Tuesday 20 February 2024

Why Even Julian Assange’s Critics Should Defend Him

Thomas Fazi writes:

Britain’s political class rightly responded to the mysterious death of Alexei Navalny with an assortment of horror, outrage and indignation. The Kremlin critic’s treatment was an “appalling human rights outrage”, foreign secretary Lord Cameron said. Putin has to be “held to account”, Labour leader Keir Starmer added. So, when Julian Assange arrives at the High Court today for his final hearing, after being held without trial in Belmarsh maximum-security prison for almost five years, will the country’s political elite once again proclaim their commitment to human rights? I suspect not.

If the court rules out a further appeal, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks could be immediately extradited to the United States, where he will almost certainly be incarcerated for the rest of his life on charges of espionage — most likely in extremely punitive conditions. “If he’s extradited, he will die,” his wife Stella has said.

The British Government’s lack of concern for Assange’s fate is not surprising: they are the ones that put him in prison in the first place, after all. More worrying is the fact that much of the public also seems relatively unconcerned. This is probably the result of a campaign waged against Assange over the past decade and a half, aimed at destroying his reputation and depriving him of public support. Those not privy to the case’s details may even think that Assange is in jail because he’s been convicted for one of the many crimes he’s been accused of over the years — from rape to cyber-crime to espionage.

Yet this would be a gross misreading. Since 2019, Assange has been imprisoned in Belmarsh — and subjected to “prolonged psychological torture”, according to a UN report — despite being technically innocent before British law, since he’s never been convicted of any crime except violating his bail order when, 12 years ago, he sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 12 months.

Assange’s ordeal began in August 2010, when he was investigated in Sweden for rape and sexual molestation. Four months later, the Swedish authorities ordered his arrest. Many viewed the timing as deeply suspicious: that year, WikiLeaks’ series of exposes had rattled Western governments and dominated front pages.

By releasing hundreds of thousands of confidential Pentagon, CIA and NSA files, the organisation had exposed civilian massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture, illegal “renditions”, mass surveillance programmes, political scandals, pressure on foreign governments and widespread corruption. Assange took on the ultimate level of power — that which operates behind our societies’ official democratic façade, where state bureaucracies, military-security apparatuses and all-powerful financial-corporate enterprises collude in the shadows. The Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, who has collaborated with WikiLeaks for several years, coined the term “secret power” to describe this reality, over which citizens have no control, and often don’t even know exists.

Until WikiLeaks came along, this secret power had been largely shielded from public scrutiny, except for rare occasions, and thus allowed to operate with impunity. “For the first time in history, WikiLeaks ripped a gaping hole in this secret power,” Maurizi wrote. Today, many of us are aware of the way in which the national-security complex operates in lockstep with Big Tech and the media to censor dissenting voices. But Assange was warning us about it more than a decade ago. No wonder the system came down on him so hard.

Was there any basis to the accusations that kickstarted 14 years of “lawfare” against Assange? Several years after the Swedish authorities opened the investigation, it emerged that neither of the two alleged victims had wanted to press charges against Assange — let alone accuse him of rape. As Nils Melzer, former United National Special Rapporteur on Torture, wrote in a scathing report on the Assange case, there are “strong indications that the Swedish police and prosecution deliberately manipulated and pressured [at least one of the alleged victims], who had come to the police station for an entirely different purpose, into making a statement which could be used to arrest Mr Assange on the suspicion of rape”.

One of the many myths surrounding the case is that it never went to trial because Assange evaded justice. In reality, Assange, who was then in the UK, made himself available for questioning via several means, by telephone or video conference, or in person in the Australian embassy. But the Swedish authorities insisted on questioning him in Sweden. Assange’s legal team countered that extradition of a suspect simply to question him — not to send him to trial, as he had not been charged — was a disproportionate measure.

This was more than a technicality: Assange feared that if he were extradited to Sweden, the latter’s authorities would extradite him to the US, where he had good reason to believe he wouldn’t be given a fair trial. Sweden, after all, always refused to provide Assange a guarantee of non-extradition to the US — the reason why, when in 2012 the British Supreme Court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden, Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. From there, however, he continued to make known his availability to be interrogated by the Swedish authorities inside the embassy, but they never replied.

And thanks to a FOIA investigation by Maurizi, we now know the reason. During this period, the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), then led by one Keir Starmer, played a crucial role in getting Sweden to pursue this highly unusual line of conduct. In early 2011, while Assange was still under house arrest, Paul Close, a British lawyer with the CPS, gave his Swedish counterparts his opinion on the case, apparently not for the first time. “My earlier advice remains, that in my view it would not be prudent for the Swedish authorities to try to interview the defendant in the UK,” he wrote. Why did the CPS advise the Swedes against the only legal strategy that could have brought the case to a rapid resolution, namely questioning Julian Assange in London, rather than insisting on his extradition?

