Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.
Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.
“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”
“It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”
The efforts come as the Syrian conflict enters its ninth year. On March 15, 2011, eight years ago yesterday, Syrians, inspired by the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” demonstration. Within a few days, protesters around the country were calling for freedom, dignity, and political reforms. Later that month, activists in the southern city of Daraa toppled a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad that stood in a city square. This past Sunday, hundreds of Daraawis marched once again, this time to protest the erection of a new statue of the former Syrian president.
In the intervening years, a mass anti-government uprising descended into a merciless war involving at least a half-dozen countries, each of which has contributed to Syria’s destruction. Few would dispute, however, that the Assad regime is responsible for most of the violence that flattened entire cities, uprooted millions of people from their homes, and killed — according to an estimate that is now three years old — 470,000 people.
The scale of atrocities is unfathomable, yet the perpetrators have evaded accountability — and are gradually being welcomed back into the diplomatic fold. Some Arab states, which effectively blacklisted Assad in 2011, are slowly thawing their relations with the Syrian regime, while Russia, Iran, and China have invested in lucrative reconstruction contracts.
The victims of the war, however, have not been deterred from pursuing justice. One goal of their efforts, said Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, is to send a strong message that core members of the Syrian regime should not be considered part of any transition period or political solution to the Syrian conflict. “The goal of our work is to block any attempt to rehabilitate war criminals and people who’ve committed crimes against humanity,” said al-Bunni, whose work with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights led Germany’s federal prosecutor to issue an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate. “It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”
The International Criminal Court, which sits in the Hague in the Netherlands, is an international, intergovernmental tribunal created by the Rome Statute with the authority to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Often referred to as a court of last resort, it hears cases when state courts are unwilling or unable to do so, or when the United Nations Security Council or individual states refer cases to the court.
The U.N. Security Council in 2014 floated a resolution to refer Syria to the ICC. China and Russia (Syria’s patron state), exercised their veto power to block that from happening. Because Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, the court has no independent basis for jurisdiction. A ruling from the court last year, in a case pertaining to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, however, opened up a new possibility for those hoping to bring Syria before the ICC.
In September, ICC judges issued a pretrial ruling that said the court could exercise jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar, which is not an ICC member state, to Bangladesh, which is. Deportation is a crime against humanity, and the court reasoned that one element of the crime — crossing the border — occurred in Bangladesh, thereby creating jurisdiction. The judges also ruled that the court could look into other crimes under the Rome Statute, such as persecution and other inhumane acts.
Based on that precedent, Syrians are arguing that the ICC has jurisdiction over deportations from Syria to Jordan, which is party to the Rome Statute and is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees. The London-based Guernica Center for International Justice submitted an Article 15 communication to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on March 4, asking her to open an investigation into the forcible deportation of Syrians into Jordan. A group of lawyers, led by Rodney Dixon QC of Temple Garden Chambers, filed a similar communication on March 7, on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
While the lawyers publicly announced their submissions, Article 15 communications are confidential and generally come to light only if the prosecutor decides to take some sort of action.
“Anyone can communicate with the court through Article 15 of the Rome Statute, the treaty that underpins the court, basically sending information to the court,” said Heidi Nichols Haddad, author of “The Hidden Hands of Justice: NGOs, Human Rights, and International Courts.” “It’s then up to the prosecutor to compile that information and decide whether to take it to a judge and move forward with a preliminary investigation.”
In a statement to The Intercept, the office of the prosecutor confirmed the receipt of the Syria-related communications. “As we do with all such communications, we will analyse the materials submitted, as appropriate, in accordance with the Rome Statute and with full independence and impartiality,” Bensouda’s office wrote. “As soon as we reach a decision on the appropriate next step, we will inform the sender and provide reasons for our decision.”
Jordan’s response could make all the difference.
Bensouda could either decline to take action or unilaterally decide to open a preliminary investigation. A third option would be to file a pretrial motion asking the court’s judicial chamber to rule on jurisdiction, as Bensouda did in the case of Myanmar. The court would ask Syria to respond and Jordan to weigh in. Last year, Bangladesh welcomed an investigation into the deportation of the Rohingya into its territory; with regard to Syria, Jordan’s response could make all the difference, cautioned al-Bunni, the human rights lawyer.
“The party that has to request an investigation is the government of Jordan, because it’s the one that’s suffered the harm,” he said. The question of jurisdiction could put Jordan in a quandary, caught between a just cause of helping Syrians’ quest for accountability and the geopolitical implications of helping to facilitate the prosecution of the head of a neighboring state. The Jordanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.
The legal teams built their filings around interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, in addition to the massive trove of documentation of crimes in Syria from the last eight years.
“I actually think the case is stronger as far as Syria is concerned than it was as far as the Rohingya were concerned,” said Toby Cadman, an attorney at the Guernica Group, which submitted an amicus brief in the Rohingya case. He noted that the scale of displacement in Syria is much larger: About 5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, compared to about 730,000 Rohingya refugees.
“That’s not to underestimate the significance of what happened to the Rohingya,” Cadman said. “I think just that the way the conflict has been documented in Syria, we actually know a lot more about what’s happened [there] than what’s happened in Myanmar.”
While the lawyers focused their filings on the crime of deportation, following the precedent set by the Rohingya decision, they also laid out other potential crimes that have occurred in Syria — the use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centers, and torture — as well as the risks that refugees would face upon being returned to Syria, such as conscription and detention.
“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning.”
“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning, and that usually means you’re speaking to people who have been detained, or people who are in fear of detention,” said Ibrahim Olabi, a Syrian lawyer who is completing his legal training at Guernica. “I interviewed people who had nothing to do with the uprising and were picked up and detained and tortured, again, in the worst possible means.”
One Syrian interviewed by Dixon’s team said she saw a child blown into pieces by a projectile, “which is a moment seared into her memory,” according to an excerpt from an Article 15 communication that Dixon shared with The Intercept.
She states that when bombing campaigns started in her town, everything intensified. When her cousin decided to flee with his family, he was killed in a missile attack on a minibus and the bus was so burnt that her family could not identify his body. She described her grave fear for her life and the life of her family during the bombing campaigns which randomly targeted buildings around her and hit a school nearby. She decided to flee to Jordan when she heard that regime forces had “cleansed” another part of her town and were moving to her area. She said the regime forces were implementing a policy of cleansing and that she feared she and her family would be killed.
“It’s important to understand that in order to prove crimes against humanity, the prosecutor has to show that there is an attack on the civilian population,” said Dixon. “All of the other crimes that have occurred in Syria can be used by the prosecutor to prove that there has been an attack on the civilian population, of which these deportations are a part.”
That’s not to say that the ICC would necessarily be able to seek convictions in relation to those wider crimes, but the prosecutor would at least gather evidence of them. “That’s important because it gives those victims a voice and it gives the opportunity to a prosecutor to prove the wider pattern and policy of crimes,” Dixon said, “which would be very important for the record and can then be used, in this case, to file a case of deportation and the other crimes against humanity.”
There are limitations to the ICC’s ability to prosecute cases and hold perpetrators accountable. One clear example is that of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been wanted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur for a decade. Because the ICC does not have a police force, it needs cooperation from states who would be willing to execute an arrest. Al-Bashir, however, has traveled around the world, including to ICC member states, and remains a free man.
The legal maneuvering Syrians have done to try to bring their case before the ICC represents another limitation. Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.
That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.
Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.
The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain. (Cadman and al-Bunni have been involved with some of these cases.)
These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.
Groups like Guernica and the Syrian Legal Development Program, which Olabi founded as a law student in 2014, have trained Syrian lawyers and human rights activists on how to document atrocities in a way that would make the evidence admissible in court.
“What we’ve been doing, for example, is assisting [activists with] how to document in a legal way,” Olabi said of the Syrian Legal Development Program. “So we created witness interview questions for organizations, for example, that were documenting forced displacement, or helped an organization that’s working on chemical weapons, put it together in the legal framework, which then leads to all the different reports that we used in our Guernica submission.”
Syrians are making use of every tool at their disposal to hold perpetrators accountable under international law, yet many of them hope to see these crimes prosecuted in a post-conflict Syria some day.
“The prosecutions have to happen in Syria, absolutely,” said al-Bunni. “But we have to get there and prepare to have prosecutions in Syria, prepare for transitional justice in Syria; but to get there, we need to show that these people are criminals and no one should interact with them in any shape or form.”
As the Syrian regime cements its military victory, the prospect of a post-Assad state — or a period of transitional justice — is difficult to imagine. Until then, the mere process of pushing for accountability at every forum possible has a number of benefits, El-Sadany said.
“The fact that individuals who are once thought to never have been able to be held accountable are being held accountable or evidence is being collected, I think that is important in and of itself,” she said. “The process of participating in these cases, the process of documenting the evidence, the process of even speaking out loud about the violations that an individual or victim had to endure and who perpetrated those violations, that’s important from a documentation perspective; from a healing perspective for victims; for the memorialization and education perspective so that decades from now, the history of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian war isn’t rewritten.”
The post Syrian Human Rights Lawyers Use Precedent Set in Rohingya Case to Try to Bring Government Officials Before the International Criminal Court appeared first on The Intercept.
On January 12, 2016, Yuli Novak called her staff of a dozen people together in their Tel Aviv offices to reveal the identity of a spy who had infiltrated the organization. At the time, Novak was the executive director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli anti-occupation group that collects testimonies of Israeli soldiers operating in Palestinian territories. She informed the staff that a man calling himself “Chai” had been secretly videotaping them. Chai had been active with the group for a year and a half, visiting their office on a weekly basis, and had grown close to several staff members.
