Mamdouh Habib: What Did Australia know ?

“Did Australia Know Habib was Being Tortured?

New Matilda 9th September 2009.

Sometime in early November 2001, a terrified and confused Australian man named Mamdouh Habib was taken from a Pakistani prison cell trussed in chains. Someone within the US administration or intelligence system had decided he needed a tougher than usual interrogation and he was forced aboard a CIA-operated jet bound for Egypt.

Egypt lived up to its reputation as home to one of the most brutal prison systems in the world.

Habib, a Bankstown-based father of four, says for the next five months he endured a myriad of horrors: suspended from the ceiling and beaten, shocked with electric prods (including on his genitals), forcibly injected with drugs, held in a flooded room with water up to his neck, deprived of sleep, and shackled in a cell so small he couldn’t stand. The “intelligence” produced from these efforts has long since been discarded as worthless and Habib has never been charged.

Nearly eight years on and still no one has been held accountable for this barbaric episode. In fact, authorities in both the United States and Australia are doing their best to make sure the details stay a secret.



Leave a comment

Filed under Investigative Journalism

The Social Investment Guide

In 2008 I teamed up with the Greenstone Group, a philanthropic advisory firm who created the  Social Investment Guide.  Effectively a “giving guide”,  it’s a tool for emerging philanthropists who are looking to invest in social change. The guide features 23 different projects from across Australia – all deemed worthy of funding.

We chose 2 of the projects for me to make a short film about. “The Healing Place”, is a project in Arnhem Land that addresses chronic health and well-being issues in a traditional way. “Boys to Men” is a program aimed at troubled young boys on the south coast of NSW.

Leave a comment

Filed under People and Places

Guam – The Tip of the Spear

“Guam – The Tip of the Spear”

Dateline, SBS Television. 21st May 2008

The tiny pacific island of Guam has been designated as the focal point for the United States military strategy in the Western Pacific; the so called “Tip of the Spear”. But with thousands of marines and military hardware about to descend upon Guam, some locals are worried that it will push already stretched public services to breaking point.



Up until now, tens of thousands of American troops have been based on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. But after rapes and other crimes by US servicemen, the angry response from the Japanese public has forced the US to look for an alternative base somewhere in the western Pacific. Enter the tiny western Pacific island of Guam. A US territory since the end of the Second World War, Guam is about to play host to the might of the US war machine. But can its indigenous people cope with what many of them regard as an invasion? Here’s Bronwyn Adcock. And please be warned you that Bronwyn’s report does contain some coarse language.

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

For generations, the people of Guam have felt the impact of outside military might. Since the 17th century, this small Pacific island has been captured by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese. It was retaken by the US at the end of the Second World War and remains a US territory. Today American military bases take up a third of the island. Now the people of Guam are again bracing for a massive military intrusion. America’s military planners have decided Guam will become a rapid-response platform in the Pacific. 8,000 marines and 9,000 family members will be transferred from Okinawa, Japan. There’ll be a huge build-up of military hardware, including new air force surveillance capabilities, the hosting of nuclear aircraft carriers and a ballistic missile defence task force.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the Vice-President of the United States.

On a visit to Guam last year, Vice-President Dick Cheney outlined the importance of the move for the United States.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT: By positioning forces on Guam the United States can move quickly and effectively to protect our friends, to defend our interest, to bring relief in times of emergency and to keep the sea lanes open to commerce and closed to terrorists. This island may be small but it has tremendous importance to the peace and security of the world.

Guam is strategically located for US influence in the Pacific. Some analysts say the move is a counter to Chinese military growth in the region. At one of Guam’s many tourist resorts, a cultural show by the indigenous people of Guam, the Chamorro, is under way. Years of colonisation have already diminished their numbers and the military build-up has raised fears that the Chamorro culture and population will be further diluted.

DEBBIE QUINATA: I think we as a people will become extinct, ’cause we’re certainly on the endangered species list.

Debbie Quinata is a Maga Haga, a female leader of the Chamorro. She’s not sure this tiny island of just 170,000 can cope with the military influx.

DEBBIE QUINATA: We have to be realistic. We are a very small island with limited resources, limited land space, for the love of Christ. I think the only thing that we are going to see with this build-up is a lot of misery.

At this informal meeting of Chamorros held at a local marina, a common theme is a sense of powerlessness. Guam is in a unique political situation – it’s an American territory but neither the citizens or their elected representatives have full voting rights on the US mainland.

MAN: We will never be able to have any type of sovereignty as far as governing ourselves, because that is in conflict with the US.

AL LIZAMA: It’s like in our house they don’t respect us.

Al Lizama fought for America in Vietnam and is deeply unhappy about what’s happening in his homeland.

AL LIZAMA: It’s just in the name that we are US citizens. But other than that we’re nothing. This is our island, this is our home. We have the fucking right to decide who’s to come into our island and all this, but no, fucking America treat us like fucking worse than slave and all that.

DEBBIE QUINATA: Not only were the people not consulted, I think the government officials are not consulted, they are…told.

Up at the Governor’s office in Guam local officials are scrambling to prepare for the military build-up – a decision they had no part of.

MICHAEL CRUZ, LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR OF GUAM: Have we estimated the number of available workers that we would have on Guam currently, or within the region?

It’s estimated an extra 20,000 workers will be needed for construction – at least 16,000 more than Guam can provide.

MICHAEL CRUZ: If we think it’s all going to be coming from the Philippines, there’s already a lot… there’s significant competition with other areas such as in the Middle East and Dubai area that’s..

Lieutenant Governor Michael Cruz is a Chamorro and a committed patriot who’s served for the US in Iraq. He is welcoming the military build-up, but is wary of the impact on locals.

MICHAEL CRUZ: A magnitude increase of 25%, which is about 40,000 people, moving into our island in less than a decade will prove to be a significant challenge to our infrastructure, to our environment and through all the issues of life that affect our people.

The costs for the military build-up have been flagged at US$15 billion, but that’s all money to be spent inside the military bases. The Governor’s office is lobbying to get help for the community outside the fence line.

MICHAEL CRUZ: This is a decision made many, many echelons above us as a people here in Guam. But being patriotic Americans we welcome and we are happy to be a part of the tip of the spear. But since this was national policy, there should be a national commitment towards 170,000 American citizens that live outside the fence line here.

Outside the bases, Guam is not a wealthy place. Around 25% of the population live below the poverty line. With thousands of workers and their dependants set to descend upon Guam, there are real fears that already-stretched public services like health and education just won’t cope. In this classroom at a local primary school, the air-conditioning is broken. As with all classrooms at this school there’s only one computer – usually out-of-date hand-me-downs from the military schools.

DERRICK SANTOS, SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: When they are obsolete with them, they give it to us, and we try and make use of it as much as possible. Yeah, Uncle Sam, they got everything, they got all the money, they don’t have to worry about getting their pay cheques late.

According to Union figures, students here in the public system have $US3,000 a year spent on their education, while inside the base it’s $12,000 a year. This school is so strapped for cash that kids are rarely allowed to take home books, because if they’re not returned they can’t be replaced.

LINDA: The teachers have to use their own money to purchase items, like there is not Xerox machine – excuse me, no Xerox papers, so we have to purchase the Xerox papers. We need tissues. Children have runny nose, so we request for tissues as well. Right now we don’t have any paper towels here.

As part of the militray build-up more schools will be built on-base. Principal Derrick Santos is worried this means he’ll lose even more teachers to the military schools.

DERRICK SANTOS: Payment is one. Number two, they get supplies, materials, number three, they get support, their equipment doesn’t break down. The financial situation with the military is always there. We don’t have that kind of support, it’s not priority.

To add to his concerns, Derrick Santos is expecting extra enrolments as workers and their families start arriving on Guam. But so far there’s no commitment for any extra cash.

DERRICK SANTOS: If we don’t get any more money to help maintain our facilities, get the equipments we need, get the supplies we need, get the proper number of teachers we’re gonna need, there’s no way we can sustain the influx.

The future of Guam is being decided here in Washington DC. Retired major general David Bice is in charge of the Joint Guam program office. He says that while he can’t guarantee any money outside the fence line, it is a defence responsibility to help find solutions.

GENERAL BICE, RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL: It is our role, because we recognise that Guam is a small place, it’s a small island, and we want this to be good not just for Department of Defense, but we want this to be successful for the people of Guam.

