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Julian Assange - speaking truth to the powerless

Julian Assange

It's a serious thing to have the Government of the USA for an enemy. If it continues for very long, you'll notice friends crossing the street to avoid you. Jemima Khan has this week used a rather rambling article in the New Statesman to announce that she will be keeping to the far side of Julian Assange's street from now on.

The proper place to weigh the allegations of sexual offences by Julian Assange is in a court of law. Far too often, women making a complaint of rape or other sexual offences find their motives impugned. Far too often, men who are the subject of such complaints are protected by the regard other people have for them. So it is necessary to place the allegations and the evidence carefully before a court, paying due attention to all the well-known difficulties attendant upon such cases.

The pursuit of Julian Assange by the USA is an entirely different matter. Anyone inclined to question the right of Assange – or anyone else – to obtain and publish "secret" material needs only to watch WikiLeaks' Collateral Murder video, showing the cold-blooded murder of Iraqi civilians by a US helicopter crew.

Speaking truth to the powerless

Jemima Khan says that she previously supported Assange because he was "speaking truth to power." But he wasn't. Power was already perfectly familiar with the truths that WikiLeaks published. Julian Assange was doing something much more important. He was speaking truth to the powerless, in order to equip them a little better for their efforts to defend themselves against power.

The US Government evidently wishes to deter others from speaking that kind of truth. Its campaign has so far been played out on a vast scale. Obama has been at war with whistleblowers ever since the "Collateral Murder" affair.

Last month, a US court sentenced former CIA officer John Kiriakou to two years in jail for exposing CIA torture. No one has been prosecuted for participating in the US torture programme.

US prosecutors are currently in hot pursuit of officials who may have leaked information about US involvement in the creation of the stuxnet computer worm, which was used in 2008 to target Iranian nuclear facilities. Stuxnet crossed a new line in cyber-terrorism, with still incalculable consequences for us all. The decision to develop and deploy the worm should be the subject of a searching inquiry. Instead, the searchlight has been turned onto whistleblowers.

Almost at the beginning of the war on Julian Assange, various financial firms including Bank of America, Visa and Mastercard announced that they would no longer process payments to WikiLeaks. Bank of America was at that time the world's third biggest company, according to the Forbes Global 2000 list. It might have been thought big enough to resist pressure from any quarter, even the White House. Not so, apparently.

For people linked to the malign strand of militarism and imperialism that runs through the US state, Julian Assange may well have seemed a bigger threat than Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen murdered in a US drone strike in 2011. He must certainly have seemed a bigger threat than Anwar al-Awlaki's 16 year old son Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, murdered in another drone attack a couple of weeks later. For the moment, there seems to be a tacit understanding that the CIA's licence to kill extends only to Muslims. So Assange may, perhaps, be safe from an overt, attributable assassination attempt.

But the US pursuit of Julian Assange is nonetheless quite clearly underway, with the aim of despatching him, via a US court-room, to the US prison system for destruction by long-term solitary confinement – the fate of thousands of prisoners in the US and especially of those convicted because of the government's antipathy towards them. The US can afford to wait. But in the end, there is probably very little it won't do to achieve its goal.

Grand jury empanelled

A Freedom of Information request filed in Australia last year revealed that the Australian Embassy in Washington had reported in February 2012 that "the US investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr Assange has been ongoing for more than a year." Media reports have claimed that a Federal Grand Jury has been empanelled in the case. The embassy merely reported that the US Government "cannot lawfully confirm to us the existence of the grand jury" (see the box at the end of this article for more about the Grand Jury) and similarly that claims that a sealed indictment was already in existence could not be confirmed. The embassy report nevertheless appears to treat the empanelling of a grand jury as an accepted fact.

So it seems reasonably certain that at some opportune moment the US will attempt to obtain custody of Julian Assange, by extradition or otherwise. Assange is entitled to protection from any such attempt, just at surely as Salman Rushdie was entitled to protection from any attempt by the Iranian Government to act upon the fatwa against him, whether by judicial or extra-judicial means.

The obligation to protect Julian Assange falls particularly clearly on Australia, Britain and Ecuador. So far, neither the Australian Government, nor the British Government nor the British courts have shown any inclination to respect that obligation.

