THE VIOLENT TERMS PEOPLE ARE SEARCHING FOR ONLINE
"Social media has a substantial role in facilitating gang activity."
That was the claim in the Home Office's serious violence strategy, published in April 2018.
The document says threats of violence, gang recruitment and drug dealing are glamorised and promoted, particularly in videos. But how serious is the problem?
A social enterprise specialising in countering violent extremism has monitored search engine queries and online video content relating to violence.
Anonymised search traffic data was gathered from people in England, Scotland and Wales between 27 April and 12 May. The results provide a fascinating, but disturbing, insight into how the internet and social media may be shaping and fuelling young people's interest in knives, gangs and guns.
Zombie knifeAccording to the findings, there were 22,169 searches indicating "engagement with or vulnerability to serious violence". Among the most searched-for terms were "stab vest", "bulletproof vest" and "zombie knife", with London and the West Midlands logging the most searches as a proportion of the population.
Researchers placed the searches in different categories.
More than 13,600 were classed as "crisis" with search terms such as "I have been stabbed", "how to survive being stabbed" and "first-aid for stab wound".
Some 7,500 searches were in the grouping, "violent intent". They included "best knife to fight", "where to stab" and "buy machete".
More than 900 concerned "engagement", with people wanting to find out about gangs. A small number, just 110, were in the "diversion" category, which indicated an interest in getting out of gangs.
Analysts explained to me the technique they'd used to collect the data but asked to keep it confidential so as to avoid skewing future surveys and research.
Catriona Scholes, who led the project for Moonshot CVE, says although some searches over the 16-day period were likely to be "false positives", with people looking up information for legitimate purposes, the conclusions are invaluable.
"We can use this data to better inform police and civil society when engaging with this issue in their local area," she says.
"We can also use it to produce reactive counter-content that engages with the narratives that are leading people into violence."
The study also analysed a sample of 20 videos uploaded to YouTube between January 2018 and May 2019 which, analysts say, either "incite or encourage" violence.
The videos received 2.5 million views and 20,500 comments, likes or shares. More than three-quarters of the films depicted people being provoked into violence. Half showed threats of violence with a named target and in a third there were "criminal acts".
According to the research, the vast majority of those watching the videos were male, with two-thirds under 25.
"We found that the people who post this footage typically post the original live video on Snapchat and Instagram before later re-uploading it to YouTube, thereby maximising the lifespan and reach of their content," says Scholes, a former Metropolitan Police officer.
"It demonstrates clear intent not merely to share a post with friends, but to encourage a culture of violence among as many people as possible," she adds.
Moonshot says the findings should spark a nationwide campaign with targeted messaging and online advertising services to provide search engines with alternative, credible content to challenge "harmful" narratives.
It's also calling for off-line help to be made available for those who may be at risk, bringing "social work into the online space".
The research is well-timed.
The government is half-way through a consultation period on proposals for what it hopes will be a "world-leading package of online safety measures", one of which involves ensuring users exposed to violent material are directed to support.
There are also plans for a statutory duty of care to make technology companies and social media providers take more responsibility for online safety, with the measures enforced by an independent regulator.
It'll be months, probably a year or two, before such a system is in place. The results of this study suggest it can't come soon enough.
Property Fraud – Buyer Beware
At ABCIPI we have recently noticed and upturn in the number of frauds being perpetrated that involve land or property. Sometimes they involve a lease but the truth will be that the investment will depend on an underlying business being a success so that the property that is involved will actually be of little or no value. That will be even more true if the business actually fails. These types of schemes will often be presented as a routine process as property is bought and sold in a process that is known as conveyance. These schemes, however will usually be risky or at the very least dubious.
Current Bogus Schemes
Some examples of current schemes although these are constantly changing. This could take the form of:
Unusual developments –buying an individual hotel room or individual self-storage unit. It is worth being wary of anything that seems a bit odd or unusual. Investors will often be asked to pay thousands of pounds for conveyance, although, in these cases it is not needed, and the investments will often be high risk.
Landbanking - this scheme involves buying, for an inflated price, small plots of land on the premise that the value will rise significantly if there is approval of planning permission. In the cases we have investigated that planning permission was never realistically likely to be granted.
Developments abroad - New build property. A prospective investor will be offered holiday homes that are yet to be built for payment in full, in advance. This can be, of course, a legitimate activity but in our experience, the schemes to be wary of will typically be ‘too good to be true’ and in countries where it’s difficult or often impossible to check that the development exists, and equally difficult to recover your money. However, this can also happen with UK developments. At ABCIPI we are dedicated to protecting our clients from all kinds of fraud. If you have been a victim of property fraud or want a scheme investigated that you are thinking of investing in, get in touch with us now.
Investment Fraud, We Can Help
We all know that there are a lot of so called investment schemes out there that turn out to be scams but even the most savvy of us will find it difficult to identify them all without professional help. That is where ABCIPI come in. We spend a lot of time keeping up with what frauds are out there to trip up the unwary and lead to catastrophic financial losses and combating them with our own investigations. Investment Opportunities A lot of scams on a larger scale deal with investments that turn out to be bogus. To attract people to what they think will help them to make the most of their money, scammers will use the word ‘investment’. In reality these investments will often not exist or will be very high risk. Trading Jeopardy Often schemes will be an invitation to trading in a ‘bank instrument’ that does not exist or to trade in highly unusual commodities such as carbon credits or graphene. There will also be inducements to trade in products like fine wine or even diamonds that clearly do exist but of course, there are markets for these that are very well established so it stands to reason that there will not be any magical way for the ordinary investor to make exceptional profits in this very well worked area. At ABCIPI we are very aware of the fact that it can be all to easy to be taken in by false promises of great returns on investment by offers that look and sound legitimate. If this has happened to you, let us try and help and if you are thinking of making an investment, let us investigate the scheme you are thinking of investing in to ensure that everything is as it should be. ABCIPI will do our best to keep you and your money safe.
Too good to be true investment schemes? Beware!
At ABCIPI we are always working to stay ahead of the scams and phony schemes that our clients can fall prey to.
We always say that things that look too good to be true are best avoided but it is not always that easy to spot a scam. Those involved in fraud are always coming up with something new to get their hands on our money through gaining our trust. One of the most concerning scams that we have dealt with is the scammers who use actual law firms to carry out their deception. Most people would trust a solicitor without question and it is this trust that is being used to exploit the unwary.
Of course most solicitors act with the utmost honesty and with integrity. However it is a sad truth that a small number have been found to have got involved in investment schemes that they have joined without fully understanding. Of course this means that unwitting clients can be sucked in too. At ABCIPI we have increasingly been getting calls from our clients who want to know that the legal advice they are taking is genuine and that they can trust the advice they are being given. Some of these schemes will offer huge returns that are not really achievable and sadly people have lost their pensions and savings signing up through solicitors because they trust them. Over the last year, action has been taken against 8 law firms in cases where people had lost in all, around £50m.
