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Shredding asylum: the arrest of Julian Assange

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 15 April 2019


The man seemed like a bearded emissary, a holy figure nabbed in his sleep. He looked similarly pale as to how he did in 2013, but he cut a more shocking figure. Most prisoners would have had room to move in a compound. The Ecuadorean embassy in London only offered modest space and access to sun light. Hospitality of late was in short supply.

Julian Assange had been ill. His advocates had bravely insisted that he needed treatment. "As a journalist who has worked as media partner of @Wikileaks since 2009," reflected a near grieving Stefania Maurizi, "it has been so painful to watch Julian Assange's health completely declining in the last 9 years as a result of confinement with no end in sight, tremendous stress, threats." Sir Alan Duncan of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was happy to offer it, provided Assange step out of the embassy.

But Assange's time had finally come. The embroiling of the Moreno administration in the INA Papers affair suggested that the president needed an out. Images of Moreno's family skirting around the internet in various fora during days of plenty, and the suggestion that he had been profiting from a Panama offshore account, put Assange back in the picture. Who better to blame than a man in confinement, whose communications had been restricted, whose health was failing? WikiLeaks duly received a tipoff from a "high level source within the Ecuadorean state" that the offshore scandal would be used "as a pretext" to remove a difficult tenant.

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The writ and run of asylum has been shredded, and the conduct of Ecuador's president Lenín Moreno is worth noting. In his address explaining the abrupt termination of Assange's stay, Moreno was a dissembling picture. Assange, he had been assured by UK authorities, would come to no harm. He would not be facing torture or the death penalty (a reassuring red herring, given that the death penalty is off the table in extradition matters dealing with the UK in any case).

He had been "discourteous" and "aggressive", WikiLeaks "hostile and threatening" to Ecuador. Ecuador had been "generous" and "respectful of the principles of international law, and of the institutions of the right of asylum." Self-praise tends to increase in volume the more guilt is assumed, and Moreno made it clear that the law of asylum was a "sovereign right of the Ecuadorean state". It was Assange who was the violator of diplomatic protocols, refusing to abide by "the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states."

Specific reference was made to the leaking of Vatican documents in January 2019; Assange was still "linked" to WikiLeaks. He blocked security cameras; he used "distorting" equipment. He even "confronted and mistreated guards". He communicated via a mobile phone "with the outside world." And he dared taking his case through Ecuadorean legal channels.

Moreno's justification received much steam from UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who claimed that Assange was "no hero and no one is above the law. He has hidden from the truth for years." (Psychological slip, perhaps? Is it Assange allergic to the truth, or the security establishments he wishes to prize open?). Both Moreno and Ecuador were to be thanked for their cooperation with the Foreign Office "to ensure Assange faces justice."

President Donald Trump has been even more brazen on the subject of Assange's arrest, feigning an attack of amnesia. "I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing." During the 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks had been very much Trump's "thing", praised some 140 times for revealing email correspondence from the Democratic National Committee. "Oh, we love WikiLeaks," he cheered at a North Carolina rally. No longer.

Critics of WikiLeaks and Assange have always presumed exaggeration. The narcissist had nothing to fear accept model British justice, the same justice that has gone to extraordinary lengths over the years to affect various, high profile miscarriages. Skipping bail was tantamount to a parking offence; face the music. Instead, WikiLeaks was shown to be correct: Assange is facing the full force of an extensive investigation against a publisher by the self-touted leader of the free world.

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Ever since the publication of Cablegate, WikiLeaks has been the subject of a multi-organisational investigation by US prosecutors and defence personnel keen to sketch a legal basis for targeting the organisation. Assange has figured prominently. Despite the niggling problems associated with the Free speech amendment, legal personnel have been stretching the grounds on how to circumvent it.

Some few hours after Assange was bundled out of the embassy and into a van by the London Metropolitan Police, a US extradition request was revealed. He would not be prosecuted as a journalist, which would bring up press freedom issues, but as a hacker under the single charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. "Assange, who did not possess a security clearance or need to know, was not authorized to receive classified material from the United States."

The golden thread in the argument is Chelsea Manning, and four databases "from departments and agencies of the United States." Both Manning and Assange had entered into an agreement to crack "a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network". The alleged conspiracy "was to facilitate Manning's acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website."

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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