Monday, 18 March 2013

Tony Blair

Tony Blair, Kazakh police and human rights questions

Tony Blair is helping Kazakhstan reform its brutal police force after widespread concern that it is at the forefront of human rights abuses in the country.

Tony Blair with  Nursultan Nazarbayev
Tony Blair with the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, inside 10 Downing Street in 2006 Photo: AFP/GETTY

By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor
8:00AM GMT 17 Mar 2013

The former prime minister agreed to help as President Nursultan Nazarbayev attempts to quell international criticism of a massacre of oil workers which threatens his hopes for a new international trade deal.
The dictator’s police and special forces shot and killed 15 striking oil workers and wounded more than 100 during an industrial dispute in Zhanaozen, in the south west of the central Asian country.
Mr Nazarbayev had praised their actions in “restoring order” before video evidence emerged on the internet showing the police massacring unarmed civilians.
The incident, in December 2011, led to criticism from international human rights groups and, crucially, the European Parliament, threatening to undermine his plans for membership of the World Trade Organisation, which would mean lower customs tariffs and a place at the international negotiating table.
The country is a key client of one of Tony Blair’s multi-million pound consultancy practices, with a contract reportedly worth £16 million. After the massacre, the president asked for help in managing the crisis.
Mr Blair did not take part in discussions directly but last March, as MEPs put the finishing touches to a resolution urging “the Kazakh authorities to make every effort to improve human rights” and “strongly condemning the violent crackdown by police against demonstrators”, the former prime minister sent his most trusted long term adviser, Jonathan Powell, the ex-Downing Street chief of staff, to Astana, the Kazakh capital.

Riot police patrol in the town of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan on December 18, 2011.
Riot police patrol in the town of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan on December 18, 2011
 He arrived as the EU linked its demands for Kazakhstan to “rapidly improve their respect for the freedom of assembly, association, expression and religion” to “the road map for WTO accession”.
Mr Powell, the man who negotiated with the IRA and helped shape the dossier of evidence for the first Iraq war, now runs Inter Mediate, a charity addressing “poverty, disease and economic stagnation that are the inevitable by-products of violence and political unrest”.
In Kazakhstan, he found himself sitting down with the hard line interior minister, attempting to reform the repressive police force to satisfy the EU and those backing Kazakhstan, with its rich mineral deposits and £27 billion of foreign investment, in its bid to become a full trading partner with the West.
In the meeting Mr Powell and the minister, Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, were said to have “exchanged opinions on … the improvement and democratisation of the police”. Sources said that the consultation covered all aspects of policing including the Interior Ministry’s special forces troops – modelled on the Soviet system – which were deployed in Zhanaozen.
A Kazakh government spokesman said they also discussed “regulation of police work, training, upgrading equipment”.
Mr Powell was most recently in Astana last month talking to President Nazarbayev’s advisers but is not thought to have played any further direct role in police reform.
But there have been at least three further sessions with Mr Blair’s team – which includes a Harvard educated lawyer and a former UN human rights official – including one at the offices of Blair Associates in Astana, on fighting crime and “maintaining public order and security”.
A Kazakh source said the sessions were “full of mutual understanding and efficient dialogue”.
But last night this was dismissed as a “smokescreen” by Kazakh opposition leader Zhambolat Mamai, who has led calls for Mr Blair to resign from his advisory role. He said that the trigger for Mr Blair’s involvement was the threat from the European parliament and Western governments.
“They invited these experts and are now able to say work is going on, they are improving everything, but in fact they are creating a smokescreen,” he said.
He added: “The Interior Ministry is very much in control of the situation in Kazakhstan, and believe me they will never let these Western consultants get close to understanding the real problems of our system.”
The December 2011 violence erupted after the government ignored protests from striking oil workers over pay and conditions. Police claimed that they were defending themselves until internet footage backed witness accounts of the security forces shooting indiscriminately at unarmed demonstrators.
Earlier this year Human Rights Watch said that in 2012 Kazakh authorities intensified “persecution of outspoken government critics” without having “seriously tackled long standing, grave human rights abuses”.
A spokesman for Mr Blair’s office said: “As is well known, we work to support the government of Kazakhstan on key areas of social, political and economic reform.
“This has included discussing aspects of police reform – something which was publicised by the government at the time.
“This work is entirely in line with the work of other international organisations and Western governments and follows the direction which the international community wants Kazakhstan to take.”
He added: “Zhanaozen was a tragedy, but there are indications that the government is addressing the underlying causes. This includes police reform, plans for local government reform and economic measures to help improve the lives of people living in these types of towns, which are a hangover from the Soviet era.”

