The Koran case, electoral reform and others

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Persistent reports of US interrogators mistreating the Koran

Persistent reports of US interrogators mistreating the Koran

Sir: Joan Smith rightly notes that, amid all the fuss about the Newsweek story about alleged desecration of the Koran, the wrong targets are being blamed ("Don't blame Newsweek for riots in Pakistan", 18 May). If anything, she understates the problem when saying that the story has not been "categorically disproved".

Newsweek has been forced to issue a humiliating retraction. The White House speaks of the "lasting damage" that the Newsweek report has done. But a strong argument can be made that responsibility for the worst damage rests with the US government itself.

The Newsweek reference was far from new: we have repeatedly heard credible allegations about American interrogators mistreating copies of the Koran - tearing out pages, or throwing it into the toilet - for more than two years. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed several former Guantanamo detainees in 2003 and 2004 who described a protest at a detention facility at Kandahar airbase, set off by a guard's mistreatment of a copy of the Koran. Similar allegations, from a variety of former detainees, appeared in the US press as early as March 2003. More recently, Erik Saar, a former army translator at Guantanamo, said that guards routinely tossed the Koran on the ground.

Extremist voices played their part in the eruption of violence. But Washington itself played a key role in creating the explosive mix. Human Rights Watch has published a series of reports on mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan and elsewhere. To this day, there has been no credible high-level investigation into abuse and deaths in US custody. Such glaring omissions must be rectified, if there is to be any chance of repairing the deadly damage done by the shortsighted policy of the United States.



The most imperfect electoral system

Sir, I do not think many will be convinced by the voice raised against your admirable campaign for PR (A H Lyons, letter, 23 May). Campaigners against first-past-the-post would never assert that there is a perfect electoral system but it is hard to imagine one more imperfect than FPTP.

Neither would they deny that perhaps Israel's system - always dragged up by apologists for FPTP - is as much in need of reform as ours. But Israel's system is not typical, witness the numerous stable governments in Europe elected under more fairly representative systems than FPTP. And let us not forget the enthusiasm with which the British government in 1973 recommended to Northern Ireland the great advantages of STV over FPTP.

As to the old chestnut about coalitions and "hidden deals": what do the FPTP apologists suppose "New" Labour is? Here is a coalition cobbled together by the party hierarchy behind closed doors with the the electorate having no say. Much the same applies to the Tory Party. Under a PR system - particularly STV - it is likely that different wings of the same party would be represented. Policies would be more clearly defined for consideration by the electorate; and if a coalition was necessary it would be reflecting the openly declared wishes of the majority of voters.



Sir: Parliament has lost its appeal to voters for two reasons - first because under first-past-the-post a small voting majority is translated into a very big majority in the House; and second, because voters in "safe seats" cannot be heard.

Thus a party with a strong leader (Blair or Thatcher) and consequent large majority gets Bills through without debate or consensus. Parliament under these conditions is powerless and engenders contempt. Tony Blair spent little time in the House during the past parliament as there was no point in debate with a 160-plus majority. Without proper debate, bad radical law is passed and the electorate feels powerless to intervene. We badly need PR before more damage is done to the electoral system.



Sir: John Derrick, "a solid citizen of moderate views" (letters, 23 May) feels it is unjust that he has "never cast a vote for a winning candidate in 30 years of voting". The claim has a similar ring to the Countryside Alliance mantra that the Government or townsfolk "don't understand the countryside".

The only PR system worth considering is the Single Transferable Vote, which produces results constituency by constituency accurately reflecting the wishes of voters, and still retains the MP/constituency connection.

STV is not perfect, but nor are all PR systems inherently preferable to first-past-the-post: witness the discredited "party list" system used for the EU elections, which allows party leaders to choose their MEPs.

STV is the worst system apart from all the rest. Sadly though, neither STV nor any other system would guarantee Mr Derrick his MP of choice, as a majority of his fellow constituents have consistently fallen short of being "solid citizens of moderate views".



Sir: I would strongly object to being asked to rank different candidates in order of preference under the STV system. I have a strong preference for one party and no desire to express any preference for any of the others, which I do not rate at all. I imagine many others feel the same and would vote haphazardly if asked to vote in this way. STV would only distort the reflection of public opinion even further.



Sir: Please pass on my most heartfelt thanks to Lord Falconer, without whose arrogance and pompous stupidity on the Today programme your campaign for voting reform might have failed. I have never collected signatures for anything before, but have so far collected 54 supporting your campaign.

The argument that only our present system ensures a strong government could have applied to the electoral system run by Saddam Hussein.



Makes no sense to shun nuclear power

Sir: I am not aware that anyone - certainly no one in the nuclear industry - has ever claimed that nuclear energy is the "silver bullet that will kill the threat of climate change" (Letters, 13 May).

Nuclear energy is one of the available low-carbon energy sources that make a valuable contribution towards the achievement of the UK's carbon reduction targets, but in future we will need all the low-carbon energy sources at our disposal if we are to stand any chance of seriously tackling the causes of climate change.

