The agony of Julian Assange

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
That fellow’s got to swing’.
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
 
A nice dilemma we have here that calls for all our wit
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury

The Road to Belmarsh Gaol

Julian Assange, the Australian co-founder of online media organization WikiLeaks is in deep shit. He’s pissed off the Yanks, frustrated the Poms, and angered his Ecuadorian hosts, and now the Swedes want to have another bash …

He was arrested on April 11th by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years having lost a final appeal against his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.

While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty on that charge of failing to surrender, sentenced to fifty weeks for jumping bail. and is serving his time at HM Prison Belmarsh.

On April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018 charging Julian Assange with a conspiracy to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, former soldier and pardoned felon to crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks – in effect, conspiracy to hack US computer systems, a charge which carries a maximum five year sentence. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court. Assange has now been indicted on seventeen charges under the espionage act, which if proven, could mean life imprisonment. There is no guarantee that once he enters the the legal system he will ever re-emerge.

In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor requested Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. Whilst appealing a British High Court decision to extradite him, he spent eighteen months under house arrest at the home of a supporter (in effect, he has been incarcerated for almost a decade). In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed the case against him, but after his arrest, the lawyer for one of the Swedish complainants indicated she’d ask the prosecutor to reopen the case. Sweden’s Prosecution Authority has reviewed the case and is renewing its request for extradition.

[By mid June 2019, the Swedes appear to be backing off. But the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has signed off on the US’ extradition request. It must now go through the British courts. The process could take years, and possibly beyond Assange’s current  fifty weeks incarceration. Will he be freed then, pending a final decision? Who knows?]

Stay angry, get even

The current US administration cleaves to the maxim “stay angry and get even” – Uncle Sam neither forgets nor forgives. Just wait and see what happens if it can get its hands on exiled hacker and   Now Russian resident Edward Snowden. The British Government, relieved to have restored a corner of Knightsbridge to its sovereignty, and currently knee deep in the Brexit “Big Muddy”, probably won’t lift a finger to help him even though by any standard of much-vaunted British ‘fair play’, his self-imposed punishment hardly fits his alleged crimes, an by any liberal and democratic benchmark, he’s certainly served his time.

And we too, in Australia, lost in our own short-term political preoccupations will bleat from the distant sidelines that it’s not our problem – which politically and diplomatically speaking, it isn’t, other than the fact that he is an Australian citizen (albeit a longtime absentee) and therefore warrants consular assistance. Simplistically put, there are no votes in it.

Will our government now help him out? Demand his return to Australia? Oppose the calls from the US to extradite him from the UK?

Our tepid and tardy response to the detention in Thailand of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on a dodgey Bahraini extradition order and the asylum plea of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammad – ironically, again from Thailand – does not auger well for a resolute and reasonable response. The way we left erstwhile al Qaida fellow-travelers David Hicks and Mamduh Habib to rot in Gitmo, and the  lack of enthusiasm with which we took up journalist Peter Greste’s case in Egypt – his family and journalists worldwide maintained the struggle for his release – suggest that after what we call “diplomatic representations” (what ordinary folk call “going through the motions”), we will face political realities and bend to the US’ will.

Caught up between our subservient relationship with the US, our slavish pandering to economic and strategic interests, placing these above considerations of human rights, and our government’s susceptibility to the malign influence of shock-jocks and populist politicians, Australia’s official behaviour in such cases is often predictably and reflexively disingenuous.

Nowadays, most governments are desperate to stop leaks, data dumps, whistle-blowers and uncomfortable revelations. Democratic governments have attempted to use ostensibly benign legal and security powers to restrict media oversight and criticism. Witness here in Australian how the Victorian Director of Prosecutions is seeking to put thirty-six media outlets, editors and journalists on trial over allegations that they breached a suppression order in reports published after the prominent and well-connected Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse charges. The powerful look after their own.

Less squeamish, more thuggish autocratic regimes have few qualms about consigning journalists and editors to jail and worse whilst their western allies and armourers ‘see no, hear no, speak no evil’. Narrow, national interests as ever trump (an apposite word, indeed) human rights. Witness the hundreds of Egyptian and Turkish journalists jailed without trial, the harassment and even killing of reporters in Eastern Europe and Russia, and, of course, the gruesome murder of Saudi scribbler and stirrer Jamal Khashoggi.