Monday, 11 March 2013


Spying claims against top British diplomat threaten Anglo-Russian détente

As William Hague and Philip Hammond prepare to meet their Russian counterparts in London this week, Jason Lewis reveals how a very suspicious spying slur is threatening to derail the reconciliation.

Denis Keefe
Denis Keefe, right, in the Caucasus, at Black Cliff Lake

By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor
9:00PM GMT 09 Mar 2013

To the outside world he is the epitome of diplomatic decorum: polite, softly spoken, with razor-sharp intellect. He has friends all over eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where he has a record of distinguished service on behalf of Britain, and is known for his keen ear for choral music and love of sailing.
Having joined the Foreign Office 30 years ago, straight out of Cambridge, he has earned a reputation for his brilliant mind and as an unfailingly safe pair of hands.
And yet to the astonishment of those who know him, Denis Keefe, the respected deputy ambassador to Russia, has for the past few months been trailed by a bizarre cloud of rumours and intrigue straight out of a Jason Bourne film.
Wherever Mr Keefe goes outside Moscow, he runs the risk of being accosted by Russian journalists and accused of being a spy.
Regional news reports froth with insinuations that he is something far more subversive than a diplomat, and has been sent by Britain to ferret out information and undermine the government of President Vladimir Putin.
British officials have tried to play down official anger at the hounding of Mr Keefe, which The Sunday Telegraph is reporting for the first time in Britain.
But the accusations, described by diplomatic sources as “an unprecedented attack on a very senior diplomat”, threaten to cast a shadow over a meeting this week in London designed to “reset” the thorny relationship between Britain and Russia.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, will meet their Russian counterparts for a “strategic dialogue” intended to look beyond a series of angry rows that have hampered cooperation between the two countries.
They include the recent decision to grant asylum in Britain to Andrei Borodin, a billionaire former Russian banker accused by Moscow of fraud, Russia’s attempts to hinder investigations into the poisoning in London of the former spy Alexander Litvinenko, and the beginning this week of the posthumous “show trial” of the late Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who worked for a London-based hedge fund, uncovered what is thought to be the largest tax fraud ever committed in Russia, but on reporting it was himself imprisoned, and later died in custody, aged 37.
The allegations against Mr Keefe are being seen in some circles as a deliberate attempt to discredit British officials in Moscow and to undermine efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Last month, the career diplomat, who speaks six languages including fluent Russian, was confronted by a Russian journalist, who demanded: “They say you are a spy for MI6 – tell us, does James Bond exist?”
Evidently irritated, Mr Keefe, 54, replied: “I don’t think this is a serious matter or that it has anything to do with me.”
Another reporter pressed him on his alleged MI6 status: “Can you give a straightforward answer to this question? Do you confirm or deny it?” He was quoted as replying: “Please. This is not a serious question. Please …”
Mr Keefe, a father of six who lists his interests as singing, sailing, walking and learning languages, was also questioned about his links to Russian opposition figures.
One of his first diplomatic postings, on joining the Foreign Office in 1982, was to Prague. Before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he made friends with opponents of the one-party state, including Vaclav Havel. He later returned to help the newly democratic Czech Republic prepare to join Nato and the European Union.
He was also ambassador to Georgia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and several reports used that against him – accusing him of becoming involved in the dispute over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. One report said he “actively advocated Georgia’s accession to Nato and urged speedy modernisation of its army, presenting Russia as a direct threat to the former Soviet republic”.
