JULIAN ASSANGE: There can be no Western dissidents!

by rahnuma ahmed

ALL HELL broke loose when Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week to seek refuge. Initially, there was chaos and confusion, but the underlying emotion was distinctly identifiable. One of anger. Of seething, boiling rage.

Julian Assange who, despite winning most reader votes in Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year poll, was edged out by Mark Zuckerburg, the billionaire CEO of Facebook.

Since then, the Western media, part of the Western establishment (or, the war-monger’s club), has gone into overdrive to establish what Sami Ramadani calls the “logical”  mainstream argument, which is repeated ad infinitum until a general acceptance has been secured. All others who suggest or claim otherwise are boxed as the “fringe,” given airtime once every ten-days-or-so, a ritualistic overture necessary to keep alive the illusion of democracy in the capitalist neo-liberal West. Clever overtures, since these, simultaneously, fix counter-arguments as being based not in equally credible oppositional stances but as being “the” fringe. However, the fringe, thanks to the internet, are raising powerful questions about Assange and Western dissidence, which the establishment media, and other ruling western apparatuses including human rights organisations, are choosing to ignore. Imperiously so.
Assange, being an Australian, does not fit into the Western discourse on dissidence — what constitutes dissidence, where does it occur and why, who dissents against who. He can not be fitted into that discourse because it would upset the global ruling order. It would call into question the very logic, and the intent, of the discourse. It would be a self-defeating exercise, laying bare who has the exclusive authority to define “dissidence.” It would lead us to think critically about “legitimate” as opposed to “illegitimate” dissent, albeit, in the eyes of Western rulers. It would, in other words, help steer our attention towards the politics of dissidence.
The writers of a 2010 Foreign Policy article, “The World’s Top Dissidents,” superbly convey the Western ruling class’ geographics of dissidence.  Dissidents exist the world over, we are told, “from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, China to Peru.” Innocuous on its surface, it fixes the geography (and the politics) of dissidence: the West vs. the rest.
Dissidents work tirelessly, the authors inform us, to establish “democracy, women’s rights, freedom of the press, the rule of law” — in the rest of the world, not, presumably in the West, since these rights and liberties are firmly established in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand (the white world).
The list does not include, as someone who has posted her/his comments to the FP article on its website points out, Palestinian dissidents to Israeli occupation and the collective punishment of the people of Gaza, someone of the likes of Mustapha Barghouti, an “internationally recognized non-violent human rights advocate.”
However, it does include Dr Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize (now in self-exile), who has, since, called for an expansion and deepening of international sanctions against Iran (Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2011). But sanctions, as the Iranian feminist collective Raha point out, has already made life for the majority of Iranians “increasingly unbearable.”  They have helped to erode living standards and the hope for a viable future. Western rulers, by dressing up sanctions as being an alternative to war, are “duplicitous,” says Raha, since imposing sanctions, in effect, are the pursuit of war through “other means” (Jadaliyya, May 14, 2012). And women, as we know, are the worst affected when life becomes unbearable.
The logical mainstream argument concerning Assange, as it unfolds, is centred around three things: (a) he is avoiding extradition to Sweden where (b) he has been charged with rape allegations and is (c) seeking political asylum in Ecuador, notorious for crackdowns on free speech.
That there is another side to the story, is at best, rapidly skimmed over, at worst, suppressed.
The suppression is accompanied by derogatory language, Assange is “holed” up in the Embassy, he’s a “coward,” he won’t face his day in court;  it is packaged in human-rights language towards Ecuador, it has a “dubious human rights record,” Ecuador’s “free speech” record is at odds  with Assange’s bid for openness, Assange’s choice is therefore “odd” and “bizarre.” Language never used in the case of dissidents considered to be legitimate ones by the West. For instance, Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident (imprisoned for four years for speaking out against forced abortions and sterilisation of women) is spoken of respectfully: Chen sought “refuge” in the US Embassy in Beijing, he “pulled off an amazing feat with his daring escape” from house arrest (interestingly enough, US Embassy officials had assisted him). Chen’s feelings towards those who offered him refuge are also spoken of respectfully: according to press reports, Chen had told Hillary Clinton, “I want to kiss you.”
Assange’s side of the story regarding having gone to the Ecuadorean embassy to “avoid” extradition for questioning — is worth telling for he categorically denies that it is as simple as that:
— the Swedish Government [had announced] that I would be detained, without charge, in Sweden, immediately on extradition. They tried to cancel the 14 days that I had [in Britain] to apply to appeal the matter at the European Court of Human Rights. So my opportunity to exercise my asylum rights in the United States was at an end.
