Friday, 12 January 2024 13:04

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks

 

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Matthew Alford, Lecturer in Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK) 

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. Antonio Gramsci, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Bertrand Russell, Benazir Bhutto … Just a handful of 20th century citizens who were incarcerated by their respective governments because they dug deep, took a stand and said, ‘No!’ No to injustice, no to fascism, and no to war. This evening I'm joined by Dr. Matthew Alford from the University of Bath in the UK who is here to discuss one of the most important political prisoners of the 21st century. Matt, please tell us more.

MA: Julian Assange is 52 years old. He's Australian, he studied maths and computing and then founded WikiLeaks in 2006. I'd say perhaps the most neutral term for Julian Assange's profession is ‘publisher’. Personally, I prefer to call him a ‘freedom fighter’.

Julian Assange

BG: WikiLeaks is a term which is often bandied about by the mainstream media, but how did it actually work?

MA: WikiLeaks was important because it had a specially designed dropbox that allowed whistleblowers to post secret documents without anyone, including WikiLeaks itself, knowing their actual identity. This was designed in order for everyone to be kept safe from prosecution. It was a brilliant invention.

BG: And why is whistleblowing so important?

MA: Whistleblowing is part of democratising any organisation, and it's really, really important, especially for organisations that are as secret as the CIA and NSA.

BG: So, what kind of information did Julian Assange release by way of WikiLeaks?

MA: Julian Assange's revelations implicate powerful government and corporate villains worldwide in things like illegal surveillance and false-flag military attacks. And the charges that are against him are for much of his best and his most famous work, including footage of the US Army when they slowly and deliberately killed 12 innocent people, including several journalists, from the safety of a helicopter gunship. He was instrumental in putting that video out online, to hold the American military to account.

BG: And I'm assuming the consequences for him were extremely dire?

MA: Julian Assange was charged under the US Espionage Act of 1917 back in 2010. He's accused of working with army private, Chelsea Manning, to obtain and disclose classified information.

BG: Tell us a little more about Chelsea Manning, another name which the mainstream media has conveniently forgotten.

MA: Chelsea Manning leaked a lot of material when she was a private in the army, and she did this for moral reasons. She was imprisoned for several years herself. Eventually she was released following a plea bargain with Barack Obama. Chelsea Manning is a real hero for what she did. Personally, I'm unclear on why she has been so silent about Julian Assange's case for quite some time. It might be that she's had to sign some kind of gagging order, I don't know. That would just be speculation on my part.

BG: The plot thickens ...

MA: There's been a huge clampdown on these sorts of leaks from the Obama presidency onwards. One study found that almost all non-government representatives thought that the Espionage Act had been used ‘inappropriately in leak cases that have a public interest component.’ One journalist says that it's almost impossible to mount a defence against charges under the Espionage Act because defendants are not allowed to use the term ‘whistleblower’; they're not allowed to mention the First Amendment, and they're not allowed to explain the reasons for their actions. The US government wants to get Julian Assange using the Espionage Act, but this would be the first time in over a hundred years that that legislation has been used against a publisher.

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Julian Asange at the Ecuadorian embassy

BG: A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy. But Assange managed to escape, didn't he, for a while at least?

MA: In 2012, Julian Assange hid in an embassy in London, and he stayed there for the next seven years. He was forcibly removed in 2019 and, ever since, he's been in Britain's top security prison, Belmarsh. All of Julian Assange's exercise is indoors; he has not seen the sun for five years, and his feet haven't touched free soil in nearly 12 years. Library books, where he currently resides, are deemed a fire hazard. Julian Assange married his brilliant lawyer, Stella, in 2022 while in prison. For their wedding they were not allowed to use the chapel, and his children weren't even allowed to give him a daisy chain that they had made: it was deemed a security risk. The food available in Belmarsh consists of, quote, ‘porridge for breakfast, thin soup for lunch, and not much else for dinner,’ according to his latest visitor.