The US, the land of the free and the First Amendment has truly shown its hand, and its true colours, proving that Assange’s fears of extradition were quite justified. The UK, meanwhile, has long ached to nail him for contempt of its bail laws, and just plain contempt, really – and a seriously extravagant waste of already straitened police resources. When Assange had worn out his Ecuadorian welcome, lubricated, it is alleged (by WikiLeaks), a $4.2 billion IMF bailout plus another $6 billion from other financial institutions, the Met was ready to roll. Meanwhile, Australia’s political class, having long regarded his Australian nationality as an embarrassing inconvenience, just hoped that we could be left out of it all.

Rally ‘round the fall guy

The media, mainstream, extreme, any stream really, including social media and sundry supporters and detractors, are rushing to both praise Assange and to bury him. They defend and demonstrate, denounce and demean. So Julian Assange, simultaneously icon and bête noir, is the ideal fall-guy “pour decourager les autres”: for everyone on the left and the right who dig him, there’s another who can’t stand him for reasons political, personal, or perverse.

There’s the role he played in the demise of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump, as if, some believe, he was hoping for some kind of “get out of jail free” card from a Trump administration. There’s his hanging out, in a confined space, with the likes of UKIP’s irritating and arguably obnoxious Nigel Farage. All this has forever tarnished his reputation as a warrior of the left. There’s those problematical charges in Sweden that we now learn have never gone away.

During the Australian Federal election before last, the party running his senate bid in absentia gave its preferences to right-wing libertarian nut-jobs ahead of Labor and the Greens, his erstwhile natural allies – and then put it all down to clerical error.

Sadly, stories about his tantrums, visits by Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga and onetime Baywatch hottie Pamela Anderson (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) and neglecting to clean up after his cat – lurid tales of his hygiene habits appear have been concocted to dehumanize him in tabloid tittle-tat – have rendered him an object of ridicule. And the images of him being dragged out of the embassy, pale and blinking in the unforgiving daylight, grey-haired, bearded, wide-eyed and disheveled, like some mad old street person, have engendered pathos and pity.

There can be little doubt that his mental and physical health deteriorated during his confinement. For sure he is not the confident man who entered the embassy so many years ago; but the law doesn’t recognise this – it demands a reckoning. And many love to kick a man when he’s down.

In the end, Assange was in so many ways his own worst enemy. It is hypothesized that he could’ve surrendered to the Brits long time passing and took his chances at law instead of hiding, a much diminished figure, in the embassy of a small Latin American republic. The sad irony is that if he’d faced the music all those years ago, he might’ve been a free man by now, either having done his time or been exonerated, or else, a credible and respected political prisoner supported worldwide as a champion of press freedom and free speech.

Lights in dark corners

Amidst all the commentary and partisanship swirling about the Assange’s unfortunate circumstances, there has been remarkably little explanation of what he, Manning, WikiLeaks and Snowden have actually done in a substantive security sense. Robert Fisk and his colleague at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, address just that.
Fisk wrote on 31st May:  “ … the last few days have convinced me that there is something far more obvious about the incarceration of Assange and the re-jailing of Manning. And it has nothing to do with betrayal or treachery or any supposed catastrophic damage to our security”.
Cockburn succinctly belled the cat with on the same day: “ … the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.”
Fisk continues: “The worst of this material was secret not because it accidentally slipped into a military administration file marked “confidential” or “for your eyes only”, but because it represented the cover-up of state crime on a massive scale. Those responsible for these atrocities should now be on trial, extradited from wherever they are hiding and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. But no, we are going to punish the leakers – however pathetic we may regard their motives … Far better we hunt down other truths, equally frightening for authority. Why not find out, for example, what Mike Pompeo said in private to Mohammed bin Salman? What toxic promises Donald Trump may have made to Netanyahu? What relations the US still secretly maintains with Iran, why it has even kept up important contact – desultory, silently and covertly – with elements of the Syrian regime?
Assange was not, in Fisk’s opinion an investigative journalist; he is nevertheless, a scapegoat, and also a salutary warning for all who shine a light into the dark corners of power: “… what we find out through the old conventional journalism of foot-slogging, of history via deep throats or trusted contacts, is going to reveal – if we do our job – just the same vile mendacity of our masters that has led to the clamour of hatred towards Assange and Manning and, indeed, Edward Snowden. We’re not going to be arraigned because the prosecution of these three set a dangerous legal precedent. But we’ll be persecuted for the same reasons: because what we shall disclose will inevitably prove that our governments and those of our allies commit war crimes; and those responsible for these iniquities will try to make us pay for such indiscretion with a life behind bars. Shame and the fear of accountability for what has been done by our “security” authorities, not the law-breaking of leakers, is what this is all about”.

