Down in the Hole with Julian Assange
When I woke up yesterday, I found myself in the latest of a wearyingly long series of go-nowhere arguments with a handful of folks who believe that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a multiple rapist, and that he, and by extension the organization he founded, should be nothing to us but the objects of scorn.
When I went to bed yesterday, British authorities had surrounded the Ecuadorian embassy in which Assange currently is sequestered, and were threatening to revoke its sovereign status in order to take him into custody on behalf of another country. A British government official went as far as to say they were under no obligation to recognize the very nature of political asylum.
It should go without saying that Assange’s guilt or innocence of the allegations of sexual misconduct being pushed by the Swedish government — I do not call them charges, because he has yet to be charged with any crime in any country — has nothing to do with the value of WikiLeaks and its mission. But, as with many things it would seem should go without saying, it apparently needs to be said. I personally cannot fathom why anyone would not support, in both theory and practice, the work that WikiLeaks has done. Especially in America, where money and power have turned mainstream journalism into a bought-off joke, and there is a screaming need for investigative journalism. It is also important to note that, in these ideologically polarized times when every news organization accuses every other new organization of bias, WikiLeaks does not editorialize; it does not even report. It simply gathers data and releases it to interested media. It lets the wrongdoing of the powerful speak for itself.
And what wrongdoing is that? What has WikiLeaks exposed since its inception, and what has it done to make itself the target of so many powerful organizations? To name only a few of its accomplishments, it has exposed political corruption in Kenya and Peru; officially sanctioned abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; illegal practices by Swiss and Icelandic banks; suppression of dissent in Tibet by the Chinese government; illegal membership in far-right racist political parties by British police officers; tax fraud by Barclays Bank; the dumping of dangerous toxic waste in Africa by a Dutch multinational; the murder of journalists and other innocent civilians by American forces in Iraq; innumerable dubious, illegal and immoral activities by occupying forces in Afghanistan; high-level misconduct by the government of Syria up to and including the killing of innocent civilians; illegal surveillance of private citizens by the German government; and collusion between state and private security forces all over the world. It has, in other words, consistently attempted to expose serious wrongdoing by private and public actors, revealing crooked and even deadly dealings that those actors have deliberately tried to conceal from the public.
Why anyone other than the targets of these exposés would find them unacceptable is bewildering to me. This is the very purpose of journalism: to investigate and expose high-level misconduct and the subsequent attempts to cover it up. Attempts by the powerful to claim that WikiLeaks is guilty of treason that places American troops at risk is dubious at best; it does not report troop movements, unit strength, or any other information that could harm military forces, but rather the lies, fraud, deception, propaganda and subsequent P.R. lies that accompany them. WikiLeaks has done more in the last six years to expose official misconduct than most American newspapers have done in the last 30 years, ever since they began to act as if their only job was to reprint press releases by the government and big corporations. WikiLeaks is unquestionably, to my view, on the side of the angels.
OF course, being on the side of the angels puts you in opposition to the devil. And the devil doesn’t like his secrets getting out. People in high places have been trying to shut WikiLeaks down since its inception; it has been investigated, sued, subjected to DNS attacks, and generally harassed for years. Most tellingly, it has been subject to a number of funding chokes of dubious legality, in which banks, credit card companies, and online payment sources like PayPal refuse to handle donations to the non-profit organization. This is a fate heretofore exclusively restricted to front organizations for criminal gangs and terrorist outfits; no justification, moral or legal, has been offered for why it has been imposed on WikiLeaks. It has been clear for some time now that a lot of people hav e a lot of interest in seeing WikiLeaks close up shop for good, and that they are not particularly picky about whether or not that closure is effected by legal means. If you don’t think the government will resort to nasty measures to shut down journalists, then a quick survey of the 20th century history of basically every nation on Earth might convince you otherwise.