At ABCIPI we would always say that having an investigation carried out on the other party when big numbers are involved is a great idea. It can throw up surprising facts that might change your mind on investment choices but even if it does not then the peace of mind will be a great comfort before you part with your money.
If it seems too good to be true…. ABCIPI tackles Fraud
At ABCIPI we have a long history of helping clients who have been subject to fraud in business and we know that this kind of fraud comes in many guises. These are some of them:
Penny Stocks The micro-cap stock market (ie: penny stocks) has had a long history of fraud, but yet new investors are attracted every day. The lure of being the owner of the next eBay or Microsoft from start up is just too much to resist. Unfortunately, problems with penny stocks make them ripe for securities fraud, as con artists will always gravitate where the risk of getting caught is lowest – which includes penny stocks. At ABCIPI we have seen this many times and we can help and advise if you have a problem in this area.
Bogus Offerings This is another fraud sold in the form of a breakthrough technology or perhaps a large contract for some company that is unknown. The company will often, in fact, have no earnings, operations, or any audited statements, and may be no more than an idea. We think the wise words of Frank Crane are worth bearing in mind. “You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you’ll live in torment if you don’t trust enough.” At ABCIPI we look for the happy medium.
Prime Bank Fraud The prime bank fraud is designed to appeal to those who would like to believe that the banking and other elite entities have access to lucrative investment opportunities that the rest of us don’t. The lure of large returns can be very tempting to those who fancy themselves as a “privileged investor” given access to elite bank portfolios and so called “prime banks”. The problem is that they don’t exist! And nor do “revolving credit guarantees,” “standby letters of credit,” or any other euphemisms for fictitious high-yield debt. If you have fallen victim, ABCIPI can help.
Accounting Fraud We also help our clients with Accounting Fraud During the late 1990’s bull market, big name corporations, Enron to name but one, defrauded investors numbering in their millions through “creative” accounting. Nowadays, an entire regulatory system is in place to catch these problems, but if you need help, ABCIPI are here.
Securities Fraud targeting Affinity Groups This is another example of misplaced trust. Fraudsters in this area target age, professional identity, ethnic, religious and even sexual identity to gain confidence from their target who is supposed to think that someone the same as they are will not betray their trust bypassing the natural distrust we have for schemes promoted by strangers. If you feel you have or are being targeted, give ABCIPI a call.
Todd Tresidder tackles the different frauds that can blight our lives and gives great advice in his book Investment Fraud how financial ‘experts’ rip you off and what to do about it. But if the worst comes to the worst, ABCIPI will always be just a phone call away. In the 21 century, the old adage, if it seems to good to be true then it probably is, has never been more relevant.
A 17-year-old German boy went to Malta on vacation. His body came back without its organs, and his father embarked on a 2-year journey to find out how his son died 04/01/19
Mike Mansholt liked to be outdoors and was into sports. Above, Mansholt in the Yukon. Courtesy of the Mansholt family
In July 2016, 17-year-old Mike Mansholt left Germany for a vacation to Malta, and then soon disappeared.
Police began investigating, and Mike's body was found eight days later.
Initially, the father was told his son died from a fall.But inconsistencies began piling up, and the body was returned to Germany — without its organs.
Mansholt set out on a two-year journey to uncover the truth about what happened to his son.
Despite his efforts, Mansholt never found out the full story about Mike's death.
It's summer and young people are rushing into their first big holiday trips without their parents. Seventeen-year-old Mike, from Oldenburg, Germany, is one of them. He travels to Malta, but never returns.For his father, Bernd Mansholt, a long, desperate search for the fate of his son begins.
The disturbing news reaches a father in Croatia.
Bernd Mansholt tries to stay calm despite his growing fears. But his son Mike didn't come home as planned after his vacation. His seat on the plane remained empty.
He reasons to himself about what could have happened. Maybe he was late, missed his flight, or lost his mobile phone — something normal in the usual chaotic life of a 17-year-old.
"A lot can happen. Mike will surely show up soon," he thinks.
Mansholt, who loves sailing, is familiar with delicate situations. And in the summer days of 2016 he tries to remain as calm as possible while learning about the disappearance of his son.
But his serenity, this forced calmness, doesn't last very long.
Mike's phone is dead. He has tried calling multiple times to no avail. The unbearable silence is deafening. Another certainty begins to throb all the louder in his head: "Something is not right. Something must have happened to him."
Today, two years later, his father knows a lot more about what happened during the last day in Mike Mansholt's life. For the past two years, he has searched for the truth about his son. He has traveled to Malta, questioned witnesses, had gone astray, and was lied to; he reconstructed the fate of his son based on police reports, investigation files, and anything that would help piece together the puzzle of what might have happened. What he found worried him even more.
Anyone who looks through the numerous files from Germany and Malta, and speaks to diplomats and investigators, is presented with a complex and alarming picture: There are numerous doubts about the Maltese authorities' official documentation regarding what really happened to Mike Mansholt. Contradictions are everywhere.
Mike was 17 when he disappeared. He had traveled to Malta for his first vacation without his parents. He first spent time with his girlfriend, then extended his stay to explore the island alone.
He liked to take pictures. He had an eye for the beauty of the island. With the waves of the Mediterranean splashing gently on the shores, Malta, located about 250 miles from Africa, can be a magical place.
Bernd Mansholt knows everything about this first and last journey of his son. Mike had checked in at Astra, a small hotel in the east of the island. There are cameras that capture everything, so some of the last moments of Mike are documented: He can be seen walking, blue T-shirt, mobile phone in his hand, with backpack over his shoulder.
He left room No. 105 at 8:39 a.m. and returned at 9:10 a.m. and asked for the bill. The camera shows 09:55:03 when Mike Mansholt locked his door. He then stepped out of the lobby and walked down to the harbor.
The disappearance of Bernd Mansholt's son happened in the following minutes.
After leaving the hotel, Mike borrows a blue-black mountain bike from the harbor, a Lombardo 270 with a particularly light frame. He wants to visit the realm of the dead — the catacombs in Rabat, consisting of ancient tombs. He sends a message via WhatsApp.
At this moment, 10:11 a.m., on the hot day of July 18, 2016, Mike Mansholt is online for the last time.
Four days later, the plane that was supposed to bring him home from his holiday takes off. His mother and his sister expect him at the arrival area in Bremen, Germany, at 10:15 p.m. Flight LH 360 is delayed, and at the end it is canceled completely. Did Mike get stuck in Frankfurt where he was to change planes? Calls to his cell remain unsuccessful.
