Letter from the US: Stop the persecution of Julian Assange

Julian Assange being dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

When the world saw the video of beefy police dragging Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, it was clear that the media had been alerted to film the spectacle.

Ecuador had granted Assange asylum in its embassy since 2012, to block his threatened extradition to the United States at the time.

Media outlets such as CNN declared he looked crazy in the video. One CNN reporter said that one of the reasons the embassy called the police was that Assange had allegedly smeared faeces on walls inside the Embassy.

The real smears, however, have been by the press against the WikiLeaks founder.

The actual reason he was seized was made clear in a statement by the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), which said he was “arrested on behalf of the United States authorities”.

Washington wants Assange extradited to the US to be tried on the charge of helping Chelsea Manning hack a government computer in 2010.

Manning, who was a Private First Class in the US Army, was assigned to an intelligence unit in Iraq, where she amassed huge files of US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the “Afghan War Logs” and “Iraq War Diaries”) and turned them over to WikiLeaks, which published them, and articles based on them appeared in the mainstream press.

One of these documents was footage with audio, taken by US soldiers aboard a helicopter gunship, shooting down Iraqi civilians on a street, and making merry about it. Two of those killed worked for the British news agency Reuters. Like millions of others, I saw that horrible video on TV.

British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn has demanded that the British government refuse to extradite Assange, on the basis that he is charged with helping expose the truth about US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Britain’s Financial Times, which reported on Corbyn’s stand, editorialised in the same issue that the question should be settled by the courts and “not in the streets” — fearful of public opinion.

The US government has a number of secret files of materials it wants to keep from the US public and the world, including of war crimes, its surveillance of US citizens, its role in overthrowing governments it does not like, its backing of military dictatorships, and crimes against humanity.

Manning was arrested by the US Army in 2010, held for three years under harsh conditions, and finally court-martialled in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in a military stockade. Under intense pressure from many voices in the US and abroad, former US president Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017 to seven years of time served.

In March, Manning was dragged in front of a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and sent back to prison for refusing to testify. Now it is clear that this was part of the new attempt by the US to imprison Assange.

Attack on press freedom

Many have noted that this is another attack on freedom of the press. Assange’s US attorney said this is “an unprecedented effort by the United States seeking to extradite a foreign journalist to face criminal charges for publishing truthful information and would set a dangerous precedent for journalists or their sources that the US may wish to pursue in future.”

Edward Snowden, who revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast spying activities on US citizens and many others around the world, tweeted: “Images of Ecuador’s ambassador inviting the UK’s secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher — like it or not — of an award-winning journalist out of the building are going to end up in the history books. Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.”

Snowden had to seek asylum in Russia for exposing the truth. At the time there were bipartisan calls for his arrest. Democratic Party senator Diane Feinstein said he should be tried for “treason”, which carries the death penalty.

Award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who helped Snowden in the NSA case, noted that the Obama administration had tried to charge Assange with conspiring with Manning but found no evidence backing that up.

They made this attempt in order to be able to justify prosecuting Assange and not face the accusation of endangering press freedoms — by prosecuting Assange for something the New York Times and The Guardian and every other media outlet in the world routinely do, which is publish classified information.

“Even if it were true that Assange collaborated with Manning … it would still be a grave threat to press freedoms, because journalists all the time work with their sources in order to obtain classified information so that they can report on it. It’s the criminalisation of journalism by [US President Donald Trump’s] Justice Department and the gravest threat to press freedoms, by far … than having Donald Trump tweet mean things about various reporters at CNN or NBC.

“Every journalist in the world should be raising their voice as loudly as possible to protest and denounce this.”

In the US, there has been deafening silence from most journalists. The NYT editorial expressed relief that the charges were hacking of a computer, and not directly concerning publication of classified information, and only made a squeak that they hoped nothing further would happen that might raise press freedom issues.

But that is a distinction without a difference. Once the US gets Assange in their clutches — if they do — additional charges will be made under the notorious Espionage Act, which will attack the freedom of the press.

Ecuador's role

To understand why Ecuador allowed this to happen, we have to step back and look at why it gave sanctuary to Assange in the first place. For some time WikiLeaks had been in Washington’s sights. In 2010, when the Manning documents were released, Assange was headquartered in London.

In 2012, Swedish prosecutors sought to have Assange extradited to Sweden, to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault. All such allegations have to be taken seriously, no matter who is accused. But they cannot be adjudicated in this case, because from the beginning they became entwined with US attempts to bring charges against Assange.

Assange was arrested in London, and was out on bail while the extradition was being decided. When it became apparent he would be extradited, he and his legal team became convinced that he would be then turned over to the US to face the charges he is now accused of, and he asked for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy.

Ecuador at the time had a left-leaning government headed by former president Rafael Correa, and became convinced that the US was indeed attempting to seize Assange, and gave him asylum and granted him Ecuadorian citizenship. It is now clear they were correct. The British, however, would not allow the embassy to fly him to Ecuador, itself a violation of international law, so he remained in the embassy.

In 2017, a new president was elected in Ecuador, the former vice president under Correa, Lenin Moreno. But Moreno made a sharp turn to the right, implementing austerity measures against working people and reversing foreign policy.

Glenn Greenwald explained on Democracy Now!: “I interviewed former President Rafael Correa last year. He did something quite extraordinary … For six years he stood up for Ecuadorian sovereignty and for international law and refused to be bullied by the US and the UK, which tried everything it could to coerce him or threaten him to withdraw the asylum protection for Assange.

“He was a very unusual leader of a small country, who famously said, for example, ‘If the US wants to have military bases in Ecuador, they have to allow us to have military bases in Miami.’ He was against imperialism and allowing Ecuador to be a vassal state of the US and the UK.

“President Moreno is exactly the opposite… The Trump administration, the CIA, the UK and Spain — which is really angry about WikiLeaks’ denunciations of their abuses of protestors during the Catalonian debate — have spent the last year and a half doing everything they can, threatening Ecuador, offering rewards to Ecuador [US Vice President Mike Pence visited Moreno shortly before the raid on the London embassy], doing everything they could to coerce Moreno to do something that president Correa refused to do, which is to violate international law, withdraw Julian Assange’s asylum.

“He needed to concoct an excuse to do it, so he doesn’t look like what he is, a very weak and submissive leader to his population. But the reality is he did it because the US and the UK demanded that he do it.”

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