By Ken Phelan.
Amal Alamuddin-Clooney: by night wife of heartthrob espresso addict George Clooney, by day eminent barrister specialising in international law and human rights, is finding that with the tinsel comes an edge. She has experienced several descents from the rarefied elevation of the international bar, as not just her wardrobe but her politics and that of her debonair husband – whose mother famously acknowledged that he had found in her “an intellectual equal” (for the first time), are scrutinised, and even ridiculed.
At the Oscars Tina Fey in sub-Ricky Gervais mode declared as the camera bore down on the perfect couple: “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip”.
She went on: “So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award”. Cue laughter and applause on the night.
Less edifying was a follow-up article in the New York Post by Andrea Peyser, a conservative columnist who once described Christiane Amanpour as “CNN’s war slut”, in a column headed, ‘George Clooney has a Problem – and it’s Amal’.
After barbs about her “bovine-insemination gloves”, Peyser got serious: “Fey’s assertion that the woman who married George Clooney, 53, in September had been selected to serve on a commission investigating war crimes in Gaza, allegedly committed by Israeli forces, caused me to gasp. Didn’t she refuse the assignment?”.
Peyser determined to make life difficult for the delightful jurist: “Fey’s publicist told me that the comedian was just making a joke at George Clooney’s expense, but would not say why Fey chose to go there. A rep for Poehler did not respond to my email, and George Clooney’s publicist said he passed my questions on to the missus, who did not get back to me. Here is the story: the UN Human Rights Council announced in August that the then-Ms. Alamuddin, engaged to Clooney at the time, would serve on a panel, one that Israeli leaders have likened to a ‘witch hunt’ whose members are bent on penalizing Israel for acting in self-defense against Palestinian rocket attacks”.
Peyser noted that Alamuddin tellingly declared she would skip serving on the panel because she was too busy with eight legal cases. But snorted that “she released a statement that revealed her antipathy toward the Jewish state: ‘I am horrified by the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip, particularly the civilian casualties that have been caused, and strongly believe that there should be an independent investigation and accountability for crimes that have been committed’, it read”.
Peyser concluded: “I believe that her refusal to join the anti-Israel commission was an effort not to antagonize her then-fiancé’s Hollywood colleagues, many of whom are pro-Israel and/or Jewish”.
Alamuddin-Clooney’s roving brief to get the Elgin marbles back from avaricious colonialists in the British Museum for Greece has also attracted derision. Writing in the Daily Telegraph last year under the headline ‘Amal Clooney should back off. Lord Elgin was a hero who saved the marbles for the world’, Dominic Selwood linked Clooney’s “kooky PR stunt” to his love interest and was unimpressed. Clooney had claimed “they came from the Pantheon in Rome rather than the Parthenon in Athens (and also that they had been taken by Lord ‘Eljin’)”. Never before has anyone laughed at George Clooney, except Brad Pitt, and maybe the couple in the Nespresso ad – and that was just joshing.
Alamuddin-Clooney – who has represented clients at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has had clients including Julian Assange and former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, recently endured another controversy over an interview she gave the Guardian about her client, jailed Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamad Fahmy.
During the course of this interview, and following an appeal hearing in January at which the three journalists were told they faced a retrial, Alamuddin-Clooney spoke of a report she had submitted in February 2014 to the Egyptian government on behalf of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBA). It detailed a litany of abuses and inadequacies of the Egyptian judicial system which she believed contributed to the imprisonment of her client and the two other al-Jazeera journalists.
Fahmy, a Canadian national and fellow Al-Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste have been imprisoned since December 2013 on charges of abetting terrorists, spreading false news and endangering national security. They were also charged with involvement with the recently organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, now proscribed as terrorist. The three were initially sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison last June by controversial Egyptian judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata who subsequently notoriously sentenced 188 people to death in one mass trial.
The IBA report chronicled the failings of the Egyptian courts under the three regimes following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and claimed that the judiciary was not quite as independent as it should be. The report also detailed how the judiciary had been used for “arbitrary political ends”, had jailed people on “vague charges of conspiracy” and for “insulting the military”, “insulting the president”, or “insulting Islam”.
