PARIS – The French capital, where seventy years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued at an international conference, this week played host to a call for action against rights abusers worldwide.
“It’s been announced in Moscow that President Mikhail Gorbachev has become ill,” said the radio on the hotel reception desk.
I immediately realised this was some sort of Soviet-speak for saying the Soviet leader was either already dead or was being removed – in a coup.
For a journalist and foreign correspondent, being in the right place at the right time can be achieved by planning, by luck or by instinct. I had just failed in all three.
Only days before I had been in Russia, making a film about Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected leader of the Russian Federation, which was the major part of the Soviet Union, run by Gorbachev. Now, my wife and daughters and I were on holiday in the Middle East. There was a scheduled flight to Moscow that evening – but my wife said if I took it and ruined our vacation, it would be the last holiday we would ever spend together. I got the message. I consoled myself with the thought that, in any case, the first thing that gets closed during a coup is going to be the airport … so I’ll probably get forced back on the plane and never get into the city. We flew back to London together two days later, and, as the Soviet coup was collapsing, I finally got a flight to Moscow. As I arrived in the so-called Byeli Dom – the White House that was the headquarters of the Russian Federation, the editor of Yeltsin’s in-house newspaper hugged me. “Why did you not come when the coup began?” he asked. He told me if I had flown in to Moscow, the pro-Yeltsin faction had their own people at the airport and were getting their friends in. “You could have spent the entire coup here with us in the White House, reporting live alongside Boris.” Thanks I said, now feeling ten times worse. It had been surrounded by tanks during the three days of the coup, and special forces were assigned by the coup leaders to attack it. Yelsin and his followers were trapped inside, making what might have been their last stand. A supporter of Yelstin’s defiance had managed to smuggle in some gas masks, which he’d stolen from the factory that made them. They lay all over the floor of a store-room. “Take a few. Souvenirs,” said the newspaper editor. “We don’t need them any more.” Two days later British prime minister John Major became the first foreign leader to visit after the failed coup. Via the British embassy I sent him, and his foreign minister John Hurd, a souvenir gas-mask each. I had a cunning plan in mind. The next day Major spoke at a press conference. I slipped out and stood at a back door that I expected him to leave by. He did.
He was about to get in to one of those long Soviet-made black cars with tinted windows – they usually carried Soviet officials, Members of the Politburo. With their sardonic sense of humour, locals called these vehicles Member Carriers – the word Member having the same double meaning, referring to a part of the male anatomy, as it does in English.
“Mr Major,” I called as I rushed towards him. “I’m the journalist who sent you a gas-mask from the White House. Can I have an interview now?” “Aha,” he said to me. “Bribery and corruption, hey?” “ Absolutely, Prime Minister,” I said. “Okay, he said, “but just two questions.” He stopped in his tracks, and restrained the security detail around him. After two questions about the coup, I asked him the most important one: Did he think Yelsin was the right man to lead the collapsing Soviet Union out of the crisis?” Mr Major smiled. “Mr Martin, before I was prime minister I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, [the British finance minister]. And when I was there, they taught me to count. That was not two questions, that was three! Good-bye.”
So I never found out if the British prime minister wanted Yeltsin to take over from Gorbachev.
But he did anyway. Gorbachev had been brought back from his dacha on the Black Sea where he’d been temporarily held prisoner… but to a new reality. I will never forget the look of shock on Gorbachev’s face when, to a packed audience of Communist party officials, Yeltsin announced: “The Communist Party is banned.” Yeltsin was staging his own post-coup coup. I also watched with amazement as the statue of the founder of the secret service, the KGB, was demolished outside its forbidding headquarters, the huge grey Lubyanka.
OPTIONAL DROP OF 253 WORDS: [The new KGB chief later showed me around inside the still perfectly preserved office of Andropov, the only KGB chief who had become secretary-general of the Communist Party and therefore the official Soviet Chief. I asked the new KGB boss if he could pout me in touch with Yuri – who had been expelled from Britain a few years before. I’d met him on a bus, and when I heard his Russian accent, had started a conversation. He told me he lived in the Soviet Trade Mission, just up the hill from my home. I had invited him to visit us, not for a moment thinking he would. The Soviets had strict instructions in those days not to mix with us locals. To my amazement he had phoned two days later, and he and his wife and daughter, dressed in western-style jeans, had come for tea. We’d spent several good hours together a few times – I even took him to a cricket match. Then the KGB chief defected to Britain – and revealed the names of 104 KGB agents. Yuri was on the list. I write an article in the New Statesman, headlined: “My friend the Soviet Spy”. All of them were expelled, but Yuri, as his coach left for the airport, called from the window: “I read your article in the New Statesman. I liked it. Hope we meet again.” The new KGB chief listened to my story about Yuri, then stared straight at me: “We have no knowledge of any such individual.”]
History was in the making, but I had failed to be there during the coup, when it really mattered. History simply had proceeded, quite successfully, without me.
From the Hampstead and Highgate Express, 2010:
Film-maker and broadcaster PAUL MARTIN, who lives in Highgate, was threatened with death and spent 26 days in a Hamas jail when he filmed a dissident, then tried to give evidence in a Gaza military court. Now released, he is launching a campaign to “SAVE MOHAMED” from the likelihood of execution. On Monday 17 May at 8.15pm he is answering questions and showing the Rough-Cut Premiere of his short film ‘DISSIDENT UNDER FIRE’ at the Everyman Cinema in Belsize Park (bookings at www.everymancinema.com, or phone 0870 066 4777 ).
By Paul Martin
The Hamas intelligence officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “You are an accused,” he yelled, pointing at me. “Lock him up.”