“The moment I said it, everyone’s first reaction was to look left and right,” Novak told me over iced tea in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, in July. “The initial feeling was paranoia — everyone thinking to themselves, Who else? People were automatically suspicious. In that moment, you don’t know who is for you and who is against you.” Frima Bubis, who joined Breaking the Silence just before Chai was exposed, remembers the feeling. “Your mind just runs — I even suspected Yuli. It was awful. Everyone scared of the other, but everyone looking to others for support,” Bubis said. “I remember it as a moment of serious trauma of trust. It was a relief that it wasn’t anyone from the staff.”
Chai, whose real name turned out to be Chaim Fremd, had been hired by a right-wing Israeli group called Ad Kan, or “no more” in Hebrew. Ad Kan, part of the powerful political network that supports Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, holds as its mission to dig up dirt on Israelis who “seek to join the anti-Israel platform.”
Chai wasn’t the first mole. In the months prior, there were less successful attempts to sabotage Breaking the Silence’s work. including people who approached the group with fabricated accounts of their service in an effort to entrap the organization into publishing inaccurate testimonies. Among them was Oren Hazan, who in 2015 tried to get the group to publish a testimony he made up about Israel’s 2014 military operation in Gaza; he later admitted when confronted by a journalist in the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that he was part of a settler-funded campaign to “expose” left-wing groups. He went on to become a legislator with the ruling Likud Party.
For Breaking the Silence, the discovery of a network of spies was just the tip of the iceberg. The small whistleblower organization has found itself at the epicenter of a well-orchestrated, ongoing campaign by a spectrum of right-wing groups, individuals, media outlets, and senior politicians to quash its exposure of Israel’s occupation and human rights violations. The attacks have included incitement and threats. They have been called liars, traitors, and enemies.
The political persecution of Breaking the Silence is a testament to the settler right’s consolidation of power and permeation into the mainstream.
For the right, the attacks against Breaking the Silence make sense. The military is revered in Israel, and elite combat soldiers who question or challenge their service in the occupied territories represent the most effective wrench in the institutionalization of Israel’s system of control in the West Bank and Gaza. As one of the sole voices in Israel speaking consistently and clearly against the occupation, a bright red target has been placed on the group’s back. (Disclosure: I did some freelance translation work for them several years ago.)
The political persecution of Breaking the Silence is a testament to the settler right’s consolidation of power and permeation into the mainstream over the last decade; allegations against the group have found their way into the talking points of Israel’s most powerful leaders. The state has put a heavy price tag on calling for an end to the occupation, and Breaking the Silence has found itself on the front lines of this battle.
Those lines have become increasingly clear ahead of an April 9 election that is essentially a referendum on how much further right Israeli society will go. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made an alliance with the racist Jewish Power party that even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has condemned. He is portraying his only viable opponent — former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, who boasts in a campaign video that, under his command in 2014, “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” — as a leftist. Gantz, for his part, has formed a joint ticket with former finance minister and Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid, who has accused Breaking the Silence of “spreading lies.” Meanwhile, the only Jewish political party openly campaigning for an end to the occupation, Meretz, may lose the few seats it has in the Knesset.
“There is an active attempt to kick us out of the tent,” said Avner Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s executive director. “I think it’s clear the reason they are trying to do that is because at this point, we are still in it.”
Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP
Five and certainly 10 years ago, few Israelis had heard of Breaking the Silence. It functioned as an educational group, primarily to put information out there for audiences to find and provide a home for disillusioned former soldiers.
Breaking the Silence was founded in the summer of 2004, during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, by a group of 64 discharged soldiers who had completed their military service in the West Bank. The ex-soldiers had a hard time coming to terms with the things they did and wanted to speak out. Publishing accounts like theirs — making them available to the public — was the solution they settled on.
The first booklet of testimonies, which debuted along with a photo and video exhibit in Tel Aviv, focused on what the former soldiers did and saw between 2001 and 2004 in the West Bank city of Hebron. A gray city lined with checkpoints, concrete barricades, and barbed wire, 850 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of soldiers, live among 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron, making it a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The booklet shed light on this Disneyland of occupation — where Israeli control over and abuse of Palestinian people, space, movement, and property is unmistakable — and brought it into the heart of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.
Smoke and fire caused by explosions from Israeli military operations is seen on the outskirts of Gaza City on Jan. 8, 2009.
Photo: Hatem Moussa/AP
Breaking the Silence members were invited to present their exhibit in Israel’s Knesset and participate in a parliamentary Education Committee discussion attended by senior defense officials — something that would be unheard of today. At that meeting, Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders and the face of Breaking the Silence, spoke. “No one, not even the staunchest leftists or the best commanders, really know what is going on in the territories, except for us, and we continue to be silent,” he told the committee. “We have three options. One: to refuse” — a reference to those who won’t do military service. “Two: to escape to India” — a common rite of passage for Israelis who travel after completing their military service to leave the stresses of what they did behind. “And three is what we are doing now: to stand up and shout, not only about what we went through, but about what society is going through — and, primarily, what society does not know.”
In addition to gathering testimonies and conducting tours in West Bank flashpoints, Breaking the Silence holds educational events and salons. Like other Israeli anti-occupation groups, Breaking the Silence is supported largely by European funds. In 2018, nearly half of its 8 million-shekel ($2.2 million) budget came from European governments. A number of European and American foundations also support the group, among them George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the New Israel Fund, which funds many Israeli human rights organizations and has been the target of right-wing incitement for years. In December, Israel sent a letter to the German government asking it to “fundamentally rethink” its funding of a variety of Israeli left-wing organizations, among them Breaking the Silence.
While it often gets lumped in with the human rights community because its work exposes the violations of Palestinian human rights, Breaking the Silence puts a mirror up to Israeli society, highlighting the price being paid by Israelis themselves as occupiers. The group’s argument is simple: Controlling millions of people by force is immoral, and soldiers who serve Israel’s military occupation will necessarily engage in immoral acts. But they are a small organization. In the nearly 15 years since being founded, 1,200 Israelis have provided testimonies on their military service — a tiny number considering there are around 75,000 soldiers on active duty on a given day in Israel. Still, the group has created an unprecedented archive of testimonies from individual soldiers and crosschecked data about IDF operations and policies that would otherwise have never seen light.
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
July 15, 2009. That was the day Breaking the Silence became persona non grata, Shaul, the group’s co-founder and co-director, told me matter-of-factly. On that day, the group released testimonies on Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza operation, the first since the state pulled settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. The testimonies revealed gaps between the IDF’s portrayal of combat and what soldiers actually did, for example deploying white phosphorous in densely populated neighborhoods and destroying buildings where there were no direct threats. “That second, we became the enemy of the state,” Shaul said. Several media producers cancelled interviews with members of Breaking the Silence that day, claiming that then-IDF spokesperson Avi Benayahu had given them an ultimatum, Shaul explained. “Breaking the Silence was told by TV and radio producers that Benayahu’s message to them was that if they wanted him on, they couldn’t speak with us. They had to choose. So guess who they chose?” Shaul said. Benayahu denied the claims. “This is not true,” he told me. “I claimed that the credibility of the report is in doubt since names and locations were not identified.”
The group remained on the government’s bad side, but it was a May 2015 report that officially placed Breaking the Silence on the blacklist. “This is How we Fought in Gaza,” a collection of 111 testimonies from soldiers who participated in the 50-day operation in Gaza in the summer of 2014, points to evidence of Israeli war crimes — even though that term doesn’t appear in any of Breaking the Silence’s materials. (Israel’s assault on Gaza, according to the United Nations, killed 2,251 Palestinians, most of them civilians, 551 of them children. Hamas’s attacks on Israel killed 73 people, including six civilians.) The group expected some backlash to the report — like denunciations by politicians and efforts to discredit the testimonies — but the near-daily barrage of attacks, threats, and legal steps against them in the following months caught them off guard.
Senior government officials across the political spectrum incited against them, accusing the group of having “malicious motives” and engaging in “subversion.” A lawmaker from the nationalist Jewish Home party proposed a bill to outlaw the organization entirely. The State Attorney asked a court to order the group to reveal the identities of the soldiers who provide testimonies, which are almost all anonymous. (Breaking the Silence claimed in court that the identities of testifiers should be protected the way journalists’ sources are. The State Attorney eventually withdrew the claim, and the court closed the case).
The group’s computer databases were subjected to cyberattacks so intense, Shaul said, that hackers must have “rented servers worth thousands of dollars and had people working in shifts around the clock.” They assume the attacks were an effort to expose testifiers and have since invested in high-caliber data protection, as well as security cameras and other safety measures. A media misinformation campaign targeted the group amid concrete threats against its offices, its staffers, and some of their relatives, and even the owners of venues who hosted their events.
The attempt to silence Breaking the Silence, in other words, was an attack on all fronts.
This period of unprecedented aggression toward Breaking the Silence culminated in a March 17, 2016, TV segment about the group by Israel’s popular Channel 2, aired during the primetime news hour. Dubbed an exposé, the 13-minute report was based entirely on footage filmed by Ad Kan’s moles. It alleged that the organization was collecting classified military intelligence that could undermine national security, and that it had planted one of its own activists into the IDF in order to collect such information. (The latter is a baseless claim considering that every non-Arab Israeli — regardless of politics or affiliation — must enlist in the army). The footage showed Breaking the Silence staff members interviewing the infiltrators (as they do with everyone who provides a testimony), asking many detailed questions about their military service. The Channel 2 reporter suggested — with no evidence — that these questions were possible grounds for espionage.
The herd-like cacophony of accusations drowned out the fact that some significant figures did come out in defense of the organization.