Debbie Quinata, however, is sceptical that enough will ever be done to break down what she calls the 2-tier system.

DEBBIE QUINATA: The military and the federal government has managed to create two completely different classes of people and it really truly is us and them. You have housing that is available on base that is extremely luxurious, very self-contained little community, with everything from McDonald’s that are built on people’s family land, making money off of our population, all the way to right at the gates where they have every facility, every resource available.

GENERAL BICE: With the US military presence coming in, the 8,000 marines alone are going to be bringing in an annual payroll of about US$300 million.

Local business groups are welcoming the build-up and the price of real-estate is already on the rise. But some believe this surge in housing prices is indicative of how locals will be left behind.

DEBBIE QUINATA: It will be beyond the reach of the local wage earner, it truly will be.

Public meetings about the build-up have been well attended. Major General Bice has been coming to Guam to listen to the views of the people.

MAN: You said, this is the largest military build-up in the history of the United States, and you’re going to bring it to the littlest? Can we get some sense there?

GENERAL BICE: I certainly understand the anxieties and frustrations expressed by Guam’s elected officials and the public.

General Bice says Washington is listening to the locals. However, Guam senator Judith Won Pat, who’s followed the debate, says there’s a strong feeling that the military is just paying lip service.

JUDITH WON PAT, SENATOR: Sure they may come, they may listen, but it doesn’t go anywhere, because the military’s mission comes first, before the people in the community, that’s how I feel. And I know a lot of the grassroot people feel the same way.

The people of Guam have a long history of serving in America’s wars. It’s this history of patriotism that has some believing the US will look after Guam and not allow the military build-up to destroy the island.

MICHAEL CRUZ: But we think that as good patriotic Americans that as we continue our efforts will be rewarded.

REPORTER: You don’t have any more than the power of persuasion, though, do you?

MICHAEL CRUZ: It goes along way, though. That’s in part why the marines are leaving Japan, that’s in part why the military had to leave Viacas over in Porto Rico, so at the end of the day I think that power of persuasion will come into play if we need it.

DEBBIE QUINATA: We are a strategic location, a possession, a bounty of war, and they will do exactly what they want to do when they want to do it and how they want to do it. And if we don’t like it, I think that’s just tough.





Original Music composed by

1 Comment

Filed under People and Places

Japan’s Legal Revolution

“Japan’s Legal Revolution”

Dateline, SBS Television. 7th May 2008

The jury system is something that most Australians, Americans and Britons take for granted. But for the Japanese its introduction into their legal system is  something of a revolution that’s challenging a culture where “speaking your mind” is not always valued. Proponents hope it will go some way to strengthening justice in a country that has an incredibly high conviction rate – over 99%.



REPORTER: Bronwyn Adock

Hiroshi Yanagihara lives with the stigma of being convicted and jailed for
sexual assault.

HIROSHI YANAGIHARA (Translation): I was in jail for two years and one month. When I was released on parole I felt people looking at me coldly. Even after I started working I felt my colleagues whispering, “He’s been in prison.” So I didn’t last long at work.

But Yanagihara did not commit any crime. Rather, he was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. His is a disturbingly common story, according to some Japanese defence lawyers.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA, LAWYER (Translation) He was one of the luckier cases. In these cases the truth is revealed. But there are cases in which the wrong man is accused while the real culprit does not come forward.

REPORTER: Did you ever see people go to the gallows who you thought were perhaps not guilty?

SATORU SHINOMIYA, DEFENCE LAWYER: I believe so, I believe so.

After he was released from jail Hiroshi Yanagihara left his home town, but agrees to revisit it to tell me his story. This is Himi, on Japan’s northern coast. In 2002, two women here were sexually assaulted. One helped police draw a picture of her attacker. The image apparently resembled Yanagihara. One day six policemen turned up here, where he worked as a taxi driver.

HIROSHI YANAGIHARA (Translation): Suddenly they surrounded me. They called my name and showed their police IDs. They didn’t ask me anything or explain anything but forcibly took me to the station.

Here at the police station Yanagiraha was held for two days and interrogated for up to 12 hours at a time.

HIROSHI YANAGIHARA (Translation): When I said, “I didn’t do it,” they said, “Don’t lie, you did it.” They kept saying that. This continued and I asked them to call a lawyer for me. They said it wasn’t necessary to call a lawyer.

In Japan, police can hold a suspect for up to 23 days without charge, with only limited access to a lawyer. After days of gruelling, repetitive interrogation, Yanagihara says the room suddenly heated up.

HIROSHI YANAGIHARA (Translation): I got very hot… My mind became foggy. I couldn’t bear the heat any more. I fainted once in the interrogation room. They said, “Your mother is crying.” Then they said my sisters were saying I’d done it and left me to the police. They said this again and again. It made me think my family had given up on me.

Based solely on his forced confession, this court found Yanagihara guilty. Only after he served his jail time did another man admit to committing the crime, and Yanagihara’s name was officially cleared. Lawyer Shunkichi Takayama says it’s not unusual in Japan for suspects to be placed under intense pressure to confess.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA (Translation): I would say it happens very frequently. The pressure may not be beating and kicking, it’s more psychological. But it’s almost as effective at stopping him from saying what he really thinks.

According to defence lawyers, these forced confessions are usually accepted as evidence by judges. They complain that judges are too keen to convict. Takayama knows each time he heads off to court he’ll almost certainly lose.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA (Translation): It appears as though everyone is treated equally. But in practice a decision has already been made. The decision is ‘guilty’. The procedure is carried out only to make it look fair. The court has become a mere formality.

The conviction rate inside Japanese court rooms is incredibly high. Once charged, there’s a more than 99% chance of being found guilty.

SATORU SHINOMIYA: I handled many, many criminal cases, and some of them my client was not guilty because of the so-called reasonable doubts on the evidence, and I tried to persuade the professional judges, but no-one was persuaded.

Satoru Shinomiya is a leading criminal defence lawyer and professor. Like most of his colleagues, he’s rarely won a case in his entire career and he blames the attitude of judges.

SATORU SHINOMIYA: I was talking to the wall, because they were not interested in my argument and they never make question on me about the case, even the contested death penalty case.

Critics of Japanese justice are now pinning their hopes on the introduction of the biggest legal reform in Japanese history.

MOCK TRIAL OFFICIAL (Translation): I’ll say, “Stand up,” the moment the door opens. So please stand up. The judge will bow before you are allowed to sit down. Bow to the judge and sit down.

Early next year, a jury system is set to be introduced into Japanese court rooms. Across the country authorities are preparing by running mock trials like this one.

MOCK TRIAL OFFICIAL (Translation): At approximately 8pm on June 30, 2007, the accused attacked Yone Sugiura, aged 88, by pushing her backwards and knocking her down.

The proposed Japanese jury system is distinctly different to the Western system. While in the West the jury is separate to the judge, here the six jurors will sit alongside and deliberate with three judges. In today’s exercise the accused is charged with assault and theft. Advocates of the new system, called Saiban-in, have great hopes in the ability of lay people to restore some credibility to the judicial system.

SATORU SHINOMIYA: If we defence lawyers can succeed in persuading them just do the right thing, they will follow the law. The law will say to them acquit the defendant if you have reasonable doubt.

Defence lawyer Takashi Takano believes that citizens could put an end to courts accepting forced confessions.

TAKASHI TAKANO, DEFENCE LAWYER: I believe that Japanese ordinary people don’t believe the idea that even after 30 hours of custodial interrogation police can get voluntary confession.

REPORTER: So you think ordinary people will be more sceptical of these confessions?

TAKASHI TAKANO: They don’t need to be sceptical to reject those kinds of confessions. Do you believe that people can to be voluntary after 30 hours of interrogation?

The new system is striking fear into the hearts of many Japanese. Opinion polls show the vast majority do not support it and do not want to serve as jurors.

ROBERT PRECHT, US DEFENCE LAWYER: This is not just a legal reform, this is in many ways a cultural reform, or some people might even say, revolution.

Robert Precht is an American criminal defence lawyer. He’s been visiting Japan regularly for the past two years, holding workshops and meetings about the new system. He thinks Japanese are nervous because the whole concept behind a jury system is at odds with mainstream attitudes.

