Narwani and the 'Amnesty plot'

Sharmine Narwani, a defender of the Assad regime who trolls on Twitter, seems to have found another dictatorship to support. Last week she was busy promoting a forged letter which seeks to implicate Amnesty International in a plot against the Afewerki regime in Eritrea.

It began with this tweet:

#Amnesty and #HRW involved directly in regime-change operations? Read Pg 4 of this damning doc:… via @tekerebanelim

If the insertion of a question mark was meant to add a touch of scepticism about the letter's authenticity, that soon evaporated as Narwani posted further tweets – three of them presenting quotes from the document as if they were genuine statements from Amnesty International (here, here and here).

Richard Spencer, Middle East correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then asked why, if the letter was authentic, it was not written in proper English. As often happens when someone challenges Narwani on Twitter, this resulted in a protracted argument, with Narwani repeatedly demanding "What's wrong with the English?" (Spencer provided numerous examples.)

Spencer also pointed out that the letter "is exactly the sort of document" that supporters of a dictatorship would forge, since it "gets in all the conspiracies".

Narwani, who had earlier hailed it as a "damning" document, then responded that it contained "not nearly enough incriminating stuff to suggest forgery".

Contradicting herself seems to be part of Narwani's modus operandi. A few months ago, for example, she objected to news media describing Hizbullah's stronghold in southern Beirut as a stronghold. 

The "only reason" for using the word stronghold, she said, is "to justify carnage against those populations most likely to support the Lebanese resistance group", adding that it's a term "that makes Shia civilian life negligible".

However, this apparently doesn't apply to Narwani's own writing when she is talking about Syria. A search of her articles found her describing the Baba Amr district of Homs as "an armed opposition stronghold" and the Khalidiyeh district as the "stronghold" of the Farouq Battalion.

In an outburst on Twitter last year, she also railed against British universities, describing them as "old colonials" and suggesting Arabs should not study at them. In the meantime, she has continued to highlight her own extremely tenuous connection with St Antony's College, Oxford – presumably to lend credibility to her articles.

This may seem a fairly trivial matter, except that there are people who still regard Narwani as a credible "dissenting voice" on Middle East affairs. She writes for al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon and often accuses mainstream journalists of lacking professionalism – not checking facts, not showing enough scepticism about what they are told, etc.

That might carry more weight if she applied the same rules to herself but when something comes along – like the "Amnesty letter" – which appears to suit her political agenda, critical faculties slide into second place.

As far as checking things is concerned, a quick internet search would have shown that Amnesty dismissed the allegations as "ludicrous" when they first surfaced a couple of years ago:

"The allegations that Amnesty International has conducted a secret mission to Eritrea are completely unfounded. Amnesty International has not visited Eritrea for more than a decade due to restrictions put in place by the Eritrean authorities in terms of access, and does not have any employees in the country. 

"The suggestion that Amnesty International would infiltrate Eritrea on a top secret mission to incite an uprising is ludicrous. Amnesty International visits are undertaken with the knowledge of the respective government or authority in place, including by raising human rights concerns directly with the relevant authorities as part of our research methodology. Amnesty International would welcome an invitation from the Eritrean government to visit the country."

The letter itself, which purports to have been written by Catherine Price of Amnesty's Africa Special Programmes in London, is said to have been intercepted along with some accompanying documents by the Eritrean government.

Despite having apparently come from a woman with an English name, it was clearly not written by a native English speaker. Apart from the spelling mistakes and quirky use of the definite article, some of the phrases are bizarre and almost incomprehensible:

"... dictatorships like to take the slightest advantages over anything that happens on their safer side"


"Remember we have not involved the Etritriean [sic] Officials nor are we following official channels, because we believe the world is very spacious and open, and we do not have to request you to allow us to investigate you."

The writer also seems unfamiliar with UK postcodes, which are written in two parts with a space between them. The address of Amnesty's offices given in the letter combines the two into one.

In addition to all that, the letter supposedly tells an Amnesty researcher in Tanzania: "I wish to announce to you that you have been appointed to be part of a 4 man delegation to Eritrea ..."

It goes on to name the "delegation" members – two of whom are women. The idea that someone working for a prominent human rights organisation would describe such a group as a "four-man" delegation beggars belief.