There are some countries to which some people should never be sent for trial, whatever the charges. Opponents of the Jordanian regime, for example, should never be sent to Jordan, even if there is a prima facie case against them and the charges are unrelated to politics. And Julian Assange ought never to be extradited to the US, whether for espionage or for murder, rape or shoplifting.

But what about Sweden?

Like Britain, Sweden is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. The decision last year by the European Court of Human Rights to allow Babar Ahmad and others to be extradited from Britain to the USA shows just how malleable the Convention can be in the face of political pressure. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and many other human rights experts believe that the court got it wrong and that the isolation in which the men will be held in the US violates their rights.

In other respects, Sweden is quite different from Britain. Sweden is one of just two countries in western Europe from whose home territory people are known to have been abducted for extraordinary rendition by the US.

The other country is Italy. Abu Omar, an Egyptian refugee, was abducted in Milan in 2003 and then rendered to Egypt by the CIA. Italian courts have subsequently convicted 2 Italian officials and (in absentia) 23 US officials over their involvement in the rendition. The convictions were upheld by Italy's highest appeal court last September. The court also ruled that the trial of 5 senior Italian intelligence officials can go ahead, overturning a previous court decision blocking their trial.

Nothing of that sort happened in Sweden. In December 2001 Swedish security police secretly seized two Egyptian refugees, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery and handed them to US officials. The men were stripped, dressed in orange jumpsuits, drugged, shackled and blindfolded in the presence of Swedish police, who did not intervene. They were then flown by US personnel to Egypt, where they were tortured.

Swedish officials "untouchable"

Sweden's Parliamentary Ombudsman later issued a critical report on these events. He did not call for prosecution of those involved, and no such prosecutions have taken place. Crimes that Italy jails its officials for are apparently untouchable in Sweden.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery have been awarded compensation by the Swedish government. Agiza was released from prison in Egypt in 2011 and last year was granted permanent residence in Sweden.

A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals that in April 2006 Swedish officials questioned the US about a charter aircraft, described as a Homeland Security deportation "ICE" (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) flight, that was bound for the Middle East via Sweden. The US Charge d'Affaires comments in the cable that "what is not yet clear is whether the new requirements are simply an indication of a government sensitive to the renditions/prisoner transfer issue in the run-up to general elections in September, or if Sweden wants to make the clearance process so difficult that we will seek other refuelling venues."

The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, reporting on the WikiLeaks story in December 2010, claimed that Swedish officials had boarded the aircraft. A press spokesman for the Swedish police is said by Radio Sweden to have confirmed "parts" of the newspaper report. The newspaper is also reported to have said that as far as it could tell no rendition flights had landed in Sweden since the 2006 incident.

Jemima Khan claims in her New Statesman article that "WikiLeaks had revealed that in 2006 Sweden stopped rendition flights for the US," though this isn't mentioned in the cable made public by WikiLeaks. She doesn't mention the rendition of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, or the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for it. She has either been economical with her research, or she is being economical with the truth.

In fact, there is no solid reason to think that the Swedish authorities would be less accommodating to the US today than they were in 2001.

Like Sweden, Britain has also allowed its airports and airspace to be used by aircraft involved in rendition. But this support was limited to aircraft on their way to or from a rendition mission (for example, the plane involved in the rendition of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery refuelled at Prestwick in Scotland after completing the rendition). No aircraft with a prisoner on board appears to have ever stopped in Britain or flown over Britain (British territory in Diego Garcia is another matter).

Despite the substantial part that British intelligence officials played in US abductions and torture (including the abduction and torture of British citizens), Britain seems to have been out of bounds for US personnel with prisoners illegally in their custody. Evidently the US felt obliged to minimise the embarrassment to the British Government, but believed that its goons could make themselves at home in Sweden.

Justice for the complainants

If Julian Assange is sent to Sweden, the Swedish authorities will need to shoulder the obligation to protect him from judicial or extra-judicial transfer to the US. Sweden's part in the rendition of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, and its ongoing failure to prosecute any of those responsible, means that it cannot be relied upon to do the job. That should be sufficient to block his extradition, regardless of the seriousness of the allegations against him.