ROBERT PRECHT: For Americans and for Australians and for citizens of the UK a jury system is almost second nature to us because we’ve been taught from an early age that it’s healthy to distrust the government. So we view the jury system as an essential feature of our democracy in that it protects us from the government. But what’s striking to me is distrust of the government is not a widespread attitude here in Japan. Indeed most citizens, I’m told, trust the government.

For citizens to suddenly take on the role of being a watchdog on the state is a huge step.

ROBERT PRECHT: So this new system really is asking Japanese to behave in a new way and to become new citizens. And so it goes much further than simply how do we decide guilt or innocence in a particular case. The real significance is how do we, remake citizens into a more active, less passive group of people who will not just be led by government but will ultimately tell the government what to do.

MAN IN THEATRE GROUP (Translation): He was having an affair with another woman. You didn’t want to be kicked out. You loved him too much. The love turned to hatred.

WOMAN IN THEATRE GROUP (Translation): How could killing my husband make me happy? We have children together.

In a small town a few hours north of Tokyo a community theatre group is rehearsing for its latest production. It’s based on the true story of a woman falsely accused of killing her husband.

WOMAN IN THEATRE GROUP (Translation): Detective, you can’t frame me by making it look like that, because I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it!

The director and star is 73-year-old Fukiko Kimura, a veteran of Japanese theatre. A keen supporter of the Saiban-in system, Fukiko’s timed this play to coincide with its introduction.

FUKIKO KIMURA, DIRECTOR, (Translation): In Japan, judgment has been a matter for the authorities. We’ve been apathetic about justice. We watch court cases as if they were TV variety shows. When the jury system begins we’ll have to participate. We’ll have to learn what to watch out for.

Fukiko is concerned that ingrained cultural beliefs will make it difficult for Japanese jurors to speak their minds.

FUKIKO KIMURA, (Translation): In Japan we traditionally place an emphasis on harmony. In our culture we try not to stand out. We listen to others as much as possible and agree with everyone else. The great poet Basho wrote in his famous haiku, “If I speak out, my lips are chilled by the autumn wind.” If you don’t say anything, no trouble is caused.

Fukiko Kimura and others fear that these problems could be exacerbated by the unique structure of the Japanese jury system that places judges and jurors together. This requires citizens to potentially speak up against someone higher in the social hierarchy.

FUKIKO KIMURA, (Translation): We citizens have long accepted the idea, “The power above, the people below.” The officials are placed high and we’re below them. For ages that’s the way we’ve been mind-controlled.

ROBERT PRECHT: I was at a program a couple of weeks ago involving Japanese college students, and one said, “I am looking forward to deliberations, but frankly, if I had an opinion that the defendant was innocent and then the judge expressed his opinion that the defendant was guilty, even though I thought the defendant was innocent, I would have to follow the judge because the judges knows more than me, the judge is older than I am.”

In Fukiko’s play, a true story, the accused woman is convicted based on forced testimony. She dies in jail before her name is cleared. Fukiko Kimura hopes watching plays like this will encourage potential jurors to speak their mind.

FUKIKO KIMURA, (Translation): To save an innocent person we must speak out. I hope people will realise this and change their attitude. I’m really hoping for that.

Back at the mock trial, the young man accused of assaulting and robbing an old lady has failed to provide an alibi or an explanation for the money found on him. Nevertheless, there’s still no hard evidence he was at the scene. Before the jury retires, the judge outlines the case.

MOCK TRIAL JUDGE, (Translation): There’s no dispute that the attacker was a young man in a white, long-sleeved T-shirt. What’s disputed in this case is whether the attacker was the accused or not.

Inside the jury room, conversation is initially dominated by the three judges who sit at the head of the table and the male members of the jury. Eventually, some of the women jurors admit they’re finding it difficult because they were afraid to ask questions during the trial.

WOMAN, (Translation): I would’ve asked that. But I thought the judge might use his power to stop me and say that my question was irrelevant. Wouldn’t it have been embarrassing? I thought I’d hate it if I were corrected like that.

The jurors are clearly undecided about the verdict.

MAN, (Translation): After hearing the case today, we have nothing to base a verdict on but circumstantial evidence. On this evidence, the accused seems guilty and we’re moving in that direction. But we’re judging a person. The case is unclear and we’re meant to make a decision.

The chief judge suggests that the vague evidence of the accused is an indication of guilt.

MOCK TRIAL JUDGE (Translation): If the accused was telling us what really happened, would we be left with these doubts? It’s the vagueness that’s the problem.

Eventually all jurors agree on a guilty verdict. Afterwards, the juror who admitted to not speaking up says with a bit more practice she could do it in a real trial.

JUROR, (Translation): I think I could. It’s my responsibility to express my opinion. It’s the way I live my life. With my personality, I would speak up.

Another juror says he relished the chance to finally be involved in such a process.

JUROR 2, (Translation): In the past, I’d say there were no opportunities at all or very few except for the people in high positions. Now it’s open to ordinary people.

LAWYER: I want to talk to you about the purpose of an opening statement.

It’s not just civilians who need new skills, though. Until now, Japanese court cases have largely been decided on written evidence. American trial lawyers are training Japanese lawyers in the arts of presenting a case to the jury.

LAWYER: You have to remember we want to have drama and immediately capture their idea in their head that you are right.

Observers say this new dynamic will fundamentally alter the nature of the trial.

ROBERT PRECHT: For the last 60 years, trials – criminal trials in Japan have basically been non-adversarial in the sense that cases are largely decided on the basis of written records submitted by the prosecutors to the judges, and there has been very little role for defence counsel either to challenge the evidence or to complain about police misconduct. But with this new system with live witnesses and police coming to court and having to argue your case in front of citizens, the whole prosecution process will become more visible to citizens and if there is misconduct that will be more visible.

Not everyone has faith in the new jury system. This meeting is of legal professionals opposed to Saiban-in. Their spokesman is lawyer Shunkichi Takayama, an outspoken critic of the current judicial system.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA (Translation): If it were a sick person, I’d say it’s in a critical condition. Because the human rights of the accused are not protected and it’s producing a great number of wrong decisions, declaring the innocent guilty.

But Takayama says the Saiban-in system is little more than window dressing, covering up but not fixing these problems.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA (Translation): The new system will not change the situation. Worse than that, it will give publicity to the misleading impression that there are no problems in the current situation.

According to Takayama, because the judges and the jurors sit and deliberate together, the judges’ views in Japan will always prevail.

SHUNKICHI TAKAYAMA (Translation): The citizens are not allowed to reach a conclusion alone. They’re made to listen attentively to the views of the judges, who are professionals. They’re expected to learn how the pros think about it and then go home. There’s no idea that the state could be wrong. So the idea behind the Saiban-in system is totally different from that of the jury system.

ROBERT PRECHT: There is frankly no evidence that jury systems – whether it is the Saiban-in system or the American and Australian jury system – there is no evidence that jury systems produce better or more accurate fact-finding than professional judges, so I don’t know whether the new system will lead to fewer miscarriages of justice. However, I can say with some confidence that since the trial process is more transparent, with live witnesses, that where there are miscarriages of justice they will be visible now, and hopefully correctable, whereas under the current system, where a lot of these cases are decided by written records, miscarriages of justice go unnoticed.

Hiroshi Yanagihara, jailed for two years for a crime he didn’t commit, is sceptical that the introduction of lay people will make the judicial system any fairer.

HIROSHI YANAGIHARA (Translation): The police and the prosecutors, they fabricate statements and make it look like it’s what the suspect said. The court just swallows it. Unless we stop that, innocent people will continue to be convicted.





Local Fixer


Original Music composed by

Leave a comment

Filed under People and Places

Gunning for Iran – the Mujahedin-e-Khalq

“Gunning for Iran”

Dateline, SBS Television. 11th April 2006

This story looks at the shadowy Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e-Khalk, (MeK), and their role in publicizing so called intelligence “revelations” about Iran’s nuclear program.  The MeK is considered a terrorist organization and a cult by many, yet powerful figures in Washington DC are seemingly prepared to work with them.


11th April 2006.

You must’ve heard the howls of protest from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the release of a US House of Representatives report on Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA branded the American report “outrageous and dishonest” for asserting that Tehran’s nuclear plans were geared towards weapons. This, of course, was just the latest flare-up in the running debate over Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. So where is Washington getting its information?

