The Atrocious Prosecution of Julian Assange

 by Eve Ottenberg  

What do Biden and Trump have in common? (Aside from jerking Iran around over the nuclear treaty, proclaiming support for a phony, unelected pretender to the Venezuelan presidency, Juan Guaido, and posturing aggressively toward China?) Both Biden and Trump support the utterly baseless Espionage Act case against journalist and publisher Julian Assange.

Make no mistake, this case is a frontal assault on the first amendment. It is also one of the worst attacks on a free press in centuries. But that hasn’t stopped Trump and Biden. With a pusillanimous press quiescent about Assange and unless Biden reverses course, these two presidents will have trashed the ability of journalists to report on military and government abuses. A sword of Damocles hangs over reporters’ heads: reveal leaked material about the U.S. government and you could get slapped into prison, probably in solitary, for 175 years. Trump, now Biden, put that sword there.

Surprising everyone, the very biased, anti-Assange British judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled on January 4 against the U.S. government’s extradition request. This was a rare win for Assange. The U.S. had until February 12 to appeal. Everyone waited with baited breath: would Biden’s justice department drop the case? On February 9 we got the answer – no. The U.S. will continue to try to extradite Assange.

This was a nasty about-face, to say the least. Previously, Biden had hinted that he would follow Obama’s path and not pursue charges against Assange. Obama’s justice department recognized that Assange’s work is indistinguishable from that of investigative national-security reporting. There was no reason to believe Biden would follow the despicable course charted by Trump, which began in April 2019 with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act.

But then, powerful forces have arrayed against Assange. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell publicly warned Trump before he left office that if he pardoned Assange, that would be held against him at his impeachment trial. Who knows what McConnell said to Biden? And then there was Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who famously compared Wikileaks to a hostile, foreign intelligence operation. Wikileaks is a publisher, but that’s evidently how Pompeo views publishers. Doubtless Pompeo spoke for many at the state department and the CIA with this insidious smear.

The whole Trump case against Assange began brutally, with a fusillade against the right to asylum: In April 2019, after a green light from the craven president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, British police stormed into the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange had sought refuge for seven years. They arrested him, dragged him out and clapped him into Belmarsh prison. His treatment was harsh, and there is evidence that attempts were made, probably successfully, to break him psychologically. There were reports that psychotropic drugs were administered to Assange. He appeared confused and disoriented in court. In November 2019, 60 doctors penned an open letter, saying that Assange’s health was so bad, he “could die in prison.” In a court hearing back then, a frail Assange could not remember his birth date and did not comprehend the proceedings. More recently and miraculously, he has not caught covid, although there was an outbreak of the virus in Assange’s wing of the prison.

The UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer deplored Assange’s treatment in May 2019: “Mr. Assange has been exposed to persistent, progressively severe abuse, ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, to oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination.” (Hillary Clinton: “Can’t we drone him?”) Melzer later asserted that Assange’s treatment amounted to torture.

On February 11, Amnesty International signed a letter urging Biden to drop the prosecution of Assange, stating that it “poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.” Amnesty calls on Biden not to appeal the denial of extradition and to drop the indictment, which targets “conduct that journalists engage in routinely – and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do…In addition, some of the charges…turn entirely on Mr. Assange’s decision to publish classified information.” Amnesty decries Trump’s abuse of prosecutorial powers, as he opposed an unfettered press, and underlines the need for “a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press,” quoting Judge Murray Gurfein in the Pentagon Papers case.

There is no doubt: Assange is being prosecuted for practicing journalism, for his 2010 publication of military documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, revealing U.S. war crimes in Iraq. Most damning was the classified, nearly 40-minute video, released by Wikileaks and Assange, called “Collateral Murder” and filmed from the gun-sight of a U.S. Apache helicopter shooting at and killing over a dozen Iraqi civilians, among them two Reuters journalists on a suburban street. That video shocked the world. As did the story of how the U.S. military tried to conceal it from Reuters and other details, such as that two children were also wounded and that the attack was clearly unprovoked. Especially horrifying was the U.S. soldiers’ callous, malicious disregard for human life. It made the U.S. military look monstrous.

This was news; this was reporting, and this was why the U.S. national security state went ballistic and decided to get Assange. Not anything else. Not Hillary Clinton’s emails or a still unproven Russia connection. It was the ugly face of the U.S. military that Assange showed the world. That video sealed Assange’s fate.

Daniel Ellsberg compared his own work on the Pentagon Papers to Assange’s reporting. He says it’s the same thing. But that didn’t stop a very vengeful U.S. government under Trump from empanelling a grand jury in Virginia to hear evidence against Assange. Should he be tried there, he would doubtless be convicted – northern Virginia jury pools draw on a local population of national security state employees. The odds of Assange getting an impartial jury there are extremely poor.

The New York Times reported that Assange’s lawyers contend that the U.S. is prosecuting him for political reasons. That is correct. Assange very publicly shamed the U.S. government. And the U.S. government does not stand for humiliation. (Just witness its treatment of Iran for over 40 years because of the hostage crisis.) For that, Assange has been hounded, falsely accused, tortured, prosecuted and threatened with 175 years in prison. The same fate awaited whistleblower Edward Snowden, had he not had the sense to flee to a place the U.S. could not follow, namely Russia. Had Assange died in Belmarsh prison, or should he, that would be fine with the United States, because there’s one thing the U.S. military and national security state will not tolerate and that is publication of their crimes abroad, in other words, the truth.

If he continues to pursue this appalling and unjust case against Assange, Biden will badly tarnish his fledgling administration. He will thus endorse injustice, brutality and lies. And it makes his administration’s talk about freedom of speech and freedom of the media, as something it wants to “project” with regard to countries like China, nothing more than worthless words and hypocrisy.


Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.      

Photograph Source: Ivan Radic – CC BY 2.0

First published by CounterPunch.org

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