Within a couple of hours after the report aired, at 10:58 p.m., Netanyahu tweeted, “Breaking the Silence has crossed another red line. The investigative security authorities are looking into the matter.” (The prime minister’s office did not respond to my question about what the first line crossed was.) The next day, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that he would instruct the IDF to investigate Breaking the Silence on suspicion of leaking classified information. Then another Likud minister, Yariv Levin, accused Breaking the Silence, in no uncertain terms, of engaging in “espionage” and “treason”— a charge that could carry the death penalty. He did not provide any evidence but rather highlighted that they receive funding from European governments.
Similar censuring statements were made by politicians from center and center-left parties, some even adopting Netanyahu’s “red line” language, which the prime minister had previously used to discuss the threat of an Iranian nuclear program. The herd-like cacophony of accusations drowned out the fact that some significant figures did come out in defense of the organization, including former IDF Gen. Amiram Levin, and Yuval Diskin and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.
Three years after the claim surfaced that Breaking the Silence collects classified information, the Israeli judiciary confirmed last month what the group had asserted all along: The charge was without merit. On February 5, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said there was no basis to pursue any criminal investigation against Breaking the Silence, legally clearing them of all suspicion. Channel 2, despite a demand by the group, has yet to retract the report that set the accusations off.
Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters
The government crackdown on Breaking the Silence has taken place in tandem with a push by right-wing groups directly and indirectly connected to the government. One method they have used is to try to delegitimize Israeli NGOs that receive foreign government funding. In December 2015, the hyper-nationalist, far-right group Im Tirtzu released a highly polished and unabashedly incendiary video that purported to implicate members of several leading Israeli human rights groups, among them Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s director, of working for European governments in support of Palestinian militancy. The “foreign agents” report accompanying the video defined a foreign agent entity as “an organization that receives funding from foreign countries and entities to conduct political activities inside Israel in order to interfere with its internal democratic process.” The next year, Israel’s parliament passed the “NGO Transparency Law,” which is designed to stigmatize left-wing nonprofits that receive the majority of their funding from abroad.
Avner Gvaryahu, CEO of Breaking the Silence, after a media briefing in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2017.
Photo: Oded Balilty/AP
Another group that targets Breaking the Silence is Reservists on Duty, founded after the release of Breaking the Silence’s Gaza testimonies. Its mission, as stated on its website, is to “expose and counter the BDS movement” — a reference to the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law — “and new forms of anti-Semitism erupting on college campuses across America.” In practice, it mostly goes after Breaking the Silence, as part of the Israeli government’s broader effort to connect the group to the BDS movement. When I asked how Breaking the Silence is connected to either BDS or anti-Semitism, Reservists on Duty director Amit Deri claimed that Breaking the Silence’s testimonies are used to “spread hate” as “materials that feed the monster.” In 2016, Reservists on Duty received $100,000 through the tax-exempt New York-based Central Fund of Israel, which is notorious for channeling funds to settlements. It is also the conduit through which Canary Mission, a shadowy blacklist site of pro-Palestine activists, received donations.
The right-wing groups going after Breaking the Silence are loosely connected to one another, and some of their leaders were former staffers in Netanyahu’s government. Im Tirtzu was founded by people formerly affiliated with the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which is run by Yoaz Hendel, Netanyahu’s former director of communications. Netanyahu in 2017 congratulated Im Tirtzu on 10 years of “fighting for the truth about Israel and Zionism.” Reservists on Duty’s founders are also affiliated with Im Tirtzu.
The fearmongering around Breaking the Silence and BDS has become part and parcel of the government’s agenda.
The fearmongering around Breaking the Silence and BDS has become part and parcel of the government’s agenda. On February 26, Breaking the Silence launched an exhibit of testimonies in Brussels, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by American-Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein. Israeli Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the ministry charged with combatting BDS globally, tweeted in response to the exhibit’s launch that the group “cooperates with the worst of Israel’s enemies.” He added, “We operate in a variety of ways against boycott groups, and apparently Breaking the Silence is also such a group.”
The concerted attacks on Breaking the Silence have taken a toll. Bubis, the organization’s Jewish diaspora coordinator who was portrayed in the Channel 2 report as a mole in the IDF, said her life has changed drastically since. Other staff members mentioned the word “trauma” when describing to me what they had gone through. Others still said they experienced panic attacks, though they were quick to note that their ordeal pales in comparison to the lives of Palestinians under occupation.
“We were very careful not to believe in conspiracies at the time, but now after more than two years, it’s hard not to see it,” Bubis said. Her work with Breaking the Silence has created rifts in her personal relationships. While at a wedding in 2017, an officer in the IDF reserves recanted his offer to give her a ride home after learning that she works for Breaking the Silence. “You people disgust me,” he told her. “You are going to have to find another ride.”
Novak, who spoke to me in her first interview since leaving the organization in early 2017 after five years as its director, said she is still processing what happened. At the time, the day-to-day operations of the organization felt like a “war room,” she recalled. They were working 12- to 14-hour days in the office, sleeping at each other’s houses, and avoiding interactions with anyone outside their bubble. “During that period, I did not walk around on the street alone, it was not safe. I was very careful. It changed my lifestyle dramatically. It was very scary.”
Yuli Novak, formerly the executive director of Breaking the Silence, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 5, 2016.
Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Although the constant attacks against the group have subsided, they upended the organization’s ability to do its work and have arguably left permanent damage. In the last 2 1/2 years, according to Breaking the Silence, not a single one of its events hosted in a municipal building went without interventions by a government minister or elected official in an effort to cancel it. Last summer, a Jerusalem court ordered the closure of a small gallery space that had come under scrutiny after it hosted a Breaking the Silence lecture in 2017. As part of the effort to quell its public events, last July, the Israeli parliament followed through on a yearslong threat to pass a law — dubbed the “Breaking the Silence” law — that grants the education minister authority to prevent organizations or individuals from hosting programs in high schools that are deemed to be acting against the IDF or that seek to damage IDF soldiers.
“In a democracy, the opposition is supposed to have the spaces — public spaces — where they can try and convince citizens to switch sides,” Novak said. “If those spaces, real physical spaces, are threatened or no longer exist, because the price tag is that high, then there is no more democratic game.”
Photo: Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000 led to a gaping political vacuum in which almost no political parties are pushing for an end to occupation — or even acknowledging it exists. That’s where Breaking the Silence and other organizations like B’Tselem, the information center for human rights in the occupied territories, come in. They have become the de facto opposition in Israel, because they are in the West Bank, spotlighting Israeli state violence and pushing a rights-based narrative. “Occupation is one of the most normal things in Israel. One of the hardest things for Israelis to do today is imagine an Israel that is not an occupying entity. It’s our national enterprise,” Shaul said. “We didn’t sign up to be the Israeli opposition, but now we are.”
In theory, the backgrounds of the Breaking the Silence team should give them credibility in Israeli society. Several of the group’s founding and current staff members, among them Shaul, Bubis, and Gvaryahu, come from Orthodox Jewish homes and have relatives who live in the settlements. They are not refusers or boycotters, who are considered beyond the pale by the vast majority of Israelis, and their criticism is not aimed at the IDF as an institution, but rather at the elected politicians who determine what the IDF does. They are not what the right likes to call the draft-dodging, secular peaceniks from Tel Aviv. They are pillars of Israeli society, the elite. But it appears that is exactly why they have been targeted so fiercely. As Novak puts it, “Breaking the Silence is the DNA of the Zionist left. They didn’t pick some anarchist group. They chose the backbone of the Israeli left, in order to destroy it from within.”
Frima Bubis speaks with a police officer in Hebron, minutes after a child hurled a can of paint at her head on July 16, 2018.
Photo: Mairav Zonszein
As Bubis told me, “It’s a fight over what’s happening here. We’re not just exposing the reality of occupation, we’re fighting the mechanisms that maintain it.” In mid-July, while giving a tour in Hebron to eight eager American Jews who had just walked off their Birthright trips, a settler child lobbed a can of yellow paint at Bubis, which splattered all over her curly hair. The soldiers present just stood there looking on, as Bubis grabbed for some tissues and asked if anyone had caught the act on their phones.
This is a fairly average day in Hebron for Breaking the Silence, whose guides are often harassed by settlers. Just a couple weeks later, Shaul was punched in the face by a settler in the same area while giving a tour. When I saw him a week later, back in Hebron to give another tour, he was surrounded by activists serving as a buffer between him and the settlers, and was wearing a GoPro camera in a harness strapped around his torso. He acted like it was just another day at the office.
The post Inside the Israeli Right’s Campaign to Silence an Anti-Occupation Group appeared first on The Intercept.
In October 1978, Fiat Brazil’s workers were on the verge of their first strike. The Italian carmaker’s factory in South America would go on to become its most successful: Today, more Fiats are produced in Brazil than in any country besides Italy, and Fiats are the third most popular car in Brazil. But 40 years ago, as Fiat was growing into its Brazilian operation, turmoil was on the horizon.
At the Fiat factory in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, workers, fearing repression, had been organizing in secret. The military, which had taken power in a 1964 coup d’état, sometimes violently opposed labor organizing. Yet the Brazilian and Italian Fiat executives couldn’t ignore the palpable energy on the factory floor in Betim, the city where the Fiat plant had opened only two years earlier.
Six days before work would eventually come to a halt, Airton Reis de Carvalho, the precinct chief with the local police department, sent a letter to the military. A Fiat worker had been spending hours in front of the police station, trying to locate and free a jailed colleague who was viewed as indispensable to the push for a strike. “There really were Fiat employees who were detained,” Reis explained in his letter. “All of the measures taken by our precinct in this case were in keeping with our agreement with Colonel Joffre, of the Fiat Automotive’s security department.”
Under Joffre Mario Klein’s careful watch, Fiat had been spying on Brazilian workers in collaboration with the military dictatorship.