Back to Cockburn who writes that one reason Assange was being persecuted was for WikiLeaks’ revelations about US policy in Yemen: “Revealing important information about the Yemen war – in which at least 70,000 people have been killed – is the reason why the US government is persecuting both Assange and Yemeni journalist Maas al Zikry … (who) says that “one of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in that tragic condition it has reached today is the US administration’s mass punishment of Yemen”. This is demonstrably true, but doubtless somebody in Washington considers it a secret.”

A nice dilemma

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has done the world many favours. They’ve exposed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; they’ve shine an unwelcome light on wrongdoing, shabby deals, and hypocritical, incriminating and ofttimes embarrassing goings-on in the corridors of power and diplomacy worldwide. And they’ve passed all this on to reputable media sources throughout the so-called free world to sift, analyse, question, join disparate dots, and disseminate.

Yet, in what may seem in retrospect to be a bad dose of overconfidence and hubris, they aspired to be players in the power games of others rather than remaining a neutral and discerning watchdog. And this was perhaps Assange’s undoing – if undone he indeed becomes. This story has some distance to run …

His faithfully longtime lawyer Jen Robinson declared that his arrest, after seven years of self-imposed internal exile, has “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world”. His extradition to the US, she said, meant that any journalist could face charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”.

And yet, much of the legal argy-bargy around the charges Assange is likely to face in the US hinge on the question of whether he is actually a journalist and whether WikiLeaks is actually a news organization. He and his supporters have long portrayed him as a champion of a free press, but some experts believe that the US Department of Justice’s decision to charge him with conspiring to hack government computers limits his ability to mount a vigorous free speech defense. Assange has long said WikiLeaks is a journalistic endeavour protected by freedom of the press laws, and in 2017, a UK tribunal recognized WikiLeaks as a “media organisation”.

Political prisoner, maybe, whistle-blower, certainly, but “not a prisoner of conscience”, at least by Amnesty International’s definition. Compared to many prisoners on Amnesty’s books, innocents and activists banged up by oppressive regimes, Assange has been pretty well treated. The consistent reference in many media reports to a potential death sentence in the US is egregious insofar as the UK will not allow extradition if a death sentence is on the cards. Many would also dispute the tag “investigative journalist” that some have bestowed upon him, seeing as he and Chelsea Manning released classified US and other information. They did not ferret it out, sift it and analyse it for publication as investigative journalists generally do. As for making Assange a “working class hero”, as some on the far-left have done, that is drawing a long bow. Friends and foes alike are now dancing around these distinctions.

In a concise recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Greste, who got to know very well the inside of a squalid Egyptian prison cell and the Egypt’s kafkaesqe judicial system for allegedly publishing what a government didn’t like, makes a few points that Jennifer, her colleague, the eloquent and famous Geoffrey Robertson, and others have skated lightly over:

“Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom … Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility. To effectively fulfill the role of journalism in a democracy, there is an obligation to seek out what is genuinely in the public interest and a responsibility to remove anything that may compromise the privacy of individuals not directly involved in a story or that might put them at risk. Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means”.

Yes, Julian is in deep shit. But, you animal lovers and sharers of kitty pics out there in the twitterverse and Facebook world, his cat and companion Michi has gone to a good home …

Read more about politics in In That Howling Infinite here: A Political World – Thoughts and Themes