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Ken's 'Big Brother' deal with the death-squad president

By Keith Dovkants and Joschua Neicho

Biometric fingerprinting, state-of-the-art CCTV - our Mayor is offering Hugo Chavez not just advice, but, we reveal, the means to repress his own people.

The Evening Standard (London) | September 14, 2006 Thursday | Pg. 18 | KEN Livingstone's deal to secure subsidised oil from Venezuela to provide cheap bus fares in London has a worrying side, the Evening Standard can reveal. According to a leaked memo from the Venezuelan embassy in London, part of the arrangement will involve biometric fingerprint technology being passed to the regime in Caracas.

The prospect concerns critics of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez because his government is in the process of assembling a database of everyone in the country, apparently to determine whether they are supporters or opponents.

Chavez already stands accused of presiding over an administration that human rights organisations accuse of serious abuses. According to Amnesty International police death squads target innocent civilians, human-rights campaigners are threatened and terrorised and the judicial system is packed with pro-Chavez stooges. "The idea of giving a regime like this advanced biometric fingerprinting technology is astounding," said Aleksander Boyd, a Venezuelan exile and campaigner based in London.

A writer and vocal critic of Chavez and his government, Mr Boyd believes the deal worked out between Livingstone and Chavez, when the Venezuelan leader accepted the Mayor's invitation to visit London in May, is simply a propaganda exercise aimed at benefiting the images of the two politicians.

"It is squalid and drags London into disrepute," he said. "How can Livingstone defend a deal in which a rich city like this gets cheap oil from a country where 70 per cent of the people live below the poverty line?"

In fact, the Mayor has been trumpeting his plan to have Chavez subsidise London bus fares. Livingstone gave Chavez an exceptional welcome here. The Mayor closed City Hall so that the president, who is rather afraid of assassination attempts (at least those directed against him), should feel more secure, even though Special Branch said there was no threat.

A group of Chavez supporters, who staged a slightly delirious rally, were allowed in, but London-based Venezuelan dissidents were left firmly outside the security cordon, which many believe was the intention. Chavez does not encourage dissent. He has terrorised his political opponents and harassed media outlets hostile to him.

As a populist, Leftwing authoritarian, he has infuriated the US government by refusing to co-operate in moves against Colombian drug cartels, supported Iran in its confrontation with the West over nuclear weapons and once described the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal as "the greatest living Venezuelan".

When it comes to outrageous statements, Chavez could even teach a thing or two to that master of the soundbite, Livingstone. There seemed to be a bond between the two men when they embraced at City Hall and later, at a private lunch, the Mayor spoke glowingly of his guest.

To set up the proposed oil deal, Ken sent his most trusted lieutenants. The leaked memo reveals that Venezuelan embassy officials met key Livingstone aides, including his chief of staff Simon Fletcher and transport commissioner Peter Hendy.

In the embassy's report to the government in Caracas, it is suggested that a barter deal could be struck in which London gets oil for its bus fleet, enabling fares to be reduced for the unemployed and people on benefits, and Venezuela would get co-operation in return.

According to the memo this would include advice on transport and the environment, adult education and tourism. In a section headed "Security and Public Vigilance" the memo says London would also provide help with CCTV systems and biometric fingerprinting. It adds that in these fields: "The United Kingdom is a world leader."

The memo also reveals that a delegation from the Mayor's office would be seconded to government departments in Caracas. The Mayor would also provide advertising for the Venezuelan tourist industry on buses.

Livingstone has defended the deal and told London Assembly members yesterday it could provide poorer Londoners with pay-as-you-go Oyster cards, which will be exempt from swingeing new fare rises. He said he was "two to three months away" from finalising an arrangement with the Chavez government.

But it would not be a straightforward barter arrangement in which London would receive oil, he said. "The bulk of the oil produced by Venezuela wouldn't be suitable for our use," he said.

Instead, London would receive money transfers equivalent to an agreed amount of oil. City Hall observers were taken aback by this - could London really take money from Venezuela, a country where the average wage is just over a 10th of salaries here?

Chavez mentioned a figure of a million barrels. It is believed he was offering oil at a discounted price. In similar barter deals he has provided oil at significantly below market value. With oil currently trading at around $64 a barrel his government would clearly expect something substantial in return.

Worldbeating technology on biometric fingerprinting might qualify.

The technique, which uses microchips to store details unique to each individual and can access information instantly.

Human-rights campaigners fear it could be used by governments to hold intimate records on the entire population.

According to Aleksander Boyd, this is precisely what the Chavez government wants: "In November last year an audit of electronic voting equipment showed that a record of individual votes was being retained. They want to know exactly who is for them and who is against," he said.

Livingstone has defended Venezuela's record on human rights, and even claimed it was better than Britain's. But the tide of opinion in informed quarters is against him. Chavez, who once tried to take power by force, has faced criticism from organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Amnesty noted in a report published in 2004: "In recent years Amnesty International and national human-rights organisations have documented extralegal killings, torture and other serious human rights violations committed by police and security forces in the context of social cleansing or combating common crime in different parts of the country.

THESE cases, often affecting poor and marginalised communities, gain little public attention and receive an equally inadequate of ficial response; exposing the victims and their families to threats and intimidation and leaving members of the security forces responsible free to commit further violations."

The organisation also revealed action against newspapers that criticised the regime and moves to pack the judiciary with pro-Chavez judges.

Human Rights Watch reported in January that Venezuela's Supreme Court had been subject to a "political takeover". It also reported on the murder of three students by police in June last year.

According to an eyewitness, HRW said, two of the students were grabbed by men in civilian clothes wearing hoods. "They made them lie on the ground and shot them in cold blood. The police reportedly planted weapons on the scene to make it appear they had been fired on first." The body of the third student was found nearby, shot through the eye.

Of 5,997 police and military personnel implicated in extra-judicial executions - involving 6,127 victims - HRW said, only 88 had been convicted.

Chavez, who once described Robert Mugabe as "a true freedom fighter", has been accused of adopting policies very like the dictatorial Zimbabwean leader. A 51-year-old former army officer, Chavez came to power with the support of Venezuela's peasantry, which he says he champions, and he has since been accused of systematically dismantling the country's middle class.

He awarded himself sweeping powers of decree and introduced new laws that carry serious penalties for anyone convicted of showing "disrespect" to him or the military, which supports him. The authorities decide what " disrespect" entails. In 2002 he tried to impose control on Venezuela's oil industry, the world's fifth largest producer. Its employees went on strike, so Chavez sacked them all.

Then, when the trade union movement called a general strike and demonstrations, Chavez used the police and military to break them up.

Seventeen people died and his opponents accused him of using thug tactics, although the deaths have never been thoroughly investigated by independent authorities.

In embracing Chavez, Livingstone reprises past "media firestorms", as he described them. They include welcoming IRA terrorists to County Hall as GLC leader and inviting to City Hall Islamic radical Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who despises homosexuals but praises suicide bombers.

ANGIE BRAY, leader of the Conservatives at City Hall, believes Livingstone makes these friendships as a gesture to the hard-Left. Of the deal between him and Chavez she said: "It's little more than a sordid backscratching exercise.

"Chavez gets a team of GLA senior staff, on salaries funded by Londoners, to help him run his country, boost his re-election chances, and to be on the receiving end of a highly effective propaganda campaign conducted throughout London. Mr Livingstone gets to bask in the glory of his Leftwing past and has his ego massaged."

Could the poor of Venezuela begrudge him that?

Additional reporting: Joshua Neicho

Source The Evening Standard

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