Reis was referencing Joffre Mario Klein, an army reserve colonel who had joined Fiat’s Brazilian operation in its early days — and who would be at the center of the company’s machinations against its own workers. Under Klein’s careful watch, the Italian carmaker had been spying on Brazilian workers in collaboration with the military dictatorship. Klein’s role in keeping Brazilian workers in check for Fiat, along with a long list of repressive moves by the company, are coming to light after a yearlong investigation by The Intercept Brasil, which tracked down documents from archives in Italy and Brazil and interviewed ex-workers at Fiat, former union leaders, and prosecutors in both countries.
The repression of labor at Fiat Brazil came thanks to coordination between the security apparatuses of the Brazilian government and a massive clandestine espionage network operated within the company itself, according to documents at the Minas Gerais public archive. Headquartered in the auto plant and commanded by Klein, Fiat’s internal espionage division employed dozens of civilian and military spies who investigated the lives of workers and helped the abusive dictatorship put agitating workers behind bars.
While Fiat’s network of spies operated far beyond the factory walls, closely tracking workers’ activities, the company also invited government repression onto its premises, according to documents from the Office for General Security, a now-defunct division of the Minas Gerais state police. The Brazilian Department of Political and Social Order, a police force known by its Portuguese initials, DOPS, operated freely among Fiat workers. DOPS was infamous for frequently taking the lead in brutal government campaigns of repression against social and political activity, and had employed torture and murder among its tactics since the 1950s. These were the dark forces infiltrating union meetings with the blessing of Fiat Brazil’s own security apparatus.
Fiat’s spying operation in Brazil had a parallel back home in Italy. Fiat engaged in the same pattern of espionage in Italy during the “Years of Lead,” a time of Italian political and social turmoil in the that ran from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, according to a second batch of documents from Fiat’s official archives in Turin, Italy, as well as documents from the federal courthouse in Naples, Italy.
The Italian spying operation was exposed in the 1970s, when the prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello conducted an investigation and found that Fiat had developed a system of pervasive espionage. A former secret service agent headed up the internal spy ring, and police, judges, and ex-military men were all implicated. The spies compiled hundreds of thousands of files with information about workers’ private lives, including intimate details. The information would prove useful for Fiat in identifying union leaders and ferreting out strike plans. Years after the investigation was complete, the case finally went to court, and some public officials and Fiat executives were convicted. While many of the details have come to public light, however, the history of the Italian spy ring is likely to remain a patchwork: A substantial portion of the evidentiary files from the case have disappeared.
In April 2018, in response to an initial inquiry about this story, Fiat Brazil said, “We consulted several sources in the company, but there is really no memory of such events.” In February of this year, Fiat Brazil offered the same comment in response to a detailed inquiry and declined to make company officials available for an interview. Fiat’s Italian headquarters referred The Intercept to the Brazilians’ statement and added, “Regarding the issues concerning Italy, we have no comments to make, because they are well-known things that have been reported in newspapers on many occasions in recent decades and on which books have also been written.”
Photo: Mana Coelho
In Minas Gerais, the strike finally came on October, 23, 1978, when Fiat’s employees on the factory floor halted their work. It would be a clash that reverberated through decades of Brazilian history, and a test not only for the plant’s managers, but for the authorities as well. For workers across the country, Fiat — which had invested substantial resources and political capital in building out its presence in Brazil — showed the possibilities of resistance in the face of long odds. Even at a company whose bosses had a close relationship with the military, there was hope, meaning that the dictatorship was not all-powerful. New strikes inside other auto companies followed. Among the workers on those picket lines was a young man named Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, who would go on to become Brazil’s 35th president a quarter-century later.
It was not supposed to be this way. At least that’s what Brazilian politicians had promised Fiat, according to a leaflet released at the time, used by Brazil’s National Institute of Industrial Development to attract foreign investment. During the negotiations to bring the carmaker to Brazil, the local governor, Rondon Pacheco, had told the Italians that his country offered a pacified labor force — they were poorly educated, “depoliticized youths,” mostly from rural areas, without a culture of labor struggle. This rosy picture of a docile workforce led local authorities to work with Fiat to set astounding production goals: They hoped to quickly build and scale up the operation so that, in short order, 190,000 new cars would roll off the factory floor every year. Those sky-high ambitions would be Fiat’s undoing. To get things moving more quickly, Fiat rushed in metallurgists from Italy and experienced toolmakers from the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and São Paulo. But these skilled workers came from home having already been steeped in organizing: Both states had union movements operating at full steam.
The newcomers quickly spurred the locals into action. They demanded not only higher wages but permission to set up a committee of worker representatives. Above all, the workers wanted a slowdown of the production lines. At the time, Fiat progressively accelerated the machines over the course of the work day, leading to physical exhaustion among workers. So the strike was organized and finally put into effect.
The work stoppage lasted five days, with the union signing an agreement in a meeting attended by only a few dozen people. But the company kept only some of the promises it had made, and tensions remained high. The following year, another strike broke out. The clashes between employees and the company had become too much for executives at the young Fiat Brazil. Only a few years in, the company had suffered a pair of strikes, so Fiat decided to play hardball. Executives at Fiat Brazil called on a man who would become infamous in the lore of Fiat Brazil workers: Col. Joffre Mario Klein.
The Rise of the Colonel
Klein joined Fiat in 1975, before the factory even opened in Minas Gerais. His hiring had been the result of an ominous recommendation: Officials with thee National Information Service, Brazil’s primary spy agency at the time, had suggested Klein for the post. After being hired, Klein got to work setting up an office at Fiat with the anodyne name “Security and Information.” Only later did it become apparent that Klein’s primary duty was the command of an internal apparatus of repression. The office, which was expressly created by Fiat, drew up dossiers on employees, but the factory workers themselves were unaware of its activities. No one even knew how many people worked for Klein — or who they were.
“We didn’t know who he was, but he appeared to be a high-ranking military type. He was feared by the workers, to whom he rarely uttered a word.”
Over time, Klein became a personal friend of Fiat Brazil’s first president, Adolfo Neves Martins da Costa. Executives at Fiat’s worldwide headquarters in Italy heaped praise on the army reservist, according to a former employee in the company’s human resources department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The closeness with top Fiat figures meant Klein acquired a tremendous amount of influence. “No one was ever hired without my husband’s knowledge,” Klein’s widow, Maria Antonieta, told The Intercept Brasil in a series of 2017 interviews, which took place some nine years after her husband died. Klein described her late husband as a “serious and meticulous” man.
Klein seemed to exude power. Workers didn’t know who he was, but they knew he made them apprehensive. “He was slim, with a well-trimmed mustache and gray slicked-back hair and was always impeccably dressed,” said Edmundo Vieira, who was president of the metalworkers union in the 1980s. “We didn’t know who he was, but he appeared to be a high-ranking military type. He was feared by the workers, to whom he rarely uttered a word.”
Antonieta recalled her husband taking at least one trip to Fiat’s international headquarters in the northern Italian city of Turin. The former Fiat human resources employee confirmed that the trip took place and added that Klein made several other journeys to Turin; Klein, the employee said, wanted to understand how the Italians controlled strikes. It would not take Klein long to learn.
Fiat had been spying on its employees for years in Italy, where there was a robust labor movement and Communist Party presence, leading to regular strikes. In an effort to gain an edge on workers, Fiat set up an archive that, at its peak, contained more than 350,000 personnel files on workers’ personal, labor, and political activity. The filing cabinets occupied an entire floor of Fiat’s former headquarters in the heart of Turin.
When Fiat’s security apparatus extended to Brazil, however, Italian Fiat workers reached out to their Latin American counterparts. “From September 26 to October 4, 1979, I was in Rio de Janeiro and Betim to monitor the strike movements and Fiat’s operations in Brazil,” Antonio Buzzigoli, a former representative of the Italian Federation of Metalworkers, told The Intercept Brasil in a lengthy interview in the kitchen of his apartment in Turin.
After returning to Italy, Buzzigoli, through the metalworkers’ union, published a report in which he alleged that there was an “armed in-house police force” at the factory in Betim. The report suggested that the security team was 70 agents strong, trained by “an Italian and later by a Brazilian.” Its function was to put psychological pressure on the workers. Buzzigoli noted that agents monitored everything: They would keep tabs on “the bathrooms, and the cafeterias, circulating among the various areas of the factory all day long.” He wrote of the regularity with which the military police entered the factory. Italian newspapers seized on the metalworkers’ report and Buzzigoli did a series of interviews about what he had seen in Brazil.
Photo: Mana Coelho
Espionage, Arrests, and Firings
Within Fiat’s company archives in Turin, there is a November 1980 document about the carmaker’s Brazil operation titled “Statistics, positions, and wages.” An organizational chart shows that four employees constituted a “Security and Information” division under Klein’s direct control. But the surveillance apparatus was much larger than that — bigger even than the force Buzzigoli gleaned some knowledge of during his visit to Brazil. According to the document, 141 Fiat employees answered to the head of surveillance, Mauricio Neves, Klein’s right-hand man and second in command of the company’s security operations.
The security team took advantage of everything at their disposal to gather information that could help undermine political activity and potential labor leaders. One tack was to eavesdrop on the only available public telephone at the factory, in the courtyard; security would listen in on employees’ conversations. The labor activists took notice: Adriano Sandri, an Italian who worked at Fiat in Brazil, wrote to Buzzigoli to inform him that the telephones were monitored and that the head of surveillance kept records of all union-related calls. (The former Fiat human resources employee confirmed that phone conversations were monitored; it’s unclear what became of the records.)