Try an Iranian opposition group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq – MeK for short. Given the debacle over Saddam’s non-existent WMDs in Iraq, you’d reckon there’d have to be a touch of caution where Iranian exiles peddling nuclear secrets are concerned. But as Bronwyn Adcock tells it, when the MeK speaks, Washington hardliners listen.

Three weeks ago in New York, journalists were summoned to this hotel for a press conference. It has been organised by this man – Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who regularly reveals what he claims is inside information on Iran’s nuclear program.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH, MUJAHEDIN-E-KHALQ LOBBYIST: I would like to share with you today the information I’ve gotten from the very same sources that have proven accurate in the past.

Today, Jafarzadeh announces he’s discovered an apparently sinister new development.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: A very important aspect of the Iran regime’s nuclear weapons program is actually laser enrichment, and the information I’ve gotten from my sources today suggests that Iran is heavily involved in laser enrichment program.

As always, the information is incredibly detailed, with maps, names and addresses. Since 2002, Jafarzadeh and the Iranian opposition group he’s connected to, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MeK, have made nearly 20 intelligence revelations, in press conferences from Paris to New York, Washington and London.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: And they are scheduled to be able to get the bomb by 2005.

The MeK revelations have had an extraordinary impact, sparking inspections in Iran by the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the MeK, Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and the world should be very afraid.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: I think the world has to take the Iranian regime’s threat very, very seriously. These ayatollahs believe in what they say, believe that they can eliminate Israel off the map, they can eliminate the superpowers.

According to this Iranian opposition group, there is only one solution.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: You need to slay the dragon. This is the solution. You need to slay the dragon, which means regime change.

The MeK is playing a key role in what’s shaping up as one of the critical contests of our time – the stand-off between the US and Iran, played out here at the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH AT UN: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

AHMADINEJAD, IRAN PRESIDENT AT UN, (Translation): All our nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful and fully overseen by the IAEA

CROWD: Down with terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with terrorist!

Outside the United Nations that day Alireza Jafarzadeh and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, are again trying to get their opinion heard.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Obtaining the bomb, the nuclear bomb would unquestionably give Tehran the upper hand in the region.

And some powerful forces in the West are listening. The MeK’s main backer in Washington is a newly formed think tank called the Iran Policy Committee, headed by a former Reagan White House official, Professor Raymond Tanter.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER, IRAN POLICY COMMITTEE: The regime change clock has to start. Right now, the regime change clock is not even ticking.

In the Iran Policy Committee, Professor Tanter has created a powerful grouping of former CIA, Pentagon and White House officials. At forums like this briefing on Capitol Hill, the group is trying to convince the American Government that the MeK can help them achieve the goal of regime change.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We didn’t choose the Mujahedin-e-Khalq. The data hit us between the eyes. The analysis passes what I call ‘the interocular test’ – it hits you right between the eyes. I invented that phrase.

CROWD (Translation): Ahmadinejad terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with the terrorist!

But for some, the sight of exile groups bearing gifts of intelligence for the West just brings back bad memories.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK, COLOMBIA UNIVERSITY: In the past, on Iraq, we were fed a lot of false information to try to get our attention and to get us to do what we did. We bought it, and I have a very hard time understanding how anybody can maintain a straight face and say, “Again,” we should do the same thing all over again.

Professor Gary Sick has served on the National Security Council under three presidents. He was the principle White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and has followed the country closely ever since. He’s extremely sceptical about the MeK.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: When people get enthusiastic about this, I just have to look at the history of the organisation, the way it’s behaved, the way it’s done all of the things that it’s done, and I simply can’t see it, I really can’t see it. I find it very difficult to explain why people would get so enthusiastic about this group.

The MeK does have an extraordinary history. A militant left-wing movement, it participated in the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. But afterwards, when the ayatollahs took power, the MeK began fighting the new regime.
It carried out bombings that killed senior Islamic leaders, and many of its members were executed.
In the 1980s it moved its military base to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From here at Camp Ashraf it launched attacks across the border, and successfully carried out assassinations and bombings within Iran. The MeK’s military heyday has long since passed. Less than 3,000 fighters remain in a camp now guarded by Americans. What’s more, the group’s often violent past has left it officially listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States, the European Union and Australia.
The real action for the MeK now is in the West, where a bevy of lobbyists is operating, including Ali Safavi here in London. Safavi has devoted most of his adult life to the MeK struggle. Now he’s working to get the group taken off the terrorist list. His office located around the corner from parliament.

ALI SAFAVI, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN: And obviously the office is very close so that it would be more convenient, both for us and for them.

Being listed as a terrorist organisation stands between the MeK and real political credibility. Safavi claims the group was only put on the list by governments trying to win favour with Iran.

ALI SAFAVI: It has nothing to do with the nature, with the conduct, or the activities of the Mujahedin. It is basically a bargaining chip.

Ali Safavi is trying to convince the West of the apparently impressive democratic credentials of the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI.

ALI SAFAVI: The NCRI basically advocates a secular, democratic form of government, a government that is based on the separation of church and the state or mosque and state, if you will.

Leading the concerted charm offensive is the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, who’s based in Paris. She’s offering up an enticing proposition to the West.

MARYAM RAJAVI, (Translation): Today I’ve come to tell you that the international community doesn’t have to choose between mullahs with an atomic bomb and war. A third way exists. A democratic change by the Iranian people and organised resistance.

Maryam Rajavi says if the MeK is just taken off the terrorist list, it will be a sign for the people of Iran to rise up and overthrow their government. It’s this proposition that’s winning support with the Iran Policy Committee in Washington and in parliaments around the West.
Here at the European Parliament, British Conservative MP Brian Binley tells a group of MeK supporters that the majority of the House of Commons and 130 members in the House of Lords are behind the group.

BRIAN BINLEY, BRITISH CONSERVATIVE MP: Because they are the antithesis of the dictatorial fundamentalists that rule in modern-day Iran today, and, indeed, the very antithesis of a regime that I believe poses the greatest threat to global security that we face as a global people.

Binlay was converted to the cause after being approached by an MeK supporter in the halls of Parliament.

BRIAN BINLEY: I met with a gentleman called Nasser, who is a supporter of the National Council, and we talked. And he works in and around the House, as a lobbyist, I suppose you would say. And we talked, and I liked what he had to say, and, more importantly, what he had to say seemed credible in the way that I’ve just explained.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: These are people who really believe that Iran…the regime should be changed, that this regime of mullahs should be done away with. And you look around, and you don’t see any other place where you can put a lever. And I must say for the Mujahedin, to give them full credit, they are very good at their propaganda.

According to Gary Sick, the MeK’s origins at the time of the revolution were anything but democratic.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: There, too, they weren’t talking about democracy, they were talking about power, and who took over. And there was certainly no sign from where I sat in the White House that these people were in any way trying to bring democracy to Iran. They were trying to get rid of the group that had taken over and install themselves in power. And I think that pretty well describes what they’ve been doing ever since.

Massoud Khodabeanedeh says that the MeK is not only undemocratic but that internally, it operates like a cult. Now living in the United Kingdom, Khodabeanedeh was a high-level member for more than 15 years.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH, FORMER MEK MEMBER: They have a charismatic leader, they use psychological methods to convince people and keep people. Their wealth is always serving the leader, not the people. They try to get the money out of the people and keep it. They cut people from their past, their family. They are very restrictive in that way. There is Maryam and Massoud and me, as his bodyguard.

Khodabeanedeh worked as security for the MeK’s leadership in Iraq but left after becoming disenchanted. He is now one of the most outspoken critics of the organisation.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Later on it came to these sessions of self-confession, which again, is a cult… every cult has got it – which you have to come, and every day come to the meeting, explain what you have been thinking about, or what even you have been dreaming about, and even if you don’t have, they will hint that you have to lie, you have to make up something. So the collective pressure would be on you and they purify you.

REPORTER: So all women wore headscarves?

ANNE: Yeah. It was a part of the uniform. It was actually the uniform.

Massoud Khodabanedeh’s wife, Anne, was also a member for seven years, inspired to join by an Iranian boyfriend and an interest in Islam.

