2018 in Review: Saudi Women Rights Defenders, J.S. Bach and Ahmed Mansoor

It is again the time of the year when people look back to the past year and think about the year to come. I began writing this blog in June 2015 and I started each year of my blog writing with a review of the previous year and some ideas for the new year. I want to continue this tradition and will share with you updates and also some statistics about my blog posts in 2018 and some ideas for 2019.

1. A blog post like this has to start with saying thank you to everyone who read my blog posts, who shared my blog posts and even more important who took action for the prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders during 2018. I want to thank in particular those who joined the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor on 20 March 2018 to mark the anniversary of his arrest and those who continue to tweet photos for the #SkyForShawkan campaign.

It is wonderful, if blog posts translate into actions in real life and this happened last year. I wrote in November 2017 two blog posts about “Poetry behind bars” – poems written by five women who were prisoners in Evin Prison, Iran. I shared in one blog post poems written by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari and in the second blog post I told the stories of these five women. A short time after I published my two blog posts Catherine Temma Davidson got in contact with me about these posts. A few months later, in February 2018, she organised an evening at the Poetry Café, London, for Exiled Writers Ink with the title “Words for the Silenced” which focused on writings from and about those imprisoned in Iran. One part of the evening was a reading of poems which I had included in my blog post (and some newer ones) and the stories of the women who wrote the poetry. It is great that a larger audience heard the poems and the stories of these women. There is hopefully more to come in 2019. We are discussing at the moment another event in March 2019 which will focus on Arabic poems written by poets who are currently in prison in different Arab countries.

2. I wrote in 2018 ten blog posts. As usual most of these posts (six blog posts) are about human rights topics. Two of the blog posts are about a prisoner of conscience in the United Arab Emirates (Ahmed Mansoor), two about a prisoner in Bahrain (Hassan Mushaima), one about prisoners in Saudi Arabia and one about a prisoner in Egypt (Shawkan).  There were sadly no blog posts last year about poetry and – actually quite surprisingly – no blog posts about human rights in Iran. I am sure both will be back in 2019.

Three blog posts from 2018 are about classical music and one of my posts is in the “General” category.

a) My most popular blog post in 2018 was my article about Saudi women rights defenders: “Where are the Saudi reforms? Saudi women rights defenders Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef in prison“. Saudi Arabia saw in 2018 a crackdown for human rights defenders and there was obviously the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Many human rights activists were arrested in 2018, in particular in May 2018. I wrote in my blog post about five of these human rights defenders:

Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah (both arrested on 30 July 2018) and Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul (all three arrested in May 2018). You can see all of them in the picture on the left (from top left to bottom right). 

I am delighted that my blog post was shared and retweeted widely. It received 512 views last year which is quite a lot for my blog.

There are sadly worrying news from Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has information that detainees in Saudi Arabia’s Dhahban Prison faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation. These prisoners include the five women about whom I wrote my blog post. The prison has warned the detainees not to disclose anything to their family members or the public. Torture is not unusual in Saudi Arabia.

“Many detainees have reported during trials that torture was used to extract “confessions” from them, to punish them for refusing to “repent” or to force them to promise not to criticize the government. Such “confessions” have furthermore routinely formed the basis for harsh sentences, including the death penalty, without the judiciary taking any steps to duly investigate these claims”

Amnesty International, 20 November 2018

As far as I know Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul have not yet been charged. Amnesty reports that they have no legal representation and where held incommunicado and in solitary confinements for the first months after their arrest.

Amnesty had a special page to mark 100 days after the arrest of Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul. You can find on this page postal addresses as well as email addresses and Twitter handles of Saudi authorities. Please take action for these women.

b) The blog post which got the second most views is suprisingly from June 2016.

On 25 June 2016 one of my choirs Highgate Choral Society sung Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”. I wrote a blog post about the piece: Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?. This blog post did quite well when I published in 2016 with 140 views (which made it my fifths most popular one in 2016). Last year it did even better and got 314 views.

Generally my blog posts about classical music and different choral works get frequent views over a longer period of time. Most people find the posts via Google and other search engines. I am very pleased by that and there will be more blog posts about choral works in 2019.

c) Everyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I campaign quite a lot for Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist from the United Arab Emirates. I wrote two blog posts about him in 2017 and two blog posts in 2018. My two blog posts from 2018 were my third and forth most popular posts in that year. My post “One year of solitary confinement – Join the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor” from March 2018 had 195 views and my post “Ahmed Mansoor – 10 years in prison for defending human rights” from May 2018 had 205 views.

As explained in my post from May 2018 Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his human rights activism. There is sadly also no good news about Ahmed Mansoor.

It is generally really difficult to hear any news about him. Amnesty International published on 21 December 2018 an urgent action about him and mentions in this action that there is a court hearing in front of the court of appeal on 24 December 2018. The International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR) tweeted on the 21 December that they learned that Ahmed Mansoor is still in solitary confinement at Al Wathba prison since his arrest. They said that there was a court hearing on the appeal of his judgement on 17 December 2018 and that there was one scheduled for 24 December 2018. A few days ago on 26 December they tweeted that he did not attend the court hearing on 24 December and that the hearing was postponed to the 31 December 2018. The court of appeal decided on 31 December to uphold the 10 year jail sentence against Ahmed Mansoor.

Bill Law wrote an article which is well worth reading: “Two court cases the UAE and Bahrain are hoping the West forgets”. I also want to repeat what I said before: Please tweet about Ahmed Mansoor and please take action via the urgent action and urge the authorities to release him. Please make sure that he is not forgotten.

d) There are a couple of other cases on which I would like to give you an update – luckily there is also at least some good news among all the bad news.

(1) Sadly no good news for the Egyptian photographer Shawkan. I wrote a blog post about him on the 1 October 2018 in which I reported about the judgement against him (five years in prison). I also mentioned that he had already spent more than five years in prison and everyone hoped for his immediate release. Sadly Shawkan is still in prison in Egypt. According to his lawyer he will spend six additional months in prison and is due to be released on 16 February 2019. The lawyer said that the court decided that all defendants in the Rabaa trial have to pay a fine for the damages occurred during the sit-in. The persecution decided to carry out the sentence of “physical coercion” instead of asking for payment of the amount and added six more months in prison to Shawkan’s sentence (and the sentence of other defendants). I hope that February will finally bring freedom for Shawkan.

(2) Ali Mushaima stopped his protest outside the Bahraini Embassy in London on 2 October. I wrote in 2018 two blog posts about him and his hunger strike to raise awareness for his father Hassan Mushaima and emphasise very basic demands for him. Ali received the support of 15 MPs who said that would follow his father’s case and try to help. This is all positive, but Ali also tweeted on 5 December that his father is still waiting for the results of his cancer scans which were made in August and that he did no receive his medication the other week. I hope 2019 will bring more positive news for Ali and his family.

(3) There was good news from Iran in 2019: I already mentioned at the beginning of this article my post about poetry and poems written in Evin prison. One of the women about whom I wrote is Nasim Bagheri. She was released on 29 March 2018 after having completed her four year prison sentence.

I wrote in December 2016 a blog post about three lawyers who were punished for being human rights lawyer. One of these lawyers was Abdolfattah Soltani from Iran. He had been arrested in 2011 and in 2012 sentenced to ten years in prison. On 20 November 2018 he has been conditionally released after more than seven years in prison.

3. I do not want to bore you with statistics, but I am always curious and intrigued to see how many people visit my blog during a year and from how many different countries they come. In 2018 4131 people visited my blog and my blog posts got 6211 views. That is more than in previous years which wonderful and also a little bit surprising given that I wrote in 2018 fewer blog posts than in 2017. The visitors came from 97 countries. The most views came from the United States with 1953 views, followed by the United Kingdom with 1198 views and Germany with 515 views.

4. I am a little bit reluctant to share my ideas for posts in 2019. Mainly because I often do not find the time to write posts about all my ideas and if I mention something in my January post it almost feels a bit like an obligation or promise to write a post. Nevertheless, here are my ideas for 2019:

a) I already mentioned that I did not write any posts about prisoners in Iran. That is certainly something I want to do again in 2019. There are a number of prisoners and human rights activist about whom I would like to write a blog post. Among them is certainly Atena Daemi, a human rights activist who spoke out against the death penalty and who featured in 2018 Write for Rights campaign. Others are Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, or also Kamran Ghaderi, an Iranian-Austrian dual national. We will see.

b)  I would also like to write one or two blog posts about poetry. I mentioned that I am currently planning an event together with Exiled Writers Ink for March 2019. There should be a chance to write about the event or the poems and poets who will feature in the event.

c) When I tweeted about my blog post about the Saudi women rights defenders, many mentioned that Hatoon al-Fassi, another well known Saudi women rights defender, was also arrested in summer last year and that I should have included her in my post as well. I would like to write about her in 2019.

d) Finally I will certainly also write again about classical music. Highgate Choral Society’s programme for 2019 includes Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Vivaldi’s Gloria and music by Zelenka. Therefore the programme notes of some of the works will certainly find their way into my blog.

5. I want to close this blog post with wishing everyone all the best for 2019. The United Arab Emirates declared on 15 December 2018 that 2019 will be a “Year of Tolerance”. I fear that this is mainly a publicy stunt and the decision of the court of appeal against Ahmed Mansoor is the opposite of tolerance. Nevertheless, it would be wonderful, if 2019 would really be a year of tolerance, freedom for prisoners of conscience and peace.


Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

HCS NovemberThe central work of the first concert of Highgate Choral Society in the concert season 2018-2019 is Beethoven’s monumental choral work “Missa Solemnis”. Highgate Choral Society will be joined by four excellent soloists and the New London Orchestra. The conductor is Ronald Corp. 

The concert takes place on Saturday 3 November 2018 at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm. Given that the concert is just a week before the centenary of the Armistice choir and orchestra will start the concert with a performance of Ina Boyle’s work “Soldiers at Peace” which was written in 1916. 

The following blog post is about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. 

1. If you were asked to name Ludwig van Beethoven’s greatest work, you are spoiled for choice. You might consider one of his symphonies to be his greatest work, maybe his third , his fifth or his ninth symphony. One of his piano concertos (maybe No. 5), one of the late string quartets or one of his many piano sonatas might be another contender for his greatest work. Some of you might even want to choose his only opera “Fidelio” with its clear message of freedom and justice, a true work of the period of enlightenment.

I am wondering how many of you would name his Missa Solemnis, a sacred choral work. Beethoven is neither known for his choral works nor was a he a prolific composer of sacred music. His main output for choir before the Missa Solemnis were three choral works which he wrote in the decade after 1800: In 1803 he composed his only oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, Op. 85 – a rather obscure work which is not performed very often. In 1807 he made his first setting of the mass in his “Mass in C major”, Op. 86. It was a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II and it was not well received. Prince Nikolaus asked Beethoven after the first performance “But, my dear Beethoven, what is that you have done?”. The following year (1808) he wrote his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 which is an unusual hybrid somewhere between a choral work and a piano concerto. Nevertheless, Beethoven said several times that he considers his Missa Solemnis to be his “greatest and most accomplished work” (“größtes und gelungenstes Werk”).

2. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in D Major (Missa Solemnis), Op. 123, is a setting of the ordinary mass for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. It is a substantial work and lasts almost 90 minutes.

Beethoven became interested in writing sacred music and in particular mass settings in 1818. He wrote in one of his conversation books:

“Um wahre Kirchenmusik zu schreiben – alle Kirchenchoräle der Mönche durchgehen – auch zu suchen, wie die Absätze in richtigsten Übersetzungen nebst vollkommener Prosodie aller christkatholischen Psalmen und Gesänge überhaupt.

“In order to write true church music, look through all the church chorales of the monks, etc., to find out the most accurate translations of all the sections, also the perfect prosody of all the Christian and Catholic psalms and canticles generally.”

This quote also describes his approach for composing the Missa Solemnis which he started shortly after that. He got a German translation of the text of the mass and was interested in understanding every nuance of the text and translating it into music. Beethoven extensively studied earlier church music, in particular Gregorian chant, Palestrina and Bach. He also admired and was influenced by Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. 

The historical reason for writing his Missa Solemnis are closely connected with Archduke Rudolf, the brother of the Emperor of Austria, Francis I of Austria. Archduke Rudolf was one of Beethoven’s few pupils. In 1803 / 1804 he studied the piano with Beethoven and Beethoven gave him lessons in composition. From 1809 he also become Beethoven’s most important patron and paid him a regular pension. Beethoven was very grateful and dedicated many works to the Archduke. In 1818 rumours began that Archduke Rudolf would receive the highest honours of the Austrian church. In 1819 these rumours were substantiated.  On  24 March 1819 Archduke Rudolf was elected as cardinal and six weeks later on 4 June 1819 he was further elated to Archbishop of Olmütz (Moravia). 9 March 1820 was set as date for his installation as Archbishop.

Beethoven promised Rudolf to write a mass for the occasion of his installation. He was very enthusiastic about this chance and wrote in a letter to the Archduke that this will be “the happiest day of my life”. However, Beethoven was not able to finish the composition in time. He started the firsts sketches of the first movement (Kyrie) in 1819. Towards the end of 1819 he worked on the Gloria, the second movement of the mass. In the first three months of 1820 he made sketches for the third movement (Credo). He completed Credo and the two final movements (Sanctus and Agnus Dei) before August 1822 and then spent considerable time on the orchestration. On 7 January 1823 Beethoven informed the Archduke about the completion of the work and on 19 March 1823. three years after the installation date, he handed over a beautifully copy of the work to Archduke Rudolf.

There are many reasons why Beethoven worked so long on this composition. Initially he concentrated on composing the mass setting.  However, once it was clear he would not make the deadline he worked on other projects in parallel, including the Diabelli variations and his Ninth Symphony. Between 1818 and 1823 there were also long periods of illness. His hearing was completely gone by that time and he regularly used conversation books from 1818 onwards. There were additional strains in his life, because of a legal battle about custody of his nephew Karl, son of his late brother Karl. Beethoven also struggled because of a lack of money and desperately offered his Missa Solemnis to several publishing houses (from 1820 onwards) and tried to get subscriptions from several Royal courts.

The first performance of Missa Solemnis took place on 7 April 1824 in St. Petersburg sponsored by Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an ardent admirer of Beethoven. Beethoven was not present at this performance. Three movements (Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei) were also performed in a theatre in Vienna (Kärtnertortheater) in May 1824 under the title “Three Grand Hymns for Solo and Chorus”. The church authorities only allowed this performance of parts of the mass in a theatre when Beethoven changed the Latin text into a German text and also choose a different title. At the same concert Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture and his Ninth Symphony were premiered. That was the only performance of Missa Solemnis which Beethoven witnessed. He was at that time deaf and could not hear it anymore.

3. Beethoven sets in his Missa Solemnis the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). However, Beethoven takes some licence with the text and made small alterations of the text for musical purposes. He uses the soloists as a kind of second “solistic” choir or chamber choir. He does not give specific movements or parts of movements to solo voices, as had previous composer like Bach in his Mass in B Minor or Mozart in his Mass in C Minor.

a) The first movement Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy. Beethoven asks the performers to sing and play “with devotion” (Mit Andacht). It is the shortest and also probably the most traditional movement of the Missa Solemnis. The work starts with an orchestral introduction. The first Kyrie-section is dominated by the chorus which sings “Kyrie eleison” three times (the first time with responses by the soloists). In the Christe-section the soloists who sing as quartet play a greater role. For the second Kyrie-section Beethoven goes back to structure and musical material of the first Kyrie-section in a modified form.

b) Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God. It starts in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with a opening flourish which is repeated severally times through the movement like a motto. There are great contrasts in tempi, volume, textures and character of the music throughout the movement. The reason for these are the word painting which Beethoven uses and his desire to reflect every detail and nuance of the text in the music. In solemn parts of the music for example the setting of  “et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (And on earth peace to men of good will) or of the word “adoramus te” (we worship thee) the music is generally low and quiet. For the celebratory parts the music is higher, louder and often more complex in its musical structure. The movement ends with two extended fugues to the text “in gloria Dei patris. Amen” (in the glory of God the Father. Amen.) and a last reprise of the Gloria opening flourish.

c) The third movement Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. It is similar in scale as the Gloria. Also in this movement Beethoven uses word painting and sets and orchestrates the words in a nuanced and detailed way which associates a particular phrase or musical idea with a specific image and specific words.

Beethoven as many other composers puts great emphasis on the three middle sections of the movement: incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In particular in the part about the incarnation and the crucifixion the soloists dominate the texture. At the “incarnatus” part, Beethoven uses a solo flute which represents the Holy Ghost and floats high above the musical structure . For the crucifixion the music gets dark and sombre and sforzandos and syncopated rhythms are associated with the images of suffering. For the words “et sepultus est” (and is buried) the music gets lower and lower and almost stops. The resurrection section is again dominated by the chorus and includes ascending scales.

As the Gloria movement also this movement has a specific musical theme, here for the word “Credo” (I believe),  which reoccurs again and again throughout the movement and gives the movement unity. Beethoven even decided to repeat “Credo” several times when the original text does not include a repetition. Also towards the end of this movement is a complex double fugue to the text “Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen” (and the life of the world to come. Amen.) – many say that this fugue setting is one of the most difficult passages of the whole choral repertoire.

d) The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: SanctusOsannaBenedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus is sung in the mass after the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels.

In this mass setting this section starts with the soloist quartet to the text “Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts). The setting is soft and reverent. Also for this movement Beethoven asks the performers to play and sing “with devotion” (Mit Andacht). The next two sections “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua” (Heaven and earth are full of His glory) and “Osanna in excelsis” (Hosanna in the highest) are short fugues for the chorus which are joyful and dancing. After the Osanna there is an orchestral prelude. This continues seamlessly into the Benedictus-section. In this section a solo violin enters which represents the Holy Ghost. It is written in the style of a violin concerto and was therefore also criticised at Beethoven’s time as unsuitable for a mass setting. Traditionally the Osanna-section after the Benedictus is often a repeat of the first Osanna. Beethoven decides to compose a second different Osanna-section.

e) The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem).

The movement begins in a funeral mood with the bass soloist who is soon joined by the men of the choir. During the repetitions of the Agnus Dei the pleas for mercy move up in the voice parts and become more intense. The last line of the text “Dona nobis pacem” is set separately by Beethoven. This phrase gets extensive musical treatment, including fugue structures. Beethoven wrote on the manuscript “Bitte um inneren und äusseren Frieden” (Prayer for inner and outer peace). There are clear allusions to war, because a military style march with distant drums and trumpets disturbs and interrupts the plea for peace. The voices get more anxious and the pleas get more desperate and urgent. The work ends with a final statement of choir “Dona nobis pacem” which is sung loud (forte). The outer signs of war seem to be gone, unclear is whether also inner peace is achieved.

4. Every setting of a sacred texts implicitly asks the question about the relationship of the composer with religion. Beethoven’s personal beliefs are unclear. He was raised a Catholic and spent as a boy much time in the organ loft, where he took lessons. Haydn called him once an atheist. This statement is almost certainly wrong. Some say that a work like the Missa Solemnis could only be written by a profoundly religious man. It seems that he did not have much time for organised religion and was probably not a regular church goer, but he was certainly interested in a more personal belief system. There are many prayers in his diaries and conversation books which always begin with “Dear father”.

His interest in religious sentiments becomes also clear, if one reads about Beethoven’s main aim with this mass setting. He wrote about it in a letter on 16 September 1824 to his friend Andreas Streicher:

“Hauptabsicht war, sowohl bei den Singenden als bei den Zuhörenden religiöse Gefühle zu erwecken und dauernd zu machen.”

“My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings in the singers as well as in the listeners.”

Ultimately we do not know what Beethoven believed and I think the answer to this question is maybe also not that important. Missa Solemnis is without doubt a spiritual work which will hopefully not leave the listeners unmoved. When Beethoven sent the copy to Archduke Rudolf he included a special motto:

“Von Herzen möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen”.

“From the heart – may it go again – to the heart”.

I do not know whether the performance will be a spiritual experience for singers and audience members, but I hope that in any case this motto will be the motto of our performance of this extraordinary work.

Freedom for Shawkan at last?

If you are a regular reader of my blog  you know the Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abu Said who is also called “Shawkan”. I have written three blog posts about him over the past years. The first one in August 2016 “Three years of injustice – Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan”. The second blog post in September 2016 about a new campaign “Sky for Shawkan” and the last one in December 2017 to mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the trial against Shawkan “Ongoing Injustice for Shawkan“.

He is currently still in prison, but there are some new developments and I hope that this will be my last blog post about Shawkan. 

1. When will freedom come for Shawkan?

Picture of Shawkan by Assem Trivedi

a) Shawkan is an Egyptian photographer. He was arrested more than five years ago on 14 August 2013 at Rabaa Square, Egypt. He was on this day on an assignment as photographer for Demotix and was arrested while he was making photos of the protest.

You can read more about the protest and his story in my previous blog posts, in particular my first one from August 2016. 

b) It took more than two years from his arrest until the begin of the trial against Shawkan. 12 December 2015 was the first trial date against him and 738 other defendants. Shawkan was the only journalist in the trial. Other defendants were participants in the protest, some belong to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The trial went over 70 hearings and ended almost 2 1/2 years after it began on 29 May 2018. Shawkan had been charged with 24 offences, including murder, “illegal gathering” and other violence related charges. In the hearing on 3 March 2018 the public prosecutor asked for the death penalty for  all defendants, including Shawkan.