His relatives grow restless. Mike's father, on vacation in Croatia, cancels his trip and wants to fly home immediately. His ex-wife, Mike's mother, doesn't want to wait that long. That same night, at 2.19 a.m., she reports the disappearance of her son to the police in Oldenburg. Mike has vanished, she says.
The police officers on duty take the case. A case number is assigned and Mike officially becomes a missing person on July 23, 2016. The policeman types characteristics of the young man into the computer to create his profile: 5-foot-5, natural red hair, muscular build.
Suddenly, the officer is startled. He discovers, according to the the internal police system, that there has already been a search for Mike taking place in Malta for four days. It says he hadn't been seen on the island since that morning when he rented the mountain bike that he did not return. The manager of his hotel also waited four days before she notified the police. But nobody has told the family.
Now, a whole machinery kicks into gear to find Mike. The Bundeskriminalamt (the Federal Criminal Police Office, or BKA) takes over the case, and under this umbrella the entire international police work together. The search begins.
2 years later, there are many files on Mike's disappearance
Using these files, the "story" of how he disappeared can be more or less reconstructed, but the case remains full of gaps and contradictions.
The files and police reports tell a tale full of holes, with a litany of open questions, mistakes, and even blatant lies. Over time, evidence disappears, and investigators on the island hardly make any progress. All the while, the family's grief grows as the traces fade away.
At half past three on that fateful night, while Mike's mother sits at the police station, the policeman on duty sends out his report. The case is assigned immediately with a high priority. The mother hands the authorities photos, Mike's bank-account information, and his mobile-phone number. She says her son brought a black Samsung Galaxy Note and a GoPro action camera.
The same night, Mike's father packs his belongings. At sunrise his flight takes off. He has to find his son, and he wants to do it himself.
According to police reports, Mike's father talks to the airport police during a layover in Frankfurt. They relay his information to the BKA, which has specialists for cases like Mike's in a unit known as SIRENE, a special team of investigators with access to names, biometric images, and fingerprints.
"In a cases like this," an experienced BKA investigator says, "we will assign the highest priority — we won't focus on anything else." Half of Europe is now on a manhunt for Mike Manshol.
His father is part of the search efforts. He follows every move made by the police as best he can. He trusts them and remains hopeful.
On July 24, 2016, the BKA checks whether Mike has taken another flight home to Germany. It takes about an hour until results of the inquiry filter back: no flight movements. Mike remains missing.
After a couple of days, the police try to inform Mike's mother about the state of the search, but according to their written report she is "too emotional to talk."
Meanwhile, the Maltese authorities have expanded their search to the neighboring island of Gozo. They also check passenger lists for Air Malta/Emirates, contact the company Virtu Ferries, and search in Kuncizzjoni, Imtahleb, and San Blas. Their efforts often continue late into the night. And Bernd Mansholt continues to look on his own. Mike's brother, Daniel, is sometimes by his side.
There is a patient in a hospital on the island who contacts the family and claims to have seen Mike, although it's possible he was hallucinating because of his medications. The Mansholts, following every trace no matter how small, take up the lead anyway. They rush to his bedside.
"I thought I saw his face," the sick man says. Then he falls asleep again. That's how Mansholt remembers the haunting scene today.
Of course the man didn't see Mike. It was a false lead, one of many. Someone else reports to the police that Mike was seen in the Tiger Bar, a known drug trafficking hangout, but there are no witnesses. Mike's father befriends the possible informant, and together they drive around the island, distributing photos, one that shows Mike with a sun hat.
"I've been turning stones until the early morning," the father writes down that day. Where did Mike go?
A discovery is made under cliffs
The message arrives July 26, 2016: Through an anonymous tip, a body has been found on the island.
There are TV cameras crews already waiting as Bernd Mansholt reaches the Dingli Cliffs, Malta's highest point at 250 meters high. The dusty plateau is home to orange trees, the old radar system facility, and the Magdalene Chapel.
Search dogs have found something nearby. The father stands near the abyss. "Wait here — let the dog handlers do their work," he was told.
An ambulance arrives. More emergency personnel show up. The scenery is one of growing and unbearable certainty. A white Jeep with two stretchers on the roof navigates its way carefully down the gravel road.
This moment has been captured in a video: It shows how rugged the terrain is, how the cliffs cascade down to the sea. Then the vehicle slowly comes to a stop.
Mike's father remains at the edge of the cliff above the activity, and watches what unfolds below. He wears a beige cap to protect himself from the blistering sun. Bernd Mansholt can see the crashing waves of the sea and the men in white overalls below him.
For hours now they have secured the area, taking photos. At last, they recover a body. It has been lying in the sun for a long time.
Mansholt wants to approach. He just can't wait any longer. "I have to see him," he says.
The workers are wearing masks as they put the remains in a body bag. Mansholt intervenes. He approaches and opens the bag. He bends his head toward the opening and looks inside. He sees the dead person. He realizes it could be his son.
He feels numb, and everything around him seems to move in slow motion. The moment of horror feels endless. Sunshine and darkness, all at the same time. He closes the body bag.
Today, when he talks about this, the most terrible moment in his life, he especially remembers a conversation he had with an employee of the Maltese doctor, who told him: "The back of the dead man is broken twice." A quick death, they added. Mansholt recalls the black holes in the neck and left side of the dead man's face, the body already decomposing.
Daniel, the brother of the missing teenager, has also seen the body near the cliffs. He thinks the dead young man might be his brother. But his father is not so sure. How can he be? DNA tests take time, but only they can provide confirmation.
Mansholt spends the following days in agony, waiting in one corridor after another in numerous buildings: the forensics department, the police station, the court building, the morgue.
He scans through the papers that were handed to him and studies some handwritten notes. He sees the possible date of death has been written down.
The cause of death? "Unascertained."
Mansholt could have never imagined that it would take almost two more years before he would hold the complete autopsy report in his hands.
A father's growing suspicions
The days on the island are getting stranger. On August 8, 2016, the father is visiting the morgue once again when an employee takes him aside.
"There are no fractures," she whispers. Unofficially, she adds.
On the cliffs they told him there was a broken back due to a possible fall. But now, suddenly, no bones are broken?
Mansholt immediately calls the police officer in charge. He recalls that when he confronted her with his questions, she was evasive. The desperate father grows suspicious. Also growing is the nagging suspicion that they want to get rid of him.
He trusted the police for a long time, but he decides to switch into the mindset of a detective himself. He has so many questions. Wasn't there hay at the place where the body was found? The hay seemed oddly fresh beside a dead body, which they said had been lying there for days.
Mansholt promptly questions the farmer who owns the land there. But the man has no useful answers. The trail runs cold.
Mansholt also grows suspicious regarding his son's camera. Something is wrong. Whenever Mike was doing sports — jumping into water, climbing, whatever — he documented everything with his small video camera.