ANNE: I became full-time in 1990. After going on hunger strike for two weeks, I was on a real high and I devoted myself to them. And that devotion was encouraged, and I was told at some point fairly early on that all you have to do is choose your leader and follow that leader. And you don’t have to make any decisions. And that leader, of course, was Maryam Rajavi.

Both Anne and Massoud say that in order to encourage devotion to the leadership family relationships were discouraged.

ANNE: When it actually comes to being a liberating movement for women, I would say just the opposite pertains, that they forced women to separate from their children, forced women to divorce their spouse, they forced them to give up any thought of having a normal family life and family relationship. Even relationships with their siblings in the same organisation are, well, banned really. You might meet them but you can’t be a sibling, you can’t show more closeness to them you would show to Maryam Rajavi.

The MeK leadership totally rejects these allegations and accuses Massoud Khodabanedeh of being on the payroll of Iranian intelligence. A charge he in turn denies. An even more serious allegation, though, concerns the group’s relationship with Saddam Hussein during its 15 years in Iraq. This recently revealed footage shows Massoud Rajavi, the husband of Maryam and co-leader of the MeK, with the former Iraqi dictator.

ALI SAFAVI: The Mujahedin were forced to relocate in Iraq, and in the years they were in Iraq, from 1986 onwards, they were completely independent of their host, both in political terms, in ideological terms, in organisational terms and in military terms.

REPORTER: So there was no collaboration between the Mujahedin and Saddam?

ALI SAFAVI: Absolutely not.

However, many sources, including the US State Department dispute this, saying Iraq supplied the MeK with weapons and received military assistance from the Iranian exiles. Former member Massoud Khodabanedeh says that after the first Gulf War in 1991 Saddam’s security chief, Taha Yassin Ramadan, asked the MeK to help suppress the Kurds.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: The way that it was done, I remember that in the meetings with Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was in favour of Mujahedin, and who very much praised the Mujahedin for their loyalty. He divided the forces because he didn’t have much forces after the war in ’91, so he had only enough to suppress the uprising in the south, so he left the north in hands of Rajavi.

Massoud says he saw first-hand a Kurdish village that had been destroyed by the Mujahedin.

REPORTER: What happened to the village?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: It was just flattened down, the whole village. Villages in Iraq are small villages, and with say 20 tanks, you can see what damage can be done. But it was deliberately flattened.

REPORTER: And this was done by the Mujahedin?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: By the Mujahedin. They were there when I was passing the tanks and victoriously celebrating.

Massoud also says that during his time with the MeK its members were fed a diet of anti-imperialist and anti-American propaganda. He believes now they’re trying to reinvent themselves for a new, Western benefactor.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Especially when they went to Iraq, they didn’t see that one day Saddam would fall so they have openly been anti-Western all the years that they were there relying on Saddam. Any democratic face that they put is a false face.

REPORTER: Why do you think they are putting on this false face now?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: There is no other choice. After Saddam falls, there is no other choice.

The MeK denies this aspect of its past. It says that anyone making such allegations is being either directly or indirectly influenced by Iranian intelligence.

ALI SAFAVI: It is far more than a bit of a propaganda campaign. In fact the Iranian regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars engaging in propaganda.

In Washington, the MeK’s main American backers also reject any criticism.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We are familiar with all the allegations and we have looked at all these allegations and we have found them to be baseless. And we’re smart, we’re not idiots. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University and I think I can tell whether a person is saying something to dupe me. And Human Rights Watch and various others who say the MeK and NCRI are changing their face in order to appeal to groups like the Iran Policy Committee haven’t done their research.

While the MeK and their supporters say they’ve nothing in its history to be ashamed of, experts say that’s not how it’s viewed in its homeland.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: They are certainly despised, there’s no two ways about that. They are seen as turncoats, they are seen as traitors, people who joined Iran’s enemies to try to overthrow the government.

For a group claiming it can make the Iranian population rise up and overthrow the government, this apparent lack of internal legitimacy is a major problem.

REPORTER: How much support do you have in Iran, in numbers?

ALI SAFAVI: Well, you know that our movement from day one has called for free elections under UN supervision. I think if such an election were held, without question… our movement would get most of the votes.

DOHKI FASSIHIAN: The claim that the MeK would actually win any support or win any elections inside Iran is really preposterous.

Dokhi Fassihian is the former executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan group. She spent much of the 1990s in Iran and knows the political scene well.

DOHKI FASSIHIAN: In fact they are hated and detested in Iran because of their role in siding with the Iraqis in the very, very long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. And so, I would say that even more so than Iranian Americans, Iranians inside Iran really do hate the MeK and really don’t understand why some governments and some officials abroad can support such an undemocratic group and such a violent group.

Political credentials aside, the strongest claim the MeK has on Western attention is its intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.

REPORTER: How good are your sources, your intelligence from Iran?

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Well, the intelligence is the best that exists anywhere. The best track record in terms of intelligence regarding Iran comes from the sources of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the NCRI. It wasn’t the intelligence community of the US, or Britain, or other Western countries that discovered Natanz.

The MeK’s biggest claim to fame has been its revelation in 2002 that Iran had a secret nuclear site at a place called Natanz. After the announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency confronted Iran and Iran opened the site for inspection.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: So I think the Iranian opposition group, what they did, their real contribution was to start a chain of events where Iran had to admit that it had its secret gas centrifuge program and other secret nuclear programs, and help get the IAEA into Iran to start uncovering a whole set of misleading statements or hidden facilities in Iran. This building was sized to hold 1,000 centrifuges, but could actually hold more.

David Albright is a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. He’s an expert on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world. While he credits the MeK with bringing Natanz to the world’s attention, the site was not in breech of the Non-Proliferation treaty. Albright also says later revelations have not proven as useful.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Since then, their record has been a lot more mixed and a lot of revelations about things going on, related to making nuclear weapons. IAEA went to one place and found nothing. There was some equipment that was imported, they said it was related to nuclear weapons. It turned out on analysis it wasn’t even suitable for use on a nuclear weapons program. So I think that you have to read beyond the detail and try to make sense out of it, and often it doesn’t make any, or it’s just speculation.

Dateline also understands that the IAEA has examined much of the intelligence provided by the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI, and while it agrees several early claims were on target, the rest have been unreliable.

REPORTER: All their revelations paint a picture of Iran having an incredibly advanced nuclear weapons program. Would you agree with that assessment?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s relative to what? I mean, compared to Iraq, which had nothing, yeah, it’s quite advanced. Are they close to building a bomb? Most assessments, including our own, are that no, they are not.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: No-one knows whether the revelations are true so how can one make a statement that the NCRI-MeK revelations are off? Intelligence people say this, but they don’t back it up. Because journalists don’t do a good job in querying them. “What is your evidence?” “Oh, I can’t say.” Hello, that’s not right.

REPORTER: But by the same token, if the NCRI holds a press conference saying, “Look we’ve got these documents, we know this information,” and there’s nothing else to back it up, how can you be sure that’s true?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Look, intelligence is an art. What you need is to use the NCRI-MeK allegations as lead information, which you compare with info you acquire independently.

REPORTER: But if revelations are being made, and they’re not proven, and they’re put out there in the media and put out there as a case for regime change, and they’re not actually substantiated, isn’t that alarmist?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: How do you prove revelations with a totalitarian Islamist fascist regime?

The MeK knows that hardliners in Washington are desperate for any information that will confirm their suspicions of Iran.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: So if the MeK is trying to get credibility as a group that the US should cooperate with in trying to overthrow the regime, focusing on the nuclear side is an absolutely logical place for them to focus, so I don’t blame them for doing that. I think that’s an area that is going to attract attention, it’s going to get them a following, and it will attract the attention of people in Washington.

According to former member Massoud Khodabanedeh, the MeK is just trying to stay alive.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: They want to survive. They are saying, “Take us off.” The end game is “Take us off the list of terrorism and use us.”

And in a clear convergence of interests, Professor Tanter from the Iran Policy Committee is happy to help.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not a lobbyist for the MeK and the NCRI, I’m a lobbyist for America, which is different. You keep asking me questions which imply that I am trying to push the MeK on to people.

REPORTER: But you are promoting their cause, you’re trying to get them off…

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not promoting their cause, I am promoting American interests. There is a difference.

REPORTER: You’re not suggesting they are necessarily a good replacement government, you are saying rather they are a good tool for Western interests?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: That’s what you asked me, they are a tool for Western interests, yes. They are accused of being a tool of Western interests by the regime. It’s true!

