A ‘secret’ exposed

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past six years, seems to be on the verge of being booted out of his sanctuary. That the situation is dire for him became clear after it emerged that the United States Justice Department had secretly filed criminal charges against the whistle-blower. This was evident from a U.S. court document dated August 22, 2018, which was inadvertently made public in the second week of November.

The document specifically stated that the charges against Assange would remain sealed until he “is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter”. At the time of taking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012, Assange claimed that the U.S. government had made secret plans to get him extradited and to put him on trial on espionage charges in the U.S. He said that the Obama administration had even selected a secret grand jury for his trial on charges of espionage.

If extradited to the U.S., Assange faces a lifetime in prison. He has said that he will not go voluntarily to the U.S. to face trial on the so-called “criminal charges” the U.S. Justice Department has secretly framed against him.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief who is carrying out an investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, reportedly wants to interrogate Assange. WikiLeaks was responsible for the release of communications from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. The information contained explosive material about attempts by the Democratic Party establishment to derail the campaign of Bernie Sanders. The Democrats claim that Russian intelligence supplied WikiLeaks the dossier implicating the Hillary Clinton campaign. Donald Trump, at the time, was full of praise for Assange. Trump now claims that he did not know anything about Assange or WikiLeaks. Assange has strenuously maintained that WikiLeaks did not cooperate with Russian intelligence in the dissemination of the Podesta tapes.

However, in the U.S., the political establishment seems determined to prosecute Assange. Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden have labelled him a “terrorist”. As head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, who is now Secretary of State, had described WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service”. WikiLeaks was responsible for publishing the biggest leak on the CIA called “#Vault 7”.

‘Public enemy’

The former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who left office in October, had then said that prosecuting Assange was “a priority” for the U.S. government. Assange had strongly denied that the publishing of information during the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S. had anything to do with the partisan politics there. “Choosing between Clinton and Trump, is like choosing between syphilis and gonorrhoea,” he said at the time.

WikiLeaks sprung into international prominence eight years ago following the publishing of official government intercepts that revealed to the world the corruption, war crimes and human rights violations committed by governments all over the world, particularly the rich and powerful ones. It was the damning expose of U.S. atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan through leaked official files that prompted the U.S. to first declare Assange a public enemy.

Chelsea Manning, who was a low-ranking intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, was sentenced to a long prison term for providing classified documents of the State Department and Pentagon to WikiLeaks. She was given a presidential pardon by Barack Obama just before he left office. WikiLeaks also leaked files on the duplicity of the British government on Libya and Iraq, and on the dubious role it played in handing Diego Garcia over to the U.S. military. WikiLeaks also provided proof that the British government routinely spied on journalists and ordinary citizens.

In the efforts to stop Assange and derail the WikiLeaks operations, the Obama administration in cahoots with the British government seemed willing to go to any extent. The trumped-up rape charges against Assange were a plot hatched by the U.S. intelligence services to get him out of the United Kingdom and start the extradition process against him from Sweden. Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in order to avoid incarceration in a U.S. jail for his journalistic exposes.

‘Arbitrary detention’

A United Nations legal panel said that Assange was being held in “arbitrary detention” in the Ecuadorian embassy as a result of the actions taken by the authorities in the U.K. and Sweden. In 2017, Swedish prosecutors officially dropped “the rape” charges against Assange. He has now no case to answer in that country, but as recent events have proven, he has justifiable reasons to fear that he will be arrested by the British police if he steps out of the embassy and will be deported to the U.S. against his will.

Britain has only formally charged him with breaching bail conditions. Assange was under house arrest when he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. The plan is for the British police to arrest Assange as soon as he is either thrown out or decides to leave the Ecuadorian embassy premises in London and then wait for the Americans to serve the extradition order on him. The U.N. panel said Assange should be “compensated” for “his deprivation of liberty”. The British government’s response has been to reiterate regularly that Assange will be arrested as soon as he steps out of the embassy compound.

