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Sunday 6 December 2009

Rejoice! The resurrection of Conrad is coming soon

The disgraced media tycoon begins his appeal against mail fraud this week, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

CONRAD Black hasn't gone away, you know. Indeed, this week he's making another bid for freedom -- this time in the US Supreme Court.

He's still in the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida, 21 months into a 78-month sentence, in a system where, even with maximum remission, he could not expect to get out before the autumn of 2013.

He finds his fellow convicts interesting. "They comprise a rich and varied canvas of personalities and experiences," he wrote in a newspaper article, "from misbegotten innocents almost saintly in their naive and stoical endurance of injustice, to egregious but usually engaging scoundrels, to invariably courtly and wryly entertaining alleged pillars of organised crime." Black places himself in the first category.

"One does what one can," he wrote to me last week, "and I am trying to make the best of this place." There followed several paragraphs fizzing with ideas and opinion on the law, education, business, the "dead hand of organised labour making resurrectionist twitches and grabs", the "rotten borough" that is Congress, the EU, the Commonwealth and the disappointment that is President Obama.

What makes Black so stimulating are the fearlessness of his views, his grasp of history and the way in which he approaches issues from an entirely new direction.

Black's columns in the Canadian National Post cause readers to cheer or foam at the mouth. Latterly I've enjoyed him on his feminism ("men have made such a mess of most things; women, who are at least as intelligent, should be given a full chance to do better"), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ("the chief source of apparently informed hysteria"), the contradictions of the proposed health care reforms, the horror of Mao's China, and the Nobel Prize going to Obama ("confirms the world's love for weak or at least misguidedly diffident American leaders, in the mould of previous Nobel laureates Jimmy Carter and Al Gore").

Then there was his essay on his conversion from casual Protestanism to Roman Catholicism, which attracted him because he saw it "as fiercely dedicated to the kingdom of God, resistant to opportunistic fads, concerned to modernise without eroding faith, armed with intellectual arguments quite equal, at the least, to those of their secular opponents or rivals."

The abbreviated versions in the National Post and the Catholic Herald, infuriated many and brought the usual accusations of snobbery, arrogance, dogmatism, showing-off and so on and on.

My favourite of his pieces, though, was about tutoring fellow-prisoners for an English diploma; and his anger at the "wantonness, waste and official human indifference" of a system that caused tens of millions of human lives to be undervalued. "While I hope not to be here much longer, I have rarely been more delighted than when formerly surly and sluggish students embrace me when they learn they have graduated . . . life's rewards do sometimes come in strange ways and unexpected places."

Black's hopes of freedom rest on the appeal his lawyer will make to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, when he calls on nine judges to reverse convictions on three counts of mail fraud for the crime of depriving another "of the intangible right of honest services". Defenders of the law believe it is essential to deal with corruption: opponents say it is so ill-defined that prosecutors can use it to make almost any citizen's conduct criminal.

If successful, Black would be innocent of 12 of the original 13 charges. The 13th is an obstruction of justice charge: he removed boxes from his office in Canada -- he says innocently -- while under investigation in Chicago. Even the most vindictive prosecutor might find it hard to argue that a man who has been cleared of fraud should be kept in jail for that.

"Keep your fingers crossed," Black wrote to me on Friday, "and say an ecumenical, or even secular votive offering to the spirit of John Charles McQuaid."

Well, I was never a fan of McQuaid, and this is not a week for communing with dead archbishops of Dublin, but my fingers are crossed.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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