It's a silver GoPro Hero 2 with 64 gigabytes. Mike had the camera with him during the trip to Malta, as his father later will testify in an affidavit. But he can't find it in Mike's hotel.
Room 105 has already been cleared out when he enters. They had given him a few of his son's belongings, including diving equipment. As stated in the case files, there were three pieces of evidence identified and numbered from that location: a pair of sunglasses, a camera case, and Mike's Nike shoes.
And the GoPro camera? Allegedly, it was found near the cliffs. Mike could have filmed his departure on the bike, his last moments, his accident — or whatever else happened. The father was told earlier by the lead investigator that the GoPro was on the dead man's belt.
Over time, Mansholt will ask the lead officer thrice more about the camera, also in front of witnesses. He insists, he begs, he pressures her. She states every time that she knew what a GoPro looked like and that one had definitely been found.
Mansholt returns to the forensics department, where they hand him a Canon camera, older than Mike's, with a destroyed chip.
Until today, his son's GoPro has never resurfaced, and therefore neither has anything that could have been filmed.
Also missing until now: Mike's gray backpack, his Samsung Galaxy phone, his wallet, his credit card issued by the bank Sparkasse, several hundred euros in cash, his straw hat, and an extra charger. Who took all that?
"Maltese people don't do that. Those must have been tourists," they tell the family.
Suspicion grows back in Oldenburg. It seems that Malta doesn't want to find out exactly what happened to the young man.
At this time, Mike's father is ready to level some serious accusations against the Maltese authorities. "Something is wrong here," he says.
He feels like a stranger on this sunny foreign island, like flotsam swept around by the tides. He has suffered a terrible — and at the same time mysterious — loss.
He wants to find out what really happened, even as he fears the truth.
The goldsmith and his son
In Oldenburg, Germany, just about a year later, Mansholt continues to run his goldsmith business in the historic center of town. He's back at work, the filigree and delicate handiwork help taking his mind off his loss. It requires patience and focus.
But he also still likes something else: adventure. He is 53 years old now. In pictures he poses with his duffel bag thrown over his shoulder. When he was younger he had his hair longer; today there are shimmers of grey. Mansholt is an adventurer, he likes to travel the world — one trip led him to climbing in the Ceylonese gemstone regions of Ratnapura.
He sits in front of a restaurant as the night wears on. As quickly as he has earlier agreed to talk about Mike, he now suddenly seems to shy away. He remains skeptical when approached by the media: What is this all about? What kind of story can one expect? Again and again he asks such questions.
On the one hand he wants to protect his son; but he is also still seeking answers.
"What would Mike want?" This key question helps him nowadays to make decisions. It's getting colder outside, but Mansholt, his shirt sleeves rolled up, doesn't seem to mind.
He holds a family photo, taken in 2004 in a harbor: He holds Mike's hand, who is 6 years old at the time. When this was taken, the Mansholts dropped everything and set sail. The boat had the name Nis Randers. Before them, a voyage around the world — from the North Sea through the Bay of Biscay, via the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. Near the Panama Canal they met Kuna Indians, and pirates lurked off the coast of Oman. The family — which included Mike and his brother, Daniel, and his sister, Maria — was at sea for 774 days.
One could lose himself in such memories. But at some point the film tears. The father is catapulted into the now, sitting in the restaurant doing an interview. He speaks softly, often slowly.
"It was obvious to me after the first days that something bad must have happened," he begins.
A body that's far too light
On August 17, 2016, Mike's body arrives in Bremen, and a hearse takes him to Oldenburg. On August 20, Mike Mansholt is laying in an open casket on his 18th birthday.
For the funeral director death is routine. He opens the zinc coffin, and he knows that it should smell of preservation chemicals. But what strikes the man is something else. From this coffin wavers a strong smell of a still decomposing body. The undertaker calls the police.
In the police station in Oldenburg-Stadt the case was now handled by the commissioner's office. And they have noticed something else: A body that seemed much too light has been flown from Malta to Germany. The reason is macabre: The brain, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, adrenal glands, right kidney, urinary, bladder, prostate, stomach, small intestine, and other organs are all gone.
From the left kidney, diaphragm, spleen, and colon, there were only fragmented remains left. Mike was not an organ donor. The father addresses this shocking situation in a letter to the Maltese authorities. "Please send me the rest of my son's organs," he pleads.
He doesn't even know when and how the organs have disappeared. The public prosecutor's office in Oldenburg confiscates the body. The missing person case is now a criminal case. A death investigation is initiated, assigned the file number 1201 UJs 52381/16.
How much can a grieving father endure? The horror seems to grow by day: a broken back, which was not broken after all, disappeared evidence, a body that lacks all the major organs, and a case that lacks truth.
He wants to find out what really happened. Also, based on the father's research, the public prosecutor's office in Germany now suspects that Mike might have died through the involvement of a third-party party, a possible crime. The word "irregularities" is noted in the new report. A second autopsy is ordered, this time in Oldenburg. Medical examiners are present to provide legal certainty.
The results are shocking for Bernd Mansholt: He is told in writing that his son has not been embalmed. "No perceptible formal smell" has been detected, as the reports states. And that is also the reason why a cause of death can no longer be determined.
German forensic scientists cannot find anything that 30-meter fall would have left behind, especially considering the fact that there are no large wounds. It's quite clear that a fall would have been "practically impossible," especially since he didn't break a single rib. And because of the advanced decomposition of the remains, a third-party fault cannot be ruled out.
The father takes long breaks as he talks about this ever more harrowing phase in his quest to find the truth. But the Maltese stick to their official statement: The boy fell down the cliffs, a tragic accident. This is the most likely explanation. Mike's last trip is scheduled for September 4, 2016, two weeks after his 18th birthday. The voyage is recorded in the logbook of the ship MS Mecki, on a page with a cord and seal.
In a dignified manner and according to nautical custom, at 12:13 p.m., the captain hands over the remains of Mike Mansholt to the sea. Slowly the ashes sink into the waves of the German Bight. A broken father who doesn't know why his son died stands at the railing.
Bernd Mansholt soon returns to his workbench and sets diamonds. He gazes into the microscope, his hands are calm. Pliers hold a photo of Mike with his siblings.
After a long silence the father speaks: "Mike and I flew model airplanes," he says. "I still fly today, but it's less fun." Mike was the best in his class, he continues, but didn't want to go to a specialty high school, because maybe he wouldn't have been the best there. The father's voice is strained, but he smiles as he looks at the face of his son in the photograph.
Before his death Mike started an apprenticeship at Airbus; he wanted to build airplanes. Colleagues remember the goldsmith's son — a quiet guy, balanced, conscientious.
The father sometimes thinks that he would rather be up there with his child. Those thoughts frighten him. On good days, he talks about what happened: "Then the shadow is gone; things brighten up when I talk."
