Last week was undoubtedly uplifting for those with authoritarian sentiments in the global North. Post-Soviet Russia, perhaps with some sense of nostalgia, sentenced the band Pussy Riot to jail, while the UK, with Iran-like elegance, threatened to storm Ecuador’s London embassy in order to apprehend Julian Assange.
While Western solidarity with Pussy Riot continues to be crucial, those of us residing in the US, the UK, Sweden, and Australia must recognize our unique responsibility and capability to influence the actions of our respective governments in regards to the case of Julian Assange.
Last week’s shameful outburst by the government of Britain cast the exasperated fanaticism that has characterized the hunt for Assange in stark relief. Britain’s extreme behavior gives us cause to seriously assess the Wikileaks founder’s argument that he may find himself extradited to the U.S. to face charges related to his journalistic work if he is sent to Sweden.
First of all, let’s take a look at the official reason for the current pursuit of Assange. He has yet to be formally charged with any crime. He is wanted, by Sweden, for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct.
Some, including the U.S. government, have suggested that Assange is merely kicking up a storm in order to shift attention away from the allegations made against him or to evade questioning. These arguments are blown out of the water the moment one decides to confront the factual record.
Assange has offered to answer his Swedish prosecutor’s questions in London. He has also offered to go to Sweden for interrogation on the allegations of sexual misconduct if granted guarantees he will not be extradited to the U.S.
The failure to offer guarantees in this regard apparently factored heavily in Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange asylum.
Critics of the decision to grant Assange asylum will often cite Ecuador’s record on press freedom, as an indication of the Latin American nation and the founder of Wikileaks’ hypocrisy. Mentioned less often is Sweden’s shady record on extradition.
In fact, the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture both singled Sweden out for the country’s role in the rendition of an asylum seeker to Egypt where he was tortured. Sweden colluded with U.S. operatives to extradite the man.
Next, consider the diplomatic crisis Britain faces -- primarily the result of its outrageous threat to assault Ecuador’s embassy.
The threat raised the ire of the Ecuadorean government. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino responded by exclaiming, “We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony. The colonial times are over.”
Moreover, two multinational Latin American organizations, Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and The Union of South American Nations (Unasur) responded to Britain’s unusually hostile behavior towards Ecuador with stern condemnations. In spite of the characteristically belligerent disapproval of the U.S. and Canada, The Organization of American States (OAS) has voted to meet on August 24 in response to the UK’s threat. The meeting concerns “the inviolability of diplomatic missions of all members of this organisation.”
Russia also chided the UK for opposing asylum for Assange and for threatening Ecuador. Notably, the Russian government filed its complaint on the same day that Pussy Riot was sentenced. So, one could make the case that Britain’s extreme behavior allowed the government of Russia to deflect public attention away from the Pussy Riot scandal.
Baltazar Garzon, a renowned Spanish jurist who famously attempted to extradite Augusto Pinochet from London to Spain, recently began aiding Assange’s defense team. Garzon has threatened to appeal to the International Court of Justice if the UK does not grant Assange safe passage to Ecuador.
Mounting expenses compound the British government’s diplomatic burden. Last week, the Daily Mail alleged that the amount of British taxpayer money spent on the Assange case thus far, taking into account “legal, policing and court costs run up over two years,” could be £1 million.
That Britain would act so haphazardly and weather this diplomatic and financial storm to ensure that Assange is extradited for ‘questioning’ alone seems contrary to logic.
Let us, now, shift our attention to the U.S. The FBI’s 42,135-page investigative file into WikiLeaks is pretty hard to ignore. As blogger, Kevin Gosztola, puts it:
“Only 8,741 of the pages are allegedly relevant to Manning’s case. That means more than 30,000 of the other pages likely involve evidence the U.S. government has on Assange and WikiLeaks staffers or volunteers. It is hard to imagine that this investigative file would be put together if the US government did not plan to prosecute someone.”
As Gosztola also mentions, there is a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks in Virginia. According to ABC it is “studying evidence that might link Assange to Manning.”
The Obama administration’s extraordinarily hardline stance against whistleblowers does not help to ease fears of imminent prosecution. The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act more times than all presidents before him combined.
There’s also that nasty US Army Counterintelligence Special Report, published in 2008, that argues for eliminating the public’s trust in WikiLeaks because the website “uses trust as a center of gravity.”
And then there’s U.S history. Prudence should be exercised when assessing Obama administration arguments that Assange is making “wild assertions” regarding the risk of extradition to the U.S. It is important to remember that the state-sponsored stigmatization of high profile activists in the whistleblowing business has precedent.
In the early 1970’s, Daniel Ellsberg found himself in a somewhat similar position toAssange, and the Nixon administration went to great lengths to paint the leaker of the Pentagon Papers as a nut. Hoping to find something to sully the whistleblower’s reputation, two of Nixon’s deputies, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, infamously broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
With the facts of the case laid out, it is difficult to avoid, at least, sympathizing with Assange’s position on the possibility of his extradition to the U.S. Better to err on the side of caution.
On Saturday, from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy, Assange called on the U.S. to end the “witch hunt against WikiLeaks.” Assange should eventually be questioned for the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. He must not be tried for publishing the U.S. documents that were leaked to him. Such a trial would be an affront to press freedom and, more broadly, democracy.