Speaking of the continuing practice of Egyptian officials hand-picking judges, Alamuddin-Clooney said: “That recommendation wasn’t followed, and we’ve seen the results of that in this particular case where you had a hand-picked panel led by a judge who is known for dispensing brutal verdicts”.
The current government, under General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, failed to act on any of the 2014 report’s recommendations; under Sisi’s rule, persecution of the ‘politically suspect’ has in fact dramatically increased.
Speaking to the Guardian on January 1, Alamuddin-Clooney said she was unable to publish the report in Cairo last year as: “first of all they stopped us from doing it in Cairo. They said: ‘Does the report criticise the army, the judiciary, or the government?’ We said: ‘Well, yes.’ They said: ‘Well then, you’re risking arrest’”.
Following this interview, a story headlined: ‘Egypt warns Amal Clooney she risks arrest over al-Jazeera three’ was published on January 2 on the Guardian’s website. In the story, the Guardian claimed that Alamuddin- Clooney had risked arrest by Egyptian “authorities”, and also inferred that this threat was both recent, and in relation to her defence of Fahmy. The first sentence of the article stated: “Egyptian officials have warned human rights barrister Amal Clooney that she risks arrest after identifying serious flaws in its judicial system that contributed to the conviction of three al-Jazeera journalists now jailed in Cairo”.
What followed was a string of international press stories claiming the Egyptian government had threatened Alamuddin-Clooney with arrest, with a connection made between this threat and her defence of Fahmy.
An indignant statement from Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated categorically that Alamuddin-Clooney had not been under threat of arrest at any stage, and advised foreign correspondents to practice “diligence” and caution in any future reporting in the country. “We have nothing against her”, Interior Ministry spokesman, Hani Abdel Latif, said. “She should say exactly who said that. Why not specify from the start who told her that?”. Unedifying criticism indeed.
The statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry noted scathingly, “The most basic professional rules require verification of the accuracy of the news before it is published and drawn from official sources, as well as the need to disseminate any formal correction or comment in the same place and space”.
Alamuddin-Clooney, in a Hollywood-scale climbdown, responded with colleague Mark Wassouf via an article for the Huffington Post in which it was claimed she had been misrepresented by the Guardian.
The threat did not come from “Egyptian officials” or “Egyptian authorities” as claimed by the Guardian, but instead from so-called “experts in Egyptian affairs”. It was also noted that the incident in question had occurred in February 2014 – before Alamuddin-Clooney represented Mr. Fahmy – and had nothing to do with the case of the Al-Jazeera journalists.
“As a result of warnings, the IBA decided that it was not safe to hold the launch in Cairo, and the authors were forced to hold it in London instead. This incident arose before Alamuddin-. Clooney’s involvement in the Fahmy case, before the current president was in office and indeed in a context entirely unrelated to the case”.
When the Guardian contacted Alamuddin-Clooney on January 5 to clarify, she replied that the language she had used in interview had been reviewed by a colleague in the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, who agreed with the term “experts in Egyptian affairs” in relation to the threat.
Damningly, according to the Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley, Alamuddin-Clooney “checked and confirmed the quotation before publication” of the original article. Nevertheless, on the Guardian’s website on January 6 Chris Elliott wrote: “The Guardian collectively made a number of errors by conflating two key aspects of the story, including a significantly misleading headline, and I apologise on behalf of the newspaper to Amal Clooney for those errors”.
Speaking of their defence of Fahmy, Alamuddin-Clooney and Wassouf said that they were “pursuing discussions with the Egyptian and Canadian authorities in a spirit of cooperation in order to identify a swift and fair resolution to the case”, and have submitted a pardon request to the Egyptian authorities.
After her damning critique of the Egyptian judicial system Alamuddin-Clooney is not in favour with the Egyptian government. This latest incident will only serve to worsen the relationship, and may even prejudice her client’s retrial.
Hollywood’s golden couple with their unusually expansive outlooks need to ensure the application of forensic standards demanded by her career is not subverted, risking dissipation of the stardust or even of their (separate?) Presidential ambitions, by the overwhelming glamour and over-excitement of new love. •