He places the next diamond, wanting to finish this ring today. His customer is on his way to fly it to the Bahamas, to happiness. In the afternoon a couple tries on wedding rings. Mansholt laughs briefly when he sees her joy.
Only his work can sometimes provide a small victory over the dark. "A win," he smiles.
A whirlpool of theories
The Oldenburgers are known to have certain ways. Sometimes strangers walk in the goldsmith's shop and begin telling of their own dead. "They asked me: Which of your children was it?" he says.
Mansholt would then let them know courteously that he doesn't want to talk about it now. But he also admits: "In a time of grief you can do a lot wrong."
After the second autopsy, in Germany, the father still can't rule out that someone murdered his son, stole his backpack, and placed Mike's dead body under the rocky ledge.
There are still so many theories about this death, they are haunting Mansholt in the countless hours on his workbench. They have a grip on him, they won't let him calm down. He just can't shut this door.
Of course it is also possible that Mike crashed and really died of his injuries. This is the Maltese theory. Because of the degree of decay and the missing organs, possible internal causes of death could no longer be detectable, such as heat stroke and dehydration.
Maybe Mike climbed up the cliffs after arriving at the bottom by bike. When climbing with the light mountain bike over his shoulder he might have lost his strength, he couldn't do it and died of overheating or dehydration.
But who would climb those rocks in the scorching heat? Why not just drive back to the panoramic road? And why wasn't Mike wearing any shoes? Why was the bike located higher up the slope above the body? With the bike seat twisted, the rear tire flat, but everything else almost intact?
And there of course are far more sinister theories — those of a possible murder conspiracy connected with organ trafficking, or at least organ theft. But this is hard to imagine. How would it have been possible to remove the organs professionally in the heat? And why on earth would the brain be missing? Also, not a single large aid organization has ever documented a case of organ trafficking in Malta.
Bernd Mansholt's search for the truth goes on. Sometimes he finds small details and facts he thinks he might have overlooked. He gets excited, his hope suddenly rising, that they could finally bring clarification. A breakthrough.
But overall this father doesn't want to speculate, he doesn't want to get lost in all the theories.
So what are the facts? What are the important questions? Like this one: Who was present during the first autopsy in Malta? Official papers list three names. Mansholt focuses on the forensic doctor. In a dated piece of TV footage the man is wearing sunglasses and an open shirt and reports in front of the cameras about 29 autopsies he had just carried out on drowned refugees from the Mediterranean.
Is he the man who can clarify the whereabouts of the German teenager's organs?
After all, he was present at the place where the body was found and examined it in the medical examiner's office. But he doesn't have anything more to say about this case today.
Only once does he reply to an email written by the father: The organs were already missing before the autopsy; they were eaten by rodents, he states grimly. He has handed this information to the head of the investigation in Malta, he maintains. But in one statement he mentions mice, in another rats. And Mike's brain? It simply dissolved in the sun, the official declares.
Hardly anyone shares his opinion. The German forensic scientist in charge states in writing that no bite marks were found on the body. And at least some remains of the brain should have been found with a high degree of certainty. Also, a proper embalming of the body by the Maltese physician would have been required. But apparently this did not take place, so the last traces on the body to determine a cause of death have been lost forever.
What remains are nothing but questions. Police and forensic medicine specialists in Germany cannot rule out third-party fault causing Mike's death. But for the time being no evidence of lethal violence has been found.
The authorities were able to clarify: Mike did not die of a projectile. His skull is not broken. He did not suffer any blunt force trauma.
But other causes remain in the realm of possibility: Possible internal bleeding or suffocation. Also, the hyoid bone was missing, which can help with the determination whether someone was strangled.
During the first summer after Mike's death, his father has concluded some aspects with certainty: A pure accident is highly illogical. And there is no plausible scenario in which a third party would not have been involved. He believes there were at least two people at the scene — Mike and the person who took the backpack.
German investigators have also said that the state of the found body was completely inconsistent with the event of a fall from the cliff. Plus, if it was an accident, Mike's belongings would have to be at the place where he was found. After all, he had them with him the morning of the day he died.
Growing speculation is circling around a manslaughter. Because of this, a court later approved access to the data on his phone. But this trail also leads nowhere.
A second trip to Malta
By autumn 2017, Malta has undergone enormous change. Valletta will soon be the European capital of culture.
Students stroll smiling through the streets with colorful scarves. Those are the images the world is supposed to see. Who would still be interested in solving the Mansholt missing-man case?
The father returns in November 2017. He wants to confront them all one more time: the forensic doctor who got entangled in his own contradictions and the police officer in charge. In Mansholt's recollections, the officer had parried every single one of his questions, and at the end of the conversation asked him rather bluntly when he would be leaving again.
The GoPro camera has still not been found, she stated in a message from her iPhone. "I don't feel like listening to any more lies here," Mansholt says. He seems to lose hope after the encounters.
But the father cannot rest. He drives around the island. He wants to organize his thoughts, to think, and he longs for peace. He visits all the places again; he meets the volunteers from the days of the search. Together they drive out to the cliffs.
There's a plaque for Mike, and they lay down some flowers. "I had the chance to be close to my boy once again," he says. This is how he remembers the moment. For the first time after the death of his son, Bernd Mansholt would feel a little better.
He continues his search through all channels, official and unofficial. He writes to the police president, and even to the prime minister. The quest is so demanding that he fears for his own health.
He wants full access to the file about his son's death.
The judge, who can approve such requests, is apparently ill. She has a reputation for issuing rulings slowly. "The file is in some closet." Bernd Mansholt grows impatient. "They know I'm here," he says on the phone. He wants to stay a few more days; he doesn't give up that easily.
Meanwhile, the case also leads to diplomatic efforts. While the father looks for answers, there is an exchange between the German ambassador in Malta and the government. The Foreign Office in Berlin confirms that the case has been explicitly addressed with the Maltese ambassador in Berlin. The first documents arrive shortly afterwards in Germany, including some parts of the "Maltese file."
Mansholt flips through the file pages. He finds them disappointing. He was provided a 3D spatial analysis of the location of the body, but there are no clues to be gained from it. The information does not extend beyond the day of the discovery and photos are missing. Not even the autopsy report is included.
"Essential parts were not delivered — especially all the important ones," he laments. Mansholt can't shake the feeling that the Maltese authorities are not releasing the complete picture of the investigation intentionally.
Another year ends. And what does the father now know? It seems obvious that the story the Maltese presented is full of holes. Is someone lying? What are the real reasons for the death of this young man? Even questions to minor details remain unanswered: What about his shoes? Why didn't Mike call for help on his mobile phone if he had an accident? It seems astonishing how adamant investigators, authorities, and doctors are to stay silent on practically all those questions.
