- Created: Tuesday, 16 April 2019 09:50
- Written by FRFI
On 12 April, the Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was roughly seized by British police from the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he had sought asylum seven years earlier, in a politically motivated assault co-ordinated by the governments of Britain, the United States and Ecuador. He now faces the possibility of 12 months in a British gaol for jumping bail followed by possible extradition to the United States. This latest assault on Assange is intended to punish him for Wikileaks’ consistent publication of classified documents exposing the crimes and brutality of imperialism and to warn off anyone else attempting to do the same. In the words of the journalist John Pilger, ‘Assange’s crime is journalism: holding the rapacious to account, exposing their lies and empowering people all over the world with the truth’.
The real criminals
The United States
The United States wants to make an example of Julian Assange for Wikileaks’ publication in April 2010 of deeply incriminating data, including hundreds of thousands of documents provided by Chelsea Manning, then an intelligence analyst in the US army. They revealed the scale of atrocities committed by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notoriously in a 2007 video of 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, being machine-gunned from an Apache army helicopter by laughing US soldiers. Other documents revealed that the US had killed 66,000 Iraqi civilians - more than previously reported – as well as hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan. Manning served seven years of a 35-year sentence for her courageous stance and is currently in prison again for refusing to testify against Wikileaks.
The US is seeking Assange’s extradition on the spurious grounds that he attempted to help Manning hack Department of Defense computers – an offence that carries a prison term of five years. The allegation has been carefully framed to avoid giving rise to challenges over freedom of speech and freedom of the press but there is no doubt that if Assange is extradited there will be a raft of other more serious charges against him. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while Trump’s director of the CIA, made it clear he considered Assange a ‘hostile non-state intelligence service’ who would not be protected by the First Amendment. According to the Justice4Assange website, a US grand jury investigation has been ongoing since May 2010 with the purpose of bringing a case against him over WikiLeaks publications. These efforts have been expanded under President Trump after WikiLeaks published files on CIA hacking and surveillance operations in 2017 – then Attorney General Jeff Sessions described arresting Assange as ‘a priority’. Assange could face up to life imprisonment for multiple charges including conspiracy, theft, and electronic espionage – a terrorism offence – if extradited.
In 2012, the then progressive Ecuadorean government of President Rafael Correa offered political asylum to Assange after he lost his legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced politically-motivated sexual assault charges. He was also given Ecuadorean citizenship. However, following the election of the neoliberal Lenin Moreno as president in 2017, manoeuvres began to rescind his asylum. In 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence visited Moreno – the highest-ranking US official ever to visit Ecuador – specifically to discuss the case of Julian Assange. In February 2019, Moreno secured his own version of 30 pieces of silver, with upwards of $4.2bn in loans from the IMF; within two months Assange’s asylum had been revoked and his Ecuadorean citizenship stripped, and the British police moved in. Rafael Correa called Moreno ‘the biggest traitor in Ecuadorean and Latin American history’; his former foreign minister Guillaume Long described the handing over of Assange as ‘a national shame and a historical error that will leave a deep mark on Ecuador for a long time.’
The British action to seize Assange was entirely in keeping with nearly a decade of attempting to criminalise him. Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that when Sweden attempted to drop its sexual assault investigation into Assange in 2013, British officials urged them not to do so, writing in one: ‘Don’t you dare get cold feet now!’ Another email from the Crown Prosecution Service noted: ‘Please do not think this case is being dealt with as just another extradition.’ Britain also, in both 2011 and 2015, advised Swedish lawyers not to interview Assange in London.
It is clear Britain needed the investigation to remain open to justify its treatment of Assange. It has its own reasons for wanting to silence Assange; amongst the vast trove of Wikileaks data, for example, is a diplomatic cable revealing Britain’s secret attempts to prevent the return of the dispossessed Chagos Islanders to the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia in order to preserve its use as a US military base. In 2016, a UN legal panel found that Assange had been arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorean embassy – since the British government would arrest him if he left and has spent £12m on keeping police on guard outside to do so. It said he should be allowed to walk free and compensated for his deprivation of liberty. The report was dismissed by the then British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as ‘ridiculous’; he insisted that Assange was a ‘fugitive from justice’.
70 MPs and peers in Britain have called on the Home Secretary to extradite Assange to Sweden rather than to the United States. Inconveniently, Sweden is not currently requesting Assange’s extradition – but the pressure is on for it to do so. This position, which allows opportunists such the ‘liberal’ Guardian, the columnist Owen Jones and Labour MPs such as Emily Thornberry, Stella Creasy and Jess Philips to appear to be defending press freedom (by opposing Assange’s extradition to the United States) while posing as defenders of women’s rights is fundamentally dishonest. The allegations made against Assange in Sweden were always a Trojan horse. At the time the investigation was found to be baseless by the country’s senior prosecutor, Eva Finne, who declared that the conduct alleged by police ‘disclosed no crime at all’. Assange, who denied all the allegations, believed that if he went back to Sweden he would immediately face extradition to the United States, which is why he sought asylum. The Swedish extradition warrant against Assange was revoked in May 2017 and there are no outstanding charges against him. To clamour for his extradition to Sweden is a mealy-mouthed way not only of washing their hands of responsibility for his fate, but to perpetuate the kind of personal denigration he has been subjected to by the mainstream press for the last seven years. Even Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbot, who originally posted on social media comments supportive of Assange have backed down, now meekly agreeing that, of course, they had always meant that he should face charges in Sweden.
The Guardian, which collaborated on the publication of the Iraq documents in 2010, describing the material as ‘the scoop of the century’, has led the way in this. Two of its journalists, Luke Harding and David Leigh, went on to write a successful book about the investigation, later made into a film, which was seen by many as a hatchet-job on Assange himself. Assange served as their cash cow and was then deliberately cast aside. For the last seven years, rather than campaigning for Assange’s release, The Guardian has along with the rest of the mainstream press set about systematically trashing his reputation. They have allowed the Sweden allegations against Assange to be paraded as fact, ridiculed those who support him, engaged in character assassination and mocked the restrictive conditions he was forced to live under. Most damagingly of all, in November 2018, The Guardian published a totally discredited claim that Assange had been visited by Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort at the Ecuadorean embassy. Perhaps it was intended to give credence to the allegation peddled by politicians in London and Washington that Assange worked for Russia in attempting to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Yet the paper can straight-faced describe the Assange case as ‘a moral tangle’. In his devastating critique of the mainstream press, including The Guardian, the journalist Jonathan Cook writes:
‘They signed off on the right of the US authorities to seize any foreign journalist, anywhere in the world, and lock him or her out of sight. They opened the door to a new, special form of rendition for journalists.
‘This was never about Sweden or bail violations, or even about the discredited Russiagate narrative, as anyone who was paying the vaguest attention should have been able to work out. It was about the US Deep State doing everything in its power to crush Wikileaks and make an example of its founder.’
John Pilger describes how, a decade ago, the Ministry of Defence in London produced a secret document which described the ‘principal threats’ to public order as being threefold: terrorists, Russian spies and investigative journalists. The latter was designated the major threat. The document was duly leaked to WikiLeaks, which published it. ‘"We had no choice," Assange told me. "It's very simple. People have a right to know and a right to question and challenge power. That's true democracy."’ Few other journalists in the imperialist countries – and certainly not those who have gone out of their way to discredit Assange - have risked so much to publish the truth about the crimes committed by those in power. Defend Julian Assange.