Even after the last trial date the waiting and the uncertainty continued. Originally the judgement against all defendants was announced for 30 June. The court delayed the ruling and said that all defendants could not be transferred to the court due to “security concerns”. 28 July was set as a new date for the judgement. Shawkan still feared that he might be sentenced to death. Mona Eltahawy, a prominent Egyptian human rights activist, tweeted two days before the judgement date:

On 28 July the court sentenced 75 defendants to death. According to BBC the Grand Mufti in Egypt must be consulted whenever the death sentence is applied. Luckily Shawkan was not among these 75 defendants, but he had to wait for more than one further month to hear the verdict against him.

c)  On 8 September 2018 the Cairo Criminal Court handed down the complete judgement:

  • 75 defendants were sentenced to death (as already announced in July 2018)
  • 47 defendants were sentenced to life in prison
  • five defendants had died during the legal proceedings.
  • 374 defendants were sentenced to 15 years in prison
  • 23 defendants were sentenced to 10 years in prison
  • 215 defendants were sentenced to five years in prison.

Shawkan belongs to those who were sentenced to five years in prison. Shawkan and the other 214 defendants who were sentenced to five years in prison were all arrested on 14 August 2013 and have all already spent more than five years in prison.

All sentences can be challenged by appeal.

d) Today, more than three weeks after the judgement Shawkan is still in prison. Shawkan’s lawyer Karim Abdelrady tweeted on 8 September that Shawkan might not be unconditionally released but might stay under “police observation” for five years, meaning he will have to appear at a police station every day at sunset and probably also spent the night at the police station. About a week ago his lawyer tweeted that the “verdict had not reached” the prison yet and that Shawkan is therefore still not released.

The judgement as such is a travesty of justice. Shawkan did not commit any crime. He only did his job and took photos at a protest. But that this judgement has not even been implemented against Shawkan and that he is still behind bars is outrageous.

2. Please continue to campaign for Shawkan

As in my previous posts, I also would like to ask you in this one to continue to campaign for Shawkan. He has already spent more than five years in prison. He should not have spent one single day there, but in any case he should now be released immediately and unconditionally.

Please continue to write to the Egyptian authorities and tweet about him using the hashtag #FreeShawkan.

We started more than two years ago the social media campaign #SkyForShawkan and asked supporters to share on Twitter photos of the sky using the hashtag #SkyForShawkan. We did this, because Shawkan said in a letter that he misses the sky in prison and we wanted to raise awareness about his situation. Please also continue to support this campaign until he is free and can see the sky himself.

3. New #SkyForShawkan photos

I want to end this post with a selection of new #SkyForShakwan photos. Again I am grateful to everyone who allowed me to use their photos. They were taken all over world. Many of them were taken in different parts of Europe, but there are also photos which were taken in Africa (Uganda), in India and Iran, in USA and Canada and in South America (Chile). I hope you like the photos:


New developments in Ali Mushaima’s hunger strike

About three weeks ago I wrote  a blog post about Ali Mushaima and his hunger strike to achieve basic rights for his father Hassan Mushaima, a prisoner of conscience in Bahrain. If you want to know more about Ali’s father and Ali’s reasons for his hunger strike, then please read my previous blog post.

I would like to give you an update on his situation in the following post. 


a) A few days after my first visit, on 30 August Ali Mushaima was rushed to the hospital, because of  low sugar level, low body temperature and low blood pressure. It was the 30th day of his hunger strike. He was brought to St Thomas hospital Westminster. Ali was released after a few hours. The doctors urged him to break his hunger strike. Ali decided to spent one night at home to get a proper rest, but was back at Bahraini Embassy on the following day. He did not break his hunger strike.

b) On 4 September Ali got some significant support in his hunger strike. The prominent human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja joined him and went on hunger strike herself in solidarity with Ali.

Zainab is a daughter of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja another member of the Bahrain 13 who had been tried in this same trials as Ali’s father and had also been sentenced to life in prison. Zainab had been imprisoned several times herself. The last time she was arrested in March 2016 and was brought to prison together with her then 18 months old son Hadi. She had been sentenced to three years and one month in prison on the basis of several convictions including two charges for tearing up the picture of the Bahraini king. She was released on the 31 May 2016 after considerable international pressure and left Bahrain almost immediately because she was threatened with new arrests. Zainab lives now in Denmark in exile. When she heard about Ali’s hunger strike, she decided to come to London and join him.

c) On 11 September a debate took place at Westminster Hall with the title “Human rights abuses and UK assistance to Bahrain”. It was initiated by Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith. Several MPs specifically mentioned Ali’s father and supported Ali’s cause.. You can find the report which was the basis for the debate here. MPs of almost all parties were worried about the human right situation in Bahrain. The only members of parliament who defended Bahrain were the members of the Conservative Party. BIRD showed in an article about the debated that all three Conservative MPs who were supportive of Bahrain had received considerable donations from the Bahraini government in the past.

d) BIRD released a worrying statement about Ali’s state of health on the following day (12 September). They said that he had lost 16 kg (about 20% of his body weight) and that the doctors were

“alarmed for the “marked deterioration in his health and well-being”, and for the “acute consequences of his protest” which with “no doubt” will have “long standing implications”.

Numerous people asked Ali to stop his hunger strike to make sure that he would not seriously damage his health.

e) On 13 September 2018, after 43 days of hunger strike, Ali Mushaima made a statement at a press conference in front of the Bahraini Embassy. He said:

“After 44 days many friends have argued for me to end my hunger strike. I even received a message from Nabeel Rajab in prison. But what affected me the most was my father telling me how scared he was that there I was hospitalised. I will not end my hunger strike but I will start a liquid diet that will include soups. My body needs to recover but if my father’s basic rights are not met, which is full medical care, family visits and access to books, I’m ready to resume my full hunger strike not because it’s easy and not because it is life-threatening, but because I will never stop fighting for my dad and for our cause.”

Today (on 15 September) after 46 days of hunger strike Ali Mushaima ended his hunger strike.

I am very relieved that he decided to end his hunger strike. I am glad that his father received medication and that there was a cancer screening. Even so Ali told me that they are still waiting for the result of the screening after more than two weeks. The result should be available at the same day as the screening. I agree with him that the case has received considerable media attention and it is great that it received support from several MPs. I hope this attention and support will not die down before all basic rights are restored to his father.

f) I visited Ali yesterday evening at the Bahraini embassy. He is still there and he is still determined to fight for basic rights for his father. Ali said that he will stay at the embassy and will continue to sleep on this street for the time being, even so it is getting autumn and the nights are getting colder.

Let us make sure that his case is not forgotten and please continue to support him. Visit  him at the Bahraini Embassy, 30 Belgrave Square, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 8QB. Please sign and share the petition. Have a look at my previous blog post for more ways to help him.

Please also write to your MP. You can easily do so using the “Write to them” form. Thomas Brake (Liberal Democrats, Carshalton and Wallington) started an Early Day Motion (EDM 1631) two days ago. The motion asks for an end of the degrading treatment of political prisoners in Bahrain, including Ali’s father. Please ask your MP to support this Early Day Motion and generally to speak up for prisoner of conscience in Bahrain.

I hope that many of you will continue to support Ali Mushaima and his father. Hassan Mushaima is a prisoner of conscience and he should be released, but I hope that the Bahraini authorities will at least grant Ali’s father the family visits and the access books. These are basic demands for every prisoner.


Ali Mushaima – on hunger strike for his father Hassan Mushaima

I visited on Saturday afternoon Ali Mushaima. He is currently on hunger strike and sleeps in front of the Bahraini Embassy in London to protest the denial of medical care for his father Hassan Mushaima, a prisoner of conscience in Bahrain. 

I want to share with you in this blog post some information about Hassan Mushaima and about Ali’s hunger strike and his demands. 


1. Who is Hassan Mushaima?

811a) Hassan Mushaima was born in 1948. He is a shia cleric.

His political career started in 1990s. In 2001 he was one of the founders of Al Wefaq, one of the largest opposition parties in Bahrain. Between 2002 and 2006 he was Deputy Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq. In November 2005 he was co-founder of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy and has also been the General Secretary of this party since its foundation.

b) Hassan Mushaima was a key figure in the Bahraini upraising in 1994 and has been arrested several time for his pro-democractic activities. He spent six months in prison from March to September 1995. He was again arrested  and sentenced to five years in prison in January 1996. He was then arrested and imprisoned in February 2007 and was in detention from January 2009 – April 2009.

Hassan Mushaima was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010. He went to the United Kingdom into exile and also to receive cancer treatment. The treatment was successful, but he requires regular screenings every six months to make sure that the cancer has not returned. In 2011 Bahrain dropped all charges against him and he returned to Bahrain on 26 February 2011. He was welcomed by a large crowd of supporters at the airport. BBC interviewed him and he told BBC that “he wanted genuine democratic reform that could turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.” Hassan Mushaima was clear that he wanted to join the protests which had started on 14 February 2011. You can read more about the Arab Spring protest in Bahrain in my blog post about Parweez Jawad.

c) Hassan Mushaima enjoyed only three weeks of freedom in his home country. On 17 March 2011 security forces entered his house around 2 am and arrested him. He described what happened at his arrest as follows:

“I was asleep but my sons and daughters were awake, they heard loud and continuous ringing of the door bell, so they came to wake me up and tell me that the riot police are surrounding the house and that they are here to arrest me. I went to them and asked them the usual question if they had had a court order for my arrest or from the Public Prosecutor but they remained silent and entered my bedroom and searched it and took my laptop and my mobile phone, they then handcuffed me and took me, accompanied by a large number of riot police to “Safra” area. There and after the formal and quick examination they handcuffed me again and blindfolded me and put me in a vehicle I did not see for my welcome party to start, unlike all of my previous arrests, with beating, humiliation, insults and verbal abuse, for there was no law upheld or respected and no rights for the detainee, only bursts of hatred, revenge and vengeance.”

He explains in his statement that the intimidation and harassment continued during the following nights and days. He was abused, insulted, beaten and was forced to stand for hours. He was not allowed to take a shower. He gives in his statement many further details about the torture he had to endure. During the first month of his detention he had not contact with the outside world and when he was allowed to call his family after one month, he was warned not to say anything about the torture, but only greet them briefly.

d) Hassan Mushaima was tried as one of the members of the so-called “Bahrain 13”. It was the same trial in which Parweez Jawad was tried and you can read details in my earlier blog post about him. Here is a summary of the different court proceedings and verdicts:

The trial started on 8 May 2011 at the National Safety Lower Court. It is a military court and the case was brought by a military prosecutor.

The defendants were accused of a number of charges connected with national security crimes under Bahrain’s 1976 Penal Code and the 2006 Counterterrorism Law. The charges included among others “organising and managing a terrorist group for the overthrow and the change of the country’s constitution and the royal rule,” “seeking and correspond[ing] with a terrorist organisation abroad working for a foreign country to conduct heinous acts” against Bahrain, “broadcasting false news and rumours” that threatened public security, inciting sectarianism, and other similar charges.  The defendants denied all charges.