I was shoved into a darkened cell – the beginning of twenty six days within a Gaza Gulag. I was held in solitary confinement (except for much-valued trips to the neighbouring cell’s toilet) and guards removed all reading and writing material, and even my toothbrush and comb.
I had come to Gaza in February intending to give evidence in favour of Mohamed Abu Muailek, a brave Palestinian falsely accused of collaborating with Israel and now awaiting a likely death sentence. His real ‘crime’ was that he had rejected his militant group and was talking about why he no longer felt firing rockets into civilian areas was wrong and counter-productive. Filming his story, I too became the victim of a bizarre outbreak of extreme paranoia.
Hamas had plenty of good reasons to feel paranoid. One of its top officials had just been assassinated in a hotel bedroom in Dubai while allegedly negotiating arms transfers from Iran. And foreign passports, mainly British, had been used by the killers.
So Hamas security leaders were desperate for a triumph of their own – and detaining, then perhaps executing, a British journalist who had come to defend a person they already considered to be a traitor was like a gift from Allah!
Trying to extract a false confession they used relentless psychological and physical pressure, blackmail and even threats to kidnap my family or lure them over to Gaza by feigning, or creating, a serious injury or illness for me.
I had previously filmed Mohamed, as part of a rocket-firing brigade, using Google Earth to find targets inside Israel. I was convinced that Mohamed was not a spy: which spy would agree to be filmed by a Western film-maker talking about why he now strongly opposed a key plank of the local regime’s platform: firing rockets into Israel?
In early 2009, as we began filming him in his new role as a man of peace, he said he knew and accepted the risks. Sure enough he ended up being arrested, disappearing for sixty days, and then being put on trial.
One reason he had changed his mind was an email friendship he established with a fellow-computer-geek, who it emerged lived in Tel Aviv. We filmed them chatting by internet. The Hamas authorities decided this computer friend must be a Mossad spymaster.
The ludicrous nature of the allegations against me – filming Mohamed showed I was his supposed MI6 or Mossad spymaster – was irrelevant: a secret trial could be arranged in front of a military court, and, after denying access to the media, they could declare a false list of ‘proven’ crimes. My execution would play well with Hamas’s radical Arab and Islamic backers, while provoking only a minor outcry in the West.
The prison environment was volatile. A prison guard and two prisoners from Al Qaeda at different stages drew their index fingers across their throats threatening to kill me. Inbetween-times, we had some pleasant chats.
But on Day 23 of my captivity the Hamas authorities sent a top official to see me. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and visiting British MPs, had urged my release.
Even before I was driven out of Gaza three days later with gunmen on either side, I decided I would campaign to save Mohamed from the firing squad.
My film of him will help show he was not a spy, just a dissident. Publicity and Western pressure may provide his only chance for survival.
COPYRIGHT WORLD NEWS & FEATURES 2010
And here’s a follow-up on what happened:
Peace activist who rejected Hamas denied entry to UK
JUNE 28, 2012 09:49
A peace activist from Gaza who has been denied entry to Britain plans to address a London audience next month —by internet.
Former Palestinian militant Mohammed Abu Muailek used to fire rockets at Israel but renounced violence, leading to his arrest and imprisonment by Hamas.
Now he wants to speak at the showing of a film about his experience, Friends Under Fire, at the Phoenix Cinema, in East Finchley, on Sunday week.
The film was made by Paul Martin, a London-based journalist who specialises in documentaries on the Middle East.
Four years ago, Mr Martin shot footage of Mr Abu Muailek preparing a rocket attack against Israel as a member of the Abu Rish Brigade.
A year later, when Mr Martin went back to Gaza to cover the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Hamas, he was sitting in a café when, “I was tapped on the shoulder,” he recalled. “It was Mohammed. I said I’d like to go back to his unit. He said he was not involved. He’d changed his mind and thought firing rockets was counterproductive and wrong.
“He added: ‘I want you to make a film about why it was wrong.’ I asked, wouldn’t that get him into trouble. ‘I’m already in trouble,’ he said.
Mr Abu Muailek’s change of heart came about through his work solving computer problems for an international company. One of his fellow-workers happened to be based in Tel Aviv and, as they corresponded, he began to revise his views.
But it was a dangerous move: in April 2009, he was seized by Hamas and charged with spying — an offence carrying the death sentence.
When Mr Martin heard of his plight, he decided to go back to Gaza to help the young Palestinian. “I was advised by his family that it could save his life,” he said.
But when the British film-maker went to court in February 2010 to give evidence on Mr Abu Muailek’s behalf, he himself was arrested by Hamas and accused of being a spymaster. Thrown into jail, he wondered if he would get out alive. “They used every technique of pressure short of actual physical violence,” he said, “except on one occasion where they slammed my knee with a Kalashnikov.
“Once I was taken across the yard with a hood over my head. I thought I was being taken to the torture cells — I could hear the screams.”
After 26 days and international pressure, Mr Martin was released. Mr Abu Muailek, 27, was freed last October, after two-and-a-half years in prison.
“He considers his life is still at risk in Gaza from people who disagree with the decision to let him out of jail and he can’t find any employment there,” Mr Martin said.
Mr Abu Muailek had been invited to speak in Britain last month by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues, but Britain has so far refused him a visa, claiming that he might refuse to leave Britain after his visit to Parliament.
Mr Martin said: “That is either foolish or some form of paranoia. He would gain nothing by staying in the UK. He has been offered a financially worthwhile fellowship with a prestigious foundation in South Africa —and the British government was sent that invitation letter too.”
But he still hopes that a visa may come at the last minute and that Mr Abu Muailek is permitted to attend the screening in person.