Julian Assange. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Julian Assange. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Following an impressive London rally for Assange, Alistair Cartwright explains the significance of the case

Tareq Ayyoub, Jose Couso, Namir Noor-Eldeen, Julian Assange. What do these people all have in common? The answer, as Tuesday night’s packed rally on ‘Press Freedom and the Case for Julian Assange’ made absolutely clear, is that they are all journalists who have paid the price in life and liberty for trying to expose the truth about the war on terror.

Ayyoub and Couso were killed by the US on the same day in April 2003, less than three weeks into the start of the Iraq war. Ayyoub, a TV reporter with Al Jazeera, died after a missile from a low-flying A-10 attack aircraft hit the Al Jazeera building where he was working. Al Jazeera had informed the US of the location of their Baghdad offices before the war began, and apparently received assurances they would not come under attack. The US State Department has denied giving any such assurances.

Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish television station Telecinco, was filming from Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, a well-known base for foreign journalists at the time when a US tank opened fire on the balcony where he and others were standing. An investigation by US Central Command claimed the shelling of the journalists was ‘a proportionate and justifiably measured response’ to what they claimed was an enemy ‘spotter’.

Noor-Eldeen, a photographer for Reuters, was one of 12 people killed by a US Apache helicopter on 12 July 2007. We know about that incident thanks to Wikileaks, the organisation founded by Assange in 2006. Wikileaks’ famous ‘collateral murder’ video shows the helicopter crew joking and laughing, as they circle back around to fire on a minibus that arrives to carry away the wounded.

So much of what we know about the war on terror is thanks to the string of exposés published by Wikileaks between 2007 and 2012, including the official ‘operating procedures’ for Guantanamo bay, the Afghan war papers consisting of 90,000 pages documenting Coalition and Taliban atrocities, and the first official acknowledgment by the US army itself that 60% of those killed in the Iraq war were civilians.

It is the cruelest irony that the founder and former editor of Wikileaks is locked up in Belmarsh prison facing extradition to the US and a 175-year sentence for hacking when the people responsible for these crimes walk free. The journalists who go into conflict zones – so that those of us lucky enough not to live in one have at least some chance of knowing the truth about the wars waged in our names – are blown up, gunned down and systematically disavowed. While the journalists, and whistleblowers, who dare approach the centres of power that lie behind these brutalities are persecuted and imprisoned.

But then again, we live in a country where, as Kristin Hrafnsonn, current Editor-in-Chief of Wikileaks, put it during the rally: ‘the prisoners of Belmarsh have more humanity than the politicians’. The news that inmates in Belmarsh had won their petition, after not one but three attempts, for Assange to be taken out of solitary confinement, is welcome news. After deliberate medical neglect and what the UN Special Rapporteur Nilz Melzer referred to as clear evidence of ‘psychological torture’, Assange’s health is in a deteriorating condition. The move out of solitary is a small but important step forward. The message from John Rees, one of the organisers of the Don’t Extradite Assange campaign, was that ‘if they can do it, so can we’.

A dangerous precedent

Some, like Daily Express editor Gary Jones, have claimed that Assange is not really a journalist, and therefore not really deserving of protection under the norms of democracy or international law. It is surprising how wide this sentiment goes. Yet this is exactly the argument that Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been using to deny the relevance of First Amendment rights in Assange’s case. According to Jen Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, this is all part of the twisted semantics of the war on terror, in which unarmed combatants are redefined as terrorists and Wikileaks as a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’.

If we allow people like Trump and Pompeo to define who is and who isn’t a journalist, then we are effectively allowing them to define what is and isn’t news. According to Amna Shaddad from the campaign, ‘Donald Trump has been attacking journalists since his election. And now Brazil’s Bolsonaro has joined him by raising charges against Glen Greenwald… Both administrations are criminalising journalism by turning to vague anti-hacking laws… This is all about targeting reporters who are publishing information that is embarrassing.’ It is, in any case, a strange claim to make about someone who has won eight major awards for his journalism, and has been a member of the Australian journalists’ union MEAA for over a decade.

Representing the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) at Tuesday night’s impressive London rally was Tim Dawson, who brought support from the union’s Executive committee. Like the NUJ, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), which represents 320,000 members across 71 countries, has spoken out about the dangerous precedent that Assange’s arbitrary detention sets for journalists.

The NUJ and EFJ – and now the Labour Party – join a growing list of organisations that have spoken out in defence of Assange. Last year, Human Rights Watch called Trump’s indictment of Assange ‘a stunning and unprecedented assault on press freedom’. Amnesty International has similarly underlined the human rights implications of extradition, calling on the British authorities to reject the extradition request.

Bending the law

The extradition treaty that threatens Assange dates from 2003 when Tony Blair signed up the UK to be the main partner in the invasion of Iraq. As a piece of Blair-era counter-civil liberties legislation, it represents both the blood price paid to the US for first dibs on Iraq’s resources and an instrument in the weaponisation of the law itself. The same treaty saw the poet Talha Ahsan, a young man with Asperger syndrome accused of logged on to terrorism-related websites, extradited to a supermax jail in Connecticut in 2012. After a long campaign, Talha has since returned home.

This bending of the law to fit the needs of war continues today. UK authorities have recorded conversations between Assange and Robinson, his lawyer, without permission, handing them over to the US in breach of client confidentiality. Indeed, from the very beginning, the British state has intervened in the normal legal process around Assange’s case. A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that since December 2010, UK authorities discouraged Swedish investigators from questioning Assange in the UK. This led to a six-year deadlock in which the Swedish “preliminary investigation” into two potential rape allegations against Assange failed to progress. Another FOI request revealed that UK officials intervened again in 2013 to reverse a decision by Sweden to drop the case. According to the Guardian, UK CPS officials deleted potentially sensitive and revealing email exchanges with their Swedish counterparts. Since then, all investigations by Sweden have been dropped.

If justice has been denied to the two women in these cases, that has a great deal to do with the priorities of the UK state. In the eyes of the government, intelligence services and an influential part of the judiciary, the alliance with the US military apparatus will always count for more than the rights of women.

A fight for us all

With Boris Johnson assembling a cabinet of hardliners like Priti Patel and promising to tighten anti-terror laws, Assange’s case must be seen in the light of the renewed attack on civil liberties that looks increasingly likely. It is part of the same fight to ensure we are not silenced over Palestine and that anti-trade union laws do not become any stricter. Stopping the extradition of Assange is a fight for us all.

Join the global day of action in protest outside Belmarsh Prison on 24 June, and the march from Australia House in London on 22 February.

Find out more at dontextraditeassange.com

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.