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Assange: exposing war crimes

Don't extradite Assange – Adelaide May Day March, 30 April 2022.

Adelaide May Day March, 30 April 2022. Photo: Jenny Scott – flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Journalist, activist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is free after 7 gruelling years holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and over five years in the UK’s Belmarsh high security prison. He was released following a plea deal with the US Justice Department and a court hearing in Saipan, in the US territorial North Marianas Islands.

He was facing 17 charges under the US Espionage Act and 1 of hacking, carrying a maximum sentence of 175 years. The deal involved the dropping of 17 charges which were pardoned by President Biden. Assange pleaded guilty to one charge of “Conspiracy to Obtain and Disclose National Defense Information,” under the US Espionage Act.

Assange was sentenced to time already served, the 62 months in Belmarsh prison. He was then released to return to Australia. The Albanese government is attempting to take all the credit for these latest developments and push the real, long-term campaigners for Assange’s human rights into the background. This is in line with its rank opportunism, given impetus by that pompous self-promoter, Australia’s US ambassador, former PM Kevin Rudd.

“If Julian pleaded guilty in federal court in Saipan, it’s because he was pleading guilty to committing journalism,” his wife Stella Assange said. “This case criminalises journalism – journalistic activity, standard journalistic activity of news gathering, and publishing … this is the reality of this prosecution.”

“It revealed how uncomfortable the US government is in having these arguments aired, because the fact is that this case is an attack on journalism, it’s an attack on the public’s right to know, and should never have been brought.”

WikiLeaks exposed hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables and secret military documents during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, revealing US war crimes. Most noteworthy was the video of a US military Apache helicopter shooting civilians in Iraq.

What is Assange guilty of? Journalism that exposed US war crimes to the world, and by extension its partner in crime and deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific, Australia.

Publishing the classified material did not cause any harm to the security of the US. Nobody has been endangered by Assange’s work. “In fact, the United States in court in Saipan … conceded – and the judge found – that there is no evidence that any harm has befallen any individual anywhere in the world as a result of Mr Assange’s publications,” said Barry Pollack, one of Assange’s US lawyers.

COMPLICIT

Governments in the US, Australia, and the UK were complicit in the persecution of Julian Assange. His release was in large part due to widespread public protests and campaigns supporting Assange that have grown over the past 14 years since Assange was first targeted by the US.

It took lengthy negotiations and a series of court cases in the UK with still no sign of movement on the part of the US. In May this year, the UK High Court granted Assange permission to appeal against his extradition. A full hearing over whether he would be allowed to rely on the first amendment in the US Constitution around freedom of speech if he were to go on trial in the US was set down for this month.

In Australia, the Liberal-National Coalition government’s complicity up until its defeat in 2022 is a stark warning to journalists and whistleblowers. Despite some fine words, Labor has also failed to protect truth-tellers.

Whistleblowers and the media should be protected, not punished for exposing criminal activity and corruption. Australia’s whistleblower protection laws are in urgent need of comprehensive, robust reform.

In a recent study of whistleblower cases that went to court in Australia the Human Rights Law Centre couldn’t find a single successful outcome in favour of a whistleblower.

MCBRIDE IMPRISONED

Former military lawyer David McBride has been sentenced to almost six years’ jail for leaking classified military documents about investigations into Australian soldiers for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Attempts were made to prosecute Bernard Collaery over his alleged role in raising awareness about Australia’s dirty deeds in negotiations over oil with Timor Leste in the 2000s. The prosecution has since been dropped, after years of hounding Collaery and Witness K in the courts.

The prosecution of Australian Taxation Office whistleblower Richard Boyle is before the courts now. He faces criminal charges that could see him jailed for up to 46 years.

The Australian Federal Police executed a search warrant at the ABC in 2020 over the release of the ‘Afghan files’ which exposed alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers. This was meant to intimidate journalists for doing their job. The treatment of Assange and the others is a warning to journalists and whistleblowers.

Assange was forced to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit to gain his freedom. His experience has further exposed the nature of the US’s determination to cover up its crimes.

The use of the US Espionage Act creates an alarming precedent that should be of concern to journalists around the world. Their freedom to report objectively and truthfully is threatened.

Investigative journalism has been under attack in Australia and elsewhere. The US’s actions create a precedent and a blow to press freedom and the public’s right to know.

It is important that the media use its power to overcome the threat to press freedom by campaigning for President Biden to pardon Assange on the single charge he pleaded guilty to.

Assange is free now, but the power that persecuted him as a warning to others is still in business.

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