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Putting the trial on trial - global solidarity against the abuse of the law

Wolfgang Kaleck,
General Secretary, European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights

There are rare moments of historical dimension, in which criminal court cases, politically orchestrated by zealous prosecutors, embody so visibly the traits of an unjust system, that they are viewed as a crime in and of themselves, much more severe and of greater magnitude than the professed indictment. Such miscarriages of justice, when put in the public eye, have the ability to mobilise activists, artists and intellectuals to take a stand and put the procedural act, and the institutions who lead it, on public trial, turning the tables and making the accusers become the accused. Such was the Dreyfus Affair in the last decade of the 19th century in France, where the prosecution of a Jewish officer on false charges of betrayal unmasked the rooted antisemitism in the French military and rallied the leading public intellectuals of the time, such as Emile Zola, to fight for ‘the great liberal France of humans rights’, even against threats of violence and defamation law-suits. The League for the Defence of Human Rights, which was founded as part of the Dreyfus defence efforts, showcases how the indignation against that legal scandal resonates till today, as the league, while under a slightly different name, continues its defence of victims of state arbitrariness and racism. Another example of such massive mobilisations, even of international scope, were the defence committees in solidarity with the Italian-American anarchist workers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were accused of murder in 1920. They were ultimately executed seven years later following a blatantly biased procedure, fuelled by xenophobic resentment and red-baiting. The unvarnished brutality of class injustice demonstrated by the prosecution brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, not only in the USA but also in many European countries, to demand their release. Even some of the old Dreyfusards such as Anatole France and even Dreyfus himself lent their voice to an open call for a retrial. More successful in its outcome was the campaign to release the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men and children, falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Convicted and facing execution, their case sparked international demonstrations, mainly led by members of the communist party, and succeeded in both highlighting the racism of the American legal system and in overturning the conviction, successfully beating the Jim Crow legal system. Following the rich tradition of defence committees which was taken up and differentiated by thematically and regionally focused social movements, the campaign to release the El Hiblu 3 shares resemblance with these past mobilisations. Triggered by the shameless terrorism charges of the Maltese authorities against Abdalla, Amara, and Kader, the three young men who together with other survivors of a sinking dinghy non-violently resisted their deportation to war torn Libya, the individual fate of the three accused was and still is in the focus of the campaign. It should stir outrage, that those who escaped horrible conditions to reach the self-proclaimed ‘area of freedom, security and justice’, namely Europe, can be put on trial for wanting to save their lives from the threat of torture, slavery and death. The practical help of a legal team and many devoted activists in Malta and beyond to support the three men while they are being threatened in court with absurdly serious charges and long prison sentences, is also a strong signal of cross-national and anti-racist solidarity. But the coming together of human rights advocates, scholars, and activists from all over the world in a diverse alliance transcends this more than honourable plight of direct solidarity. What unites this enterprise is not just the assurance that saving lives cannot and must not be made criminal, but the understanding that a border regime that pushes asylum seekers back to unsafe environments, that prevents safe migration routes and leads yearly to thousands of deaths, is the criminal actor which should be put on trial. By standing together with those accused and celebrating their heroic act, we transform ourselves to an alternative prosecuting party, denouncing those who dare to penalise dissent and solidarity in the face of the war against refugees, organised or aided and abetted by the European Union, and which constitutes manifold a crime against humanity. And as such, we will prevail, because, as Martin Luther King Jr so aptly said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.