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Targeting Assange

Published : Jul 27, 2012 00:00 IST

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Julian Assange. A Swedish court is demanding that he stand trial in the country in two cases of sexual assault.-MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP

Julian Assange. A Swedish court is demanding that he stand trial in the country in two cases of sexual assault.-MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP

The controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, its founder, gets heightened with his seeking political asylum in Ecuadors embassy in London.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange decided to seek political asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London before he was due to be extradited to Sweden. British courts had rejected all his appeals, ruling that they were without merit. A Swedish court is demanding that he stand trial in the country in two cases of sexual assault. The circumstances surrounding the cases are murky, and Assange claims that they are political frame-ups to ultimately get him extradited to the United States. Senior U.S. politicians, including Vice-President Joseph Biden, have called Assange a terrorist who has endangered the national security interests of the country. Biden described Assange as a high-tech terrorist and said he would be considered a criminal under U.S. law if it was established that he had encouraged the security analyst Pvt. Bradley Manning of the U.S. Army, currently lodged in a high-security prison, to leak classified U.S. documents.

WikiLeaks shot to fame in 2010 when the first set of documents was released showing footage of 18 civilians in Iraq being shot dead from a U.S. helicopter gunship. A few months later, WikiLeaks started posting online thousands of classified U.S. State Department documents, mainly relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon has been issuing threats against WikiLeaks. The Pentagon spokesman warned that if WikiLeaks did not stop its revelations then we will figure out other alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing. Assange, going by statements emanating from official U.S. sources and the media, has said that President Barack Obamas administration has already assembled a secret grand jury in the U.S. to try him. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone so far as to accuse Assange of mounting an attack on the world.

Sweden has for the past couple of years been under a right-wing government. One of the chief advisers of the Swedish Prime Minister is the American right-wing ideologue Karl Rowe. Rowe helped George W. Bush win the American presidency twice. It was the right-wing media in Sweden that blew up the sex scandal involving Assange to lurid proportions and demanded that he face Swedish justice. Assanges lawyers said that the plan to get him to Sweden was only a ploy to buy time for U.S. prosecutors so that they could file charges against him.

Glenn Greenwald, an American constitutional expert, has written that the evidence that the U.S. seeks to prosecute and extradite Assange is substantial. He said that there were no doubts that the Obama administration had convened an active grand jury to investigate whether WikiLeaks has violated the draconian Espionage Act of 1917. He pointed out that key Senators from Obamas own party, including Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Dianne Fenstein, had called for the prosecution of Assange under this provision.

Michael Ratner of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who represents Assange in the U.S., said that his client sought political asylum because he would not see the light of day for 40 years if he was extradited to Sweden. The Swedish government has not offered any guarantees that Assange will not be extradited to the U.S. Immediately after the events of 9/11, there were a few instances in which asylum seekers in Sweden were handed over to the U.S. Sections of the U.S. media have started a vilification campaign against Assange for daring to seek asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy. When Chinese dissidents seek asylum in the American embassy, they are hailed as freedom fighters.

Before seeking asylum, Assange had interviewed Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on behalf of Russia Television (RT). During the course of the freewheeling interview, both Correa and Assange had expressed concerns for each others safety. Cheer up Julian. Welcome to the club of the prosecuted, Correa told Assange. Correa narrowly escaped physical violence two years ago when a section of the police force mutinied. The Ecuadorean President is outspoken in his criticism of U.S. policies in the region and was responsible for the removal of a small U.S. military base from his country. Besides, the U.S. State Department cables put out by WikiLeaks relating to Ecuador show the extent of hostility Washington harbours against Correas left-wing government.

The government of Ecuador has said that it is processing Assanges application for asylum. In November 2010, Ecuadorean Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas offered Assange residency in Ecuador. We are open to giving him residency in Ecuador, without any problem and without any condition, he had said. Correa, however, was quick to clarify at the time that no formal invitation had been extended to Assange and that residency would require a legal review in case there was a request. Correas statement came just a week before Assange was arrested by the British police in late 2010. He was later placed under house arrest by the British courts and was allowed relative freedom while being under strict surveillance.

Under the conditions of his house arrest, Assange was made to wear an electronic tag so that his movements could be monitored. His friends and well-wishers had posted a bail of $437,000. Despite being closely watched, he managed to slip into the Ecuadorean embassy compound in London. His supporters are not complaining about his action or the forfeiture of the large bail amount.

Assanges mother, Christine, hailed her sons decision and expressed the hope that Ecuador would give him asylum. Julian is a political prisoner, a journalist, a publisher of the truth about corruption, war crimes, kidnapping, blackmail and manipulation. He remains uncharged and unquestioned on a crime which, if you explore it, has absolutely no basis. Of course, he would seek asylum, she told the media. She blamed the U.S., Britain, Sweden and Australia for abandoning due legal process. Assange holds Australian citizenship, but his government was the first to abandon him.

But even as his application for asylum is being processed, the British police sent a notice to Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy demanding that he show up at a London police station at a date and time of our choosing. Assange and his lawyers rejected the demand, saying that asylum law both domestically and internationally takes precedence over extradition laws. In an interview with the BBC on June 28, Assange said that he had no plans to give himself up. Even if Ecuador gives him asylum, the laws of the United Kingdom will not be able to give him safe passage out of the country.

An international group called the Friends of WikiLeaks has written a letter to the European Court of Human Rights asking it to put an end to the unlawful detention of Assange. The group, whose members include many prominent names known internationally, wrote that Assange, if deported to Sweden, faced incommunicado detention for an indefinite period of time. Such a development would be a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, the letter emphasised. Another letter, signed by prominent Americans, including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Danny Glover, Naomi Wolf and Oliver Stone, and supporting Assanges bid for political asylum, was delivered to the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

In all, more than 4,000 Americans have signed the letter urging Correa to approve Assanges request. The letter stated that the U.S. administration had made clear its hostility to WikiLeaks and that Assange faced the death penalty in the U.S. if charged under the Espionage Act. It urged Correa to grant Assange asylum because the crime that he has committed is that of practising journalism.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 27, 2012.)

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