Further hearings took place on 12 May and 16 May 2011. On 22 June 2011 Bahrain’s National Safety Court sentenced Hassan Mushaima to life in prison.

The appeal against the verdict was heard on 6 September 2011 by the National Safety Court of Appeal, again a military court. The verdict of the court of appeal was handed down on 28 September 2011. The appeal court upheld all convictions and sentences imposed in the first instance.

On 30 April 2012 the Court of Cassation in Manama ordered that Hassan Mushaima and the other defendants shall appear in front of a civilian court. The sentence against him remained unchanged. The following appeal proceedings took place before the High Criminal Court of Appeal (another civilian court). The final verdict was issued on 4 September 2012 and the sentence against Hassan Mushaima was upheld.

Amnesty International said that there is no evidence that any of the defendants had committed a crime and used or advocated violence. Amnesty International considers all 13 activists as prisoners of conscience who are in prison for their right to freedom of expression and association.

e) Hassan Mushaima serves his sentence in Jaw Central Prison. As mentioned in my blog post about Parweez Jawad all of the Bahrain 13 prisoners are in a separate section of Jaw Central Prison. They have no contact with other prisoners, but can talk to each other.

Hassan Mushaima suffers from several chronic medical conditions, including gout, diabetes and erratic blood pressure. According to a statement from 10 human rights NGOs he requires over 15 different types of medication.  He is denied medical treatment and often does not receive all necessary medication. This has happened before. There was an Amnesty International urgent action on 14 June 2013 and on 29 July 2013. Both urged the Bahraini authorities to provide him with urgent medical treatment. There was another urgent action with similar demands in January this year.

Hassan Mushaima had no family visits since February 2017. In October 2017 the prison authorities confiscated all books, including religious books, papers, and writing materials from him and the other Bahrain 13 prisoners.

2. Who is Ali Mushaima and why is he on hunger strike?

Ali Mushaima is Hassan Mushaima’s son. Ali has been in the UK since 2006. He is living in North London together with his wife and their four months old daughter Zahra. 037.jpg

Bahrain has sentenced Ali Mushaima to 45 years in prison (he was tried in absence) and has revoked his citizenship in November 2012.

Ali started his hunger strike on 1 August 2018. He sleeps on a mattress on the street in front of the  Bahraini Embassy. When I visited him on Saturday afternoon it was the 25th day of his hunger strike. He told me that he drinks quite a lot, mainly water, but does not eat anything. He said he had lost about 12 kilos during his hunger strike up to now. A doctor visits him  every few days and he told me that the doctor was concerned about his low sugar levels at his last visit.

He sleeps outside – irrespective of the weather. He said that it was fine at the beginning of August when the weather was very hot, but that it was cold during the last nights and it was also raining quite a lot.

Ali Mushaima obviously wants to see his father free, but he currently has much simpler and more basic demands. His demands are:

(1) Adequate access to medical care, including the regular cancer scans

(2) Allow him family visit

(3) Give him access to books.

I made a short video (which is sadly not very professional), but it is still powerful to listen to Ali himself and understands why he had decided to go on hunger strike. Here is my tweet with the video:

3. What can I do to support Hassan Mushaima and Ali Mushaima?

I want to ask you to support Ali Mushaima and his father Hassan Mushaima.

If you are in London, then please go to the Bahraini Embassy and visit Ali. The address of the embassy is 30 Belgrave Square, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 8QB (not far from Hyde Park Corner Station). There are a number of people who visit him. His wife and his daughter come every day. A group of activists from Amnesty International joined him and protested last Monday and judging from social media there are quite a number of different people who decide to show their support through their visits. Nevertheless, Ali said he is always happy and grateful, if people come and talk to him and ask him about his situation and about his father. Also the embassy watches him all the time. They complain to the police for all sorts of reasons. It is good for Ali’s cause, if the embassy sees that many people are interested in Ali’s hunger strike and support him.

There is also a petition on Change.org. Please sign and share the petition. The petition could certainly do with many more signatures.

Please speak about him and his father on social media. If you do so, please use the hashtag #FreeHassanMushaima. Please also follow Ali Mushaima on Twitter for updates.

Finally, if you want to know more about Hassan Mushaima, I can recommend the following articles:

I want to close this post with the hope that Ali Mushaima’s hungers strike will be successful and that the Bahraini authorities will yield to his demands.

Where are the Saudi reforms? Saudi women rights defenders Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef in prison

“Saudi Arabia’ s Arab Spring, at Last” is the title of Thomas L. Friedman’s article in the New York Times in which he is full of praise for the reforms initiated by Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and First Deputy Minister since 21 June 2017. It is true that women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The driving ban was lifted on 24 June 2018. There are also a few other small tokens of reform in Saudi Arabia.

However, there is not much change for human rights defender. You probably know my blog posts about Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair. Both are still in prison and there is no indication that this will change soon.  Also the crackdown against in particular women human rights defender has intensified in the last weeks.  It seems to be rather a “Winter of Discontent” for human rights in Saudi Arabia than the “Arab Spring” described by Friedman. Several women human rights defenders were arrested earlier this year in May. On 30 July 2018 Saudi security forces arrested the well-known women rights defender, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

I want to write in this blog post about Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah who were arrested on 30 July and about Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef who were arrested in May 2018.   

I. Arrested on 30 July 2018: Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah

1. Samar Badawi

img_4240a) Samar Badawi was born on 28 June 1981 in Saudi Arabia. She  has a long history of fighting for women’s rights against her father and against the Saudi Arabian authorities.

Samar Badawi was married to the human rights lawyer Waleed Abulkhair and she is Raif Badawi‘s sister.

b) Samar Badawi’s father had abused her for years. In March 2008 she decided to endure the  constant abuse not any longer and fled to the Protection Home in Jeddah, a shelter for victims of physical abuse.

However, things are complicated in Saudi Arabia. No women is free to make decisions for herself. Every woman has a male guardian who decides among other things where she is allowed to live. The guardian is usually the father or husband of the women, but it can also be her brother, her uncle or even her son. Samar Badawi left her home against her father’s wishes. Therefore he filed a charge of “disobedience” against her. However, the public prosecutor and the courts decided to drop the charges.

In 2009 her father sued again for “disobedience”. This time Jeddah’s Summary Court president, Judge Abdullah al-‘Uthaim, issued an arrest warrant against her, because she missed some court hearing. The judge justified his decision quoting the Interior Ministry decree 1900 and said “disobedience is among the serious cases requiring imprisonment”. Human Rights Watch argues that there is no basis for this statement in the decree. Samar left the shelter in July 2009 to live with her brother. She hoped that this would protect her against further abuse and imprisonment.

In 2010 she wanted to marry Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer, who had also acted on her behalf in court. Under the male guardianship rules she needed the consent of her father as her guardian to get married. He was not prepared to give his consent and Samar filed a so called “Adhl” case against her father, requesting to remove her father’s status as her guardian. She went to a hearing in this case on 4 April 2010 and was arrested based on an open “disobedience” warrant. Samar Badawi spent more than six months in prison and was finally released on 25 October 2010. An uncle of Samar became her guardian.

You can read more details about these court cases in an article by Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia: Where Fathers Rule and Courts Oblige“. The article also the cases of two other women.

c) Samar Badawi also started legal actions to ensure women’s right to vote. Traditionally women in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to vote and were not able to stand for office. In September 2011 King Abdullah changed this and granted women the active and passive voting right. There were municipal elections in September 2011, but women were not allowed to exercise their right to vote. The government explained their refusal with “logistical difficulties”. Samar did not think there was any basis in law to deny women their right to vote. She filed a lawsuit in the Grievance Board against the Ministry of Municipal and Rural affairs, because of their refusal to register her as voter in the voter registration centre. She argued that there was no law against her registration and based her claim on Art. 3 and 24 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights. The Grievance Board accepted her cases in 27 April 2011, but then decided that her case was “premature”.

Her courageous actions were internationally acknowledged on 8 March 2012 when she was awarded with the 2012 International Women of Courage Award by the United States Department of State. They said about her:

“Badawi was the first woman to sue her father for abusing the guardian system and preventing her from marrying the suitor of her choice. She is also the first woman to file a lawsuit against the government demanding the right for women to vote, and launched an online campaign to encourage other women to file similar suits. The efforts of activists like Badawi helped encourage a royal decree allowing women to vote and run for office in future municipal elections.”

d) In 2011 and 2012 Samar Bawadi  joined the Women’s Driving Campaign. According to ADHRB there was never an official law which banned women from driving. However in the early 1990s the Council of Senior Religious Scholars issued a fatwa on the subject which argued that women who drive lead to “evil and negative consequences” . Therefore driving for women was forbidden. Women had been protesting against the driving ban since 1990. In 2011 Manal al-Sharif started on Facebook the campaign Women2Drive and encouraged women to defy the driving ban. Samar Badawi drove regularly from June 2011 onward and helped other women when they were arrested by the police or faced court proceedings of defying the driving ban.

In 2012 she filed charges in the Eastern Provinces Grievance Board against the General Directorate of Traffic, because they had rejected her application for a driving license. Samar argued that there is no legal basis for this rejection. She was the second women to do this after Manal al-Sharif who had filed an objection with the General Directorate of Traffic in Riyadh on 15 November 2011.

e) On 19 September 2014 Samar Badawi participated in a side event at the 27th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council titled “Human Rights Violations in Saudi Arabia“. She spoke at this event about the case of her then husband Waleed Abulkhair who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 15 year travel ban once he is released for his advocacy for human rights in Saudi Arabia. Two days later she meet with the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva. On 20 September 2014 she travelled to the USA to meet US senators and secretaries of state to discuss the  situation of human rights defenders, in particular of Waleed Abulkhair.

On 2 December 2014 she went to the airport in Jeddah and wanted to fly to Brussels to participate in a Human Rights Forum organised by the European Union. Samar was informed that the Ministry of Interior had issued a travel ban against her for an indefinite period of time. No reasons were given for this travel ban, but it is likely that her advocacy work at the UN and in the USA in September 2014 played an important part in the decision to ban her from further travelling.

f)  Samar Badawi had been several times the target of arbitrary arrests, interrogations and harassment, in particular in 2016 and 2017. She was arrested on 12 January 2016 in connection with her human rights activism. She had been summoned on 7 January 2016. When she arrived with her two year old daughter Joud she was interrogated for 4 hours. The police questioned her in particular in the context of her activism for Waleed Abulkhair and about managing his twitter account. The next day she was released on bail.

On 13 February 2017 she was again summoned for questioning on 15 February 2017. There was no specific reason disclosed to her. She was again interrogated for several hours. She tweeted afterwards that the interrogation was connected with her human rights activism.

g) About two weeks ago, on 30 July 2018 security forces arrested Samar Badawi. Her whereabouts or the reasons for her arrest are unknown.