REPORTER: And they are a tool for Western interests?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Yes! They want to be a part of the West.

1 Comment

Filed under Investigative Journalism, Iran

Inner Mongolia – A Land Without Water

“Inner Mongolia – A Land Without Water”

Dateline, SBS Television. 13th February 2008

Inner Mongolia is on the front line of climate change. Already one of the driest regions in China, it is now getting progressively drier and the lack of water  is forcing entire villages to shut down. People are moving en masse to specially set up “ecological migration” villages closer to town, forcing a radical change in life upon them. However a few stubborn souls are refusing to budge.



If you’re unfamiliar with the term ecological migration, you’re not alone. Basically, it means people being forced off their land by climate change. Recently, Bronwock Adcock ventured into the seldom-visited hills and valleys of rural Inner Mongolia where she found their wells have run dry and the locals struggling to maintain their traditional way of life.

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Inner Mongolia is one of China’s largest and driest regions. It’s never had much water, but global warming is now pushing the land and its people over the edge. I’ve come here to see how the Chinese are coping with these dramatic environmental changes. My first stop is a farming village about half an hour’s drive from the town of Qingshuihe. Villagers here say their communal waterhole started drying up around 10 years ago. Since then, getting enough water to live has been a constant struggle.

WOMAN (Translation): We tried to scoop up some shallow, stagnant water. That was all we could get. It had collected after we had rain during the summer. The rain ran over the stone. The water was very muddy, like sheep’s piss. It stank so much that it was hard to swallow. But we were really thirsty and had to drink it.

Not surprisingly, the shortage of water led to conflict. This 79-year-old says he fought a man who tried to jump his turn in the queue at the waterhole.

MAN (Translation): Whoever puts down his bucket first has the first go. That time it was my brother’s turn. But he was pushed over. Then there was a big fight.

There’s now fierce competition for what’s become the village’s most valuable commodity. One man has struck the local equivalent of gold.

WOMAN, (Translation): Look, there he is!

Wan Ertang is a farmer who’s discovered a new water source and keeps it locked up.

WAN ERTANG, (Translation): I’m in charge of the key. I made the well so I’m in charge.

Wan shares his newly discovered waterhole with just three other families in the village.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): I did the hard work so I should enjoy the benefits. They didn’t work, but they want water. I lock up the well. Otherwise there’d be no water for me. It makes sense, right?

Wan thinks this hole he dug tapped into a rare source of underground water. For all his excitement, though, there’s not much inside.

REPORTER: So how much water is in there now?

WAN ERTANG (Translation): It’s one metre deep.

But every drop is precious.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): Here, water is as precious as cooking oil.

Wan says he tries to share his water with others when he can, but this isn’t always possible. To avert catastrophe here, the local government has supplied people with building materials to make their own rainwater wells. For now, the villagers are getting by. With a rainwater hole and his personal underground water supply, life is definitely better for Wan Ertang that it was before.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): We used the water only for cooking and drinking. But we couldn’t use the water for washing. To save water we didn’t wash our hands or feet very often. Now we wash what we need to wash.

Still, he’s rationed to just five buckets of water a day for his family and his numerous animals and he knows he can never take the water for granted.

WAN ERTANG (Translation): It all depends on the sky. If it rains, we’ll have enough water. There was a big drought a few months ago. We were very worried, thinking there’d be no water. That’s what we thought.

XU SHI, DIRECTOR, INNER MONGOLIA GRASSLANDS INSTITUTE (Translation): Because of global climate change, it’s getting warmer. So drought is occurring. It’s happening around the globe, Including Inner Mongolia.

The Deputy Director of Inner Mongolia’s Grasslands Institute, Xu Shu, says overfarming also plays its part, the land is becoming increasingly fragile.

XU SHU (Translation): There’s some wasteland in the region and some grassland that has been degraded due to overuse. Productivity has decreased and the ecological system is rather fragile. It’s no longer suitable to inhabit.

People are now being forced to abandon the countryside altogether. I’m heading to a remote village about half an hour’s drive from the first village I visited. It’s called Tiger Gap, and is only accessible by foot. I find a village, but no people. All the houses are deserted. Eventually I discover an elderly man, his wife, and their visiting grandson.

VILLAGER, (Translation): Now only the two of us are left. No-one else is around but us two old people.

WIFE, (Translation): There used to be people living around the hill. Now they’ve all moved away.

VILLAGER (Translation): We just keep these few goats and go on living.

REPORTER (Translation): Do you have water for farming?

VILLAGER (Translation): No, we don’t have water for the fields.

Wang Fue and Zhang Jixiang are in their late 60s. They say most people left because it’s too hard to find water. The old couple rely on a crude rainwater hole.

VILLAGER (Translation): The rainwater flows from here, and there from there. When it rains, it flows down there.

They have enough water to survive, but little else.

REPORTER, (Translation): How often do you get to wash your clothes?

VILLAGER (Translation): Every one or two months. I wash when there is water. Otherwise I don’t wash.

When there’s not enough rain their grandson helps collect water from another spot two kilometres away. It’s a long and difficult walk. And even this supply of underground water is running out. The government believes this way of life is unsustainable so it built a new village closer to town and offered subsidised housing to those who agreed to move down there.

VILLAGER (Translation): Up here it’s very difficult to get drinking water. Down there, the local officials allocated some money. They’ve built new houses for villagers to move into. But we don’t want to move down. We just want to stay up here and wait to die.

This move from remote villages into town is being made by hundreds of thousands of people as part of a massive government program. It’s called ‘ecological migration’.

PROFESSOR YONG SHIPENG, ECOLOGIST, (Translation): Ecological migration is a new term. Ecological migration means, as suggested by the term, that, due to ecological degradation, life becomes very difficult, so people migrate elsewhere to start a new life.

Professor Yong Shipeng, an ecologist from the University of Inner Mongolia says this migration is necessary.

PROFESSOR YONG SHIPENG, (Translation): In my view, there is no other alternative. Our government is for the people. When the ecosystem deteriorates in some places and people there can’t make a proper living, the government provides funds and assistance.

This village, on the outskirts of Qingshuihe, is where most of the people from Tiger Gap now live. It’s one of many purpose-built ecological migration villages. Living here is a mixed blessing. This man used to have his own farm in the old village, Now he must rent land to do his farming.

FARMER (Translation): The good thing is the road is better and we have water. But we no longer have land. For a farmer to not have land… I don’t know what to say. I’ve always worked in the fields.

The people here have houses provided by the government and running water for the first time. But, without land, many of these former farmers are struggling for a livelihood.

FARMER 2, (Translation): When I moved down here, I sold my goats and donkey.

REPORTER, (Translation): What do you now?

FARMER 2, (Translation): Nothing. I got rid of everything when I moved down.

Some of the older inhabitants admire the elderly couple who stayed put in the Tiger Gap.

MAN, (Translation): But they made up their minds. So they didn’t move down. They were right.

Ban Gou used to be farmer as well. His village was abandoned two years ago. As a single father supporting two children, he’s had no choice but to find new work.

BAN GOU (Translation): I do any job I can lay my hands on, collecting garbage, loading goods, anything that comes my way.

He’s just scored a job working at a nearby factory. Starting early in the morning, he works seven days a week for around $1.50 a day. It’s barely enough to support his family.

BAN GOU (Translation): I used to live in that house, where those trees are, those five rooms.

Occasionally Ban Gou returns to his old farm. In order to receive government compensation for giving up his land, he must plant trees here. It’s an attempt to restore the dry and degraded land.

BAN GOU (Translation): Next year all the land here will be used for growing trees. The first year the government will pay for the saplings. But the following year you’ll have to buy the saplings for your own plot of land.

While over-farming and global warming are forcing a new way of life upon many, this is also being seen as an opportunity by some entrepreneurs. Ho Jixun is the manager of a new tourist enterprise set up in an abandoned village. Backed by a businessman from Beijing, he’s redeveloping it for tourists.

HO JIXUN, TOURISM WORKER (Translation): I want to open a bar here. I will sit here and drink original Colombian coffee and smoke a Havana cigar. I’ll use these old run-down houses for my bar.