Neither episode endeared him to hardliners in the Putin regime and the incidents appear calculated to undermine him. A Siberian television channel, NTN-4, devoted a two-and-a-half minute slot to alleging that a former spy had listed Mr Keefe “as an officer of the secret intelligence service”. It stated that “in MI6, like in our intelligence services, there is no such thing as a former officer”.
The presenter questioned whether it was wise to invite Mr Keefe — “an intelligence service officer of a foreign country” — to Akademgorodok, a university town which is the hub of Russia’s cutting edge science and nuclear research.
In December, Mr Keefe faced a similar attack on a visit to the Ural Mountains to award diplomas to Open University graduates. One report bluntly stated: “Denis Keefe can be described as an undercover spy with his diplomatic position serving as a smoke screen.”
A news website warned students, officials and teachers to be wary in case Mr Keefe tried to “recruit” them. “A person well-versed in recruiting agents like Denis Keefe, bearing in mind his serious diplomatic experience, could easily catch in his net the immature soul of a graduate or a participant in Britain’s Open University programme,” it said.
“And you don’t need a codebreaker to work out what that could lead to.”
Diplomatic sources have told The Sunday Telegraph that the continuing allegations, which appeared to stem from a discredited list of MI6 agents posted online in 2005, were “ridiculous”.
They come after painstaking efforts to rebuild Anglo-Russian relations, following the Litvinenko poisoning in London in 2006.
An inquest into his death will open on May 1, but his murder led to a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. The then British ambassador, Anthony Brenton, was subjected to a four-month campaign of harassment, with members of a pro-Kremlin youth group interrupting his speeches, stalking him at weekends and banging fists on his diplomatic Jaguar.
In an embarrassing revelation, British agents were caught red-handed using a transmitter hidden inside a fake rock, planted on a Moscow street, so spies could pass them secrets.
At the same time, Russian police raided offices of the British Council, claiming that the body – which promotes British culture abroad – had violated Russian laws, including tax regulation.
“It is a cultural, not a political institution and we strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia’s failure to cooperate with our efforts to bring the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko to justice,” said a Foreign Office spokesman at the time.
Leading British companies, including BP, faced problems operating in Russia, which had a negative effect on trade for both countries. More than 600 UK companies are active in Russia and Russian firms account for about a quarter of foreign share flotations on the London Stock Exchange.
Two years ago, David Cameron signed a series of trade deals and a symbolic memorandum on cooperation, and this week’s meeting in London was seen as an important “incremental step” towards restoring relations with the Russians.
But the timing of the attacks on Mr Keefe, coupled with continuing pressure to extradite the main suspects in the murder of Mr Litvinenko, a British citizen, provide an uncomfortable backdrop. On Saturday night Whitehall sources insisted that difficult issues, including the murder, would “not be left outside the room” at this week’s meeting.
But MI6 was again accused last week of being at the centre of another anti-Russian conspiracy – this time in connection with Monday’s opening of the trial of Magnitsky.
He is charged with defrauding the Russian state, along with the British-based millionaire businessman Bill Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital Management, which employed Magnitsky. Mr Browder has declined to go to Moscow for the trial.
A widely viewed television documentary in Russia last week accused the two men of being part of an MI6 conspiracy to undermine the Russian government.
An investment fund auditor, Magnitsky said he had uncovered a £150 million tax fraud involving Russian government officials, but was then arrested himself on accusations of fraud.
He died in prison in 2009, having been denied visits from his family, forced into increasingly squalid cells, and ultimately contracting pancreatitis. Despite repeated requests, he was refused medical assistance and died, having been put in a straitjacket and showing signs of beatings. The case has become a rallying call for critics of Mr Putin’s regime, who accuse the state of a campaign of intimidation against political opponents.