New nuclear power stations to replace those coming to the end of their lives will have to be deployed in conjunction with renewables and other low-carbon technologies, and accompanied by improvements in energy efficiency. It makes no sense to deny ourselves access to the only currently available source of large-scale low-carbon electricity.



Sir: The headline in the Business section "Hope of nuclear power contracts makes Amec worth holding on to" (19 May) says it all. I am convinced that if the many billions expended on nuclear power for so many years, with no heed of the dangers or disposal problems, had been otherwise invested in developing renewable power sources, the good ones would have been up and running long since.

For many years the French have operated a tidal barrier at the mouth of the river Rance, where the tide range is some 40 feet. The tidal range by Weston super Mare is of the same order, but despite several proposals to harness it, nothing has happened. And this is not even a research problem; it is one of pretty simple engineering.

How about government subsidies for the production of solar panels instead of support for the nuclear lobby? Again, a well developed technology that needs little more than financial support. As many people have said, at the very least, a determined drive for energy conservation practices and systems is nowhere to be seen.



Sir: Many, if not the majority, of wind farm proposals are in locations adjacent to National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, nature reserves or existing nuclear power stations. As a result support for nuclear power is growing as opposition to onshore wind power increases. Is this what the government is hoping for?



Developed world must save rainforest

Sir: I would like to congratulate The Independent for drawing attention to the increasing deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest (report, 20 May). A truly ethical foreign policy approach not only in this country but also from other developed nations would be one that threatens bans on imports of Brazilian soya unless Brazil halts the relentless destruction of one of the world's last remaining natural wonders. This stance could be backed up by some kind of aid to those organisations which really do care about preserving the Amazon and also in gleaning medical and scientific knowledge that we know the species and biodiversity in the Amazon has to offer.

European nations know only too well how easily great swaths of virgin forest can disappear to make way for agriculture and housing. It is imperative that developed nations act to stop a few oligarchs from taking away natural heritage from future generations.



The unseen victims of workplace stress

Sir: I can identify with many of the symptoms described in your article on workplace stress (16 May), such as fatigue, tearfulness and panic. I can add extreme forgetfulness, irritability, frustration and anger. Unlike many who suffer from workplace stress, I cannot go home to escape. My work is at home, and I am on duty 24 hours a day. I receive no pay, and have practically no days off. What do I do? I care for my husband who is severely disabled following a stroke.

Many carers suffer "workplace stress". There is no legislation to protect them. During the election campaign, I don't recall any of the parties offering to champion carers. Maybe that's because most carers are too exhausted to protest. It's time for this desperate situation to receive some publicity, and some action.



France's democratic debate on Europe

Sir: Denis MacShane's patronising description of French small towns depending on low-cost flights and holidaying Britons for their survival is simply ludicrous (Opinion, 20 May).

He writes that the French will be "voting on anything but the EU Constitution". If he knew France as he claims, he would have noticed that books on the EU Constitution have been topping the country's best-seller lists for weeks. He might have noticed that a truly democratic and passionate debate about the future of the EU is going on across the Channel.



A country where the car is not king

Sir: Philip Nice (letter, 21 May) talks about the "arrogant way [cyclists] assume the rule of the road does not apply to them" in the Netherlands. There is another perspective on this.

In the Netherlands cyclists have right of way over both pedestrians and cars in towns and villages (not on major roads). I've just come back from a visit to Delft and was amazed by the patience of car and bus drivers at such incidences as a removal van blocking the road for 15 minutes. People sat back, chatted and waited. I put this down to the attitude gained from driving in a country where the car is not king but third down the list of cyclists, pedestrians and cars.

As a lifelong cyclist in Cambridge I wish we had the same thing here; we do have loads of astoundingly awful cyclists, but at least in the Netherlands nobody is going to try to run you over out of spite for some two second delay.



Too high a price

Sir: Those who consider the proposals for ID cards to be a price worth paying for the fight against crime and terrorism should also consider the views of Benjamin Franklin, who said that those who surrender liberty for security deserve neither.



Life destroyed

Sir: George Bush is opposed to the use of human embyos for stem cell research, calling it "science which destroys life in order to save life." Yet he led his country to war against Iraq. If such a war can be justified, must it not be because it "destroys life in order to save life"?



Left off the map

Sir: Studying your front-page map of Europe (23 May), I couldn't help noticing a buff-coloured spit of land north of Estonia that I believe to have been a sliver of Finland. Last time I checked, the Finns were part of the European Union and I feel sure they have a policy on the constitution. They're quite sensible people and we could often learn from them. Can you include them in subsequent discussions of the question?



Inflammatory gesture

Sir: Walking in the local park today, my wife and sister were discussing the current demonisation of hooded teenagers. As we turned the corner three teenagers ran away from a burning refuse bin.They looked back rather furtively before flicking their hoods over their heads in an almost reflex action. Unfortunately I was not given enough time to ask them whether or not their clothing was a statement of individuality, conformity or anonymity.



Academic language

Sir: Robert Fisk's outburst against "academic claptrap", and the ensuing correspondence (Letters, 20 May) bring to mind a wise observation of Noel Annan. In his Reith Lectures, many years ago, he said, "Once we understand the language of another discipline, we can no longer be contemptuous of its practitioners."