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[Originally published here as part of WITNESS‘s collaboration with Global Voices Online]

Over the past four months, we’ve tried to feature and contextualise videos we felt should be seen and debated by a wider audience. Today’s featured human rights video is something completely new.

You may be one of the millions who have sought it out online – or you may have decided to avoid it. Someone – a friend, a colleague, a relative – may have emailed it to you, or called you up to tell you about it. You may have seen a clip of it on the TV news. One way or the other, you’re likely to have an opinion on it, because it’s made for a memorable start to 2007, as political cartoonist blackandblack’s cartoon illustrates:

2007 - a cartoon by http://black-blackandblack.blogspot.com

Click here to launch blackandblack’s blog in a new window.

If anyone was still in any doubt that sousveillance was one of the ideas of the year, then the Saddam video should put that beyond doubt. What’s different about the cellphone footage of the execution of Saddam Hussein, former dictator of Iraq, is that, aside from being probably the most watched web video in history, it has re-ignited a global debate on a perennial human rights issue: capital punishment.

Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar links to both the official and unofficial videos here – on a personal note, I found it one of the most disturbing videos I have yet had to watch, so viewer beware…

Judging by the Iraqi government’s indignation at the unofficial footage, and the ambivalent reaction of many major media outlets (as detailed by Armenia-based Onnik Krikorian here), they were the only ones genuinely surprised that a cameraphone was smuggled past the security checks into the death chamber. If whoever filmed it had surrendered his cellphone before the hanging, the world may never have seen beyond the mute, carefully-edited, tastefully-faded-out official video of the proceedings.

The real story emerging from the Saddam video is that, in laying bare the huge gap between the managed official account of his execution and the far messier reality, it has provoked people – and many bloggers – to reflect less on whether Saddam merited his fate, and more on the nature and appropriateness of that fate for the age we live in.

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[Originally published here as part of WITNESS‘s collaboration with Global Voices Online]

Hop over to Technorati right now and you’ll see that six out of the top fifteen videos being linked to by bloggers show the same incident – University of California police officers using a taser gun on an Iranian-American student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, in the Powell Library at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). Here’s one of those videos, from UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, which explains the story (which contains some graphic imagery and abusive language):

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4_s4Un0TkI]

For more background and reaction, take a look at Iranian group blog Iranian Truth‘s coverage of this story. There may be more coverage in the Persian-language blogosphere – Los Angeles has such a significant Iranian population that it’s sometime humorously called Tehrangeles

The UCLA incident is one of three videos of different incidents showing police in Los Angeles appearing to use excessive force when arresting suspects. All three videos were shot by ordinary citizens. The first video of the three emerged on YouTube, and showed an LAPD officer punching a handcuffed suspect repeatedly in the face after a foot chase. The second video, which has not appeared online yet, but was shown as evidence to the L.A. Times by the victim’s lawyer on Monday 13th November, involved a homeless, handcuffed suspect being doused in pepper spray by the arresting officer. The officer has since been cleared of wrongdoing, citing the officer’s restraint in the face of the victim’s “belligerent, threatening and combative behavior”.

Emily at PicturePhoning.com provides links to other incidents involving police captured on video by citizens both in the USA and elsewhere. This seems to testify to a trend that can only grow as more and more people get access to videophones. Some groups are encouraging citizens to use their phones and cameras to record abuses by the police and to upload the clips to video-sharing sites. Sherman Austin, a founder of Cop Watch L.A., a police watchdog website, told a Yahoo! reporter that:

We urge everyone to have a camera on them at all times so if anything happens it can be documented. The concept of patrolling the police is something we are trying to push as a form of direct action.

Do you think this could be an effective form of scrutiny of the police?