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Assange: what it means to be a suspect

By Max Atkinson - posted Thursday, 30 December 2010

If you google "rape" with "Assange", you get several million hits, which suggests the Wikileaks founder has reason to complain that the criminal charges have damaged his reputation. But there is no evidence to support his further claim that the US, angry at the disclosures, has pressured Swedish authorities to revive a case they had earlier dismissed. Whatever the facts, many people will be concerned lest this drama distract attention from the ongoing revelations, including recent claims that India has tortured thousands of Kashmiri detainees.

Speculation has increased since the disclosure of the nature of the charges, the identity of the two complainants, and the factual allegations on which the rape and assault charges were based. The first summary, reportedly leaked from Swedish prosecution files, appeared in The Times of India over three weeks ago. This was followed by a Reuters summary publicized by MSNBC, which was in turn followed by the recent and highly detailed disclosures by the UK Guardian and the New York Times.

Aware that many readers might feel this information was gratuitous, and likely to prejudice the defence case, the Guardian published an editorial to justify its decision. It did not convince Assange's lawyers, who were understandably upset at the publicity given to sordid details of allegations they must now respond to, from persons whose testimony they have had no chance to cross-examine.


While the internet will continue to rake over these matters, there is no evidence to support the claims of a conspiracy theory involving US secret agents, despite the US having both the means and motive. The known facts suggest that these are mature and intelligent women, generally supportive of the Wikileaks project, but deeply offended by Assange's behaviour. What he did and whether it was a criminal offence under the law of Sweden are, of course, the issues to be resolved.

There is, however, an imbalance in the media treatment which is not altogether the fault of journalists. No one can deny that, in the eyes of the law, Assange is a "rape suspect"; but it is also true that, in the media vernacular and since 9:11, this description has a more sinister connotation. For in recent years the analogous phrase "terrorist suspect" has come to describe a person who is almost certainly a terrorist, waiting only to be legally processed in order to receive his just desserts.

This is, at least, the case where charges are made by senior public officials and repeated without question and endlessly by the press. How else to explain a widespread media acquiescence over the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, described as "the worst of the worst" by the head of the US Chiefs of Staff, the most authoritative spokesman for the Pentagon, and regularly paraded in a way meant to reinforce this claim, with blacked out goggles, gloves and earmuffs to cut off all sensory experience, and wheeled about strapped to a mediaeval trundle, like Hannibal Lecter.

We now know (mainly from the remarkable Seton Hall studies by law professor Mark Denbeaux, based entirely on US Government sources, most secured under FOI legislation) that almost all were Afghan and Pakistani peasants, many of them Taliban conscripts, and that only 5% were captured on the battlefield by US forces.

The rest were sold for rewards of between one and five thousand dollars by Northern Alliance warlords and their Pakistani allies. Given the then recent and savage civil war between warlords and the Taliban, this process was always suspect and it is not surprising that of the original 770 detainees, most held and interrogated for years, only two have been convicted of an offence and one (Hicks) confessed.

An example of this disinformation program is the fate of the Uighurs, twenty-two Turkic-speaking Muslims from Xianjiang in the arid regions of Western China. Refugees from a repressive Chinese policy to stamp out ethnic political aspirations, they were also taken prisoner in Afghanistan.


Although their only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time the Bush Administration, with the help of the media, has so far poisoned public opinion that it is now politically impossible to resettle them in America, forcing the Obama Administration to plead with various nations to afford them asylum. It took the Pentagon seven years to admit they were never "enemy combatants" or terrorists.

The implications of being an official suspect are profound when foreign policy is used to justify the use of lethal force, and perhaps the best known example is the use of the phrase "suspected militant" to justify the deaths of increasing numbers of civilians in aerial drone attacks in North West Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan (before President Obama instructed General McChrystal to tighten the rules of engagement, the kill ratio was as high as 1:10).

The media, especially the "embedded" media, does not question the decision to bomb, not just because it lacks any military qualification to judge the risk, but because it does not know what the rules of engagement permit. This is apart from the problem of access to interviews and information from those responsible for drafting and applying these rules. In practice this allows the attribution of suspected militant status to justify ongoing collateral damage in the killing and maiming of women, children and old men in increasingly desperate efforts to target more local Taliban leaders.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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