As well as restoring the old village, Ho Jixun is helping other villagers to do up their homes in the traditional style, a display for passing tourists. Private enterprise has also managed what government couldn’t, supplying the villagers with running water.

REPORTER, (Translation): You have running water here now, don’t you? What was it like before?

WOMAN (Translation): There was nothing much here.

Ho Jixun believes that visits to these remote, rural villages are the perfect antidote to the rapid development seen in the rest of China.

HO JIXUN (Translation): I’m from Beijing, the big capital city. I know the kind of environment city people need for relaxation. It will be a suitable place for rest and relaxation for busy white-collar workers from a cosmopolitan city. Are you from Beijing?

CAMERAMAN (Translation): Yes. We’re from the same city.

The tourists seem impressed.

TOURIST (Translation): We couldn’t find this kind of place in the city. Even the remote villages have changed a lot. But this place is very unique.

The only remaining residents of Tiger Gap village are certainly unique. Most experts agree that this land can no longer support humans the way it is used and migration is the only answer. But this old couple isn’t going anywhere.

TIGER GAP VILLAGER (Translation): People say if we get sick or something, alone here, there’s nothing we can do about it, except die. But that doesn’t bother me. I won’t move. No matter what happens, I’m going to live here. It’s a hard life. I’m for a hard life. I like peace and quiet.


Feature Report: Inner Mongolia – A Land without Water






Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, People and Places

China’s Pollution Busters

“China’s Pollution Busters”

Dateline, SBS Television. 21st November 2007

Teaming up with two brave Chinese environmental activists, we go on the trail of the companies that are pumping toxic waste into the country’s waterways. With the help of the activists and local citizens who are suffering due to toxic water, we see first-hand how some major companies – including multinationals – are blatantly polluting. We also witness how dangerous it is to be a “pollution buster” in China when our car is surrounded by a factories hired thugs.



Since 2001, a mere six years ago, infant birth defects in China have increased by a whacking 40%. That almost mind-numbing rise has been linked to the increasing environmental degradation occurring in the world’s most populous nation. Ironically, that degradation indicates a seriously dark side to China’s 20 years of unbridled economic growth. Bronwyn Adcock recently met two of China’s dedicated band of brave environmentalists blowing the whistle on the country’s biggest polluters, sometimes at considerable personal risk.

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Chongqing is one of China’s new mega cities, home to 6 million people, with another 25 million in surrounding areas. Like elsewhere in China, though, this rapid industrialisation has come at a heavy price, many waterways are now polluted. I’m with local environmentalist Wu Deng Ming. A long-time activist here, he’s faced threats for his campaigns against polluters.

WU DENG MING, ACTIVIST (Translation): Slow down, turn left up here.

Today he’s helping his Beijing-based colleague Yonghchen Wang, she’s using a GPS, a global positioning system, to locate polluting factories and put them on a map.

YONGHCHEN WANG, ACTIVIST(Translation): Can we take a photo in front of the factory sign?

Toxic discharge from factories is responsible for much of China’s water pollution. This waste is from a battery factory.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): You can see the outlet is tainted yellow. The untreated waste is just pumped out. But they only do it secretly at night. As you can see, the rocks around the outlet are all tainted and are a kind of bronze colour.

China now allows non-government organisations to operate, but activists like Mr Wu and Ms Wang can still face harassment from the state and the factories.

REPORTER: Why do you need to be careful?

YONGHCHEN WANG: Some factories don’t like it they put on the map.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): Go a bit further down to see the front gate. That is the front gate and the sign. Can you see it?

We pull up outside a chemical factory that is jointly owned by a Chinese and a Japanese company. We’re outside for only seconds before we’re spotted by a security guard. Mr Wu offers to show us where the waste water from this factory comes out.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): This is their waste. Waste from the factory. All the plants on both sides of the pipeline are dead. The water is polluted.

The factory makes strontium, often used in television sets. Untreated, the waste is highly toxic. The polluted water flows through a village and makes its way out here, at the local river.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): The river is very polluted and all the fish have died. The people who live nearby suffer a lot from it. The factory produces a lot of waste residues. They also contain hydrogen sulphide. This factory is notorious in Chongqing. People are very angry over the factory, especially the neighbouring villagers. They’re against the factory, but the local government protects it.

The locals use this water for their crops, they say it’s made many people sick.

VILLAGER, (Translation): For people who have been drinking the water for a long time, the experts from Chongqing did some tests. People living along the river have enlarged livers. Each person tested suffers from an enlarged liver.

REPORTER: Do many people get liver problems?

VILLAGER, (Translation): Yes, many.

YONGHCHEN WANG (Translation): What kind of diseases?

VILLAGER, (Translation): Loss of appetite. Or cancer. All sorts of terminal diseases.

Local villagers tell us the factory tries to hide its toxic waste. When inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency come, the polluted water is dumped into the river here, a few hundred metres away from the other outlet.

VILLAGER, (Translation): When the inspectors come, the factory uses this pipeline for its waste. When they aren’t here, it just dumps the waste into the river.

Somehow, the factory’s management has heard we’re here, and has come to find us. I take the opportunity to ask about the polluted water.

REPORTER: So is that water from the factory?


REPORTER: Where does that water come from?

MANAGER, (Translation): There’s a residential area over there. It’s domestic sewage from there.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): But why does it look so yellow?

MANAGER, (Translation): Well, domestic sewage… The local council hasn’t set up its sewage treatment plant. So the domestic sewage comes out without being treated. Also, there are many small family businesses in the area.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Can we have a look at your waste treatment?

They agree to take us into their factory. On the way, they are accosted by angry villagers.

VILLAGER 2, (Translation): We all have enlarged livers. How are we going to survive? We’re so worried. It has definitely damaged our lives, it’s dreadful. How can we common people live?

On the factory grounds, we’re shown a treatment plant for waste water. The company says it treats all its polluted water, and then re-uses it within the factory. But clearly visibly behind the treatment plant, on factory property, is the channel that comes out into the village.

MANAGER, (Translation): It’s not from our factory. We treat our waste and pipe it out into this pond. This is the same sewage you just saw. It’s from that residential area. You can go down and look.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): But it’s as yellow as your waste.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): But the colour..

Mr Wu appears sceptical. It’s a quick visit only, but on the way out a revealing admission is made. I ask how long has the waste-treatment plant been operating.

MANAGER, (Translation): Over a year. Before that, the waste was just pumped out. It wasn’t treated. We set up the treatment plant last year. It’s been in operation since then.

So by the company’s own admission, it was polluting a year ago. Still, I decide to go and check out its claim that the source of the pollution now is domestic sewage. Just outside the factory gates I find the start of the channel that runs through the factory property, into the village. It is not connected to any domestic sewage, and only contains some stagnant rainwater.

REPORTER: Is there anything you can do to stop this?

VILLAGER, (Translation): No way. We’re just peasants, we don’t have any power. We can’t simply remove the factory now that it’s here. We tried before it was set up, but that didn’t help.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Go to the local officials or the village officials.

VILLAGER, (Translation): We went to the county officials. But they wouldn’t do anything.

Ms Wang records the exact location of this factory with her GPS, and sends the information 2,000km away to Beijing. It’s given to Ma Jun, one of China’s foremost environmentalists, and the creator of the China Water Pollution Map.

MA JUN, ENVIROMENTALIST: With this map we can see the whole of China, we can enlarge that and see more details.

Ma Jun’s national pollution map is publicly available online, it gives the names and exact locations of polluting factories.

MA JUN: And this is a very detailed map, people can see where exactly in those communities the companies are. If people don’t have any idea of what is happening, how can they get involved?

The map shows 9,000 factories, including 200 run by multinationals. This figure is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Ma Jun only includes factories that have been fined by the authorities, and in some areas officials refuse to hand over this information.

MA JUN: One of the reasons is the lack of tradition for transparency, and this is rather a new issue in China, and I guess it will take some time. But we do think that some of the local officials give protection to polluters.

According to Ma Jun, water pollution is the most serious environmental issue facing China.

MA JUN: 60% of the waterways are quite contaminated.

That means 320 million people here don’t have access to safe drinking water. The health consequences are devastating. These are the world averages for stomach cancer and liver cancer, both diseases associated with drinking polluted water. And these are the averages for rural China. Strong laws governing pollution do exist, but are regularly flouted. Ma Jun hopes his map can be part of the solution.

