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The Show Trial Against Julian Assange

Above photo: Outside the High Court in London on 24 January 2022. Alisdare Hickson.

How US and British authorities are bending the law and undermining press freedom.

“Those who tell the truth need a fast horse,” says an Armenian proverb. Or they need a society that protects the truth and its messengers. But this protection, which our democracies claim to offer, is in danger. As a journalist, Julian Assange has published hundreds of thousands of files documenting war crimes committed by the USA and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere. The authenticity of the documents is beyond question. However, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice or convicted. In contrast, the messenger has been incarcerated in a high-security prison in London for five years with life-threatening health problems, having previously spent seven years locked up in the Ecuadorian embassy. He has been charged with no crime in the UK, in any EU country or in his home country of Australia. The only reason for his grueling deprivation of liberty is that the US government has initiated extradition proceedings accusing the journalist Assange of espionage, invoking a law dating back more than a hundred years to the First World War: the Espionage Act.

Never before has a journalist been charged under this law. The extradition process therefore sets a dangerous precedent. If it is successful, every journalist on Earth who exposes US war crimes would have to fear suffering the same fate as Assange. That would be the end of freedom of the press as we know it. Because it is based on the capacity to bring to light the dark sides of power without fear of punishment. Where this freedom is extinguished, it is not only the freedom of journalists that dies, but the freedom of us all: the freedom from the arbitrariness of power.

For this reason alone, this extradition process should never have been accepted by the courts in a functioning legal system. Julian Assange did not act as a spy in any way, but as a journalist and as such is subject to special protection. Incidentally, the key witness for the espionage charge was the notorious fraudster and convicted paedophile Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson, who admitted in 2021 that he had lied on behalf of the FBI and had been granted immunity from prosecution.

Let us imagine the case with reversed roles: Suppose an Australian journalist had published war crimes committed by the Russian military and intelligence services and sought protection in a Western European country. Would the courts seriously consider extradition proceedings to Moscow for espionage, especially if the key witness is a convicted criminal?

Assange is facing the absurd sentence of 175 years in the USA. It is to be feared that he will not survive the extremely harsh conditions in the notorious US prison system. For this reason, the London Magistrates’ Court initially halted his extradition in 2021. The US government then published a paper stating that Assange would not face solitary confinement. However, according to Amnesty International, this declaration is “not worth the paper it is written on”, as the non-binding diplomatic note reserves the right for the US government to change its position at any time. The Court of Appeal, however, found this paper sufficient to clear the way for extradition – a travesty of justice, as Amnesty noted.

The hearings, which took place on February 20 and 21 at the High Court in London and whose verdict is expected in March, are the last opportunity for Assange to obtain an appeal against this extradition decision. However, there is a high risk that the law will once again be turned on its head. As the investigative platform Declassified UK reports, one of the two judges, Jeremy Johnson, previously worked for the British secret service MI6, which is closely intertwined with the CIA and whose illegal activities came to public attention through the work of Julian Assange.

For Julian Assange, the trial itself has already become a punishment. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, concluded after detailed investigations that Assange had been subjected to systematic psychological torture for years. The fact that the US was prepared to go even further came to light in September of the same year: according to reports in the Guardian, senior intelligence officials, including the then head of the CIA and later Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, planned to kidnap and murder Assange in 2017.[v] The background: Wikileaks had published documents that year that became known as “Vault 7”. They show the CIA’s massive activities in the field of cyber warfare and prove how the secret service systematically and comprehensively intervenes in web browsers, IT systems in cars, smart TVs and smartphones, even when they are switched off. This was one of the most sensational revelations by Wikileaks since the leaks by Edward Snowden, who uncovered the massive illegal surveillance by the NSA. The CIA was not to forgive Assange for this coup and subsequently classified Wikileaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” – a momentous neologism that allowed journalists to be declared enemies of the state. After Pompeo became Secretary of State in 2018, the US government initiated the extradition proceedings. This move replaced Pompeo’s original kidnapping and killing plan, with the goal remaining the same: the destruction of an inconvenient journalist.

The revelations of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and journalists such as Julian Assange have shown that in the shadow of the so-called war on terror, a vast parallel universe has emerged in recent decades that is obsessed with the illegal spying on its own citizens and the arbitrary imprisonment, torture and killing of political opponents. This world is largely beyond democratic control, indeed it is undermining the democratic order from within.

However, this development is not entirely new. In 1971, leaks revealed a secret FBI program for spying on, infiltrating and disrupting civil rights and anti-war movements, which became known as COINTELPRO. In the same year, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, which showed that four successive US administrations had systematically lied to their citizens about the extent and motives of the Vietnam War and the massive war crimes committed by the US military. In 1974, Seymour Hersh revealed the CIA’s secret programs to assassinate foreign heads of state and the covert operation to spy on hundreds of thousands of opponents of the war, which ran under the code name “Operation CHAOS”. Driven by these reports, the US Congress convened in 1975 the Church Committee, which carried out a comprehensive review of the secret operations and led to greater parliamentary control of the services.

Julian Assange is part of this venerable journalistic tradition and has made a decisive contribution to its renewed flourishing. However, there is one important difference to the 1970s: Today, the most important investigative journalist of his generation is openly persecuted, criminalized and deprived of his freedom. When states declare the investigation of crimes to be a crime itself, society enters a dangerous downward spiral, at the end of which new forms of totalitarian rule can emerge. As early as 2012, Assange remarked, at the time with regard to the increasingly comprehensive surveillance technologies: “We have all the ingredients for a turnkey totalitarian state”.

If the US authorities succeed in convicting a journalist for exposing war crimes, this would have another serious consequence. In the future, it would become even more difficult and dangerous to expose the sordid reality of wars, especially those wars that Western governments like to sell as civilizing missions with the help of embedded journalists. If we do not learn the truth about these wars, it becomes much easier to wage them. Truth is the most important instrument of peace.

Julian Assange has not yet been extradited and sentenced. Over the years, a remarkable international movement has formed for his release and the defense of press freedom. Many parliamentarians around the world are also raising their voices. The Australian parliament, for example, supported by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, passed a resolution by a large majority calling for Assange’s release. A group of over 80 members of the German parliament have joined in. However, the German government is still refusing to exert any serious pressure on Joe Biden’s government, which continues to persecute Assange. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who as the Green Party’s candidate for chancellor had spoken out in favor of freeing Assange, has persistently avoided questions on the subject since joining the government. Her ministry has left questions from MPs about the case unanswered for months, only to then make elusive rhetorical excuses. The leading politicians of the governing German coalition, who like to loudly present themselves as the guardians of democracy and the rule of law, must finally take action in this case of political justice and unequivocally demand the release of Julian Assange before it is too late. However, this would require overcoming the cowering attitude towards the godfather in Washington and actually standing up for the much-vaunted values of democracy.

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