Mansholt finds it increasingly more difficult to work in his goldsmith's shop — customers keep asking him about his dead son. He barely goes out. In Oldenburg he is stigmatized as the man with the dead boy. He doesn't want to live like that. He wants to close the shop. This is the moment when he comes up with something new to talk about, a new adventure: He wants to leave, to start over.
The plan: Take a sailing trip through the Adriatic. He wants to find out whether a new life on the sea would be fit for his new wife and their small children. If it goes well, they would be ready for a much greater voyage. Mansholt has sailed around the word before, so for him, a big voyage means a really big one. They would buy a boat 11 meters long (about 36 feet).
And yet the tragic death of his son still haunts him in these waning days of 2017. He is still struggling to find answers: What happened to Mike? He offers a reward of 10,000 euros for tips on the whereabouts of the organs or valuables. It is intended to be his last attempt.
But suddenly there is one last hope to find out more. The investigators in Germany, the public prosecutor's office, and the BKA are focusing on the case more intensely. Through the liaison offices in almost 50 countries, the Mansholt case is relayed by the BKA to their office in Rome. Investigators there learn the body was lying on its back when it was found.
To this day there is no convincing proof that the place where the body was found is also the place of death. At this point, the work on this case has involved embassies and police investigators in three countries.
Is the truth still out there?
At the end of January 2018, Mansholt calls. He has news: The case is being reopened in Malta.
Is he happy? Rather careful, he says. New experts will be heard. Mansholt hopes that perhaps a delegation from Germany could go to Malta, and the head of the Maltese forensics office would finally have to testify under oath. "I think they're taking this more seriously now," he says.
Indeed, the pressure on the authorities is increasing. The Times of Malta covers the case again. For the first time, officials in the government are discussing "doubts about the accuracy of the investigations."
Mansholt manages his expectations. He knows the same experts as before will testify again before the judge. "It seems unlikely that they would change their testimony; they would not want to expose themselves as liars."
He adds: "So let's see, but basically it's good news." He hangs up again. The year has been an emotional roller coaster, the changes in his closeness and distance could be felt.
The case is picked up by German newspapers. All of a sudden strangers are calling the goldsmith, wanting to offer their own theories — including great conspiracies — about the case. "Crazies" Mansholt calls them. Later he would say he was glad he never let himself get dragged into these, even by those who wanted to make contact with Mike through a medium.
At home the family talks intensively about all this. With his ex-wife, Mike's mother, however, the contact has broken off. In the meantime, the sailing plans were fleshed out in more detail; he found someone who would take over his goldsmith shop. They even bought plane tickets to Greece. They consider selling the house in Oldenburg.
Visitors stand in front of the St Lamberti Church in Oldenburg, Germany, November 28, 2017.
Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/picture alliance via Getty ImagesIn April 2018, nearly two years after Mike's death, the full Maltese file arrives in his mailbox. Almost 200 pages are now in front of him on his workbench.
Do they include answers?
Exactly one year ago Bernd Mansholt talked about his son for the first time. He doesn't seem as beaten today as he did then. He has read the entire file since then. He also looked at the Maltese autopsy photos of his son for the first time; he wanted to see them. After the case was reopened, the Maltese judge comes to the same conclusion again: Mike had fallen off the cliff; there is no other explanation in Malta.
Mansholt accepts it. He wanted to press charges against unknown persons, and against the Maltese forensic doctor for failing to embalm him. In the end, he did not see it through. He knows that for every trial he would need strength from every fiber of his being. Instead, he thinks more and more about the future, his hopes, his way out — out of all this, out into the sea.
Has he resigned himself? No, he has only realized that he cannot get any further. He did all he could.
Sometimes the old heaviness reappears. But gradually, normality returns. Mansholt laughs again from time to time, makes jokes, and talks about sailing. There are now more shores ahead. "My task is to ask all the questions that had to be asked. Everything else is not in my power," he says, sounding like a man close to closure.
He has endured two truly brutal years. How did he get through? What did it do to him?
One last call to the goldsmith: Ten minutes ago, Mansholt begins, he heard from the German public prosecutor's office, which wanted to stop the investigation without a result, even if it has to admit "that the case still has some inconsistencies," he explains. A second request for judicial assistance in Malta has still not been answered.
The German public prosecutor's office had initially ruled out the Maltese version of the story: a fall from the cliff without a bone fracture. But now, at the conclusion of its fruitless investigation, it suddenly shares this absurd sounding theory: The trees on the cliffs might have slowed the fall, and the rocky bottom might have functioned like a slide, which further slowed the body.
One can find this credible or not. The fact that Mike's backpack disappeared "is one of the other peculiarities of this case," admits the public prosecutor, even as he decides that his investigation will been discontinued. Nevertheless, what is clear to the prosecutor: Mike did not die by a stranger's hand. And the organs were obviously still in their place when the body was found.
This couldn't sound any stranger. This statement corresponds with the narrative of the Maltese, but it contradicts the forensic doctor on the island who had mentioned he had observed "rodent traces" on the body, nd the fact that the organs were no longer in place when the body was found.
The authorities would owe the father a resolution to this contradiction. But none is provided. They leave him to live without one. But he has moved on just a bit, exhausted from fighting. He thanks the German public prosecutor. He thanks the Oldenburgers for their sympathy. But now, this must be it.
The house is rented, not sold, meaning that a return is possible after the sailing trip. The great journey is to begin next year. Before that, the family has planned shorter trips in the Adriatic Sea as a dry runs for the big adventure. At some point they also want to stop by in Malta and see their friends again. "We are preparing our new life, but the old must be completed," he says calmly.
Mansholt holds no grudges, not anymore. He received all there was to have — the complete file from the island authorities, and the final letter of the German prosecutors. He himself had searched for the truth for a very long time and with all his strength. He still does not know how exactly his son died, or where the organs or the valuables have gone. But he is more willing to move on: "We will never know what happened."
Not that it was an easy decision, determining whether to dig further into a seemingly hopeless search or to stop because a point has been reached and the search no longer leads anywhere. Mansholt admits new questions still swirl around his head and he often begs the lord for answers. But he does not want to contact the investigators in Malta again.
As the WELT AM SONNTAG follows up on the island, hardly anyone wants to further comment on the case or refute the father's accusations. The Maltese forensic physician, who would seem to have the most explaining to do, remains silent and defers to others. The policewoman, who repeatedly rebuffed Mansholt's quest, did not even respond. A first inquiry was left unanswered by the police for two and a half months. Finally, a referral to the attorney general was made. And furthermore, there was no reply from the prime minister's office.
Shortly before the publication of this story, the Maltese police announced: Objectively speaking, there was "no doubt about the fairness, independence, and objectivity of the investigations."