Another Fiat tactic was to give current employees the opportunity to recommend new hires. The notion undergirding this move was making employees partially responsible for their recommendations’ conduct and integration into the workforce — a type of shared surveillance under the pretext of making a more congenial workplace. What’s more, active Fiat employees were effectively punished for labor organizing: Union membership all but eliminated any possibility of promotion.
Retaliatory measures against workers followed a distinct pattern. The workers who were deemed dangerous by the company were arrested under any pretext authorities could find — typically accused of stealing parts and tools — and were subsequently fired with cause.
Ézio Sena Cardoso’s story was typical. When he came to work at the plant in Betim, in October 1976, Cardoso already had 14 years of experience as an electronics technician at other companies. At Fiat, he started as an electrical maintenance mechanic for specialized machinery. A political activist, Cardoso had four prior arrests on his record. The first happened when he was 17, for participating in a protest at the gates of Mannesmann, a German conglomerate that he had never even worked for. At Fiat, Cardoso was active in mobilizing employees, although, due to political differences, he never joined the union board.
“I was punished for refusing to abandon the cause.”
Cardoso was one of the employees who actually ended up in Klein’s office. The persecution, Cardoso said, intensified after he declined, in front of Klein, a proposal to enroll in a professional development program to spend a year in Germany in exchange for “forgetting about this union matter.” He said, “I was punished for refusing to abandon the cause.”
A few months later, Cardoso was again summoned to the colonel’s office. This time, he was fired. Klein’s security unit accused Cardoso of authoring anonymous handwritten flyers agitating for labor actions. His lawyer asked for a handwriting analysis to determine whether the flyers had in fact been written by Cardoso and the result was conclusive: It was not Cardoso’s handwriting. “Someone within Fiat forged the flyers by copying his handwriting from official documents he had signed,” his lawyer, Santiago Lélis, said in an interview. “We won the case.” The court ordered Fiat to pay Cardoso damages, but his job wasn’t reinstated.
Other accounts of harassment and hostile work conditions were preserved for posterity thanks to the work of Michel Le Ven, a former priest. Le Ven, whose historical work focused on labor conditions during the military dictatorship in Brazil, collected anonymous accounts of individuals who worked for Fiat. “It’s a military system, with a hierarchy and everything, commanded by a colonel and a lieutenant,”one employee told Le Ven, as part of the priest’s doctoral research. “It’s totally repressive. When leaving the factory, workers are humiliatingly searched as if they are the worst kind of scum. If you protest, you are threatened and your employee number is noted by security.”
Le Ven, who was one of three French priests infamously imprisoned by the Brazilian dictatorship in 1968, lives in Minas Gerais and is in ill health. The Intercept Brasil obtained his unpublished doctoral thesis from his family.
Another anonymous Fiat Brazil employee described an interrogation room maintained by the Italians. “Fiat had a place to detain people inside the factory,” the worker told Le Ven. “Just like on the streets, they would approach someone, stop them, and say, ‘You’re under arrest.’ They would put them in their car and take them to the surveillance warehouse. When they arrived, there was the colonel. He was the executioner.”
Photo: Mana Coelho
Double Agents and Spotless Uniforms
Intelligence on the workers’ activities made its way to the Fiat security center in two ways: from double agents and from the infiltrators working for DOPS. Klein’s outfit recruited the double agents from among those workers who were suspected of subversion. Once they had been brought to the Fiat security room, the workers were promised a promotion or professional stability — as long as they betrayed their colleagues. The recruited workers would then be sent back out to the factory floor, pretending to be allied with trade unionists, all the while spying on them for Klein.
The most feared infiltrators were said to be easy to pick out of the crowd of workers: They wore spotless overalls — not even a single grease stain. It looked as if they had never worked a day on the machines in their lives. In many cases, they hadn’t. The DOPS agents in workers’ clothing had no friends; they did not fraternize with the regular employees — and there were a lot of them.
The infiltrators circulated throughout the company, gathering information from employees and at union meetings inside and outside of the factory. In the beginning, they went unnoticed. Little by little, however, the workers began to find them out. “They walked in pairs, wearing the green uniforms of the quality control team, which allowed them access to all areas of the factory,” said Antônio Luiz Vasco, who worked at Fiat from 1978 to 1982. “But the real members of the quality control team did not know who they were. And the fact that those uniforms were always spotless was weird.”
One day, Vasco and two other colleagues decided to out a group of infiltrators who were gathered at the door of the cafeteria. “We snuck up from behind them and shouted, ‘Attention!’” Vasco recalled in a phone interview. “And they immediately saluted. After that, they never again showed their face in the factory.” He let out a hearty laugh while recalling the incident.
Later, Vasco and José Onofre de Souza, a fellow worker, were sitting in the factory courtyard when they were called to “give a statement” in the security room. “It was a normal room, an office,” said Onofre. “They photographed us and took our statements, as if it were a police station.” Shortly thereafter, agents entered the factory and took Onofre away. “They took me to Lagoinha,” he said.
“We asked our bosses where he was, and they said that he had been caught stealing and had been fired. But everyone knew that was a lie.”
Lagoinha is a neighborhood in Betim where, beginning in the 1950s, Minas Gerais’s Department of Investigations — akin to a state-level version of the U.S.’s FBI — maintained an office with a jail. During the dictatorship, detainees were routinely jailed at facilities like the Lagoinha building for days without being charged. “They didn’t interrogate me, didn’t charge me,” Onofre recalled. “Didn’t do anything. They didn’t beat me, but they didn’t treat me well, either.”
With no news about her son during his illegal detention, Onofre’s mother went to the factory to find out if anyone had heard anything. “We asked our bosses where he was, and they said that he had been caught stealing and had been fired,” said Vasco. “But everyone knew that was a lie.”
Onofre got off lightly in the end — considering the fate met by many of the political disappeared under Brazil’s dictatorship. “I was there for two or three days,” he recalled. No records of the jail — let alone Onofre’s detention — exist.
Fiat also closely monitored worker meetings. The Intercept Brasil uncovered a document on company letterhead detailing Fiat’s surveillance of union activity. The report was found among microfilm records housed in the Minas Gerais public archives, among a batch of 97 microfilm rolls from the Office for General Security, the now-defunct division of the Minas Gerais state police, which received documents from the local DOPS unit.
The document includes a report of a closed meeting of workers held at a high school in the nearby state capital, Belo Horizonte. Among the approximately 50 attendees was a former Fiat employee identified in the document as Enilton Simões. “The presence of the former Fiat employee was well received by the meeting leaders, who immediately nominated him to be a member of the committee they had formed,” the document says.
The surveillance record dated April 19, 1979, details Simões’s remarks to the group. At one point, he asked if any Fiat employees present could explain how the military police operated within the factory. The document says, “Speaking on behalf of the trade union of Betim, he said the following: ‘Is there any representative of the Fiat workers who will come forward to report on how employees are treated by police within the factory?’”
Photo: Mana Coelho
The Turin-Betim Connection
Brazil’s military dictatorship helped Fiat come to the South American country. The Minas Gerais government put up $71.4 million and Fiat invested $71.5 million. Though lacking a majority interest, the state government chose the company’s president in Betim, according to an agreement between the Minas Gerais government and Fiat. Fiat, for its part, decided who would hold the positions of vice president and superintendent.
On the day the agreement was signed, Giovanni Agnelli, the president of Fiat Worldwide, held a news conference in which he said that he had chosen Brazil for “the social and political tranquility in the country at the moment.” For Fiat, the military coup of 1964 was a “revolution.” A Fiat country assessment, dated July 25, 1974, warned that social inequality in the country might serve to tamp down the Brazilian economy, but suggested economic growth might continue if there were no violent political upheaval.
Around then, in the early 1970s, Raffaele Guariniello, the former prosecutor in Turin, discovered that Fiat had spied on its Italian employees and even on potential hires. It was Guariniello who found the filing cabinets, with 354,077 personnel records, at Fiat’s former headquarters in Turin. “The strategy of espionage, bribes, and collaboration involving police officers, judges, and former military personnel had been devised by a former military man, who Agnelli trusted, that worked for the Italian secret service,” said Guariniello, in hushed tones, during an interview at Rome’s Senate library.
Guariniello marshaled his evidence into corruption charges against five top Fiat executives. But Agnelli was never among those charged.
In an attempt to squash the case, lawyers for Fiat managed to have it transferred to Naples, in southern Italy. There, in thick mafia territory, cases could be more easily “fixed” for the rich and powerful. Yet for many Fiat officials, no easy fix came. One by one, a series of the company’s employees were prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced, though none was imprisoned, because the statute of limitations had expired.
Once the legal cases were done, the Italian archives, where the case files had been kept, requested that Fiat take back the 150,000 files — half of the total collection. The archive office in the federal courthouse in Naples said the court simply didn’t have space to store all the documents. It’s unclear where all of those files are now. The Intercept Brasil examined what is left of the case files in Naples. There, we found some files that were left behind by Fiat among the documents.
The papers hint at the extent to which Fiat spied on its own employees. Described as “informative notations,” the records showed employees’ marital status, socio-economic status, criminal records, histories of political activities, political leanings, and public reputations — including those of family members directly linked to the respondents. One of the files found was that of Salvatore B. It described him as “single, apolitical, rents a modest apartment with his sister, who is also single, a worker, and apolitical, with good moral and civic conduct.” Salvatore was considered “suitable” to work at the factory in Turin.
Carlo C., on the other hand, was deemed “subversive,” despite having no police record and exhibiting good moral and civic conduct. The research into Carlo’s life was extensive. It was his past affiliation with the Italian Communist Party that raised red flags for Fiat security officials. The company spies produced a two-page report covering Carlo’s life from his college years until he joined the Communist Party — even including his church attendance. Their report also describes his father’s participation in the Italian centrist Christian Democracy party, as well as the fact that his mother and sister were both members of the faith-based activist group Catholic Action.
