Michael Clifford: Democracy abandons Assange at its peril

Michael Clifford: Democracy abandons Assange at its peril

On Wednesday last, Julian Assange asked that he be allowed out from behind the bulletproof glass that encloses the dock.

He was speaking at Woolwich Crown Court, in London, which is hearing an extradition request from the US to hand him over. The lawyer for the US said he would have no problem if Assange was allowed to sit in the well of the court, handcuffed to a security official.

On Monday, Assange was stripped naked twice and handcuffed 11 times. Papers handed to him in court were taken off him when he got back to prison. He is being held in Belmarsh, the high security prison, which houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK.

Assange’s health has deteriorated over the last 10 months, since he left the Ecuadorian embassy in London and was imprisoned in Belmarsh. Two weeks ago, a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet set out what 118 physicians and psychologists believe to be the “psychological torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange,”

The medical professionals, from 18 countries, concluded: “Should Assange die in a UK prison, as the UN special rapporteur on torture has warned, he will have effectively been tortured to death.

“Much of that torture will have taken place in a prison medical ward, on doctors’ watch. The medical profession cannot afford to stand silently by, on the wrong side of torture and the wrong side of history, while such a travesty unfolds.”

If Assange were a mafia godfather or psychopathic drugs kingpin, this kind of treatment would be questionable. Perpetrating it on a man with no record of violence or criminality is an outrage. What the 48-year-old journalist and publisher has done to elicit such contempt from the authorities is put a lot of noses out of joint by doing his job: holding power to account.

His extradition is being requested after a grand jury in the USA indicted him on 18 charges under the Espionage Act, for receiving and disclosing classified diplomatic and military documents.

This related to Assange’s Wikileaks website publishing material in 2010 that had been obtained by the US army whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, and others. The documents revealed how, from helicopters, some US soldiers fired on and killed civilians in Iraq, and how detainees were tortured in US facilities in the same country.

There was also a huge tranche of documents that originated in US diplomatic missions around the world. This was published in newspapers such as The Guardian and the New York Times. The US authorities are not pursuing, through the criminal courts, any editors or reporters from the newspapers that published the material.

All of the leaked documents gave an insight into how the US conducts itself abroad, far from the land of the free and the home of the brave. Once away from the prying eyes of media, and beyond the scope of US law, old Uncle Sam was shown to be the one who routinely discarded human rights and engaged in murder and torture when it deemed it appropriate.

Assange, in publishing the material, followed a long line of media organs that have, down through the centuries, exposed the abuse of power of wealthy nations.

Wikileaks publications served to enlighten the US population, in particular, and the world, in general, about what was going on behind closed doors. One valid comparison is with the ‘Pentagon Papers,’ which were released to the media by security analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, in 1970. They revealed the extent of US operations in Vietnam and Cambodia and exposed how the US administration had been lying. The ‘Pentagon Papers’ are often cited as one of the key signposts that sent US opinion down the road of opposing the Vietnam War.

Those were different times. Back then, and right up until less than a decade ago, governing powers tolerated a free press as a necessary evil in the functioning of a democracy.

Today, as the politics of populist authoritarianism spreads, the powerful are moving against the fourth estate. Why wouldn’t they? Social media provides a platform in which they can disseminate their message unmoderated, unanalysed, and without being fact-checked. Not only that, but the medium provides the means to attack the professional media and say that they are biased when they disseminate unfavourable information.

Holding power to account has never been as messy or difficult. Just observe US president, Donald Trump, creating, through Twitter, his own reality for his millions of followers. Or British prime minister, Boris Johnson, attempting to select which political reporters should be allowed cover his activities.

None of which is to suggest that the professional media is without fault, susceptible to group think, or, in some instances, too cosy with power to do its job properly. But without a functioning free press, democracy is sunk.

This is the milieu in which Assange is being persecuted. It helps those who want to lock him up for life that the man himself is not a sympathetic character. He has fallen out with many people who supported, or worked with, him along the way. His legal problems began in 2011, when two women in Sweden alleged he had sexually assaulted them when he was on a visit to the country. Assange claimed that it was a ruse to get him to Sweden, which has a more robust extradition treaty with the USA. So he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

He fell out with his hosts. After he was thrown out, last April, the Swedish authorities again examined the women’s claims and, notably, concluded that Assange didn’t have a case to answer.

Others, such as liberals, are lukewarm about Assange’s plight. Much of this is down to his role in the leaking of emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. To that extent, ironically, it could be claimed that he helped elect Trump, whose government is now pursuing him.

Assange is not necessarily a fitting advertisement for a free press or even for liberal democracy, at a time when it is increasingly under threat. But so what? His personal characteristics are entirely incidental to what his plight represents. If he is extradited, he will, in all likelihood, spend most, or all, of the remainder of his life in a US prison. That will serve as a warning to anybody else who happens across, or roots out, classified information and publishes it in the public interest.

What is worrying is the apparent lack of interest shown by the media and by the political elements that consider themselves to be defenders of liberal democracy.

Assange’s controversial past would appear to have blinded many to the danger that the campaign against him represents. That’s a good result for those who covet a new era of accountability in which a free press is an optional extra.

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