US investigators have admitted their efforts to find grounds on which to prosecute WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange over the whistleblowing website’s release of hundreds of thousands of classified US documents were in trouble.
They have been forced to concede they have been unable to find evidence that Assange encouraged theft of secret documents, the Wall Street Journal said on February 9.
The admission came as Assange faced an extradition hearing in London on February 7, 8 and 11 over allegations of sexual assault in Sweden.
Swedish prosecutors were seeking Assange’s extradition for questioning. No charges have been laid against him. Assange has stated his willingness to be interviewed in Britain, but fears extradition to Sweden would be a prelude to extradition to the US — if and when US authorities can find charges to lay against him over WikiLeaks’ activities.
Assange’s lawyers told the court that Swedish authorities refused to tell Assange details the about allegations and declined offers to interview him before they issued the extradition warrant, Australia Network News said on February 9.
Defence lawyers said seeking extradition in this case was an excessive measure, since Assange has not yet been charged with a crime.
In a February 8 video on Telegraph.co.uk, Assange said of the hearings: “What we’ve seen is process abuse after process abuse being revealed … We have seen the distortion of evidence and fact by prosecuting authorities in Sweden revealed in minute detail.”
WikiLeaks has seriously embarrassed the US government and its allies by releasing leaked secret documents, revealing crimes and lies carried by the US and other governments.
The timing of the Swedish authorities’ legal action against Assange has led many to believe it is politically motivated. Assange was first arrested in Sweden in August, soon after WikiLeaks released thousands of secret records about the US-led occupation of Afghanistan.
The case was initially dropped, only to be opened again by a different prosecutor.
An extradition warrant was served in December after WikiLeaks began releasing secret US diplomatic cables.
The allegations have been used to taint the journalism of WikiLeaks and to distract from the damning content of the leaked cables.
However, Assange’s legal team also raised questions about whether the Swedish prosecutor in charge of the extradition, Marianne Ny, was motivated by “hatred of men”, the Washington Post said on February 8.
Ny was accused of being an overzealous women’s rights crusader with a bias against men.
Defence witness Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a former Swedish judge, said: “I think she is so preoccupied with the situation of battered women and raped women that she has lost balance.”
Given the highly politicised nature of this case, the chances are extremely low that Assange is being pursued to such unusual lengths simply for being a man.
This type of argument hurts the struggle against sexual assault, where women often face a difficult battle to receive justice.
Allegations of sexual assault and rape are a serious matter. What is concerning about Assange’s case is that the serious problems of sexual assault and rape, which do not receive the attention they deserve, are being used in an attempt to discredit an organisation that is a threat to powerful interests.
The singling out of Assange for severe treatment (such as the initial denial of bail in Britain and ongoing extradition attempts for a man not even charged with a crime), amounts to dangerous abuse and trivialisation of a serious issue.
However, it is important that defenders of Assange do not fall into the trap of also minimising the seriousness of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, the WSJ said US investigators have failed to uncover evidence that Assange encouraged the alleged leaker of the secret documents, Bradley Manning, to steal information to hand to WikiLeaks.
Officials said they would continue to investigate Assange and the WikiLeaks team on a conspiracy charge — a much harder case to prove, the WSJ said.
Despite the latest blow to US authorities, the threat of further persecution still remains. Some US political figures have made extreme comments against Assange — including calls for his assassination.
In Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard attacked the credibility of WikiLeaks as a media organisation and refused to assist Assange’s legal campaigns, Ninemsn.com.au said on February 2.
Gillard said the actions of WikiLeaks were different to other “moral” whistleblowing cases such as the 1974 Watergate scandal.
“[WikiLeaks] is not about making a moral case,” Gillard told Austereo on February 2. “It’s really about all of this information and just putting it up there and whatever happens, happens. It’s an irresponsible thing to do."
Gillard originally said the release of the cables was “illegal”, but could not name any law that had been broken.
In a recorded message played to a Melbourne rally on February 5, Assange said: “Julia Gillard should be taking active steps to bring me home and protect our people.
“She should be contacting the US embassy and demanding that it back off.”
Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, labelled Gillard “a sycophant of the US”, and demanded she apologise to her son for defaming him as a “criminal”, SMH.com.au said on February 5.
“It would appear that the prime minister is not only uninformed about one of her own highly honoured citizens but also completely out of step with prevailing world opinion,” she said.