The files on the workers sometimes reflected the chauvinistic Italian culture of the time. For instance, the investigators gave a harsh assessment of a woman referred to as Angela O. Spies working for Fiat collected information on every aspect of her life. They noted that she had been twice evicted from her home for nonpayment of rent and that she currently lived in a small apartment with her mother and two children, one of whom had a serious health problem. Their report went on to say that “the person in question (Angela) has been in a relationship with a bankrupt, ex-con type for over a year and leaves much to desire on the moral front, because the children are from a different father and she previously had a relationship with a German citizen sought by Interpol.”
The report detailed several key moments in Angela’s life. “She worked as a cashier and, for a period of time, was seen roaming around the streets of Milan for unknown reasons,” the Fiat spies wrote. “She has not worked for a long time and leads a dubious life, arriving home late every night.” At that point, the researchers had already drawn their conclusions: “We suspect that she is a prostitute.”
It’s unclear if the scope of Fiat’s spying on workers in Brazil ever matched that of its investigations into Italian workers. No in-depth personnel files on large numbers of employees have surfaced. If the Italian spying did have a parallel in South America, perhaps the files were burned — the fate of many documents during the process of “turning out the lights” in the waning days of the military dictatorship in Brazil. When asked for a statement, the company responded that it has no records of events during that period.
The post The Secret History of Fiat Brazil’s Internal Espionage Network and Collaboration With the Military Dictatorship appeared first on The Intercept.
Yasser Louati didn’t usually permit his English students to leave class to make phone calls. On this January day in 2015, however, one asked with such urgency in her eyes that he nodded at her request and let her leave. A few minutes later, the woman walked back into the class, looking just as upset as she did when she left. As she took her seat, Yasser asked her if anything was wrong.
“There’s a been a shooting at the Hypercacher,” she said quietly, referring to the kosher supermarket chain located across the city in Paris’s 20th arrondissement.
Louati’s heart sank. All of Paris had been on edge for the past two days, following a shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The assailants were still on the loose and everyone was living in fear of more violence. But the location of this attack also had a personal resonance for Louati: The Hypercacher was just a few doors down from his 6-year-old son’s school.
Suppressing his own feelings of dread, Louati pushed through the final hour of class in a daze. As soon as it ended, he put on his jacket and rushed out the door, jumped on his motorbike and sped toward the 20th arrondissement. The normally bustling district was under siege by heavily armed police. Heart racing, Louati told a police officer he had come to collect his son from a nearby school. The officer said he could pass, but only on foot.
His son and the other students had taken refuge in the school basement and remained safe. Overcome with relief, Louati picked up his son and made his way through a sea of police back to his motorbike. Climbing onto the back seat, Louati’s son, who wanted to be a police officer, asked him what a terrorist was. “It’s a very evil and bad person,” Louati replied, strapping on his helmet.
<div class="photo-grid" data-caption="Bullet impacts are seen on the glass store front days after the Hypercacher kosher supermarket shooting took place on January 9, 2015, and a week after the siege people gather to pay tribute near the Porte de Vincennes in Paris, France on Jan. 14 2015." data-columns="2" data-credit="Left/Top: Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters
The attacks and the ensuing climate of fear in Paris had set Louati on edge. Like other Parisians, he was afraid of the terrorists still on the loose in his city — the Hypercacher attack was still ongoing. But Louati also had other worries: He already felt a sense of foreboding about the backlash against French Muslims that was sure to come in the aftermath. As he often did in times of anxiety, Louati stopped by a mosque on the way home with his son to pray.
When he arrived, an imam was seated on the ground at the front of the mosque, with a few congregants before him. Everyone in the mosque knew that the spate of deadly attacks that had rocked the city had been conducted by other Muslims — extremists who claimed to be acting in the name of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the city was still rife with heavily armed police. French public discourse was sure to be dominated in the coming days by questions that would bear directly on the congregants at the mosque — about Islam, terrorism, and whether people like them even belonged in the French Republic.
The imam, however, seemed oblivious. “So, what do people want to talk about?” the preacher asked those assembled. None of the dazed congregants replied. Pausing a moment, the imam continued, “OK, let’s talk about the correct way to make wudu” — the ritual ablution Muslims make before prayer.
Louati was shocked by what the imam just said. “People are being killed outside, in our city, in the name of Islam, and this is what you’re talking about?” he thought with incredulity. The disconnect between the reality of what was happening outside and the bubble inside was too much. He shot a sharp glance across the room, gathered up his son, and walked out the door.
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
When I met Louati recently at a restaurant in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, he had just returned from teaching the same English class he was teaching the night of the Hypercacher shooting. A former airline pilot who is now 39 years old, Louati was born and raised in Paris, the son of a Tunisian father who worked as an electrician and mother who was a seamstress. Tall, with close-cropped brown hair, trimmed beard, and a youthful appearance, he dresses carefully in a suit and tie to teach, business attire draped over the frame of the pilot he had spent years becoming.
In 2015, Louati had been briefly pushed into the spotlight. A wave of major terrorist attacks in France set off an international media fixation on a community — French Muslims — whose struggles and history had been of little interest to them before. At the time, Louati was working with Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a grassroots group focused on fighting discrimination. That November, extremists attacked the Stade de France and the Bataclan theatre, leaving 130 people dead and horrifying the country.
Louati gave an interview on CNN, his first appearance on television. The clip became notorious. The cable news hosts forthrightly blamed the French Muslim community as a whole for the attacks, demanding that Louati accept responsibility on air. To their visible frustration, he refused: “Sir, the Muslim community has nothing to do with these guys!” Louati said. “Nothing. We cannot justify ourselves for the actions of someone who claims to be Muslim.”
The interview captured a growing sentiment that French Muslims were not just a “problem,” but a possible fifth column inside the country.
While the French Republic does not compile statistics on race and religion, it is estimated that up to 10 percent of its population comes from Muslim backgrounds. France’s Muslims are mostly the descendants of the country’s former colonial territories: Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, and Senegal. Long associated with stereotypes of social delinquency, poverty, and now extremism, French Muslims have been fighting a battle for equality in a manner similar to the U.S. civil rights movement long before the world began noticing them.
Louati’s life stands as a poignant example. As a teenager in Paris’s 94th department, the suburbs south of the city, he was awakened to politics at a young age. It was a sentiment that crystallized when Spike Lee released his biographical film about Malcolm X. “The anger I felt, and the hostility and racism that I experienced as a child, were all distilled in that film,” he recalled. “It was like I was run over by a train watching it. After the movie ended, I stood alone at the back of the theatre and cried. I couldn’t believe that a man gave up his life fighting for these things.”
“It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France. If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”
Louati spent much of his life in the same city, trying to avoid the pitfalls of crime, delinquency, and drug use that plague many young men there. He did better than most, managing to get an education and train for a professional career that allowed him to travel and see something of the world outside the concrete blocks of Paris’s suburbs. Activism kept its pull on him, though, drawing him to a life of organizing that led him to give up the career he trained for.
The failures of modern France weigh on Louati. The country has become a “laboratory” for discriminatory laws targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, he says. But this isn’t the criticism of an outsider, let alone an ungrateful foreigner. “It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France,” he said emphatically when we spoke. “If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”
I asked him what he would have said if people wanted to understand what led to the attacks in 2015. The shootings at the Hypercacher and Charlie Hebdo, as well as the attacks at the Bataclan, involved young men who were born and raised in the country. “When you have millions of people who are already marginalized, disenfranchised, and without community institutions that can give them answers, you create easy targets for extremists,” Louati responded. “The narrative of these groups is that France exploited and humiliated your parents, they destroyed the countries of your ancestry, and now they hate you, too. Do you want to keep trying to be like them, or do you want to take revenge?”
Over a thousand French citizens went abroad to join the militant group the Islamic State. While statistically, that’s a tiny fragment of France’s roughly 6 million Muslims, even a small number of young adults giving up their lives to join a genocidal terrorist organization should be cause for serious reflection.
“Daesh made a killing in the suburbs,” Louati said forthrightly of ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the outskirts of Paris, referring to the group’s Arabic acronym. “There’s no counternarrative to the extremists. If you want a solution, let French Muslims organize themselves and address the real issues that the terrorists are using to recruit.”
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
Over the course of the 19th century, France accumulated a vast colonial empire stretching across Asia and Africa. Its colonization efforts were most intense just across the Mediterranean. In 1830, the French military invaded Algeria, deposed the local Ottoman governor, and undertook a ruthless campaign to suppress a grassroots resistance movement. For more than a century, the North African country was governed as an extension of France itself. The local French colonists, known as “pied noir,” ruled Algeria as a racially privileged caste, analogous in some ways to Israeli settlers in the West Bank today. “Algérie Française” eventually came to an end in 1962, after colonial rule buckled under the pressure of a grueling revolutionary war. Over a million Algerians are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
During its time as an empire, France periodically brought young men from its colonies to provide cheap labor for its cities. In the decades following World War I, there was a particular need for manpower to rebuild industry and replace the huge numbers of working-age men killed in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of North Africans took the opportunity to work in France, desperate to escape the grinding poverty of their colonized homelands. North African workers did the jobs that most French people balked at, laying railroad track, working in mines, and paving roads in the scorching heat. They led lives of loneliness and poverty, cut off from their families back home and crowded into tenements in the outskirts of major cities.
The meager wages the workers earned, however, were a godsend for the countries they left behind. By the time the Algerian revolution broke out, there were perhaps half a million Algerians living and working in France. In addition to building France’s industry and infrastructure, colonial soldiers from across Africa gave their lives in huge numbers to defend France in both world wars. During World War II, colonial soldiers comprised a majority of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army, at a time when many native French people were collaborating with the Vichy regime. These sacrifices won little recognition from French society. The 1944 liberation of Paris was deliberately made a “whites only” affair.
