Julian Assange Did the Time, but Who Did the Crime?

July 05, 2024

The American Prospect

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Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, entered a guilty plea last week for allegedly violating the United States’ notorious 1917 Espionage Act; he was forced to do this in order to finally walk in fresh air after 14 years of confinement. The last five were in London’s Belmarsh prison, which Judge Ramona V. Manglona, who freed him last week, called “one of the harshest facilities” in the UK. She also noted that Assange spent seven years trapped in an enclosed space in London. That was in the Embassy of Ecuador, which correctly granted him political asylum, in accordance with international law, to protect him from the imprisonment and extradition that the United States would seek.

Assange’s “crime” was summed up by Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who told the press last week that “this deal contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day.”

That is the consensus of almost all of the experts who have studied this case, including prosecutors at the US Department of Justice under President Obama, who investigated the case and decided that Assange could not be prosecuted, because of “the New York Times problem.” In other words, the New York Times would also have to be prosecuted for similar investigative reporting, something that caused alarm among editors at the most important US newspapers.

It was left to the Trump administration to prosecute Assange in 2019, with an 18-count indictment that carried a maximum sentence of 175 years. Seventeen of the counts (and 170 years of the maximum sentence) were under the Espionage Act, for publishing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents. Among other things, these documents revealed some terrible atrocities by the US military.

One that went viral in 2010 was a video called “Collateral Murder,” which showed the attack by an Apache helicopter on a group of civilians, which killed at least 11 people, including two Reuters journalists. Other documents showed thousands of unreported deaths of civilians in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In the last few years, the most prominent organizations concerned with human rights, press freedoms, and civil liberties have repeatedly called for the charges against Assange to be dropped. Among these have been the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN America, and many others.

Current and former heads of state, including Prime Minister Albanese of Australia, Chancellor Scholz (Germany), President Lula (Brazil), President Gustavo Petro (Colombia), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico), former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, as well as many other world leaders had also called for Assange’s release. Some consider Assange to be a political prisoner, which is how much of the world outside the United States sees him.

Here is the real crime in this case: the government of the United States is punishing people for their journalism and speech, threatening our most fundamental freedoms and making a mockery of the rule of law. Yet millions of Americans will only see the official narrative of this case, that Julian Assange has committed crimes and has arranged a plea deal based on time served in prison.

This history, still in the making, must be written honestly; especially at a time when we increasingly need more freedom of speech and information, not less, to curb military, political, and economic violence, including climate destruction.

And all of this is at the heart of this case: today’s so-called “system of global governance” was established after WWII when most of the world had no voice, and still embodies that neocolonial, anti-democratic structure. The United States and its rich country allies still call most of the shots. Assange challenged that system, exposed some of its crimes, and paid a heavy price.

It could have been even heavier. An investigation in 2021 carried out by three journalists, interviewing 30 former US officials including eight from the CIA, found that the CIA discussed and considered plans to kidnap Assange, and also discussed whether they could assassinate him. No one has challenged these findings; and Michael Pompeo, who led these efforts as head of the CIA, said that “pieces of it are true” and that the article’s sources should be prosecuted “for speaking about classified activity inside the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Assange’s confinement for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, which was rightly mentioned by Judge Manglona, was also part of his persecution. It was misreported for years and deployed to demonize Assange. He was never charged with a crime in Sweden; he was sought only for questioning, which he agreed to comply with, and even travel to Sweden if the government could only guarantee that he would not be forcibly sent to the United States. Sweden would not agree to those terms, thus forming a de facto alliance with Washington and London, to keep Assange effectively incarcerated for years without even a criminal or civil charge.

Judge Manglona also noted: “There’s another significant fact – the government has indicated there is no personal victim here. That tells me the dissemination of this information did not result in any known physical injury.” She thus debunked the years-long effort of the US government to convince the public that the publication of documents by Assange and WikiLeaks had caused physical harm and even death to people around the world. This effort continued even as Assange was freed; hence the Reuters headline,“US calls Julian Assange actions dangerous even as judge notes no victims.”

There is much more to this story of brutal lawfare, much of it documented by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Meltzer. But the big news now is the success story: some of the world’s most powerful people seemed to want Assange to die in prison in the UK, possibly more than they wanted to bring him to trial here, which could have been politically problematic for them. Now he is free.

This results from many years of successful organizing, which combined with political leaders who broke with the “system of global governance” to demand his release.

Thus was a major case of political persecution, which was directed at setting a frightening example, defeated. It is a victory for the world.

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