German Gorbuntsov was gunned down, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned, Andrei Borodin was granted asylum
 The meeting equally comes against the background of a “lack of will” by the Russian authorities to help solve the attempted murder of the Russian banker German Gorbuntsov, who was shot six times outside his flat near Canary Wharf in March last year.
Mr Gorbuntsov claimed that the attempt on his life was linked to people close to Mr Putin, and his decision to help the police investigate the attempted murder of his business partner in Moscow in 2009.
Initially, Russian police offered to cooperate, but Scotland Yard later said it was having trouble getting permission to send investigators to Moscow.
A senior Brtitish source said: “The Russians do not understand that our officials and judiciary take independent decisions, that our media asks tough questions and that the British Government insists that British citizens’ rights and lives should be protected.
“It is a major cultural difference. It continues to make our relationship with Russia tricky.”

Monday, 4 March 2013

Silent Calls

Named: British Gas and other major firms making billions of unwanted calls every year

The companies responsible for inundating British homes with nuisance calls can be named.

Named: British Gas and other major firms making billions of unwanted calls every year
British Gas alone is making marketing calls to about 4.1million homes each year Photo: PA

By Jason Lewis, Investigations editor
8:00AM GMT 03 Mar 2013

A string of firms, including major household names, are making millions of unsolicited calls to landlines each year in the hope of gaining business.
Some of the calls are silent, causing irritation, fear and confusion, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable.
Until now the scale of the problem, and the companies behind it, have been unclear. However a Sunday Telegraph investigation can disclose:
* British homes are receiving up to 3.2billion nuisance calls every year;
* Companies making the calls include British Gas; TalkTalk, a broadband provider; Homeserve, a plumbing and heating firm; and a series of companies selling everything from double glazing to financial services;
* British Gas alone is making marketing calls to about 4.1million homes each year;
* Ofcom, the communications regulator, allows silent calls as long as they exceed no more than three in every hundred calls made, opening the way for large companies to hang up on people hundreds of thousands times without breaking the law.
Marketing calls are hugely profitable for those involved in making them and their use has increased dramatically because of computer equipment which allows hundreds of numbers to be dialled at once.
These computerised diallers ring a householder’s number and are then designed to connect a member of staff in the call centre when the equipment registers that it has been answered by a person.
However, if no operator is available no one answers, causing silence at the other end of the line. Some play a message apologising for the call, others simply hang up.
MPs are increasingly concerned about the problem.
Alun Cairns, a Conservative backbencher, said: “Certain groups of people, particularly the elderly who may be at home all day, will not answer their telephone unless they recognise the number because they are so concerned about nuisance calls. Some people tell me that they are getting five or six of these sorts of calls every day.
“And when these calls are silent that causes real concern for the elderly whose first thought may be that it is someone they know who is in trouble and can’t speak or that it is someone out to frighten and intimidate them. This simply cannot be allowed to continue.”
The Sunday Telegraph can provide the most detailed analysis yet of the leading firms behind these calls.
Calls received by 20,000 households with a special answering unit attached to their telephones called trueCall, which allows people to block unwanted incoming numbers, provide a snapshot of which companies are making the most unsolicited calls.
In the past 12 months 5,000 trueCall machines were connected to the internet to send an electronic record of all calls they received to a central database, including the telephone number of the firm behind the calls and how many times it dialled individual customers.
The trueCall users were also invited to comment on who was calling them, providing further evidence of which company was involved and, over 12 months, built a “top ten” list of nuisance callers.
Our analysis highlights how British Gas, the energy company, made almost 7,000 calls to 900 of the homes using a trueCall device – more than seven calls a year to each of them. If that pattern is repeated to all UK homes, it represents 28million unsolicited calls each year.
A British Gas spokesman said: “This is a highly regulated area and we take our obligations extremely seriously. When we do call customers it is always with their permission or when we have undertaken all relevant checks to confirm consent.
“We uphold the highest standards of customer service and when calling it is to offer people information on products and services that may save them money or offer peace-of-mind, such as boiler care.”