2. Nassima al-Sadah

img_4241a) Nassima al-Sadah is a longstanding activist for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She comes from the Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia. Nassima was a co-founding member of the human rights organisation Al-Adalah Centre which did not receive a permission to work as a human rights organisations.

b) Nassima al-Sadah was involved in 2011 and 2012 the Women’s Driving Campaign Women2Drive. She joined Manal al-Sharif and Samar Badawi  and filed in 2012 a claim against the traffic department of the interior ministry at the Dammam court in Eastern Province, because they refused to issue a driving license to her. She had applied repeatedly for a driving license. She was the third woman who had filed such a claim in court.

c) The municipal elections on 12 December 2015 were the first elections in which women had the active and passive voting right. There were 2106 open seats in 284 municipal councils. The municipal council has no influence on national politics and only limited authority over local affairs. Over 900 women registered as candidates for a seat in one of the councils. There were 4.5 million eligible female voters, but only 132,000 registered to vote. ADHRB explained that there were significant obstacles for women to get registered. One problem was there was only a three week window to get registered. Because of the guardianship system and the ban on driving, many women were unable to get to the registration centre to register.

Nassima al-Sadagh was one of the women who declared her candidacy for a municipal council seat. She also set up a campaign committee and held workshops to encourage women to get involved and get registered. One of the reasons she gave for her candidacy was the following:

“Men have to know that women must sit beside them in every decision-making and that their voices should be heard.”

There were also restrictions for women who stood as candidates, because they were not allowed to address men themselves and had to use a male spokesman to address men. About two weeks before the elections, Nassima was informed that she was disqualified as a candidate. The authorities gave no reason for her disqualification.

d) On 30 July 2018 security forces arrested Nassima al-Sadagh. Also in her case, no reasons were given for the her arrest and her whereabouts are unknown.

II. Arrested in May 2018: Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul

On 19 May 2018  the Saudi Press Agency reported that seven individuals have been arrested for their “suspicious contact with foreign entities”, “recruiting people working in sensitive government positions” and “providing financial support to hostile entities abroad with the aim of undermining the security and stability of the Kingdom, and shaking the country’s social fabric”. Amnesty International think that this statement refers i.a. to three women rights defender and two other human rights defenders. The women are Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul. All three are still in detention and are held at an unknown location.

1. Aziza al-Yousef

Aziza al-Yousef

a) Aziza al-Yousef is a Saudi academic and a women rights defender. Aziza is in her sixties. As a young girl she studied at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for one semester. She moved then to the United States, where she studied at Virginia Commonwealth University. She gained in the USA a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then completed her master’s degree at the King Saud University.

Azizia is mother of four sons and one daughter and had been a professor of computer science at King Saud University for 28 years. She is now retired. She has also for years helped women who fled abusive marriages and homes.

b) Aziza al-Yousef has been campaigning for years for an end of the male guardianship. In an interview with Rob L. Wagner, she explained that she hopes that the economic circumstances will result in greater freedom for women. The government wants to increase women’s employment from 22% to 30% by 2030. It is difficult to achieve this goal with the strict guardianship rules. She said:

“We are used to 26 years of making demands. There is nothing we can do but to continue this thing. I hope the government treats this as an economic situation and we hope to get more allies. We have a young population with 50% under the age of 26. It’s time to listen.”

In September 2016 Aziza al-Yousef was one of the supporters of a petition to King Salman to abolish the male guardianship. According to an article in the Guardian there were 2,500 women who sent telegrams to the office of King Salman to urge him to end the guardianship system. The petition itself gained about 14,700 signatories. The hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian spread awareness about the campaign.

Aziza al-Yousef explains in the above mentioned interview that she sees in the strict guardianship system more a tradition in Saudi Arabia which evolved in the last three decades than an obligation in Islam. She explains that there is no rule in Islam which prohibits a women to work or to study.

“Islam does not say that women should not work or study but that she is responsible for her own actions and if she has a debt, she is responsible for that debt.”

Aziza al-Yousef delivered the petition on 26 September 2016 to the Royal Court. As far as I am aware there was no reaction to the petition.

c) Aziza al-Yousef advocated for lifting the driving ban on women for a long time and was also detained several times, because she drove in Saudi Arabia.

She was one of the key organisers of women driving campaign in October 2013. The campaign called on women to drive on 26 October 2013. There was a lot of opposition to this action. In the weeks before the 26 October a leading Saudi cleric gave an interview and warned that women who would drive cars will damage their ovaries. Two days before the campaign date the Ministry of Interior issued a warning and told women to stay off the roads. Nevertheless, the organiser were able to post several films of women who had defied the driving ban and it was one of the most successful and widely supported campaigns. A few weeks after the campaign date Aziza Al-Yousef had an audience with the  Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, via teleconference. She emphasised in this conference the desire of many women and men to end the driving ban for women.

In December 2013 she was again arrested when she drove in Riyadh. Her passenger Eman al-Nafjan (see the next chapter) was also arrested. Both were released after a few hours in the custody of their husbands. The husbands were asked to sign a statement that their wives would not drive again. Aziza al-Yousef’s husband signed the statement, but also asked the authorities who demanded this pledge from him:  “How can I do that? I can’t prevent her from driving. Only God can do that.”

d) Aziza al-Yousef was among the activists who were arrested between the 15 and 18 May 2018. There is no information about the reasons for her arrest or her current whereabouts.

2. Eman al-Nafjan

Imam al-Nafjana) Eman al-Nafjan is a women rights activist and blogger from Saudi Arabia. Eman used to work as school teacher. She earned a master degree in Teaching English as foreign language at University of Birmingham. She is an assistant professor of linguistics at a university in Riyadh. Eman is married and mother of four children. Foreign Policy named her in 2011 as one of the TOP 100 Global Thinkers.

b) Eman al-Nafjan started her blog “Saudiwomen” in February 2008. It is a blog in English. She writes about a wide range of topics, in particular social and political topics in Saudi Arabia and about women’s rights. Her latest blog posts are about a book by Manal al-Sharif: Daring to Drive and “Change can happen in Saudi Arabia“. Eman al Nafjan also wrote articles in 2011 and 2012 which were published in the Guardian. She also contributed opinion pieces to other newspapers like CNN, Foreign Policy and Newsweek.

c) In 2011 Eman al-Nafjan participated in the Women2Drive campaign and wrote several articles about the campaign and its background, i.a. for the Guardian. For the women driving campaign on 26 October 2013, Eman al-Nafjan was a key figure who mobilised many women and community figures alike. She also drove publicly in Riyadh during this campaign. You can find one of her blog post on the Amnesty International website about the 26 October driving campaign. Eman describes in her post the long history of campaigning against driving ban and explains that there were specific proposals to abolish the ban which were sent to the Shura Council by Dr Mohammad al-Zulfa in 2006 and another by Abdullah al-Alami in 2012. However they were not discussed in public. Also Eman emphasises in her post that there is no religious basis for ban, but that it is rather “socially maintained”.

Eman al-Nafjan was arrested in December 2013 when she was a passenger in a car which was driven by Aziza al-Yousef. As Aziza, Eman was questioned and released after a few hours in the custody of her husband.

In September 2016 Eman al-Nafjan was a signatory and one of the advocates for the petition to King Salman to abolish the male guardianship system.

d) According to Gulf Centre for Human Rights Eman al-Nafjan was arrested on 17 May 2018. She was allowed to call her family once, but there is no information about the reasons for her arrest or her whereabouts.

3. Loujain al-Hathloul


a) Loujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi women rights activist. Loujain was born on 31 July 1989. Her family comes from Qassim, a region at the heart of Saudi Arabia. Qassim is a very conservative region, but Loujain’s family is relatively liberal. Loujain lived as child several years in France. In 2015 Loujain al-Hathloul was named as the third most powerful Arab Women by the newspaper Arabian Business. She was also a participant of 2015 One Young World.

b) Loujain al-Hathloul explained in an interview with FT how she started being a campaigner for women’s rights. In 2012 she discovered a new app which was called Keek. Keek allowed its user to make 30 second videos which could be shared with others. Loujain was at at time studying French literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She was curious what Saudis uploaded. She was struck by one video of a women who said “Saudi women are stripped of their identity”. Loujain decided to make her own videos, showing herself with her hair uncovered and arguing for liberation of women, in particular by allowing women to drive. Her social media presence quickly grow and campaigners for Women2Drive got in contact with Loujain. She joined the campaign and one of her videos reached 30 million views.

c) On 21 October 2013 she came back to Saudi Arabia. Her father picked her up at the airport and gave her the key and asked her to drive the car. He also made a video which she shared. Loujain was disappointed that there was no reaction to her action, but her father was summoned and was asked to pledge that his daughter would not use the car in the future.

Loujain al Hathloul had a driving licence from Abu Dhabi which she got when she worked there. This driving licence was officially valid in all six GCC countries. Loujain decided to challenge the Saudi authorities. She drove her car to the Saudi border and wanted to enter with her car on 29 November 2013. Initially the authorities were unsure what to do with her and held her at the border for 26 hours. She was then told that she had two options: to head back or to face arrest. Loujain decided not to return to the Emirates. She spent 73 days in a prison in the Eastern province and the courts argued whether she should be charge under the terrorism laws for undermining the national security.  She was then released but only after she was prepared to sign a pledge not to speak out about women’s driving. She only accepted with a qualification – she would not make any new videos, but did not accept a restriction to her activities on Twitter.

d) Loujain al-Hathloul not only campaigns against the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia, but also for political rights and for the abolition of the male guardianship.

At the municipal elections on 12 December 2015 she decided to stand as on of the candidates. She explained that she want “to increase the percentage of women’s participation”. However her candidacy met the same fate as Nassima al-Sadah’s candidacy. Also Loujain’s name was struck from the list and no reasons were given for her disqualification.

In September 2016 she signed a petition to King Salman asking him to abolish the male guardianship. The petition was very popular and got more that 14,0000 signatures. Loujain al-Hathloul publicly advocated for the petition.

On 4 June 2017 she was arrested at the at King Fahad International Airport in Dammam and interrogated. A few days later on 7 June 2017 she was released without further charges.

e) About three months ago, on 15 May 2018 Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested again. This time the security forces came to her house. She has been held incommunicado since her arrest and it is unclear why she was arrested. She is still in detention.

III. Please campaign for Saudi women rights defenders

Since 24 June 2018 women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive, but those women who were instrumental in campaigning for the abolition of the driving ban are in prison.

As always, I would like to ask you to raise awareness for Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadagh, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathoul. All five are astonishing women and their stories are worth to be heard.

In May a Saudi newspaper tried to discredit Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathoul and other human rights defenders who were arrested by calling them “traitors”. They mentioned that the activists formed a “cell” and posed a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric“.

Saudi Arabia is very concerned about their public image. The crown prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud spent a lot of time during the past months to tour different Western countries and try to sell his ideas about reform and a “new Saudi Arabia”. Saudi Arabia reacted to criticism after the arrest of the women rights defenders in a quite drastic way.