Although it’s axiomatic that Julian Assange does not equal WikiLeaks, and that its goals and acts as an organization should not be tinted by any personal characteristics or misbehaviors on his part, many people don’t see it that way. For many in the public sphere, especially Americans, Assange is WikiLeans, and his sins are its sins — or, at least, any misconduct on his part reflects poorly on his organization. Now, it is likewise no secret that many powerful people would like to see Assange punished or worse, not for any alleged sex crime, but for his role as the founder of WikiLeaks; the US Secretary of State has accused him of treason, the heads of both American political parties have called for his imprisonment, he is the frequent target of death threats by public figures, and the federal government empaneled a grand jury in 2010 to investigate the possibility of trying him for espionage — a crime punishable by death in this country. So it seems perfectly reasonable that Julian Assange would fear falling into American hands, or the hands of anyone likely to extradite him to America; indeed, he need not imagine his fate. He need only look to one of his own collaborators, Bradley Manning, who has been held in solitary confinement in a military prison for nearly three years without trial. Reliable testimony indicates that Manning has been tortured, but thanks to provisions in the draconian post-9/11 Homeland Security laws, he may be held indefinitely without legal recourse. That is Assange’s likely fate if we ever get hold of him: thrown in a deep, dark hole and forgotten save by whatever thugs are set loose on him.
Of course, that does not mean the accusations against him are untrue. Sexual assault of any kind is no joke, and if Assange is guilty, he should stand trial and his victims should receive justice. There are just a few problems with that scenario, the foremost of which is that Sweden, the country from whence the accusations (and they are just that — again, he has been charged with nothing) stem, has gone about pursuing the case in such an incompetent, incomprehensible, and heavy-handed manner that it jeopardizes the very possibility of justice. Add to this the even more excessive behavior of the United Kingdom, who seem willing to risk an international incident to lay their hands on Assange — taking steps that they declined to use in the past against dictators, terrorists, and murderers — and the possibility of his getting a fair trial is on the wrong side of zero. That hurts Assange, but even more so, it hurts his alleged victims.
There are those who have simply decided that Assange is a multiple rapist, and that settles any further consideration of him or his circumstances. To this I have no response other than to say that it is distinctly un-American, undemocratic, and unworthy of anyone who believes in the principles of law and fair treatment; it’s the kind of language one encountered in the South after the murder of Emmett Till, and decent people should have no truck with it. There are also those who want to see Assange answer for his alleged crimes in court, and believe he has engaged in a Roman Polanski-style pattern of ducking the legal consequences of his actions. To answer the first part of this, certainly I agree that any accused criminal should be made to stand trial for his crimes; but, again, Assange is not charged with anything anywhere. Even the accusations against him, for which he has already been questioned twice and released, begin to nuzzle uncomfortably against the concept of double jeopardy and the Swedish authorities call again and again for his arrest each time they think they will leave a stink on him. Again, all these quasi-legal maneuvers do nothing but erode the possibility of a fair trial. And as to the second part, to say that Assange has avoided facing the legal consequences of his actions does not jibe with the actual pattern of events.
This transcript of a recent investigative report by an Australian television network lays the facts of the case out quite expertly. But here is a brief sequence of events:
- August 10, 2010: Assange arrives in Stockholm and stays at the home of Anna Ardin, a Swedish woman. They engage in consensual sex. Despite the prosecutor’s claim that Assange sexually assaulted her that night, she throws a party for him the next day, and he stays at her home for another week.
- August 14, 2010: Assange meets with Sofia Wilen, another Swedish woman, at a party.
- August 16, 2010: Assange meets up with Sofia Wilen, a 26-year old Swedish woman. They have consensual sex that evening. There is a question of whether or not Assange did not use a condom, or if he used one and it broke. She never refers to the event as rape.
- August 18, 2010: Assange departs Stockholm. Wilen is worried about having contracted an STD from Assange (she did not), and contacts Ardin. The two of them visit the police in order to get help finding Assange; there is no mention of rape, and Wilen insists that she only wants to find out from him if she is at risk of an STD. Both women texted one another during this period, never mentioning rape or sexual assault. Both texted and called other people and had conversations about Assange which were entirely positive; no mention was made of misconduct.
