The life of the world’s best known whistleblower Julian Assange is playing out like a movie script too fantastical even for Hollywood. Who could have imagined that an Australian, who, as yet, hasn’t been charged with any crime, would be holed-up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London’s Knightsbridge attempting to escape the clutches of Sweden and the U.S.!
On Sunday, British police swarmed around the tiny embassy premises while a police helicopter circled the skies above to prevent this heinous fugitive from the law from escaping in a diplomatic crate or in disguise or wafting off from the roof in a hot air balloon. Hundreds of his supporters and the odd bemused shopper carrying Harrods bags waited for his publicized appearance, discussing how he could walk free. Social media and newspaper talk boards were abuzz with ideas, most off the wall. There does seem to be a consensus, however, that one may be workable. Ecuador could make Assange as its envoy to the United Nations, an appointment that would not require British Foreign Office approval.
The media was out in force, their cameras trained on a ground floor balcony adorned with the Ecuadorian flag. Each time the curtain twitched, cheers roared out. At times, the Ecuadorian Ambassador Ms. Ana Alban Mora could be glimpsed smiling shyly as she peeped outside. Even the guys fiddling with the microphone looked excited and why wouldn't they be when the mission has never before received so much attention. Then ‘the great man’ stepped out for his moment of glory, looking controlled and resolute.
His ten minute speech was masterful; that’s my assessment although not everyone agrees. The Guardian called it “a PR triumph”, the Sun characterized it as “a pompous rant.” He thanked his supporters. He apologized to his children, promising to be with them soon. He applauded the Ecuadorean president for his courage in granting his request for asylum. He railed against the persecution of whistleblowers and journalists everywhere. He criticized the UK for its written threat to breach the Vienna conventions by stripping the embassy of its diplomatic status under an obscure domestic law that would enable Assange to be forcibly grabbed.
But his main message was targeted at President Barack Obama. “The United States must pledge before the world that it will not pursue journalists for shining a light on the secret crimes of the powerful,” he said. Was that a halo I could see forming atop his head or a trick of the light? Suddenly the stony-faced men in dark blue a few feet away and those packing the fire escapes were made to look like oppressors or worse still, impotent Keystone Cops being tantalized by a villain whose feet they could almost reach up and grasp. Earlier, a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray had warned them not to violate Ecuador’s sovereignty. That would be a breach of international law, he said, and any bobby who did so would be liable for extradition to Ecuador as soon as he left Britain’s shores.
Murray is one of Assange’s staunchest supporters. He believes, as do many others, that Assange is being stitched-up by U.S. allies Britain and Sweden with trumped-up accusations on the instruction of Washington whose Justice Department is investigating whether or not to charge the Australian national for ‘espionage’ that carries the death penalty or life imprisonment. Assange’s lawyers say they have proof that a secret American grand jury has already been formed. Clearly, Australia sees that scenario as being credible; its Washington embassy is getting ready “for the possibility of an extradition to the U.S.”
Murray was once in Assange’s position following his disclosure that the CIA was using proxies to torture suspects. Shortly afterward, he was accused by his employer the Foreign Office of expediting visas for sexual favors and was sacked. His reputation destroyed, he successfully struggled to clear his name. Prior to Assange’s speech, he spoke of his plight shared with former U.S. Brig.-Gen. Janis Karpinski who was demoted for shoplifting — an offense for which she was never charged — after she showed her distaste for the abhorrent way prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib were being tortured, humiliated and killed.
The list of government whistleblowers that have been punished for speaking out is long. Notable is former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson who dared to contradict the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellow cake from Niger in an op-ed. Within no time his wife Valerie was ‘outed’ as a CIA agent.
A documentary titled “Top Priority, the Terror Within,” which premiered earlier this year, highlights the predicament of former US Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection Officer Julia Davis. She was falsely accused of being a domestic terrorist for exposing shortcomings in the processing of applicants wanting entry into the U.S. For that, her home was raided by commandos using Blackhawk helicopters; they broke down doors and assaulted her parents. Her friends and family were subjected to warrantless surveillance, searches and seizures. Some 54 investigations were opened in her name.
It’s no wonder that Assange will go to just about any lengths to avoid ending up in a U.S. jail when the U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, alleged to have passed diplomatic cables and war logs, to WikiLeaks, has been in military detention without trial for two years in conditions, described by Juan E. Mendez, a UN Special Rapporteur, as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
Assange is perfectly willing to travel to Sweden for questioning on condition he receives assurances that he will not be extradited to the US, which both the US and Swedish authorities have refused to provide. Moreover, numerous invitations for Swedish prosecutors to conduct interviews with Assange in London have been turned down without reasons given; odd when earlier this year a Swedish prosecutor traveled to Serbia to interrogate an alleged murderer. The UK’s Home Secretary is also empowered to step in to make Assange’s extradition to Sweden conditional upon Stockholm’s pledge not to re-extradite him to a third country, which she hasn’t sought to do.
If something is rotten in the State of Denmark, to use a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it seems to me that the fishy stench from a red herring born across the Atlantic might have permeated to Sweden and the UK too. The Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino seems to think so. He says he finds the charges “hilarious” saying Assange “is charged because his condom broke.”
(The writer is a columnist at the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on August 21, 2012)