Years of continued discrimination culminated in one of the most shocking incidents in French history. On October 17, 1961, thousands of French Arabs gathered in Paris to march in support of the Algerian independence movement. French police, under the control of Maurice Papon — a local prefect notorious for his collaboration with the Nazis during the Vichy regime — descended on the demonstrators. The police fired live ammunition into terrified crowds of unarmed protestors. Many were detained and then drowned by being thrown into the Seine. While the massacre was studiously ignored for decades in France, historians estimate that as many as 200 people were killed on that day.
In the shadow of these events, a generation of children were born in France who were the descendants of the country’s black and Arab colonial soldiers and laborers. Circumstances forced this generation to look inward: Their parents’ homelands were foreign to them, yet they found that they were not really accepted in France, either. A new wave of popular movements was born as they sought equality in the country in which they were born.
In 1983, discontent over labor discrimination, policy brutality, and a spate of hate crimes against Arabs and Africans led to the organization of the largest anti-racism protest in French history. More than 100,000 people participated in the March for Equality and Against Racism, moving by foot across hundreds of miles from Marseille to Paris. For the first time in France’s history, the country’s minorities were forcing the nation to pay attention. In a statement, the organizers said, ”We want to show that the French and immigrants can live together, in spite of their differences, in an integrated society.”
Abdelaziz Chaambi was one of the organizers of the March for Equality and Against Racism. Now in his late 50s, he has a heavy build and short graying hair and stubble. He immigrated to France from Tunisia as a 12-year-old. Chaambi dedicated his life to the cause of France’s minorities after his brother was murdered in a racist attack when they were both young. I spoke with Chaambi in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon marked by a stretch of concrete high-rises and industrial buildings. He carried himself with the unmistakable energy and determination of someone who had been organizing for decades. He periodically stopped to press stickers advertising CRI — Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia, an activist group he helped found — onto concrete pillars.
“For a long time, minorities in France wanted to assimilate their identities completely. People straightened their hair and wanted to look and dress the way that white French people did,” Chaambi told me, sitting in a sandwich shop near Lyon’s Perrache train station. “But over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society” — a racist term for North Africans and blacks.
The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism began in Vénissieux, after the police shooting of a young man named Toumi Djaidja, who decided to organize the march from his hospital bed. Over three decades later, many of the same grievances that led to the march remain. Unemployment and poverty in Vénissieux are rampant, with up to a third of population living under the poverty line. Along with families and young people walking to school, drug dealers roam between stretches of apartment blocks.
In 2005, riots broke out in cities across France. The triggering event was the deaths of two boys who were killed after reportedly being chased by police officers in Paris. But their deaths were only the spark igniting the long-simmering anger of young “banlieusards” across the country. Decades of discrimination, alienation, and police violence had turned the suburbs into a tinderbox. In Vénissieux and other suburbs across France, young men burned cars and attacked police officers in scenes that were broadcast around the world.
Given the extent to which Islamic radicalism today has become a focus of security officials in France, it’s notable how little the riots in 2005 had to do with religion. Though the anger of the demonstrations intensified after the reported teargassing of a mosque by police, the riots themselves were a generic expression of pure rage and despair. For people like Chaambi who have been watching and warning about conditions for years, they did not come as a surprise.
“In France, there isn’t a door for young people born here to integrate into society,” he told me. “The riots in 2005 were about the frustration of people who have lived their whole lives without equal rights, dignity, access to jobs or proper housing. They were a warning sign to the rest of society that things were getting unbearable for people in the suburbs.”
“Over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society.”
Over the past year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to create a “French Islam” that is structured and controlled under the guidance of the state. Not a single person I met in France thought that this was a good idea; most tended to view the plan as either a patronizing intrusion into their personal lives or a surreptitious expansion of the police state. Without popular support, it’s hard to see how such a plan could ever be implemented.
While I was around Vénissieux with Chaambi, he made a point of letting me know how much he identifies the cause of France’s Arabs and Africans with the civil rights struggle of black Americans. (He boasted of meeting former Black Panther activist Angela Davis during a visit to Paris.) His years of activism are a living monument to the longevity of France’s own civil rights struggle.
“There was a black president in America, but people are still fighting against discrimination, police violence, and white supremacy. We are fighting against the same things here, and we feel very close to the struggle of black people in America,” Chaambi said as we drove out of Vénissieux. As we passed, rows of families and young children in backpacks wound their way through corroded apartment buildings and old shopping plazas.
“In France, there are some people who feel like they’re superior and we’re inferior, therefore their job is to ‘civilize’ us,” he said. “We don’t accept this, and the young people especially don’t appreciate this kind of attitude toward them. What they need is hope for a better life, but also to be recognized, acknowledged, and respected in French society for who they are, not what someone else wants to force them to be.”
Photo: Peter Zschunke/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
A half-hour train ride north from the opulence of central Paris, the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis — the 93rd district, or the “neuf trois,” as it’s known colloquially — is the poorest district in France. The area includes the neighborhood of Saint-Denis. Aside from attending matches at Paris’s Stade de France, which is seated near the district, most people in the city seem to avoid Saint-Denis. When I asked Louati and a few other non-locals to give me a ride there, they repeatedly demurred. Eventually, I took the RER train — a commuter rail — to head out on my own.
On the main streets of the district and around the central train station, smoke wafted from skewers of meat being grilled by young men over shopping carts. Blankets laid out on the sidewalks displayed hats, scarves, and cellphone accessories for sale. The clothing stories, bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants stretched out across the city center buzzed with activity. Along the riverbank, a memorial plaque honored the victims of the 1961 massacre — a monument to a tragedy that occurred some miles away, in central Paris.
For a brief moment in 2015, Saint-Denis seemed like it had become the gateway connecting Europe to the violence then roiling Iraq and Syria. As coordinated attacks struck central Paris, a separate group of attackers set out to target the Stade de France, the massive circular football stadium located in Saint-Denis that plays host to major international matches. The would-be assailants had their eye on a friendly football match between France and Germany. Among the thousands in attendance was then-French President François Hollande. The three suicide bombers, however, failed to execute their plan as intended. Their vests detonated before they could penetrate the massive crowds. One innocent bystander outside the stadium was killed — a 63-year-old chauffeur who had been dropping off spectators running late to the match.
Over the next few days, France continued to reel from the series of rapid-fire attacks and attempted plots. Hundred had been killed and wounded. A massive dragnet swept over the country to find the plotters. Five days later, a massive police operation focused in on a residence in central Saint-Denis. Three militants had hidden out in a small, tan-colored apartment building sitting above a cellphone store on a busy pedestrian street. Police flooded the area, and a massive standoff ensued. Over the next few hours, central Saint-Denis was a war zone. Over 5,000 bullets were fired by police, in an attempt to flush out or kill the attackers.
After several hours, the siege came to an end when one of the suspects detonated a suicide vest. Three people were found dead inside, including the attack’s mastermind, Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, and his cousin Hasna Ait Boulahcen, 26.
The building on the Rue du Corbillon where the fatal standoff took place is boarded up and abandoned today. The other tenants inside, as well as the shops below, were evicted following the raid and have yet to return. Covered in graffiti — some of which protests the lack of compensation for the evictees — the building is not out of sight on some quiet residential street. Instead, it stands out like a scar in the middle of one of the district’s busiest shopping streets. Pedestrians mill around the bombed-out structure, chatting and shopping. On a Saturday morning, panhandlers selling purses and jackets laid out their merchandise outside its boarded-up windows.
The attackers killed in the building were not from Saint-Denis, but rather had rented an apartment there from an unwitting landlord to use as a hideout. Nonetheless, the area has taken on a reputation as a den of extremism.
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
For Sihame Assbague, Saint-Denis is just home. She was born in France to a family from Morocco and grew up in and around Paris. Several years ago, she moved to Saint-Denis. When I met her in the district on a Saturday morning, the streets were packed with people shopping and drinking coffee in cheap cafes. The ornate ancient gothic cathedral, bearing the name of the district, towered over the area, though inside it was mostly empty. On a side alley, a small mosque — just a few houses and trailers merged into a single structure — was packed with congregants and children attending weekend Arabic classes.
In Assbague’s telling, the despair of the young, mostly Arab and African residents of the area is most often expressed in the self-destructive behaviors of drugs, street violence, and delinquency.
“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point.”
“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point,” she said. “There is a difference between what they thought their life was going to be like and what the reality is that becomes very hard to accept.”
Like many people from the area, Assbague is frustrated with the international’s media fixation on Islam, which she says makes invisible the social pathologies that tend to lead people into crime or extremism.
“If you look at the profiles of the people who were involved in the attacks, they were not even practicing religion,” she said, referring to French media reports about the terrorists’ apparently lax religious practices. “They were drinking, going to nightclubs. For people like this, who are angry in general, religion is a marker of identity. Muslims are killed when terrorist attacks happen too. They’re scared of being hurt when they go out, just like anyone else. The first woman who was killed by the terrorist in Nice was wearing a headscarf.”
The physical distance between Seine-Saint-Denis and central Paris is just a short train ride. But the subtle psychological barriers — as well as the effect of policing on young people in the area — are huge. A kind of apartheid separates lavish central Paris from the great poverty that is so close by.
