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Why we should care about Julian Assange? Because next time they come for us...

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 31 May 2019


Wikileaks co-founder, Julian Assange, in 2010 published information provided to him by then-US Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning that comprised nearly 750,000 classified, or unclassified but sensitive, military and diplomatic documents.

Among those documents was a collateral murder film clip that showed US Apache helicopters killing people in Iraq including two local Reuters news agency employees, exposing a US military cover-up. The military had claimed that the helicopters were responding to an active firefight and that all killed were insurgents. The film clip showed otherwise: that a war crime was committed.

Manning, who later claimed a transgender identity and made a name-change, to Chelsea, was jailed for 35 years for transmitting the information to Wikileaks, eventually serving seven years before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. Julian Assange spent almost eight years cooped up in the Ecuador Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape purportedly committed during a visit in 2010.

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This April, the Ecuadorian government rescinded Assange's asylum, stripped him of his Ecuadorian citizenship and invited the London Metropolitan Police to forcibly remove him from the embassy. Soon after, Assange was found guilty of skipping bail when fighting the Swedish extradition application and sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment in the UK, where he is now housed in solitary confinement at HM Prison Belmarsh.

On the day of Assange's arrest in London, the US charged him with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion by allegedly having attempted to crack a password so that Chelsea Manning could search for more classified information using a different username. Chelsea Manning is also now back in prison for refusing to give evidence before a grand jury against Assange, something that made up part of the charges she was convicted of in 2011.

Over the past few days Assange has been further indicted with 17 more charges under the US Espionage Act, with penalties which could see him spending the rest of his life in a US prison should he be expedited. Swedish prosecutors have also reopened the investigation of Assange for rape and are preparing another request for extradition to Sweden.

Assange has been painted as an arrogant, narcissistic sexual predator and a threat to 'national security' by politicians, the media and even close associates. He was portrayed as an egotistical, unsociable and un-empathetic person in the film made about him, "The Fifth Estate," and most of this film is apparently true.

However, it's not Julian Assange's manner, personality, or social behaviour that should be of concern here. It's our future freedoms and right to know that are at stake in a world that is becoming less transparent and more totalitarian.

There are two major issues of concern. The first is about how whistle-blowers are treated by governments. The second is the future consequences to our rights and freedoms of what is happening to Assange.

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The Trump administration's use of the Espionage Act, which dates back to the First World War, is alarming. The Espionage Act is backdoor censorship to keep information about government secret, especially embarrassing information. It seeks to circumvent the US First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press as a pillar of democratic and transparent government. The government is the entity that defines what is seditious, and public interest is not a defence under the Espionage Act.

The US government has never charged a single journalist with obtaining or publishing classified information in the 100 years since the Espionage Act became law – notably, for instance, during the New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The use of the Espionage Act thus awakens concerns among journalists and news organizations that the Trump administration is opening a new front against the journalism profession, which Trump has branded the enemy of the American people.

Equally worrying, by using the Espionage Act to go after a foreign national – Assange is an Australian – the administration is making US law another weapon in its arsenal. Assange is not a US citizen and did not commit any offense on US soil. The US assumption of global legal sovereignty has not been resisted by any government. The power of the US to catch whistle-blowers and muzzle the press is gradually increasing.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Sentinel.



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Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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