In hindsight, the motivation behind this was more than murky: it appears to have been a matter of keeping the case in legal limbo, and Assange trapped in Britain for as long as possible. A year after Assange sought refuge in the embassy, the Swedish prosecutor was considering dropping the extradition proceedings, but was deterred from doing so by the CPS. She was concerned, among other things, about the mounting costs of the British police force guarding the embassy day and night. But for the British authorities this was not a problem; they replied that they “do not consider costs are a relevant factor in this matter”.

Meanwhile, it took the Swedish prosecutor five years to finally agree to question Assange in London — but only because the statute of limitations for two of the allegations was about to expire. However, deliberately or out of sheer incompetence, the request was sent too late for the Ecuadorian authorities to process it in time. The case relating to the two allegations thus expired.

The case regarding the third allegation, minor rape, was also closed two years later — thus ensuring that the two alleged victims would never receive any closure, and the accusations would stick to Julian forever. At this point, there was no arrest warrant hanging over Assange’s head anymore, but he remained in the embassy because if he had stepped off the premises, he would have been immediately arrested by the British police for violating his bail order (and, he feared, extradited to the US).

As a result of the Swedish authorities’ highly unusual behaviour, Assange had by then been arbitrarily and illegitimately forced into detention for seven years, as was concluded even by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Melzer, the former UN Rapporteur, would later list 50 perceived due-process violations by the Swedish authorities, including “proactive manipulation of evidence”, such as replacing the content of the women’s statement unbeknown to the latter. “[T]he Swedish authorities did everything to prevent a proper investigation and judicial resolution of their rape allegations against Assange,” Melzer concluded.

It seems, then, that the Swedish “investigation” was never about bringing justice to the alleged victims or establishing the truth; it was a way of destroying Assange by setting in motion the legal machinery that has been crushing him ever since — and of course sullying his reputation by associating his name, in the public sphere, with rape.

What role, if any, did Starmer play in all this? During the period when the CPS was overseeing Assange’s extradition to Sweden, Starmer made several trips to Washington as Director of Public Prosecutions. US records show Starmer met with Attorney General Eric Holder and a host of American and British national security officials. Using the FOIA, the British media organisation Declassified requested the itinerary for each of Starmer’s four trips to Washington with details of his official meetings, including any briefing notes. CPS replied that all the documents relative to Starmer’s trips to Washington had been destroyed. Asked for clarification, and whether the destruction of documents was routine, the CPS did not respond.

Similarly, when Maurizi submitted a FOIA request to the CPS to shed light on the correspondence between Close and the Swedish authorities, she was also told that all the data associated with Close’s account had been deleted when he retired and could not be recovered. The CPS added that the Close’s email account had been deleted “in accordance with standard procedure”, though Maurizi would later discover that this procedure was by no means standard. Since then, Maurizi has been waging a years-long legal fight to access documents related to the CPS and Assange case, but she has been systematically stonewalled by CPS — even though a judge ordered the CPS to come clean about the destruction of key documents on Assange.

Assange’s worst fears came true when, in 2019, the British authorities finally arrested him, after reaching a deal with the new pro-US Ecuadorian government. Following his arrest, the US immediately announced that it was charging Assange for computer fraud — to which they added 17 much more serious counts of alleged violations of the Espionage Act — and requested his extradition. This was the first time, in the 102 years since the draconian law’s enactment, that a journalist was charged under the Espionage Act, which makes no distinction between a spy working for a foreign government and a journalist like Assange.

The WikiLeaks founder has been fighting his extradition to the US ever since, against a British judiciary system apparently intent on punishing Assange, even disregarding fundamental principles of due process. Melzer has described the proceedings as “a show trial more redolent of an authoritarian regime than a mature democracy… whose sole purpose is to silence Assange and to intimidate journalists and the broader public worldwide”.

Paradoxically, however, this simply confirms what WikiLeaks’ had already exposed: that nominally democratic states are willing to bend and even break the law to silence those who threaten the status quo, including journalists.

This is why, even if you disagree with Assange’s methods or political ideas, this case should matter. For it is about so much more than one man: it is about whether you want to live in a society where journalists can expose the crimes of the powerful without the fear of being persecuted and imprisoned. If the British state allows Assange to be extradited to the US, it won’t be dealing a potentially deadly blow just to one man, but to the rule of law itself.