performed arias from opera, predominantly Mozart and Donizetti, the candlelit church proving to have excellent acoustics. Most of the repertoire was about love and intrigue, some of it quite saucy, and although the priest blanched somewhat when Sophie Pullen hung laundry on the edge of the pulpit in one extract, the spirit of fun clearly enthused the audience and several thousand pounds were raised to continue the church’s work with people with dementia and carers.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th January, 2015

Karel BaracsEvery year on Holocaust Memorial Day I go to a commemoration of some kind, usually at an embassy of one of the central or eastern European states, but this year was special — and not only because the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was being marked. Europe House, the London offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament, housed a remarkable show this evening: Why Tram 8 No Longer Runs. A monologue by the self-styled Story-teller of Amsterdam, Karel Baracs, with musical accompaniment, recounts the true story of how two young Dutch women — one Karel’s mother — managed to spirit 80 Jewish children out of a creche set up by the Nazis prior to their intended deportation and extermination, one or two at a time. In particular the narration focussed on the experience of a six-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother taken to safety to live on the farm of a gentile couple, with the active participation of a Jewish man who had been hiding in a basement in Amsterdam for months — and who after the War married Karel’s mother. As with all good storytelling, the facts only emerge gradually, amidst passages of suspense and moments of humorous relief. The tragic back-story is that most if not all of the parents of the rescued children did perish in concentration camps or under other dreadful conditions. There are bad guys among the Dutch, as well as heroes, in the story, as well as one good German soldier, who played a crucial role in ensuring the two infants and Karel’s father survived. These are the sort of stories that must never be forgotten, even as the last Holocaust survivors die out and it was a wonderful tribute, as well as a moving performance, to have a descendant keeping the flame of memory so brilliantly alive.

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