Until a government which turned out to be pro-U.S. took power in Ecuador last year, Assange was allowed to work unhindered from within the confines of the small Ecuadorian embassy. He was allowed to receive visitors and even give media interviews. However, from March this year, on the orders of the Ecuadorian government, Assange has not been allowed to communicate with his colleagues or disseminate information. On October 30, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry warned Assange against making statements criticising the treatment meted out to him by the Lenin Moreno administration. Assange had moved an Ecuadorian court to seek recognition of his fundamental right to communicate with the outside world from the embassy premises.

Former President Rafael Correa, who had allowed Assange to live and work in his country’s embassy, was betrayed by his handpicked successor, Moreno. Correa had bestowed Ecuadorian citizenship on Assange to strengthen his legal case for seeking asylum. As soon as Moreno took over, he started reversing the progressive policies of the previous government and started moving closer to Washington. He started getting rid of Correa’s close associates in government, including Vice President Jorge Glas.

In late November, the Ecuadorian government recalled Carlos Abad Ortiz, its Ambassador to London, sparking rumours that it was preparing the grounds for the removal of Assange. The Ambassador, whose last posting was in India, is known for his progressive views and was close to the previous government. The envoy was a key player in the negotiations that would have allowed Assange to walk out a free man from the embassy compound. WikiLeaks said that all the diplomats who had struck up a personal rapport with Assange had been transferred out of the embassy.

Inter-American Court’s support

Assange has, however, got support from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court said that Assange had a fundamental right to political asylum, stating that it was an essential international protection against “anti-democratic oppression”. The court, set up by the Organisation of American States (OAS), insisted that Assange should not be subjected to threats of coercion that would force him into the hands of a government seeking to prosecute him. The court also warned the British government against arresting Assange.

“If the U.K. government continues to ignore the court’s decision by insisting that the local police will arrest Assange for a breach of bail conditions if he leaves the embassy, this means that the British government has wantonly failed to uphold Assange’s rights as a legitimate receiver of asylum from Ecuador,” the Inter-American Court said in its ruling.

Carlos Povenga, Assange’s lawyer in Ecuador, said he suspected that plans were afoot to kick Assange out of the embassy. The Ecuadorian government has imposed stricter living conditions on the whistle-blower. His high-speed Internet has been cut off and even more restrictions have been put on his activities. The lawyer called on the Ecuadorian government to protect Assange’s asylum status and warned that it would be held responsible if anything untoward happened to his client.

Barry Pollack, Assange’s lawyer in Washington, said he expected Ecuador to “comply with its obligations” to preserve asylum for him. “The burden of truth should not shift to Assange to have to defend against criminal charges when what he has been accused of doing is what journalists do every day,” Pollack said. “They publish truthful information because the public has the right to know and consider that information and understand what its government and institutions are doing.”

“You can despise WikiLeaks and everything it stands for. You can think that Assange is an evil spirit reanimated by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself, but you cannot support the prosecution of a publisher for publishing without narrowing the basic rights every newspaper relies on,” said Edward Snowden, another illustrious whistle-blower who has exposed U.S. mass surveillance activities.

Ben Wizner, a U.S. lawyer connected with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the prosecution of Assange would set a dangerous precedent. “Any prosecution of Assange for WikiLeaks publishing operations will be unprecedented and unconstitutional and would open the door for criminal investigations of other news organisations,” Wizner warned.

Civil society groups all over the world are demanding freedom for Assange. His mother, Christine Assange, recently issued a statement pleading for his release. “Despite Julian being a multi-award winning journalist, much loved and respected for courageously exposing serious, high-level crimes and corruption in the public interest, he is right now alone, sick, in pain—silenced in solitary confinement, cut off from all contact, and tortured in the heart of London,” she said in an emotional appeal to the international community. Meanwhile, her son remains defiant. WikiLeaks, Assange declared, “remains committed to publishing information that informs the public, even if many, especially those in power, would prefer not to see it—It must publish and be damned.”

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