- August 19th, 2010: A police report is written in which the women are portrayed as victims of two different sex crimes. A prosecutor orders an arrest warrant for Julian Assange. Wilen is so upset, she refuses to sign the statement, saying it does not reflect the facts of her encounter with Assange. Either the police or prosecutors leak the statements to the press, contravening Swedish law.
- August 29th, 2010: Assange calls Swedish authorities and makes a statement. Despite promises his testimony will not be released, it is also leaked illegally to the press.
- August 30th, 2010: Assange voluntarily turns himself in to the Swedish authorities for questioning. He is interviewed and is not charged with any crime, and told he is free to leave the country.
- September 15th, 2010: Assange again volunteers to appear for questioning, but the prosecutor says this is unnecessary.
- September 27th, 2010: Assange leaves Sweden, not having been told by anyone in authority that he could not do so.
Additionally, those who persist in the belief that this entire disgraceful scandal is about nothing but Julian Assange and his predilection for sexual assault should consider the following questions:
* If the Swedish authorities only want to question Assange about the alleged assaults — which they have already done twice — why would they not consent to do so in England, or over the internet? Why do they insist on taking him into custody, especially since there are no charges against him?
* Why did Sweden reject Assange’s offer to voluntarily turn himself in to avoid the release of an arrest warrant?
* Who illegally released information on the women’s testimony and Assange’s statements to the press?
* Why did one victim refuse to sign off on the ‘statement’ Swedish police crafted for her?
* Why was the arrest warrant for Assange an INTERPOL Red Notice, usually reserved for terrorists and dictators (even Muammar Gaddafi only received an Orange Notice)?
* Why has Assange’s UK legal advisor been placed on a travel watch list normally reserved for terror suspects?
* Even if Assange is guilty of sexual assault, why would both the US and the UK be so interested in seeing him extradited for a strictly domestic issue?
* Why has the FBI, whose authority does not reach beyond US borders, been seeking people willing to testify against Assange?
* If the US is not interested in gaining custody of Assange, why will they not make a statement promising not to arrest or detain him?
* Why would the UK threaten to revoke Ecuador’s diplomatic status, and ignore well-established laws regarding political asylum, in order to arrest someone suspected of sexual assault in another country — something they have failed to do for dictators, terrorsts and murderers?
After a while, so much evidence piles up that must be explained away, dismissed, or downgraded that the conspiracy becomes not the one to smear Julian Assange, but the one to remain silent about the stunningly abusive way in which he is being treated. (I’ve even heard people say that Assange only started WikiLeaks for the money; it’s certainly a perplexing way to get rich, since WikiLeaks is not for profit, depends entirely on donations, does not pay its staff, spends the vast majority of its income on server space and electronic security, sells no products, and accepts no advertising. Assange himself is essentially homeless, sleeping on floors wherever someone will host him, doing all his work on a laptop, and facing persecution by some of the most powerful organizations on the planet; wouldn’t it have been easier to just become a lawyer?) It is possible to fool yourself into thinking that such grotesque abuses of power are okay as long as they are directed at someone you think did something that is bad, but history is littered with the corpses of people who trusted that the government would only use its police powers against someone else.
The people who want to see Julian Assange put away and WikiLeaks shut down don’t have to do anything extreme. They don’t need to kill him, or hire a double to pretend to be him, or to spend billions of dollars on elaborate plots and conspiracies. All they have to do is make people distrust him enough that they won’t care when he gets thrown in a deep, dark hole. They rely on people not caring what happens to Assange the same way they’ve proven not to care what happens to Bradley Manning; each person that ignores or excuses the abuse of power makes that hole a little deeper and a little darker, and makes it a little less likely that anyone will ever crawl out of it. You are free to do that, to allow accusations to drive the law and to ignore abuses of power, as long as you want; but someday, the person in that deep dark hole will be you. And you will wish there was someone there to help you, to afflict the comfortable people who are tormenting you, to expose the wrongdoing being practiced against you; and you will remember that there was someone like that, and you sat around and did nothing when he was being fitted for his own black tomb.