Back at sea
One summer day a sailboat leaves for the Greek Aegean. It is 11 meters long. It departs the island of Leros and crosses over to Athens, and then onward into the Adriatic Sea.
In a few days the coast of Albania will become visible on the horizon. The passengers want to travel 800 nautical miles. Onboard are Bernd Mansholt, his wife, the two small children who recently joined the family, and Maria, Mike's sister. She loves sailing, just like her father.
He holds the steering wheel. It's easy to imagine the man, even if you don't ride with him. How he looks at the horizon. How he sets the course. What he could do, he has done. What he was destined to know, he knows. Now it is time to let things rest and set sail. Oldenburg is far away. Out here the waves are crashing, the spray splashes into the bow.
Mike's here, too. That's what his father hoped for when he buried him at sea: that his child, his son, his boy, would always be close to him, on every shore of this earth. That's how he imagined it during those two worst years of his life.
At that moment perhaps they too would glide into the waves.
A stolen painting worth $160 million turned up in the bedroom of a small-town couple, and investigators just got a new clue in the case 08/08/18
- When Jerry and Rita Alter died, a painting found in the couple's bedroom turned out to be a famous work by Willem de Kooning, stolen from a museum in Arizona decades before.
- The de Kooning painting, “Woman-Ochre,” is estimated to have a value of $160 million. - The Alters, described as quiet, nice, and unassuming, worked in the public school system and seem to make for unlikely art thieves—but many signs potentially point to them.
No one would have suspected Jerry and Rita Alter, a pleasant couple who lived in the tiny town of Cliff, New Mexico, of being daring art thieves. Yet the couple, both of whom have died, remain at the center of an ongoing FBI investigation into the unsolved theft of a hugely valuable painting. Now, a new photograph may help officials get to the bottom of the theft.
A painting disappears from a museum, and turns up on the bedroom wall of an unassuming couple 31 years later.
More than three decades ago, a man and a woman walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona. While the woman struck up a conversation with the guard, the man went upstairs, then quickly returned, and the couple left, according to The Washington Post.
Uneasy, the guard investigated, and found the Willem de Kooning painting “Woman-Ochre” cut out of its frame. There were no surveillance cameras at the museum at that time, and no fingerprints left behind, reported the Post. The missing painting — and the identity of the thieves — remained a mystery for 31 years.
The painting didn't resurface until 2017, when it was discovered hanging in Jerry and Rita Alter's bedroom after Rita's death (Jerry had died five years earlier.)
The work was hung so that it could only be seen when the door was closed. It was purchased by antiques dealers, along with other possessions, for just $2,000 in a liquidation sale of the Alters' estate. De Kooning was a leading painter of the abstract expressionist movement, and his artworks regularly sell for some of the highest market values in the world.
In 2006, reported the New York Times, another painting in the “Woman-Ochre” series sold for $137.5 million. The “Woman-Ochre” recovered from the Alters’ house is currently valued at $160 million. It didn’t take long for the purchasers, the proprietors of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, to realize they had something special on their hands.
When antique dealers Buck Burns, Rick Johnson, and David Van Auker researched the painting, reported the Silver City Daily Press, they discovered its mysterious theft. A delegation from the museum confirmed its authenticity, and the painting was returned, but officials were still unable to pin the theft on the Alters.
A newly discovered photograph could help investigators solve the long-running crime. But new evidence, reveals that the Alters were in fact in the vicinity of the museum the day before the painting was stolen, reports the Arizona Republic. A photo unearthed by Rita Alter's nephew Ron Roseman shows the couple at a Thanksgiving gathering in nearby Tucson, Arizona, right before the theft.
The Alters, Roseman told the paper, also allegedly owned a red sports car similar to the one described as the "getaway vehicle" by witnesses.
"We have no idea when they got [the painting], how they got it, if they were involved, if they bought it from someone. Ultimately there’s a lot of coincidence," he told The Republic.
At first glance, the couple would seem to make for extremely unlikely art thieves. Jerry Alter was a musician, teacher, and writer, and Rita Alter worked as a speech pathologist. But the couple also seemed to have a lot of money, and traveled to locations around the world over the years, visiting all seven continents and over a 140 countries, ostensibly on their public school salaries, reported the Washington Post. They also left behind more than a million dollars in their bank account.
"I can’t believe Rita would be involved in anything like that," Mark Shay, one of Rita Alter’s former coworkers, told The Washington Post. He suggested that perhaps the Alters had simply purchased the painting from someone else, unaware of its origin.
Police sketches done at the time appear to resemble the couple, though. The New York Times notes the sketch more closely resembles Jerry Alter dressed as a woman and the man resembles the couple’s son, Joseph Alter. In 2011, Jerry Alter self-published a collection of short stories titled The Cup and the Lip. In one of the stories, two people steal a valuable gemstone from an art museum after outsmarting and then killing a security guard.
According to the New York Times, the FBI’s investigation into the case is ongoing, and they have declined to comment until their investigation is closed. It’s possible that the mystery could never be fully resolved — but many believe there may have been more to Rita and Jerry Alter than met the eye.
Thirty-four suspects, including foreign nationals, have been arrested in Bangkok and three other provinces for operating call centre scams and online gambling, the Royal Thai Police announced Monday.
The arrests were made during raids conducted in Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Chon Buri and Phuket last Thursday with assistance from the Chinese authorities.
Pol Maj Gen Surachate Hakparn, the Tourism Police Bureau deputy chief, headed a press conference at the Royal Thai Police Office.
He said more than 50 million baht worth of evidence, including luxury cars, land title deeds and a large amount of cash was confiscated from the suspects. Police said the cash included 20 million baht and money in other currencies worth 10 million baht.
Police teams, made up of officers from the tourist police and the Technology Crime Suppression Division, launched the crackdown in 14 locations across the four provinces.
They netted 34 suspects in two cases. In the call centre scam, 19 suspects were caught: 17 Chinese, one Myanmar and one Vanuatu national.
In the online gambling case, 15 people were arrested: nine Chinese, three Myanmar and three Thais.
Pol Maj Gen Surachate said in the call centre case, the suspects were linked to a gang which operated out of Phuket.
The commander said the gang posed as a financial institution offering to lend people money through WeChat, a Chinese multipurpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app. The gang targets mostly Chinese people.
People who fell for the scam transferred their money to the gang's accounts in order to open a "line of credit", which was the first step towards obtaining the bogus loan.
After the money was wired, the gang closed the accounts.
The commander said a Chinese victim had committed suicide after losing his life savings worth more than two million baht to the gang.
Pol Maj Gen Surachate added that the gang had also used Thailand as a base to speculate on the stock market in China. The gang opened a company as a front three years ago.