MA JUN: We have no rights to impose any fines on them or punish them, but we let people know that this company with such a popular brand, they are violating the waste water discharge standards.

REPORTER: So a new cost of pollution is bad publicity?

MA JUN: Yes. It’s a kind of impact on your company’s reputation.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): Can you smell it? It’s from a pesticide factory. So you can smell it?

Back on the road in Chongqing, Mr Wu says part of the problem in China is that the fines for violation are too small to deter polluters.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): If they abide by the law, they have to treat the water, which is very expensive. But if they break the law and discharge the waste, the penalty is very small.

One company here was recently fined $1,500 for dumping waste with a concentration of chemicals 138 times the standard into the river. We’re going to look at a factory owned by this company.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): If they get upset, they may smash your cameras, or take them off you. The reporters from CCTV were beaten up.

This factory makes chromium salt used in the production of electronic screens like televisions and computers. It’s located right beside one of Chongqing’s main rivers, where Mr Wu says much of its toxic waste ends up.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): This product used to be made in developed countries like America and Japan. Later, the production was opposed by people there. So they transferred the pollution to developing countries like China.

While the West may not produce it, they still import it. One economist estimates that 20% to 30% of China’s pollution comes from the manufacturing of goods for export.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): So those countries benefit from the products, but people in Chongqing suffer from the pollution. That’s not fair.

Just 50m away from the factory, we find a village. These people literally live in its shadows.

VILLAGER 3, (Translation): When the factory makes a noise it sounds like a scream, it’s terrible and non-stop, it drives you crazy.

A man who runs a local fishing business offers to show us where water comes out of the factory into the river. He says whenever the factory is operating a strong smell comes from this water. He catches fish from the river to eat and to sell, but stopped drinking the river water years ago.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): What water do you drink?

VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I drink the water from under the ground. It’s said the water from under the ground is fine.

WU DENG MING, (Translation): But that water is polluted too.

VILLAGER 3, (Translation): That’s true. It’s polluted.

The villagers say many people here are sick.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Why don’t you move? You live so close to the factory.

VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I have to look after my fish farm and can’t just leave. Those poor and elderly people still live here. But all the young people have left.

Back in Beijing, Ma Jun has been contacted by companies who want to get off his water pollution map. If they overhaul their practices and submit to an audit, he agrees. Some high-profile companies like Shanghai Panasonic Battery Company have done this, but not all are so obliging.

MA JUN: And we do have some companies which are coming to us saying “If you keep pushing for this, we will move to Vietnam, we’re going to move to Indonesia.” I said, “Why? Why do you want to move to Vietnam?” He said, “There we can still discharge more or less freely.”

REPORTER: So these are multinational companies who said this to you?

MA JUN: Multinational company from Europe and it’s quite a big one.

Environmental activists are not the only ones demanding an end to rampant pollution. China’s central government is increasingly concerned about its toxic rivers.

I’m in the city of Harbin, on the banks of the Songhua River. Following intense pressure from the central government in Beijing, local authorities here say they’re on a mission to clean up the Songhua, and a crackdown on polluters is under way. I’ve been given permission to spend several days with the Harbin Environmental Protection Authority. The clean-up of this river has been made a national priority by Beijing, and these local officials are under orders to do the job. Today they’re taking samples to test if the water pollution has infiltrated the mud. The Songhua is polluted with industrial waste including ammonium nitrate, cyanide, arsenic, chromium and lead. These are pictures of what used to be an industrial area. The factories are gone, but the pollution remains, flowing directly into the Songhua. Those who live along the river say they feel the consequences of the pollution.

VILLAGER 4, (Translation): It has affected our eyesight. Our eyesight is deteriorating. Many people have developed kidney stones and gall bladder problems. It has also caused numbness in hands and feet.

This man has been fishing here for 30 years. For the last decade, the fish have been turning up diseased. He believes it’s connected to pollution from factories.

VILLAGER 4, (Translation): How are they connected? The fish are sick. And their numbers are decreasing. Of course they’re connected.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Why do you still eat the fish, then?

VILLAGER 4, (Translation): We have to. We have no other choice. It’s our only livelihood. If we stop fishing, we’ll have nothing else to live on.

ZHOU LINBO, VICE DIRECTOR-GENERAL, (Translation): It is indeed a huge job. The state is very serious about environmental protection.

Zhou Linbo is Vice Director-General of the Harbin Environmental Protection Authority. He says under the new crackdown, companies who can’t deal with their waste won’t be allowed to build factories here. And those caught polluting could be shut down.

ZHOU LINBO, (Translation): The local EPA has stepped up law enforcement. We also set a time frame for improvement. If they fail to meet it, they will be shut down.

The EPA is taking me to visit one factory that faced being shut down. The Harbin Yeast Factory is part of AB Mauri, a division of Associated British Foods plc. Its regional headquarters are in Sydney, Australia. The yeast made here is sold locally, and also exported to Asia and Australia. Six months ago, during a secret visit by EPA inspectors from Beijing, it was discovered they were discharging waste into the local river with a concentration of chemicals 20 times the standard. Factory manager Ja Win says it happened because their waste water system was broken down and they were waiting for parts to arrive from Switzerland.

REPORTER: Did you know it was broken down?

JA WIN, FACTORY MANAGER,(Translation): Yes, I knew.

REPORTER: So did you know the result of that would be massive pollution pumping into the river?

JA WIN, (Translation): I knew we would exceed required levels.

REPORTER: So why didn’t you shut down operations if you knew you were polluting?

JA WIN, (Translation): We reduced the output of our production, our waste treatment went well apart from that period. We didn’t think we would exceed the required level by too much.

REPORTER: So this is the waste water treatment?

JA WIN, (Translation): Yeah, all the ETP.

The factory was fined around $8,000 and required to set up a new system where the EPA can monitor their discharge online 24 hours a day, costing them around $100,000. The EPA and local government officials who accompany me praise the Harbin Yeast Factory for fully cooperating, and are keen to show this off as a successful outcome. The factory appears to have little choice but to cooperate.

JA WIN, (Translation): The local EPA comes regularly to get samples, do tests and spot checks. Sometimes they come to do an inspection every day. We feel they’re more strict than before.

For Harbin Yeast Factory, it’s been a costly experience, in terms of money and reputation. A sign perhaps that China is slowly becoming a tougher place for polluters.

REPORTER: Was it embarrassing for the company to be placed on this list by the state EPA?

JA WIN, (Translation): We will try our best to improve our waste treatment and to promote our factory.

ZHOU LINBO, (Translation): The public is increasingly aware and demands a quality environment. To build a comfortably-off society, we need to develop the economy but also improve quality of life.

Those who rely on the Songhua for their food and their livelihood are counting on these assurances.

VILLAGER 3, (Translation): I hope the government can make some policies to improve the environment.

But strong resistance to change still exists, as I discover at the end of a long day in Chongqing with environmentalists Mr Wu and Ms Wang.

MAN, (Translation): Who are you? Stop now. I want to talk to you.

Outside an American-owned factory that’s listed as a polluter, a group of men surround our car and refuse to let us leave.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Let’s go.

MAN, (Translation): What are you doing? You took pictures of us. Why did you do that? Listen, give us the camera. Why did you take pictures?

I decide it’s too risky to openly film. Two of the men are aggressive and intimidating.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): We’re not in, but outside your factory. Let us close the door. Or we’ll call the police. This is a public area.

MAN, (Translation): We don’t care. Just show us your ID.

After a 10-minute stand-off, we manage to get away.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Just close the door. What are you doing?

MAN, (Translation): We have to find out who you are first.

YONGHCHEN WANG, (Translation): Let us close the door! Xiao Luo, don’t talk to them. Let’s go.

Mr Wu is not surprised by the incident.

WU DENG MING,(Translation): Things like this happen to us very often. These polluting factories hire hooligans. But the hooligans are really thugs. They’re hired to deal with any external personnel who they believe will damage their reputation. Especially outside people like us, or journalists.

REPORTER: Why do you keep doing this kind of environmental work when it’s so risky for you?

WU DENG MING, (Translation): If I don’t take any risks, if I don’t make some sort of contribution, the work won’t be rewarding. There is a Chinese poem which says that a divine view is beheld from a perilous peak.






Executive Producer

Leave a comment

Filed under Investigative Journalism