After the arrest of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadagh the Canadian foreign office sent the following tweet:


As reaction to the tweet Saudi Arabia denounced the statement as a “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols”. They expelled the Canadian ambassador and announced that they will “hold all new business and investment transactions with Canada”.

I think we should stand with Canada and make sure that the stories of these women stay in the public conscience. Please consider writing to the foreign office of your country and urge them to speak up for the arrested women rights defenders.

You can also tweet about the five women. All five women use social media themselves. Their Twitter handles are: Samar Badawi @samarbadawi15, Nassima al-Sadagh @nasema33, Aziza al-Yousef @azizayousef, Eman al-Nafjan @saudiwoman and Loujain al-Hathoul @LoujainHathloul. You can use as hashtags #FreeSamar, #FreeNassima, #FreeEman, #FreeAziza and #FreeLoujain.

Amnesty International UK started an online petition “Free Saudi women who fought for the right to drive“. Please sign and share this petition.

Amnesty International also issued an urgent action in May after the arrest of Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathoul. Even so the date for his action has past, you can certainly still write to the Saudi authorities on behalf of all five women and ask for their release.

I included links to quite a number of articles in my blog post. I want to recommend in particular the following articles and reports, if you want to know more about the human rights defenders and about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in general.

  1. Report “Hollow Words, Empty Reforms: Saudi Arabia’s Effective Refusal to Reform Women’s Rights” by ADHRB (Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain)
  2. Human Rights Watch website “End Male Guardianship” with video clips and a lot of further information
  3. Human Rights Watch report “Boxed In. Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System
  4. A conversation with Saudi women’s rights advocate Aziza al-Yousef, Arab Weekly, 6 November 2016
  5. Eman al-Nafjan’s blog “Saudiwomen

Let us hope that the five women will soon be released and that a true Arab Spring will happen in Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed Mansoor – 10 years in prison for defending human rights

If you are regular reader of my blog, you know the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor from the United Arab Emirates. My last blog post about him was on 20 March to mark the anniversary of his arrest with a Twitter Day. I am writing this new blog post, because there is devastating news about him. Ahmed Mansoor was tried in the past months in a secret trial and sentenced on Tuesday to a harsh sentence for his human rights activism.

1. The Arrest

296More than one year ago, on the 20 March 2017, Ahmed Mansoor was arrested.

Around midnight security forces entered his home where he lives with his wife and their four small boys. They searched it for several hours. At the end they confiscated all phones and electronic devices and took him around 3:15 am to an undisclosed location.

This arrest was just the culmination of years of physical assaults, harassment, travel bans, death threats and different sorts of surveillance and hacking attacks against his phone and his computer. You find more information about all this in my blog post “Arrested, sentenced, not released” which I published one year ago.

2. Solitary Confinement and Torture

Ahmed Mansoor’s family was initially not informed about his whereabouts and his well-being. Nine days after his arrest, on 29 March 2017, the authorities stated that Ahmed Mansoor was at the Central Prison in Abu Dhabi (al-Wathba prison). They added that he has the “freedom to hire a lawyer” and that his family can visit him. On 3 April 2017 he was brought to the Public Prosecution building in Abu Dhabi for a short supervised family visit.

According to Amnesty International Ahmed Mansoor spent long periods in solitary confinement, maybe even all the time since his arrest. Despite the declaration of the authorities, Ahmed Mansoor had no access to a lawyer. He had no contact to the outside world and was not allowed to call his family.

On 17 September 2017 Ahmed Mansoor was again brought to the Public Prosecution building in Abu Dhabi for a second short family visit. He had lost a lot of weight and his physical and mental state of health at this visit gave reasons for grave concern.

For more than six months after this visit, the family had no contact with or news about Ahmed Mansoor. The place of his detention was unclear. On 26 February 2018 lawyers from Ireland approached the Ministry of Interior and wanted to gain access to Ahmed Mansoor. Neither the Ministry nor the police nor the prison were able or willing to give them information about his whereabouts.

About one month ago, International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE) reported that they have indications that Ahmed Mansoor had been tortured in prison. Jaseem al-Shasimi, a former UAE government official, gave an interview to the al-Hiwar TV channel. He said that he had spoken with detainees in the UAE. They had confirmed that torture was frequently used in prisons in UAE and added that also Ahmed Mansoor had been tortured by security officials.

3. Trial

The trial against Ahmed Mansoor began in secret. International Centre for Justice and Human Rights published on 12 April 2018 a press release and confirmed that the first 2900hearing in the trial against him took place on 14 March 2018. The second hearing took place on 11 April 2018. The charges against him were unclear at that point in time.

There is also no definitive information about the third hearing on 9 May 2018.  Human rights organisations reported in the first week of May that local media articles mentioned that the next trial date was on 9 May. However there is no information whether the hearing took place on this day and about its contents, if it did.

4. Judgement

a) Two UAE newspapers (“Gulf News” and “The National“) reported yesterday in the late afternoon that the State Security Court had sentenced Ahmed Mansoor on Tuesday 29 May to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Emirati Dirham (ca. GBP 200,000). Following the 10 year-sentence he will be put on probation for three years. The court ordered to confiscate all communication devices and delete statements, close websites and social media accounts. Gulf News only mentioned his initials, but The National published his full name. A short time after the publication of these two articles the international press followed with numerous articles and the accuracy of the information was confirmed by several human rights organisations.

Gulf News and The National report that there were a number of charges against Ahmed Mansoor. He was found guilty of publishing false information on social media which “insulted the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and “incited hatred and sectarian feelings”. In addition the reports claim that he tried to “damage the relationship of UAE with its neighbours” by publishing false information. He was cleared from the charge of “conspiring with a terrorist organisation”. According to the newspaper reports, he was defended by a court appointed lawyer who seemed to have spoken for him in a hearing earlier in May.

The article in The National mentions that the judgement can be appealed through the Federal Supreme Court.

b) I explained in my previous posts that Ahmed Mansoor used Twitter days before his arrest to speak out for Osama al-Najjar and Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith. You find more information about both of them in my blog post from May 2017. Both are prisoners of conscience. He also had criticised human rights violations in the region, in particular in Egypt and through the war in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition.

Ahmed Mansoor is punished, because he decided not to be silent, but to speak out against human rights violations and for prisoners of conscience. The trial against him was conducted in secrecy and was not a fair trial.

After his arrest the United Nations rights experts said about him in a statement:

“We regard Mr. Mansoor’s arrest and detention as a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE,” …  “Mr. Mansoor’s outstanding work in the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy, as well as his transparent collaboration with UN mechanisms, is of great value not only for the UAE but for the whole region”.

c) Since the publication of the articles in Gulf News and The National yesterday, several human rights organisations, human rights activists and politicians commented on the court decision. They all echo the statement of the United Nations mentioned above:

Fadi Al-Qadi, a MENA human rights commentator, was one of the first who tweeted about the court decision. His verdict was “Horrible news: UAE court sentence prominent human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor to 10-year prison term. For what? Contacting human rights groups. Appalling, shameful, unbelievable”.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion & expression, tweeted: “#UAE sentences Ahmed Mansoor to ten yrs prison for . . . using social media. Outrageous & shd be reversed”. Marietje Schaake who is an MEP and is a member of the committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament and the subcommittee on Human Rights quoted David Kaye’s tweet and said: “Ahmed Mansoor was the victim of targeted surveillance software attacks made by companies in the West, every aspect of this case is scandalous. #UAE showing true colors”.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Shame on #UAE for this cowardly and despicable sentence of — Laureate of Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, advisory committee member, and my friend. The only defamation here is of his character”. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights sees in the judgement a “[t]otal disregard for fair trial standards & right to free expression”.

Amnesty International published a press release earlier today. Lynn Malouf, Middle East Research director for Amnesty International, says “his persecution is another nail in the coffin for human rights activism in the country”. Amnesty International sees him as a prisoner of conscience and urges the authorities to quash the sentence and release him immediately.

These are just a few examples of reactions to the judgement against Ahmed Mansoor. Many other organisations and individuals used social media today to condemn the judgement in a similar way.

5. What can we do?

Since yesterday evening I had several conversations on Social Media. The main question was “is there anything that can be done” to help Ahmed Mansoor?

I was earlier this months at a panel discussion “Human Rights in the UAE – Why Britain Should Care” at one of the Committee Rooms in the Palace of Westminster. It was organised by ICFUAE and Drewery Dyke, Bill Law and David Wearing were the speakers. I asked each of the speakers exactly that same question: What can each of us do to help prisoners of conscience in the UAE? I want to quote Bill Law’s answer. Bill Law is an award winning journalist with a focus on the Gulf states and spoke in the event about “three heroes”: Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser Bin-Ghaith and Tayseer al-Najjar. He recommended that we share and tell the stories of each individual human rights defender. He suggested that we could “adopt” these people as prisoner of conscience and then campaign for them.

I want to pass on Bill Law’s recommendation and would like to ask you: Please share Ahmed Mansoor’s story. Speak about him on social media. Tweet for and about him. Share information about him on Facebook, Instagram or other social media. Speak about him and his fate with your family and your friends, in particular if UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi come up in your conversations. Raise awareness for him. Write to your MP and urge them to raise his case with your government. Support the human rights organisations who campaign for Ahmed Mansoor and other prisoner of conscience and join their protests.

UAE wants to silence Ahmed Mansoor and wants the world to forget him. Please make sure that they do not succeed.

I want to end this post with a quote by Ahmed Mansoor himself (taken from an article by Bill Law in Middle East Eye) about how he sees this own role as a human rights activist:

“The only way to counter repression is by revealing it. And yes there is always that possibility that I will go back to jail. But if (activists) do not talk, who will?”

Bernstein: Chichester Psalms – Hebrew psalms with a “hint of West Side Story”

Chichester_Psalms2018 is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Highgate Choral Society celebrate this occasion with a performance of one of his most popular choral works “Chichester Psalms” in our next concert on Saturday 19 May 2018 at 7pm at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London N6 6BJ. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by the countertenor James Hall, Milo Harper (harp), Molly Lopresti (percussion) and Edward Battling (organ) and will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

Apart from the Chichester Psalms choir and soloists will perform a varied programme with music by Janácĕk, Lauridsen, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. 

1. Chichester Psalms is a work by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) for mixed choir, boy solo and orchestra. Initially the work was written for a male choir where the soprano and alto voice parts are sung by boys. Bernstein allowed and conducted performances with mixed choir, but stipulated that the alto solo part should always be sung by a boy or a countertenor, but not by a woman. Bernstein prepared later a version in which the orchestral forces are reduced to organ, harp and percussion. This is the version which Highgate Choral Society will perform in the concert. The solo part will be sung by a countertenor.

2. In 1958 Leonard Bernstein became Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic. In this position he conducted a large number of concerts, made many recordings and also commissioned a substantial amount of music. However, there was only very limited time for Bernstein to compose music himself. In the 1964-1965 season he took a sabbatical year in order to have to time to compose.