British Gas registered the highest calls rate from a single 0800 number. But evidence suggests that other well-known firms are calling British homes as much, if not more than, the energy firm. Homeserve, TalkTalk and Npower used a series of numbers, possibly related to different call centres.
Our surveyed homes received 892 calls from Npower, 1,038 from Homeserve and 10,396 calls from TalkTalk. Although it was not possible to analyse these calls in the same way as those coming from a single number to see how many individual homes were called by the companies, it would suggest that they are calling millions every year as part of marketing campaigns.
However, most of the firms that appear to be making the greatest number of calls to consumers in our survey are not household names.
The firms included Curved Air, a telemarketing firm in Blackburn and Nationwide Energy Services, a Swansea-based firm offering ways to save on household bills. Between them, our survey suggested they called about six million homes last year.
Other companies identified included Ismart, a firm offering to pursue claims for mis-sold payment protection insurance; and DLG Surveys, which carries out consumer lifestyle surveys.
All of the firms that responded to our questions insisted that they did not break Ofcom rules and that consumers benefited from their calls.
The regulator last year imposed fines of £750,000 on Homeserve and £60,000 on Npower, for making “an excessive number of silent and abandoned calls”.
Ofcom’s investigation found that Homeserve exceeded the “abandoned call rate” on 42 occasions during the period between February 1 and March 21, 2011, resulting in an estimated 14,756 calls.
Ofcom rules forbid companies from making repeat calls within 24 hours, but Homeserve was found to have made 36,218 of these calls.
However our investigation raises significant questions over the role of Ofcom. It allows operators to “drop” 3per cent of all calls made, which can run into hundreds if not thousands of silent or incomplete calls every day.
Ofcom levied fines on the companies whose marketing campaigns involved silent calls, but refused to disclose the names of the companies which made the calls, because in both cases they had been subcontracted by household names. It means firms that hire the outsourced call centres would not know they have infringed the rules before.
Ofcom said that because it was up to the company on whose behalf the calls were made to stay within the rules it would not name them, adding that it would be “prejudicial” to the call centre firms.
A spokesman said: “It is a company’s responsibility to ensure that if a third party makes calls on its behalf, it complies with Ofcom’s rules on silent and abandoned calls. We may of course, in future, decide to investigate outsourced call centres and, if we do so, this information would be published subject to the legal restrictions on disclosure.”
TalkTalk, one of the firms under investigation by Ofcom for making excessive silent calls to consumers, has named the call centre operator that it used in the marketing campaign which is under scrutiny.
Ofcom said that it has “reasonable” proof that TalkTalk persistently broke the rules between February and March 2011 at two call centres, one in the UK and one in South Africa.
TalkTalk said that the calls were made by workers at Teleperformance in Cape Town, South Africa, after it ended a contract with the French-owned call centre operator.
Alistair Niederer, chief executive of Teleperformance UK, said: “This was a very regrettable, extremely rare incident which was the result of human error by 14 employees in South Africa, a tiny fraction of our global workforce of 135,000.”
Last night MPs called for Ofcom to change its approach. Mr Cairns said: “It is about time that the regulators remembered they are there to protect consumers rather than the commercial interests of the firms involved.”
He said that he hoped to persuade the Government to tackle the issue of nuisance calls in legislation.
Mr Cairns said that current regulations were too weak, with responsibilities divided between Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Mike Crockart, a Liberal Democrat MP who is setting up a House of Commons all-party committee on nuisance calls, said: “For these people the phone might be the only real contact they have with the outside world. If, every time they answer a call, they find themselves asked to answer a survey or persuaded to sign up for a service they don’t need, it makes them reluctant to answer – cutting them off from the outside world.”
Steve Smith, director of trueCall, who carried out the research, said “Older people are particularly vulnerable; they may be confused by telemarketing calls, agree to order products they don’t need, or may be taken advantage of by persistent and unscrupulous callers.”
David Hickson, of the pressure group Fair Telecoms Campaign, said: “The regulatory approach taken by Ofcom is not working. Taking years over imposing sizeable penalties on a handful of big name offenders is ineffective.
“Ofcom should take action whenever it has reasonable grounds for believing that someone is habitually engaged in activity likely to cause annoyance.”
Ofcom said that it had commissioned further research into the problem.

