Julian Assange and the culture of revenge

Sydney protest for Julian Assange in April. Photo: Dr Rigmor Berg

To lessen the macabre prospect of Julian Assange spending 175 years in a United States maximum security prison, the US Department of Justice has suggested that he could serve prison time in Australia.

In a decades-long tragedy, this latest act looks like nurture for an all-consuming culture of revenge in which legal theatre has provided only a convenient rationale.

In a saga of cruelty towards a gifted whistleblower, publisher and journalist, diverse actors have jostled to be on stage, have been eager to promote their roles in attacking Assange, or have been massively indifferent to his achievements and plight.

US, British, Swedish, Ecuadorean and Australian governments have been complicit: the US, by taking years to concoct 17 espionage charges; Britain, by complying with US demands, pursuing Julian even by laying siege to a foreign embassy.

Appearing on stage occasionally, a Swedish prosecutor wanted to prosecute Assange on alleged sexual assault charges. She acted within the context of a Swedish political contest and with apparent prompting from “big brother” who wanted Assange kept in the Ecuadorean Embassy and then in a British maximum security prison.

In a David versus Goliath contest, an Ecuadorean ambassador and government began by displaying significant courage and respect for Assange’s human rights. But when a new government took power in Ecuador and needed financial patronage from the US, the culture of revenge reappeared. Assange was manhandled from Ecuador’s London embassy.

From former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard to the Coalition PM Scott Morrison, Australian leaders have tried to appear in a chorus of extras, parroting that Assange had broken the law, or by mouthing the coward’s cop-out: “We don’t interfere in the conduct of another country; the law must take its course”.

References to law have been smokescreens to the smearing and stereotyping of Assange as abnormal and a threat to states’ security.

Someone who reveals war crimes must be dangerous and should be punished, according to law.

Journalists and lawyers have profited from participation in a culture which they might say they reject, but to which they have contributed.

Scribes from The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times were thrilled with revelations in the WikiLeaks cables.

They saw Assange as an ally and, in The Guardian’s London bunker, discussed the best way to publish without incriminating themselves.

Cowardice to facilitate publicity?

Assange won a Walkley award in 2011 for innovative, outstanding journalism. Yet, some Australian journalists gained notoriety by insisting that he was not one of them, saying, in effect, that freedom of speech should be defended only by scribes deemed professionally respectable.

Even lawyers who have supported Assange, have benefitted from this never-ending revenge culture. Unable to bite the hand that feeds them, they cannot damn the legal casuistry which denied bail, kept Assange in a maximum security jail and in refusing extradition to the US needed to produce judgments least offensive to a persecuting government.

In consequence, it has been left to Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel Punishment, Kristinn Hrafnsson, the indefatigable investigative reporter from Iceland and to Assange’s brave partner Stella Moris to express despair and disgust.

They have exposed the British and US systems that are assumed to represent law because they make claims about justice.

To attain a significant citizen’s freedom, a blown-up legal balloon must be deflated.

We have now reached a possible last act, albeit a long one.

To respond favourably to a powerful operator’s desire for revenge, the US is allowed to appeal British Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision to refuse extradition.

Lost in the latest maze of legal mysteries, no one knows, or is allowed to know, how long an appeal would take.

On unsubstantiated grounds that Assange could escape Britain, Baraitser’s refusal to grant him bail has become a prison sentence with no end; it is being served in an institution designed for convicted murderers and terrorists.

To ensure that the architects of violence and war will never be placed in the dock, massive time and effort has been invested in scapegoating Assange.

The whistleblower is the perpetrator. Dubbed by one author “the most dangerous man in the world,” such labelling has diverted attention from a culture fascinated by punishment.

To dilute worldwide criticism of cruelty towards Assange, to ensure that law must run its course, an allegedly placatory gesture is now being offered: he can serve time in prison in Australia.

We should not be fooled, but there is an opportunity to learn from significant precedents.

In several plays about tragedy, Shakespeare exposed miscarriages of justice as determined by powerful operators’ desire for revenge. In Hamlet, for example, Claudius advised: “And where the offence is, let the great axe fall”.

The great bard was foreshadowing the consequences, if Assange via WikiLeaks revealed truths about murder and mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if a sop would be offered of imprisonment in Assange’s home country.

The influence of a despicable revenge culture should be acknowledged. A tragedy continues and we should not be fooled.

This is not about law.

[Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney. He received the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize and is the author of the new book Cruelty or Humanity. He is a human rights activist, poet, novelist and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation. This article is reprinted with permission from : John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal.]