Leonard Bernstein’s main project at the beginning of this sabbatical year was the composition of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth. This project was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two of Bernstein’s close friends. However by January 1965 the project had collapsed and Bernstein wrote in a letter that he was now “suddenly a composer without a project, with half of a golden sabbatical down the drain”.

This situation changed quickly. Already one year earlier in December 1963 The Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in England had written to Leonard Bernstein. He wanted to commission a work for the Southern Cathedrals Festival (held at Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals). It was not the first time that Rev. Hussey had commissioned a new work of art. As Dean of Chichester Cathedral and in his previous post as vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton he had commissioned choral works by Britten and Finzi as well as stained-glass windows by Chagall and Madonna and Child by Henry Moore.  Hussey had some ideas what he wanted from Bernstein:

The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both

In a letter in August 1964 Hussey also shared with Bernstein his hopes how the music should sound like:

many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music“.

Bernstein agreed quickly after Hussey’s first letter in December 1963 to write something for the festival, but it took more than a year and the abandonment of the musical The Skin of our Teeth for the project to become clearer.

In February 1965 Bernstein suggested to Hussey that he would set a suite of psalms or selected verses from psalms under the a general title like Psalms of Youth. He wanted the music to be “all very forthright, songful, rhythmical, youthful“. The only reservation Bernstein had was that he wanted to set the psalms in the original Hebrew. Bernstein was aware that this would make the preparation more difficult and he was not sure whether there were any ecclesiastical difficulties about singing in Hebrew in an Anglican cathedral. Hussey replied quickly and confirmed that the language would not constitute any problems. Only three month later in May 1965 Bernstein confirmed that the work was finished. He changed the title to Chichester Psalms, because he had the impression that “Youth” in the title would indicate an easy work which the Chichester Psalms were not.

3. The Chichester Psalms consist of three movements. In each movement Bernstein set one complete psalm and one or more verses of another complementary psalm, “by way of contrast or amplification“.

a) The work starts with a setting of Psalm 108, verse 2 (Awake, psaltery and harp:
I will rouse the dawn!
). Bernstein describes it as a chorale setting “evocating praise”. This introduction is a wake-up call and an invitation to the following dance like scherzo. Bernstein sets the full Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands) in a 7/4 meter. The music illustrates the text and the whole setting is a “wild and joyful dance“. Bernstein used in this first movement music he had originally composed for the abandoned musical The Skin of Our Teeth.

b) The second movement starts with a complete setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd). The soloist is accompanied by a harp and the whole atmosphere is calm and pastoral. Also the lyrical theme of this movement is taken from The Skin of Our Teeth.  After a few bars the soloist is joined by the sopranos and altos who take up the lyrical melody. This mood is savagely interrupted by the men with a “threat of war and violence“. Hussey got in this movement exactly what he had asked for. Bernstein set verses 1 – 4 of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage) which Hussey had suggested in his very first letter. He got also his “hint of West Side Story”, because Bernstein used music he had written for the prologue of the West Side Story, but which he had cut in the end. It is a fascinating thought that the music which is now sung by the men to the text “Lamah rag’shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (Why do the nations rage / And the people imagine a vain thing?) was originally conceived for a Manhattan street gang singing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics “Mix – make a mass of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay”. The movement ends in an unresolved way.

c) The third movement sets Psalm 131 in its entirety and in the coda Psalm 133, verse 1.  Bernstein described this movement in a letter to Hussey as follows:

Begins with an orchestral prelude based on the opening chorale, whose assertive harmonies have now turned to painful ones. There is a crisis; the tension is suddenly relieved, and the choir enters humbly and peacefully singing Ps. 131 complete, in what is almost a popular song (although in 10/4 time!). It is something like a love-duet between the men and the boys. In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda (Ps. 133, v. 1)  – a prayer for peace“.

Bernstein used also for the main 10/4 theme in this third movement music he had written earlier (a sketch headed “Wartime Duet?”).

4. Even though the Chichester Psalms was a commission for the festival in Chichester, the work was first performed in New York (on 15 July 1965, Philharmonic Hall). Bernstein conducted a programme of his own music and was asked to include the Chichester Psalms. The first performance in England took place two weeks later on 31 July 1965 at Chichester Cathedral. The choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedral and the Philomusica of London were conducted by John Birch. Leonard Bernstein and his family went to Sussex for the UK premiere of the work.

The Chichester Psalms was generally very well received. Hussey conveyed to Bernstein also the gratitude of the Bishop of Chichester who said he could imagine “David dancing before the ark”. Less enthusiastic was the young composer John Adams who was in his early 20s. He wrote an angry letter to Bernstein. He asked him why Bernstein had decided to turn his back on new music and included the provocative question “What about Boulez?”. To Adams’ astonishment Bernstein replied to him and explained that one can only write what “one hears within one”. For Bernstein this was at that point in time tonal music.

The Chichester Psalms became quickly part of the choral repertoire. Significant performances of the work conducted by Bernstein took place in 1973 and 1989. In 1973 he conducted the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope which was televised all over Europe. In 1989 Bernstein conducted the work in Warsaw at a concert which marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

5. I want to end this blog post with an excerpt from a poem Bernstein wrote about his sabbatical year for the New York Times. It includes a witty and the same time touching description of his Chichester Psalms:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major
But there it stands- the result of my pondering
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet


One year of solitary confinement – Join the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I wrote twice before about the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. Last May I wrote a blog post about him and two other human rights activist in the UAE. The second post about him was in September and I asked you to join a Twitter Storm for Ahmed Mansoor to mark the day six months after his arrest. Ahmed Mansoor is still in prison and the anniversary of his arrest will be on 20 March. I would like to invite you to mark the 20 March 2018 with a Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor. 

1. What is Ahmed Mansoor’s current situation?

Ahmed Mansoor was arrested one year ago on 20 March 2017.  Around midnight security forces entered Ahmed Mansoor’s home where he lives with his wife and their four small boys. They searched the place for three hours, confiscated all phones and electronic devices and took him around 3:15 am to an undisclosed location.

During the whole year Ahmed Mansoor’s family was only allowed two short family visits. One visit was shortly after his arrest on 3 April 2017. The second visit was on 17 September 2017. Drewery Dyke spoke with ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) about this family visit. He said that Ahmed Mansoor was not in a good condition. He continues:

He had lost a considerable amount of weight to the extent that he was looking gaunt, quite gaunt, that he was in a disorientated confused state. Repeatedly expressing his regret about the situation and seeking an end to it.

I understand that the family had no further contact with Ahmed Mansoor after this devastating visit. Ahmed Mansoor is not allowed to call his family and there were no further visits. They have not heard about him for almost six month and I am sure they are very worried about his health and his well being.

Amnesty International stated that Ahmed Mansoor spent the first six months in solitary confinement. This may still be the case a further six months on. I think it is likely that he is still in solitary confinement, but no one knows for certain, because he is held incommunicado at an unknown place.

According to Ahmed Benchemsi, the Middle East Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, it is also unclear whether Ahmed Mansoor had access to a lawyer. Mr. Benchemsi said to ABC that lawyers are afraid to defend Ahmed Mansoor because they fear repression and potential arrest themselves.

On 26 February 2018 lawyers from Ireland approached the Ministry of Interior of UAE and tried to get access to Ahmed Mansoor. The mission was mandated by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Martin Ennals Foundation, Front Line Defenders, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). They were not able to get any information about Ahmed Mansoor’s whereabout.

Amnesty International published on 16 March 2018 also an urgent action, because Ahmed Mansoor’s whereabout is unknown. Please take action for him – also after the Twitter Day.

2. What can I do to help Ahmed Mansoor?

To mark the day of Ahmed Mansoor’s arrest, we would like to invite you to join a Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor on 20 March 2018. Join us and show the United Arab Emirates that we have not forgotten Ahmed Mansoor, but will continue to demand his release until he is free at last. If you use other social media like Facebook or Instagram, please use also these accounts to raise awareness about him

You can start sending tweets on 20 March after midnight in your time zone and tweet during the whole Tuesday until midnight. Tweet as much as you can, if many people from different time zones take part, we will have hopefully tweets during the whole of Tuesday.

Please join in, even if you have only time for a few tweets at a specific time. It is a team effort and we will all work together.

Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor

3. What shall I tweet?

  • Send tweets to raise your followers’ awareness for Ahmed Mansoor. Tell them about him and his courageous work defending human rights in the UAE. Tell them that he is held incommunicado and that his family had not contact with him for six months. You can also send tweets to journalists and newspapers and ask them to write about his case.
  • Send tweets to the United Arab Emirates, in particular to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum  @HHShkMohd, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and to Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash @AnwarGargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and ask them to release Ahmed Mansoor. You can also tweet to Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan @SaifBZayed, the Minister of Interior of the United Arab Emirates. He is the authority who controls and runs prisons in UAE. Other accounts to address are Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan @ABZayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum @HamdanMohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan @MohamedBinZayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
  • In addition you can tweet to politicians in Europe and the US, e.g. Federica Mogherini (@FedericaMog) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country. Feel free to tweet in your own language.
  • You can finally send tweets with words of support to @Ahmed_Mansoor. You can tweet that you stand with him and that you will campaign for him until he is released and similar messages.

4. Is there a special hashtag?

Please use the hashtags #FreeAhmed and #WhereIsAhmed – irrespective of the language in which you tweet. If everyone does, it is easy to find and retweet the tweets of others.

5. Suggested tweets

You can write your own tweets, but if you need some inspiration here are some suggested tweets:

  • Human rights defender @Ahmed_Mansoor has been in detention in Abu Dhabi without trial, access to his lawyer and only very limited access to his family for one year. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • The family of @Ahmed_Mansoor had no contact with him for more than 6 months. They do not know where he is and they do not know whether he is well. Show your support for Ahmed and his family. Ask @SaifBZayed #WhereIsAhmed and urge #UAE to #FreeAhmed immediately and unconditionally
  • . @Ahmed_Mansoor is a human rights defender who is honoured around the world for his courageous activism and for speaking up for prisoners of conscience. In UAE he is punished for it. He is now a prisoner of conscience himself. Be his voice. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Harassed, given death threats, held in solitary confinement without access to the outside world for one year. @HHShkMohd must release @Ahmed_Mansoor immediately and unconditionally. #FreeAhmed NOW

  • Urge @HHShkMohd @AnwarGargash @SaifBZayed to release @Ahmed_Mansoor immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • #UAE holds @Ahmed_Mansoor incommunicado with no information for more than 6 months. #UAE wants the world to forget Ahmed. Please speak out for him and make sure that UAE doesn’t succeed and that he is not forgotten. Help him & be his voice. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • .@Ahmed_Mansoor was arrested one year ago. He is a highly regarded human rights defender who always speaks out against injustice and for prisoner of conscience. Until his arrest he was the last human rights defender who dared to criticise #UAE authorities in public. #FreeAhmed
  • Since @Ahmed_Mansoor arrest one year ago, he was only allowed two short family visits, but no calls and no one has any news about him since the last visit in September 2017. Join the call #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Please @FedericaMog intercede for @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He has spent one year in solitary confinement for defending #humanrights. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Please @guardian write about @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He is a brave human rights defender in jail for speaking up for others. Ask #UAE #WhereIsAhmed and help to #FreeAhmed.