Top 10 numbers most blocked by trueCall users
Company. Extrapolated figure for UK calls

1. British Gas 4.1m

2. Curved Air 3.7m

3. I-smart 2.2m

4. Unknown telemarketing firm using number registered in Leeds 2 m

5. National Moneysavers 1.7m

6. Still active number previously attributed to defunct marketing firm 1st Call Connect 1.63m

7. Nationwide Energy Services 1.6m

8. DLG Surveys, known as 'Consumer lifestyles’ 1.1m

9. Loft Insulation 0.9m

10. Moorcroft debt recovery 0.3m

* Sunday Telegraph analysis based on calls made to 5,407 trueCall homes between February 15th 2012 and February 14th 2013.

Silent calls

Silent calls: how the marketing firms deliver potential customers

Named: British Gas and other major firms making billions of unwanted calls every year
Marketing calls are hugely profitable for those involved in making them Photo: Alamy

By Jason Lewis, Investigations editor
8:00AM GMT 03 Mar 2013

Curved Air Marketing Solutions Limited, is a market research company based in Blackburn. It claims it get 20,000 people a week to complete one of its telephone marketing surveys.
Around 800 trueCall users were called 1,176 times by the firm during the last year. If the pattern were repeated across Britain this would represent 3.7 million calls to home phones a year from the firm. The company began trading two years ago and is yet to post a profit.
It is run by William Taylor, a Northwich-based businessman who is also the chairman of a finance company, a Blackburn roofing firm and was previously a director of a series of kitchen design businesses.
According to Curved Air’s website it creates a “database of potential customers that continually grows leads for you, our client” through the people it calls completing 20,000 surveys a week. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

National Energy Services Limited, based in Swansea, telephoned 339 members of trueCall panel 2,135 times in the last 12 months. This would represent 1.6 million calls to British homes during the year.
According to its website, the firm is the “UK’s largest provider of energy efficiency surveys” and, it says, is “dedicated to helping home-owners and businesses claim the government grants available to make energy efficient upgrades to their properties”.
The firm had a turnover of £16 million last year and is part of the Save Britain Money group run by Neville Wilshire, who runs a series of other firms including and Debts Reduced Limited.
The company has gone from six to 600 employees in four years, expanded to have a call centre in Cardiff which was opened by Craig Bellamy, the footballer, and is to feature in a fly-on-the-wall documentary on BBC3 later this year.
Mr Wilshire says that his firm offers energy efficiency surveys, reclaiming payment protection insurance, fuel efficiency advice and debt management.
A spokesman for the firm said: “To help people access the funding available we call potential customers in their homes from our UK contact centre. At NES we have strict processes and procedures. Our technology is Ofcom compliant. Even with all the technology that is available and our very successful quality control methods; it is inevitable that a small percentage of people contacted will not be fully satisfied with the call.”

Ismart Consumer Solutions calls were intercepted 1,284 times by 483 trueCall machines in our survey, representing 2.2 million calls a year across the country.
It says it is “a leading payment protection insurance (PPI) claims company, having helped thousands of customers reclaim mis-sold PPI cover”.
It claims that “customers find us through carefully selected partnerships” or “ purely through word of mouth” but in fact makes large numbers of “cold” calls to canvas for business.
Founded by David Haycock, 33, Ryan Horne, 32, and Dylan Pritchett, 33, its most recent accounts show it had a turnover of £6.5million, and paid the three directors £515,000 in salaries and shares.
Last year it was accused of demanding huge fees for its help with one customer who was reportedly awarded £2,365 compensation ending up getting nothing and receiving a £890 bill for commission from the firm.
Paul Fakley, its marketing director, said: “We take great pride in the fact that many of the calls we make ultimately result in significant financial benefits to consumers who make claims through us. Without our marketing activity many consumers would likely miss out on the opportunity to get back what is rightfully theirs. We abide by all Ofcom regulations that apply to us.”