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Byline by M.J.Akbar : Saturday Morning Fever
Indonesia, unlike India or the United States, permits cameras in the courtroom. And so a verdict against a pretty 26-year-old Australian beautician, Schapelle Corby, was a star story on the pre-dawn news bulletins of the principal bastions of Anglo-American television, BBC and CNN. The essentials of the case were not disputed. Corby, travelling from her home airport, Brisbane, to Sydney and Denpasar in Bali, was caught by Indonesian customs officials with 4.1 kilograms of marijuana in an open bag. The judgment of the court however aroused extraordinary passions.
Corby pleaded innocent. As a cynic might say, she would, wouldn’t she. To do anything else would have been an invitation to a death penalty. Indonesia, like other nations of the region, Singapore, Malaysia and China, has strict anti-drug laws. Four kilograms of marijuana is serious. The prosecution demanded the death penalty.
The defence, which had no evidence for Corby’s innocence, spun a great deal of theory. It suggested that the drugs had been planted in the open bag, possibly by a ring that wanted it to be picked up by an accomplice in the Sydney airport baggage area. "For some reason" defence counsel argued, the marijuana took the flight to Bali. Such presumed innocence is accepted as fact by 90% of Australians (including actor Russell Crowe) and has set off hysteria against Indonesia. Corby is the beautiful white flower of innocence while Indonesia is the cesspool of brown Asian corruption, intent on collective vengeance against the distraught Corby. Australian media did note earlier that Corby had a history of drug abuse, but that has been quietly eliminated from most of Australian media (but not all; serious newspapers have taken admirably objective editorial positions). However, the feeding frenzy is at its greediest. There is little time for questions. Why ask who left the bag open, or whether open bags are normal behaviour for Australians heading for a holiday in Bali. Since the bag was caught at customs, it must have been taken there by Corby: didn’t she notice a difference of four kilograms in weight?
Corby’s mother, Rosleigh Rose, and her sister, Mercedes, were in court when Judge Linton Sivait sentenced Corby to 20 years in prison. Their faces were contorted with virulent rage. Liar, shouted Rose at the judge. In any American or Indian court she would have joined her daughter in prison, for contempt of court. Here she was permitted to take her venom to the world via media. One phrase of hers stuck in the mind above the din. She looked at the judge and shouted that "Your people" are the ones who are really guilty.
Your people. People who are brown and Asian and Muslim.
From Japan came a story out of Reader’s Digest. Two veterans of the Panthers Division, Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 83, have been found in the mountains of Mindanao in south Philippines, where they may or may not know that World War II is over. It was thought that the last such Japanese veteran, Lt. Hiroo Onoda, emerged out of the caves in 1974. However, Yamakawa and Nakauchi might have simply integrated into the local community and even been of service to them. How?
They are living with the Muslim rebels of Philippines who are engaged in an armed struggle against the state, and could always do with help in military training.
No one really believes in opinion polls anymore, but no one has the courage to discount them either. Twenty-four hours before the voters of France decide to accept or reject the new Constitution of the European Union, conceived by France and Germany and now expanded to 25 nations, the polls suggest that "no" might win. This will be considered a catastrophe for the world’s bravest idea of the last century. As one commentator put it, a few thousand swing votes could decide the fate of 450 million people. All is not lost. As one Frenchman put it so charmingly, "My head is not made yet. I think I decide on Sunday."
Why the surge towards "no"? The reasons are many, from 10% unemployment to the proposed extension of the 35-hour-week to dislike of Chirac. But the key to the anger is the creation of a supranational state in which foreign policy will be controlled by Brussels. The French, already furious that the Poles are taking their jobs, are dreading the possibility that Brussels might allow the 70 million Muslims of Turkey into the European Union.
Turks are "Your people".
A blackout in Moscow left life in tatters for a day. Saturday’s bulletin reported that the Muslim Chechens demanding independence from Russia had claimed responsibility for the blast that blew up the power station and created havoc in the capital. I read a piece in the International Herald Tribune by Mark Medish, senior director in the US National Security Council for Russian, Ukranian and Eurasian Affairs in 2000-1. He was walking with his father, a world war veteran, in the Russian city of Krasnodar when he was picked up by the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB and interrogated for three hours for taking pictures of the local police building. After threats, questions and videotape they were released and told, "You should know about the extraordinary security situation in the Northern Caucasus."
Translation: Haven’t you heard about the Muslim rebellion of Chechnya?
Images follow of breast beating and mourning in Pakistan. A suicide bomber has attacked Shias gathered at the Bari Imam shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, patron saint of Islamabad. The bomber had two kilograms of explosive strapped to his chest and flew through the air after the blast. 19 people died and over 65 were wounded. A grim President Pervez Musharraf called the suicide bomber a "religious terrorist".
In Pakistan, your people and my people even among one people.
Kashmir shut down on Friday to protest the desecration of the Holy Quran at the American prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. Stories about such desecration by Americans have been appearing for a while now. In March 2000 prisoners went on hunger strike in protest. Former prisoners like Aryat Vahitov and Abdallah Tabarak have narrated behaviour that will only inflame passions if described. The Red Cross has confirmed other incidents. Why did a small item in Newsweek, semi-denied by its editors, catch fire across the world? Why does no Muslim believe the denial or accept George Bush’s word that no disrespect was ever meant? Not because Imran Khan held a press conference in Pakistan to encourage anger, but because Washington no longer has any credibility among Muslims. No one believes that America is in Iraq to save democracy; particularly not the Iraqis. The insurgency was supposed to have been crushed by now; the number of daily attacks is somewhere over 70. America’s death toll continues to mount, even on Saturday’s pre-dawn bulletin. No one counts Iraqi casualties. Iraqis don’t count.
Lebanon. It is an orderly political meeting. Rows of dignitaries are seated on chairs lined in neat rows. It is all utterly respectable. At the microphone appears Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah. This meeting is being held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, often described as the only Israeli defeat since the loss of Sinai to Egypt in the 1973 war. In Lebanon, victory was claimed by Hezbollah. Sheikh Nasrallah says that he has 12,000 rockets under his command, all trained at Israel and warned that the war was not over. CNN then showed a video, shot by five cameras, on how to make a devastating bomb from chemicals you can pick up from your nearest chemist, put it into a simple pouch, strap it to your body, and — bang!
A war of the people.
The last major story mixed pleasure with business. The share price of the major pharmaceutical multinational Pfizer went down after a certain Dr Howard Powerantz reported with what I thought was a gleam in his eye (but I could be prejudiced) that he had found 40 cases of loss of direct or peripheral vision among over-50s after they had taken Viagra. Pfizer countered, as might be expected, vigorously. Some 23 million users had benefited from Viagra in the last seven years, the company said. In 2004 alone Viagra had earned Pfizer $1.7 billion in sales. The 40 alleged cases therefore were a minuscule sample. My own view is that the men were simply affected by shock of out-of-practice ecstasy. This is what the blinding flash of lightning is probably all about.
This was the only story of the early morning on Saturday in which Muslims were not being hated, or killed, or killing each other, or preparing to die. And even this story was depressing.