6. Where can I find more information about Ahmed Mansoor?

If you want to know more about Ahmed Mansoor or want to share articles about him to your followers, here are some useful websites:

  1. Amnesty International: “United Arab Emirates: Release Emirati Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor!” (March 2017)
  2. Human Rights Watch: UAE: Free Prominent Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor Held on Speech-Related Charges (April 2017)

  3. Ahmed Mansoor Discusses the Human Rights Abuse in the UAE (on YouTube) (June 2012)

  4. United Nations: UN rights experts urge UAE: “Immediately release Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor” (March 2017)
  5. European Union: DROI Chair calls on the United Arab Emirates to unconditionally release Ahmed Mansoor (March 2017)
  6. Bill Law: Ahmed Mansoor: Why we must not allow a brave man to be silenced by the UAE, Middle East Eye (March 2017)
  7. Sophie McNeill: Ahmed Mansoor: NGOs fear world has forgotten arrest of UAE’s last human rights defender, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (November 2017)

7. Graphics you can use:

Tweets are always far more effective and get greater attention, if you include a picture. Here are some graphics which you can use during the Twitter Day and afterwards. I want to thank in particular Gianluca Costantini and Aseem Trivedi for their support through art:




Handel: Israel in Egypt

img_2416Highgate Choral Society’s March Concert features one of the great oratorios by George Frederick Handel “Israel in Egypt”.

The concert takes place on Saturday, 10 March 2018 at 7pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by five wonderful soloists and the New London Orchestra. The concert will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

1. Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is an oratorio by George Frederick Handel. It is scored for six soloists (2 sopranos, alto, tenor and 2 bass soli), chorus and orchestra. In our performance the mezzo soprano soloist will sing the alto and the second soprano solo parts.

2. Handel was a very prolific composer of operas. His first opera Almira was premiered on 8 January 1705 in Hamburg. During his life he wrote 42 operas. Typically the libretto of an opera was in Italian and there was great emphasis on virtuoso solo arias and elaborate staging and costumes. When Handel visited London the first time (in 1711), it was mainly because his opera Rinaldo was to be performed there. But opera was not the only genre in which Handel set a dramatic libretto to music. As early as 1707 / 1708 Handel wrote two works which he called “oratorios” in Italy: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrectione (1708). Both were written for Rome and both were oratorios and not operas, because operas were forbidden in Rome since Pope Innocence XI papal edict in 1681. These works did not have staging, costumes and acting, but were otherwise operas in everything but name. Handel returned to writing oratorios in London with the oratorio Esther. It was probably first performed in 1718 in a private performance and then in a heavily revised form in 1732 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket in London. Esther was the first oratorio based on a story taken from the Old Testament of the Bible and written to an English libretto.

In the 1730s Handel found it more and more difficult to be successful with Italian opera in London. From 1733 the situation became worse because of the competition by a second opera company, the rival “Opera of the Nobility” which was supported by a group of nobles (including Frederick, Prince of Wales). This competition and the declining interest of the public in operas resulted in the bankruptcy of Handel’s opera company in 1737. In the season 1738 / 1739 it was impossible to attract enough subscriptions to mount an opera season. Handel decided that if he could not afford an opera season then he would try an oratorio season with oratorios in English. Oratorios were cheaper to put on, because they did not need costumes and staging. They also had two additional advantages: The religious authorities in England did not allow stage productions of biblical stories and did not allow any stage productions during Lent. A concert style oratorio was the solution to all these problems.

3. Handel wrote the oratorio Saul which was premiered on 16 January 1739 for the beginning of the 1738 / 1739 oratorio season. Israel in Egypt was the second oratorio in this season. The premiere was on 4 April 1739 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket, London.  Handel wrote Israel in Egypt in an incredible short time of only one month (1 October – 1 November 1738). Initially the oratorio had three parts. Handel started work on the third part first (“Moses’ Song“) and wrote it between 1 October and 11 October 1738, then he wrote the second part (“Exodus”) between 15 and 20 October 1738. The time until 28 October 1738 he used for instrumentation of the work. Two years earlier he had written an anthem for the funeral of George II’s consort, Queen Caroline. It had the title The Ways of Zion Do Morn and Handel used the work (with only small changes in the words) as the first part of Israel in Egypt which he called “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph“.  For a revival of the work about twenty years later in 1756 Part one was removed and substituted with music from other works. In later performances a two part version (with only the original parts two and three) was generally preferred. We will perform the two part version of Israel in Egypt. This version does not have an overture and starts immediately with a short recitative. Our performance will start with the overture from the oratorio Susanna which Handel composed in summer 1748 and which had its premiere on 10 February 1749 in Covent Garden Theatre, London.

4. Israel in Egypt is in many ways an exceptional oratorio. It is one of only two oratorios which uses text exclusively from the Bible (without any paraphrases and interpolation). The other oratorio is Messiah. The text for the libretto is taken from the book Exodus and some passages from Psalms 78, 105 and 106 which retell and reflect the story in Exodus. It is not entirely clear whether Handel chose the text himself or whether Charles Jennens who wrote the libretto for Saul and who put the text together for Messiah also helped with the libretto of Israel in Egypt. 

The other reason why it is an exceptional oratorio is that it does not tell the story of one specific individual hero. It rather celebrates the story of the people of Israel, starting with their oppression in Egypt, their exodus and a celebration of their victory and their salvation. For that reason the choir is the main protagonist of the oratorio and the choruses clearly dominate the work. There are only very few recitatives, arias and duets. The first audience was not expecting this extensive use of the chorus and that was one of the main objections to the work in Handel’s lifetime.

5. Part one consists of only two recitatives (for tenor soloist) and one aria (for alto soloist). The other 13 movements are choruses. Part two has 23 movements. The majority of these movements are again choruses (15), but part two contrasts the choruses with two recitatives (for tenor soloist), three duets (one for two sopranos, one for two basses and one for alto and tenor) and three solo arias (one for tenor, one for soprano and one for alto).

a) Part one (“Exodus”) starts with a short recitative in which a tenor soloist sets the scene: a new king reigns in Egypt and this leads to the oppression of the Israelites. The first chorus (double choir) gives a voice to the people and describes the burdens and bondage of the people of Israel. The next recitative (again sung by a tenor soloist) introduces Moses and Aaron who will rescue the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. The next five choruses and the only aria in Part one (for alto soloist) speak about the ten biblical plagues: God turns water into blood (chorus), sends frogs – even to the king’s chamber in the palace, brings disease over the cattle and other livestock and boils over the Egyptians (aria for alto). The following chorus (for double choir) speaks about three plagues: flies, lice and locusts which devour the fruits of the ground. Next follows the hailstorm which brings hail and lightening (chorus – double choir), a darkness for three days (chorus) and finally the death of all the firstborns (chorus).

After all these plagues the Israelites are finally allowed to leave (chorus) and the Egyptians are glad that they do so (chorus). However the Egyptians change their mind and go after the Israelites. The culmination of part one comes in the following two choruses (both for double choir): God gives Moses the power to divide the Red Sea and lead the people of Israel safely through dry ground with a wall of water on both sides. When the Egyptian king and his army follow, the water returns and kills everyone (chorus). Part one closes with two choruses (one for double choir) which acknowledge the greatness and power of God.

b) Part two (“Moses’ Song“) is primarily a celebration of the victory described in part one.  It sets Chapter 15 of the book Exodus almost completely. The part starts with two choruses (both for double choir) which celebrate God’s triumph. The following duet for two sopranos is more contemplative and sets the text “the Lord is my strength and my song, he is become my salvation”. Solemn and joyful choruses follow in this part and arias and duets – some are prayerful, other are martial like the duet for two bass soloists “the Lord is a man of war”.

The last movements round off the whole work in an affirmative way. The double choir sings “the Lord shall reign for ever and ever” after a short tenor recitative a reprise of the same setting for double choir follows. The final chorus which is again preceded by a short tenor recitative has a more elaborate version of the same sentiment and sets an extended version of the text. This chorus brings the work to a triumphant and celebratory end.

6.  Perhaps because of the haste in which it was written Israel in Egypt contains only comparatively little original music by Handel. Examples of completely original pieces are the chorus “And I will exalt him” and the tenor aria “The enemy said”. Both are in part two. There is a high proportion of borrowings from other composer. Altogether ten movements across both parts contain music taken from the Magnificat by Milanese composer Dionigi Erba (1692-1730). Five movements include music borrowed from a cantata by another Italian composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682). In addition Handel used music from an instrumental piece by Stradella for the choruses “He spake the word” and “He gave them hailstones”. The chorus “Egypt was glad” is based on an organ canzona by the German composer Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693). Other music which Handel uses is by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612) and Francesco Urio (1631-1719). To adapt and borrow music of other composers was not unusual in Handel’s time as there were no copyright protections. But it is remarkable how much Handel borrowed and how much he made it his own to produce a musical cohesive work which uses different technics of choral settings, including settings for double choir, elaborate fugues, cantus firmus themes and also choral settings were all voices sing in one thunderous block of sound.

Also remarkable is Handel’s extensive use of word painting in this oratorio. The descending phrases in the first chorus of part one depict the “sighing” which the text mentions. The music imitates the images in the text in particular in the movements about the plagues: the leaping figures in the violins for the frogs and the buzzing strings for the flies and lice. The movement about the “hailstones” start with only a few chords. Then the music becomes more agitated as if the hailstones get more frequent and the timpani sound like a thunderstorm. Similar word paintings occurs also in part two. A good example is the galloping rhythm in the two choruses which mention the “the horse and its rider”.

7. Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was initially not very popular. It was only performed twice in 1739. Also when the oratorio was performed in 1756 in a revised version it was not a great success.

The reception of the work changed after Handel’s death. There was a revival performance in 1784 to celebrate the centenary of  Handel’s birth (one year early). The audience which included Joseph Haydn was very enthusiastic. During Victorian times the oratorio became one of the favourite pieces of choral societies. Thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, who got to know the manuscript on one of his visits to England, it was also performed in Germany with great success. He conducted Israel in Egypt on 26 May 1833 in Düsseldorf, 1836 in Leipzig and 1844 in Berlin. He performed it with a German text, wrote an overture, cut some of the movements and changed some of the instrumentation. In a letter he describes vividly the performance in Düsseldorf which even included costumes and a kind of staging.

One of the earliest recordings ever made was of a chorus of Israel in Egypt. It was made on 29 June 1888 during a performance at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London (with a choir of 4000 singers) and can be heard on YouTube.