Politics

The long siege of Julian Assange

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Under siege - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Image via flickr.com/photos/espenmoe)

Having done so much good for the world, the treatment of Julian Assange is ongoing and unfair, writes Dr John Jiggens.

GREAT IDEAS in publishing are rare, but in 2006 Julian Assange came up with one.

Assange reasoned that the key structure that generated bad governance was conspiracy. To fight the conspiracies behind corrupt governments, he advocated a strategy to expose the conspirators and the conspiracies through a systematic use of leaks.

His subversive proposal was to build a website for whistleblowers where they could upload their information in safety and from where it could be collectively analysed by citizen journalists. The name he gave his whistleblower-enabling website was WikiLeaks.

With never more than a handful of volunteers, WikiLeaks became the most famous news organisation in the world, with its leaks affecting politics globally. It published confidential records of one of Iceland’s top banks, revealing its role in Iceland’s financial collapse, the 'Collateral Murder' video, the 'Iraq War logs', the 'Afghan War Diary', the 'Cablegate' cables — major stories followed one after the other with breathtaking rapidity. The achievements of the tiny band of WikiLeaks hactivists between 2006 and 2010 constitute the most extraordinary episode in the history of citizen journalism.

Assange became the rock star of journalism; he was awarded the Amnesty International Media Award, the Sydney Peace Prize and was popular choice for Time’s Person of the Year in 2010. There was even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize and he was the subject of a torrent of books and articles. With the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch and Nicole Kidman, this pale, nerdy hacker became the most famous Australian in the world.

The downside was the WikiLeaks project aroused an implacable foe: The U.S. intelligence establishment, who viewed WikiLeaks as a "malicious foreign actor", wanted to imprison Assange along with Chelsea Manning.

After 2010, the U.S. launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and asked allied countries for assistance. By 2011, Assange found himself corralled in England, awaiting extradition to Sweden, from where it was feared he would be extradited to the United States. After 500 days of house arrest in England, in June 2012, Assange was forced to seek sanctuary in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The long siege of Julian Assange began. The Embassy was immediately surrounded by a police guard, which was withdrawn in October 2015, because of the outrageous cost: £12.6 million spent over the three years, staking out Assange. On 19 June 2018, the long siege, recently reinvigorated, will enter its seventh year.

In 2017, Ecuador elected a new President, Lenin Moreno, who has come under increasing pressure to hand Julian Assange over to Britain and America. Ecuador is being courted with offers to shore up their debt and to beef up their military.

On March 28, Ecuador imposed a complete ban on Julian Assange having any internet or phone contact with the outside world, and blocked his friends and supporters from physically visiting him.

As the crisis around Julian Assange intensified, Assange supporter, Irish-Australian Catholic Worker activist Ciaron O’Reilly, arrived in London for a football match on the day the internet was switched off. He began a 25-day vigil with a group, mainly Australian, South American and Irish, who have maintained there presence outside the Embassy for six years. While O’Reilly was with them, he observed the police presence outside the embassy escalated dramatically.

Both sides sense the crisis over the long siege of Julian Assange is approaching a climax.

Assange supporters are focused on solidarity protests planned for 19 June, the sixth anniversary of Assange’s flight to the Ecuadorian embassy. In Australia, John Pilger will be speaking on Sunday 17 June in Sydney and events are planned for Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide on 19 June.

In cutting off the internet, the Ecuadorian government has made Assange even more isolated. In a radio interview, Ciaron O’Reilly observed:

“He is becoming increasingly invisible. He used to do lectures and be interviewed by journalists over Skype and he can’t now.”

The argument given by the Ecuadorian government for cutting the internet was that Assange was tweeting comments about political events.

One concerned the Spanish Government’s authoritarian response to Catalan independence after the president of Catalan was arrested and jailed in Germany, and the other the poisoning of two Russians in England – the Skripal affair – where the press and the Government rushed to the conclusion, without any investigation, that it was the Russian state responsible.

Ciaron O’Reilly said:

"However, the day before the internet was turned off, the leadership of U.S. Southern command was in Ecuador. People speculate they are trying to bring Ecuador back into the fold with this new President and two of the unresolved issues with United States and Ecuador are the granting of asylum to Julian Assange and also the matters to do with the Chevron Company’s behaviour in Ecuador."

O’Reilly has visited Assange in England on many occasions over eight years, last visiting Assange in the embassy in December 2017 and he has noted the effects of the long confinement without sunlight on his friend. 

“It’s basically sensory deprivation. I have seen him decline in health over the years. He is very resolute, Julian, and he is very committed to his work but now that the internet has been turned off he's unable to work as he has been for the last five years.”

On the left, support for Assange has been cut by the claims in the mainstream media that he was responsible for the election of Donald Trump. The Clinton forces have blamed her defeat on James Comey, on Russian intervention, on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, on Cambridge Analytica, on everyone but themselves.

Says Ciaron O’Reilly:

In the United States people seem to have drunk "the Clinton Kool-Aid" and are convinced that Julian is an enemy of the Left, an enemy of the anti-war movement and somehow Hillary Clinton, who is most responsible for the Libyan war and Bill Clinton, who killed a million Iraqi children under the age of five in the 1990s with his genocidal sanctions, are their friends. So it's been quite a head-wreck trying to counter these slurs.

WikiLeaks and Julian are very committed to the truth. They have never published in the history of WikiLeaks anything that has been untrue or they had to retract. Consider that half the time of WikiLeaks existence, Julian has been confined to the embassy with the threat of being taken into custody by the British police on the minuscule issue of breach of bail here in England. Of course, if he steps outside the Embassy, they will arrest him and they'll take him to prison and then the United States will play their extradition card and, of course, the grand jury is still ongoing in Virginia and he will face, if not the death penalty, something like 40 years in jail.

Why should we support Julian Assange?

Said O’Reilly:

lf you marched against the Iraq War – and over a million people marched in London alone – then what you did by marching is you incited people like Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. So, if you serious about being anti-war, then you have to accompany the people you incited, whether they be military resisters or whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning or publishers like Julian Assange.  

I know from my own experiences of imprisonment for anti-war activity that the most minute expressions of solidarity carry a lot of weight in terms of nourishing resisters and I have been in the Embassy with Julian when he's received support mail from people, and I’ve seen how he has been sincerely nourished by that and I would encourage everyone to write to him.

There's an old saying that truth is the first casualty of war. Well, maybe, as Julian points out, peace can be founded on telling the truth.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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