In March 2017, Mamadou Camara, then 18 years old, was returning from a school trip to Brussels with his class. Pulling into Paris’s Gare du Nord station, he and two other boys, both African and Arab, were taken aside from their class and searched. They were frisked and made to open their luggage in full view of everyone in the packed station, over the protestations of their teacher. Camara lives in the neighborhood of Épinay, just west of central Saint-Denis, where random encounters like this with police are a daily fact of life. But to be humiliated even on a class trip in the middle of Paris was too much. With the help of their teacher, he and the other two boys filed a lawsuit for racial profiling.
Camara poses for a portrait near his home in Épinay-sur-Seine.
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
Camara is tall and lanky, his short hair neatly trimmed into a geometric design. He has golden ear piercings and was wearing a tracksuit when we met in a library at Épinay. Outside, groups of men smoked cigarettes and drank coffee on a Friday morning. Soldiers armed with assault rifles also milled around the neighborhood, while sirens could be heard in the distance. Camara grew up around this area. He was shy when we first met, but opened up and became more animated as he described what life is like in the area.
“I’m used to being stopped and searched, but not in front of my class in the middle of the city,” Camara said. “That was too much.”
Camara was born in Mali but left with his family for France when he was 1 year old. He grew up in Saint-Denis, though for years his family sent him to a school outside the district in hopes that the quality of education would be better. When getting to school became too difficult, he started attending one of the high schools in the area. After he and the other two boys filed the lawsuit with the help of their teacher, the police in Épinay tended to leave him alone a bit more.
“I’m used to being profiled, because I grew up with it. But I don’t want my brothers to have to have the same experience,” he added, referring to his two younger brothers, both adolescents. “I really like France, actually — it’s my home and I feel at home. There’s some racism, but the thing I really like about this country in the first place is that there are so many different people living here together. We just need to stand up for our rights, and things will be OK.”
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
In mid-2015, a police official working at the Orly Airport south of Paris invited Ismail Difallah for a coffee in the main terminal. For over a decade, Difallah, who was born in France to Algerian parents, had worked at the airport in various roles, most recently in security. Over six feet in height, he is built like a security guard — tall and thickset — yet he is also gregarious and frequently sports the sort of smile that can be disarming.
On the day they met, the police official had an offer for him. “After making some small talk, he asked me if I would ‘work’ for them in the airport,” Difallah told me when I met him.
The police official was inviting Difallah to become an informant for the government — something that happens to huge numbers of Muslim men in Europe and the United States. The job, such that it is, wasn’t always so difficult. In most cases, it entailed meeting with a handler periodically and giving them information about people in one’s network. In some extreme cases, it could involve working on entrapment cases and stings of people that the authorities target.
Difallah quietly let the officer know that he wasn’t interested. “I told them I already have a job, so I’m fine,” Difallah said.
He went back to work, though for a while the conversation left a bad taste in his mouth. Within a few weeks, however, he had largely forgotten it. The next time the conversation popped into his head was at the end of the year, when Difallah needed to get his security clearance renewed to continue working at the airport. He applied, as he had done routinely for more than a decade. This time, however, things didn’t work out.
“They told me that we can’t give you the clearance now,” Difallah told me at a home in the suburbs, not far from the airport. “I asked them why, and they just said they didn’t have any information for me.”
His mind started racing, trying to think back to figure out why he was suddenly being rejected. The only thing that sprang to mind was the conversation with the officer, but he had no way of finding out if that was the real reason for his denial. A denunciation to the local prefect, by a police officer or even another citizen, could be enough to land him on a secret list, like the notorious S-File, that would make him ineligible for a clearance. As many was 20,000 people are believed to be in the S-File database, which can lead to surveillance, prevention of travel, or difficulties getting work.
Suddenly, deprived of the ability to work with no explanation, Difallah’s life was thrown into turmoil. He got a lawyer in an attempt find out what information the state may have used to have his clearance pulled. Due to the opaque nature of France’s system of secret evidence and security listings, however, his legal efforts found no success. Difallah has still not gotten his job back. For now, he is working as a private bus driver to make ends meet. “I’m just tired,” he told me, resignation in his voice. “Honestly, I am tired.”
Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images
One of the quirks of liberal democracies is that, during periods of crisis, they have the ability take on the attributes of authoritarian states. In its effort to confront terrorists after 2015, this is what the French government has done. Immediately after the attacks, France instituted a nationwide state of emergency. The measure allowed security forces to conduct warrantless raids, shut down private institutions, and restrict the movements of targeted people.
While drastic measures were widely seen as necessary to roll up the extremist networks responsible for the wave of attacks, it soon became clear that the dragnet was catching far more than just terrorism suspects. By mid-2016, nearly 3,600 warrantless raids had been carried out across the country. Only six resulted in terrorism charges.
Macron campaigned on a pledge to end the state of emergency. The promise was kept, but only by a sleight of hand. Although the state of emergency was lifted in 2017, its most draconian measures were institutionalized into a new anti-terrorism law called Strengthening Homeland Security and the Fight Against Terrorism. The state of emergency is now permanent.
In an office just off central Paris’s opulent Place de la Concorde, a human rights attorney named Emanuel Daoud is fighting a lonely battle to push back against France’s creeping authoritarianism. Daoud’s office — adorned with upbeat modern art, in juxtaposition to the subject matter of his cases — sees a steady stream of petitioners who have found themselves caught in the dragnet of France’s counterterrorism policies. The volume of casework is such that the office buzzes with activity, even late into the night.
When I visited his office, Daoud told me that the use of secret evidence, blacklists, and denunciations have gradually built an atmosphere of fear in the suburbs and beyond. He singled out the S-File. “The maintenance of secret lists like the S-File — created in part through the use of private denunciations — is taken from the practice of the Vichy regime in World War II, though the consequences of being placed on such a list are ultimately different,” he told me. “There is a general climate of fear and paranoia being created by these measures that is expanding beyond just minority groups living in the suburbs.”
In a meeting with a former high-level French intelligence official, Daoud was told that the state of emergency had only been useful as a counterterrorism tool for a few weeks after the 2015 attacks. After the perpetrators and their network had been rolled up, the draconian measures mostly stayed in place for political reasons.
As Daoud sees it, there is an inexorable shift toward less freedom in France. This is signified in part by the shift in oversight of civil liberties from the judiciary toward the executive, or as the French call it, the administrative. What this means in practice is that local prefects, like the one that denied Difallah his security clearance without explanation, will gain more power to put people on lists or deny them their rights without legal challenges. This dynamic is likely to continue, even if no more attacks happen. If there is more terrorism, Daoud warns of a wider possible breakdown in social cohesion.
“After November 2015, people feared and expected that there would be physical attacks against Muslims and their institutions,” Daoud said. “For the most part, that didn’t happen, and the far-right activists who tried to engage in attacks were intercepted by security forces. This was positive. But it’s an increasingly fragile balance, however, and it’s in danger of breaking.”
“Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”
A situation like this is particularly claustrophobic for people like Difallah. Trapped between an insidiously expanding security state and the multiple threats posed to French Muslims by terrorism, he has no other place to turn if France becomes unwelcoming. Despite losing almost everything in his personal life over the past three years since his clearance was denied, like most other people I met, he said he found it cathartic to be able tell his story. He tried to explain how the targeting by the police over a lifetime, culminating in the loss of his job, has made him feel like an outsider in the city where he was born.
“I’m 38 years old; I don’t know the country of my parents. I’ve been to Algeria maybe one month in six years,” he said. “Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”
Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept
In 2015, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq released a book called “Submission.” The novel depicted a near future in which France is ruled by an Islamist government, which comes to power at the head of a coalition created during the 2022 elections. In Houellebecq’s satirical alternate history, an exhausted France eventually decides to lay down in the face of its supposedly virile and determined Muslims. The new French president is a suave intellectual with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood who quietly begins a program of socially re-engineering the country and reorienting it toward the Middle East. Meanwhile, the suburbs become the site of violent gun battles between right-wing activists and young Arab and African youths, which the French media expeditiously choose to ignore.
Louati didn’t like the book.
“France owes people like us its freedom. These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French.”
“French elites have always had fantasies about civil war and purging people of ‘impure blood’ from the country,” he told me one evening at a mall in the southern Paris suburb of Thiais. On a Sunday night, the mall food court was bustling, mostly with young people and families of Arab and African background. A French rap song pumped out of an Adidas store full of shoppers. “When you are Muslim and French, society pushes these two identities to collide,” Louati told me. “Islam isn’t considered a normal religion of France the way that Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism are – even though many of our grandparents were fighting the Nazis to free this country while others were collaborating with Vichy.”
By morbid coincidence, Houellebecq’s novel was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. Those killings marked the start of a cycle of terrorist attacks and government reprisals that began to crystallize a certain image of Muslims as a security threat — or even a fifth column within the French Republic. To say this view is blinkered would be an understatement.
“In the public imagination, the image of a French Muslim remains the disenfranchised youth of suburbs,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and specialist on political Islam. “The reality is that over the past generation, they’ve seen the creation of an educated middle class and professional class, which, due to lack of representation, is mostly ignored. There’s a discrepancy between the public perception and sociological reality. In a sense, it’s normal for the extreme right in France to use cliches about Muslims, but the problem is the clichés are also used by the left, too.”
In France, it’s common to see tributes to African-American freedom fighters like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Due to the country’s revolutionary history, the French have a love of egalitarianism that often draws it into competition with the United States. Until France can learn to fulfill the rights of its own minorities — whose efforts helped build the modern nation and who, for the past several decades, have waged a civil rights struggle of their own — its troubles are not going to reach a conclusion.
“France owes people like us its freedom,” said Yasser Louati, passion in his voice as he packed up his belongings. The bistro, Belle-Epine, was set to close. “These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French. We’re not foreigners or guests who are going to accept being treated as though we’re just lucky to be here. Maybe some of the elites of France don’t like us. But they’re going to have to respect us.”
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