Julian has been in Belmarsh longer than any other prisoner, apart from one old man. He's actually lost his freedom for longer than Solzhenitsyn did when he was sent to the Soviet gulag. Julian Assange does currently have a radio, but this is only because one of his prominent friends pointed out to the prison warden that even Hezbollah allows their hostages access to radios. The authorities, even up to the top judicial level, formally accept that Julian Assange is a suicide risk. They don't seem to care; in fact, if anything, they seem to be encouraging it. I find it quite heartbreaking that the last photograph of Julian Assange is of him in court while he happens to be having a mini-stroke.

BG: That's a horrific and inhuman timeline, and in the 'Land of Hope and Glory' as well. In 2022 the then UK Home Secretary Priti Patel of the right-wing Conservative Party approved the extradition of Assange to the US in order to face the country's judiciary and penal system. From your descriptions though, can this really be worse than Belmarsh prison? Isn't the United States the land of the free and the home of the brave? Hasn't Julian Assange been brave?

MA: There are all sorts of ways to make his life worse in prison, to make anyone's life worse in prison, and those could well occur if he is deported, if he is extradited to the United States. So, for example, Julian Assange is currently isolated in his cell for 23 hours a day, which is really, really bad. But if he goes to a supermax facility in the United States, it could be even worse.

For example, it's likely that the CIA would prevent him from handling paper. I mean, it's possible; it does happen to several dozen other prisoners who are there on national security grounds. You know, just be shown a letter through a glass screen. In fact, the British prison Belmarsh already did this once a couple of years ago. In the depths of winter, they said, ‘Okay, fill in this form so that you can acquire your clothes,’ but, due to coronavirus regulations, he was not actually permitted to touch the pen and paper to put in that application. So, there are all sorts of grotesque, perverse things that can be done to a human being when they are incarcerated, and that situation could easily get a lot worse for Julian Assange if he goes to the United States, where the prison system is, I think, widely accepted to be more brutal than even the British cases.

BG: Aren't political cases like this explicitly banned under the UK-US Extradition Treaty? Is international law being tampered with here?

MA: Yeah, I mean, the extradition treaty does explicitly ban extradition for political reasons, except for in cases that involve things like murder. But, you know, law can always be stretched, it could be repurposed for political reasons, and when it comes down to it, the national security state in the United States and in the UK despise Julian Assange. It's almost kind of personal. They're prepared to break all laws, they're prepared to break all conventions just to mess him up. I think standard borders, things like sovereign jurisdiction, Australia's rights, Ecuador's rights, don't matter a jot to organisations like the CIA.

WikiLeaks Logo

BG: What about freedom of speech? What about our right to know how our societies are being governed?

MA: I mean, it's always been standard practice for journalists to receive secret information, and they can use that secret information to hold powerful organisations, particularly the government, to account. If the government is allowed to repurpose current laws to prosecute a publisher, that means that in the future, they'll have set a precedent; they'll be able to do whatever they want in the name of ‘national security’. And it would take a phenomenally brave whistleblower or publisher right now to follow in Julian's footsteps, having seen the price that he's paid.

BG: That's genuinely chilling; it's like we're discussing the Gestapo or the Stasi police or something. Anyway, so from a personal perspective, what does Julian Assange mean to you, Matt?

MA: Julian Assange is a symbol, a symbol of freedom, and a symbol of resistance. But he is also a human being in his own right. Even from this British prison where he currently languishes – Belmarsh in London – he's still sending out regularly, whenever he can, messages of love and hope. I like this quote from him: ‘If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.’

BG: Exactly. We need to keep the faith. So what action can people take? What can they do so they don't feel, you know, useless?

MA: For more information, I'd suggest going to the website stellaassange.com. That's the best place to be active, to support, and to coordinate both online and on the streets. You can also contact me on Facebook if you like: Matt Alford: War, Laughs, and Lies. If you want some more specifics, I'll be doing a running commentary about Julian Assange and other international political events.

I'd just like to add, and this comes from Stella Assange's website: ‘Saving Julian Assange is about saving ourselves. What happens to him cannot be undone. It would be the end of our right to know and the end of our democracies.’ So please gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, and in cities around the world, on the 20th to the 21st of February at 8:30 am and demand Julian's freedom.

BG: That's the Royal Courts of Justice in London on February 20th to the 21st from 8:30 am. This has been a very sobering yet very urgent interview, Matt. Many thanks for your time. 

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

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