Shown are some luxury cars seized from a call centre gang operating out of Phuket. The vehicles are being used as evidence in the police case after officers raided locations in Bangkok, Phuket, Nonthaburi and Chon Buri last week, during which they arrested a number of suspected gang members. Somchai Poomlard
UK ‘complicit in killing civilians and risks being prosecuted over illegal drone operations’, major report suggests 17/07/18
British military personnel could be prosecuted for killing civilians in drone strikes and risk becoming complicit in alleged war crimes committed by the US, an inquiry has found.A two-year probe by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones revealed that the number of operations facilitated by the UK in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia has been growing without any public scrutiny. As well as launching its own strikes, the Ministry of Defence is assisting operations by the US and other allies that could violate both national and international law, it said.
Professor Michael Clarke, chair of the parliamentary drones group, said the UK was working with countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that “do not work on standard Nato rules”.
“As the trend of British personnel being embedded with foreign forces increases there is a danger they will find themselves complicit in drone strikes that are not legal on our terms,” he told The Independent.
“If we’re prepared to be a bit lax, which we are, it will get considerably worse as the use of drones proliferates.” Professor Clarke, the former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said any airstrike must be proportionate, with care taken to avoid civilian casualties.
“If civilians are going to get killed for a strike that ‘might be helpful’, that’s not good enough,” he added. “Anecdotal evidence shows that operations that would previously not regarded as worth it are now, because drones are cheaper and lower the risk to the attacker.”
The UK currently has a range of small unmanned surveillance aircraft flying alongside a fleet of 10 MQ-9 Reapers, which are set to be replaced in 2024 with more than 20 Protector drones.
Military leaders told MPs that drones have become “a normal part of the business of gathering intelligence and conducting precision strike operations” and their use will continue increasing.
The killing of British Isis militants Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in 2015 marked a departure from Britain’s previous practice, seeing the British jihadis droned in Syria without parliamentary approval.
They were followed by the British militant known as Jihadi John, who was killed in an American drone strike supported by UK intelligence, and several other jihadis whose deaths have been revealed by relatives or in domestic terror cases.
Professor Clarke said the government put forward “weak and inconsistent” legal arguments to justify the operations.
“’Arguably lawful’ is just not good enough,” he added. “No one objected because everyone was very glad to see the back of Jihadi John, but behind that the principles being compromised are very important.” The government says the targeted militants constituted a significant threat to the UK but has not presented any information that would allow MPs or parliamentary committees to make a judgement.
A now deleted line in the MoD’s Joint Doctrine Publication on Unmanned Aircraft Systems stated that the UK had “a practice of targeting suspected terrorists outside of the armed conflict itself” and the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has stated his wish to “hunt down” suspected terrorists in “Iraq and Syria and other areas”. The drones group found growing evidence that Britain is taking on military commitments to assist allies without parliament’s authorisation. “The current government does not consider parliamentary approval necessary when providing assistance to allies,” it concluded.
“As cooperation is likely to increase in the future, this approach leaves an expanding oversight and accountability gap. Moreover, it leaves UK personnel and ministers vulnerable to criminal liability in allies’ unlawful strikes.” Because the use of force outside conflicts Britain is directly involved with is not protected by combatant immunity, British servicemen and women can be prosecuted for murder.
“There is growing concern that the UK is likely supporting a drone programme where the US commits unlawful acts,” the report said. “This Inquiry has found that the support provided by the UK constitutes the provision of material assistance to a state that appears to be violating international law.”
American forces operate four bases in the UK, while Britain operates and flies military drones from partner bases around the world. Britain both shares personnel and intelligence with allies that can be used in the commission of strikes, and its personnel pilot American drones.
The report said the situation was “deeply problematic” because of the lack of oversight, while almost every request for information is “categorically dismissed”. The government has refused to detail its policy on targeting or the process of launching drone strikes to parliament – or what is defined as a “combatant”.
While American forces have confirmed the death of more than 900 civilians in airstrikes on Isis strongholds in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the UK puts its own total at one after more than 1,700 strikes in those countries, and claimed a single operation caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Professor Clarke called the British government’s claims “ridiculous”, adding: “They don’t look for evidence and they don’t try to look for evidence.”
The parliamentary group called for proper mechanisms to identify civilian casualties, which are frequently reported in Isis territory and other areas where no British forces are present on the ground.
It warned that drone strikes can be used as propaganda by terrorist groups, while local residents experience psychological trauma and economic loss that continues to drive the cycle of violence.
MPs were also concerned about a shift in legal interpretation on a country’s right to defend itself against “imminent” attack, which the US has applied broadly to suspected terrorists worldwide.
In January last year, the attorney general suggested Britain had adopted America’s “dangerously expansive” interpretation of the right to self-defence.
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, who sits on the drones group, said the government has “adopted a ‘kill policy’ in secret, and without parliamentary debate or the prospect of proper independent scrutiny”.
Labour MP Clive Lewis said: “Parliament is mandated to hold military policy and practice to account, but that role is slowly being hollowed out. When it comes to scrutinising Britain’s drone warfare, we’re kept in the dark.”
Adam Holloway, a Conservative MP and co-chair of the group said: “Taking back control means nothing if parliament has no mechanism to scrutinise the big questions of war,” he added. “There is an opportunity to set an example to the world through our drones policies: the government should seize it.” Baroness Vivien Stern, a crossbench peer and co-chair of the drones group, said: “When Britain shares its bases, intelligence and personnel with drone partners, we risk acting unlawfully. We need know that the right safeguards in place.”
On Thursday the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ahmet Üzümcü, said the amount of novichok – a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union – used in the attack on 4 March was significantly more than needed for research purposes and indicated it was likely to have been created for use as a weapon.
He told the New York Times: “That quantity – a range from slightly less than a quarter-cup to a half-cup of liquid – is significantly larger than the amount that would be created in a laboratory for research purposes, meaning that it was almost certainly created for use as a weapon.”
Within hours of the report, however, startled chemical weapons experts were challenging the figure, insisting a miscommunication had occurred. A statement from the OPCW on Friday said the organisation “would not be able to estimate or determine the amount of the nerve agent that was used”.
It added: “The quantity should nonetheless probably be characterised in milligrams.” It is not clear how Üzümcü made his error.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, had reacted with incredulity to the the initial OPCW claim, saying: “Üzümcü has made a sensational statement that 50-100g of some substance was allegedly used to poison the Skripals.
“According to expert estimations, 50-100g of a toxic agent such as the one Great Britain has been referring to would be enough to poison not just two people but everyone in the surrounding neighbourhood. However, the two people in question managed to survive and recover, the British authorities say.” In the interview Üzümcü also described new measures to monitor production of the nerve agent. He said countries that are signatories to the chemical weapons convention, such as Russia, the US and the UK, would be required to declare production or stockpiling of the agent. However, he said countries producing the chemical for research purposes would produce about a tenth the amount used in the attack.