The arrest of Julian Assange by British police on 11 April 2019 raises a number of troubling questions. It naturally enough provoked the outrage of Assange’s supporters; a blandly noncommittal comment by the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs (“appropriate consular assistance”); and a wilful disregard of the many significant issues by the mainstream media who may, ironically, end up as the major victims of the pursuit of Assange by the UK and US authorities.
Assange was a founder of the Wikileaks organisation, which in its relatively brief life had exposed a significant number of documents that proved exceedingly embarrassing for the United States government. Perhaps the most infamous was a military video “Collateral Damage” released by Wikileaks in 2007. It showed US soldiers celebrating the murder of Iraqi civilians and including the murder of two Reuter’s reporters.
The video had itself been leaked by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, whose link to Assange’s current arrest is significant. Assange had been granted bail by a British court on a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden on the basis of allegations of sexual assault by Assange when he was on a visit to Stockholm. There was a history to those charges themselves. Assange had been questioned in Sweden and allowed to leave the country without being charged. The original prosecutor had decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him.
A new prosecutor decided otherwise not on the basis of evidence, but because of political considerations, i.e. pressure from above. Nonetheless, the Swedish authorities again decided in 2013 that they wished to drop the case. We now know, as the result of Freedom of Information requests, that the British were pressuring the Swedish authorities not to do so. One document released under Freedom of Information had a British official emailing the Swedish authorities: “don’t you dare get cold feet.”
It is one of the many failings of the mainstream media in this case that it never occurred to them to ask why the British should be so anxious that Assange be prosecuted by the authorities of a foreign country in respect of the allegations about Assange (a non-British citizen) allegedly sexually assaulting two Swedish nationals.
Assange was unaware at the time of these machinations. Fearing extradition to Sweden and thence to the United States, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he remained until his arrest on 11 April.
That arrest was only possible because the Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno revoked Assange’s asylum status. It is at least arguable that Moreno was in breach of the Ecuadorian constitution in so acting. What is it certainly known is that Moreno himself is the subject of allegations of criminal wrongdoing and feared that Wikileaks was going to expose his alleged misconduct. It is also known that Moreno sought a multibillion-dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund, a long time instrument of Western interests, and that a condition of the loan was that Moreno revoked Assange’s protected status.
The ostensible reason for arresting Assange was because of his bail violation. It is manifestly absurd that the British police have over several years spent millions of pounds guarding exits from the Ecuadorian embassy to prevent Assange leaving, because of a charge that carries a maximum six months imprisonment and which is ordinarily dealt with by way of a fine. It is all the more absurd because the matter for which he was on bail (the Swedish charges) had long since been dropped.
The Americans have now made an extradition request to the United Kingdom for Assange to be extradited to the United States to face a charge, now also finally released, of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack into “a classified United States government printer”.
Manning, it will be recalled, was pardoned by President Obama seven years into a 30 year sentence, but has since been re-imprisoned for refusing to give evidence against Wikileaks to a grand jury. When, if ever, he will be released is not known. What it does reveal is the relentless persecution of persons who fall foul of the US establishment. Manning and Assange are not the first such victims, and neither are they likely to be the last.
Assange’s lawyer Barry Pollock said that the United States charge boils down “to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking steps to protect the identity of that source.”
It is a charge the Obama administration was unwilling to prosecute because of concerns that by its nature it endangered investigative journalism. It is here that mainstream journalists and media outlets that were initially happy to publish Wikileaks material but who latterly belittle and smear Assange are most at risk, although there is little evidence that they appreciate the danger.
In 2011 a Washington Post editorial entitled “Why the United States Shouldn’t Try Julian Assange” opined that “a conviction would also cause collateral damage to American press freedoms. It is difficult to distinguish Assange or Wikileaks from the Washington Post.”
That editorial was in respect of actions by Assange and Wikileaks that are, a decade later, the subject matter of the indictment that Assange faces.
The prosecution of Assange has more to do with silencing critics of unlawful and outrageous government conduct than it does with Assange per se. By refusing to campaign against this latest example of US extraterritorial overreach the western mainstream media are blithely walking into a trap that will ultimately destroy them too.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.