The two women who have brought complaints against Julian Assange need justice. In these extraordinary circumstances, it should not be impossible – if there is substance to the allegations – for charges to be put before a British court, with the co-operation of the complainants and the Swedish authorities.

It would then be up to the British Government and British courts to deal with any US attempt to gain custody of Julian Assange. The risible tabloid remarks made in court by the British judges who authorised the extradition to the US of Babar Ahmad, Talha Ahsan and others last year, and the later (quite correct) decision by the Home Secretary to block the extradition to the US of Gary McKinnon, notwithstanding Britain's treaty obligations, demonstrate the power that politics has over extradition decisions.

The New Stateman's leader writer thinks that time's up for Assange. The paper claims, without explanation, that "Sweden has shown more independence than the UK when dealing with US extradition requests."

The claim is perhaps based on an article by Göran Rudling, a Swedish blogger and campaigner who gave evidence for Julian Assange in the February 2011 extradition hearing in Britain. The article points out that in the 60s and 70s Sweden gave refuge to young Americans who did not wish to fight in the Vietnam War, and that in 1992 it refused to extradite CIA defector Edward Lee Howard.

Rudling says that Sweden does not extradite people to the US for "political or military crimes." But it seems fairly clear that the US authorities are working hard to construct charges against Assange that would deflect some of the domestic and international criticism that explicitly political charges would provoke.

Rudling dismisses the concerns raised by the rendition of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery with the comment that "the reason they were denied political asylum was because they were suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization according to the Swedish Secret Police, SÄPO."

And then Rudling blows it, saying:

"It is apparent that Julian Assange is extremely afraid of an extradition to the US. Phobic fear."

But there really is an investigation into Julian Assange underway in the US, there are good grounds to suspect that a sealed grand jury indictment already exists, and it is clear that Assange's treatment in the US, if he were to be convicted there, would be harsh and destructive. There is nothing phobic about his fear.

Britain has a very shabby human rights record, especially in relation to America's War on Terror. But it's still possible to mount an effective fight for justice here, and sometimes to win. That's why the slow erosion of conspicuous support for Julian Assange matters, not just for Assange but for anyone who is serious about holding governments to account for their actions.

Jemima Khan is annoyed because Julian Assange withdrew his support from the just-launched film about WikiLeaks in which she had a stake as Executive Producer. He could hardly have done otherwise, once the film was given the title "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks." She has nothing significant to say about the case. But her desertion may prompt others to believe they can smell a sinking ship and to disembark along with the rats. She is undermining the only thing that stands between Julian Assange and a lifetime of hellish incarceration – people power.

Photo: Espen Moe

The WikiLeaks Grand Jury

In November 2012 a Federal judge in Virginia effectively confirmed that the grand jury investigation into Wikileaks is still ongoing. The judge gave a brief ruling refusing a request from 3 former WikiLeaks associates for documents in their case to be unsealed.

The three were Seattle coder and activist Jacob Appelbaum; Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament; and Dutch businessman Rop Gonggrijp. They were attempting to obtain records of the court orders under which investigators had in 2010 compelled Twitter to hand over details of their accounts.
U.S. WikiLeaks Criminal Probe 'Ongoing,' Judge Reveals

The ruling provided the first official confirmation since Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London that the grand jury investigation is still ongoing. It's existence had been revealed almost two years earlier, in December 2010, when Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, told journalists that "we have heard from Swedish authorities there has been a secretly empaneled grand jury in Alexandria."

In April 2011 Glenn Greenwald revealed that a subpoena had been served on a Cambridge (USA) resident, requiring his appearance before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. Greenwald says that the person had previously been publicly linked to WikiLeaks. The terms of the subpoena strongly suggest that it related to the WikiLeaks investigation.

Later that year, it emerged that the US Government had used secret orders to obtain information from Google and relating to the accounts of former WikiLeaks spokesman Jacob Appelbaum. successfully applied for the order to be unsealed.

In February 2012 Wikileaks published an email sent by Fred Burton, a Vice President of US private intelligence firm Stratfor, that claimed "we have a sealed indictment on Assange." It's difficult to know whether the claim can be relied on - emails obtained from Stratfor are full of bombast - and whether the indictment referred to is the real thing or a draft. The email was dated 26 January 2011.


A few facts about Grand Juries