— The situation here for me in the UK is extremely, has been extremely precarious…the Swedish prosecutor [has refused] to come to the UK for the past 18 months, despite that being absolutely normal procedure, [she has refused to] explain it in any matter whatsoever to the British court, [this situation] has kept me trapped in the United Kingdom while the United States has prepared a case against me… [If the Swedish prosecutor’s] intent is really to proceed with the technical requirements of this case, she is perfectly entitled to come to Embassy, the Ecuadorians have said she could come to the Embassy, she could pick up the telephone, like she could’ve picked up the telephone for the past 18 months, if that’s really what she is interested in.
— We now have intelligence, public record, that the FBI file in its case preparation now runs to 48,135 pages… My ability to exercise an asylum right would be at an end, and even to exercise rights of appeal, would be at an effective end because the Swedes announced publicly that they would detain me, in prison, without charge, while they continued their so-called investigation, without charge. ..
According to global intelligence company Stratfor’s leaked e-mail (dated January 26, 2011), a sealed indictment has been issued by a secret grand jury in Virginia, which means that a sealed extradition order, more than a year old, will be activated (unsealed) against Assange in Sweden, Australia and the UK when the US government gives the order.
Swedish allegations against Assange, often hurriedly presented as “rape” — for instance, according to a CNN report (June 21, 2012), “The British supreme court rejected Assange’s appeal seeking to prevent his scheduled July 7 extradition to Sweden for questioning on rape and sexual molestation allegations” — need to be treated with caution too. For, as acclaimed feminist author Naomi Wolf pointed out acerbically,
Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven. In terms of a case involving the kinds of ambiguities and complexities of the alleged victims’ complaints — sex that began consensually that allegedly became non-consensual when dispute arose around a condom — please find me, anywhere in the world, another man in prison today without bail on charges of anything comparable.
Of course ‘No means No’, even after consent has been given, whether you are male or female; and of course condoms should always be used if agreed upon. As my fifteen-year-old would say: Duh.
But for all the tens of thousands of women who have been kidnapped and raped, raped at gunpoint, gang-raped, raped with sharp objects, beaten and raped, raped as children, raped by acquaintances
— who are still awaiting the least whisper of justice — the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation is a slap in the face. It seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.
Wolf points out other incongruencies as well: police never pursue cases in which there is no indication of a lack of consent, police do not let two women report an accusation about one man together, police never take testimony from former boyfriends, prosecutors never let two alleged victims have the same lawyer, a lawyer never typically takes on two alleged rape victims as clients, a rape victim never uses a corporate attorney, a rape victim is never encouraged to make any kind of contact with her assailant and she may never use police to compel her alleged assailant to take medical tests, police and prosecutors never leak police transcripts during an active investigation because they face punishment for doing so (Something Rotten in the State of Sweden: 8 Big Problems with the ?Case? Against Assange, February 11, 2011).
While Wolf has been castigated by some feminists for having, what has been described as rushed to Assange’s “defense, I myself have not come across convincing explanations/ refutations of the incongruencies she mentions above.
If Wikileaks had not published gunsight footage of those killed by an Apache helicopter (Baghdad, July 12, 2007), if it had not released Afghan War Diary (over 91,000 documents), Iraq War Logs (400,000 documents), if it had not released US State Department diplomatic cables etc., etc., would the “highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain” occurred? Would Assange have been held in “solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned”?
Assange and his supporters worldwide speak of a “campaign of misinformation,” of the investigation being “politically motivated,” and, given the US administration’s response to rape allegations at Abu Ghuraib prison in Iraq (of which photographic evidence exists, but which has been suppressed), it is hard to take the case against Assange at face value. Unless, Western media were to concede that Iraqi rapes mattered less than Swedish ones.
Assange’s supporters have not forgetten to mention either that Sweden has violated international treaties in the recent past, that it rendered two refugees to the CIA who were then taken to Egypt and tortured there while Hosni Mubarak was in power.
Ecuador is notorious for crackdowns on free speech, there is another side to this story, as well. As Rafael Correa explained in his RT Today interview to Assange, corporate media in Ecuador is powerful. It has economic, social and above all informational power, which is probably much greater than political power. The largely privately-owned Ecuadorian media is dedicated to defending private interests, that of the bankers who own the media; they do not lend support to government initiatives undertaken in the interests of the “great majority” of Ecuadorians. What Western “free speech” denouncements of Ecuador fail to mention, is that the Ecuadorian press didn’t publish those WikiLeaks revelations which exposed the media’s “dirty linen” (dispute between TC Television and Teleamazonas, owned by two rival groups of banks). That the exercise of free speech is selective, it “feels free to criticise the government but not a fugitive banker.”
Bloggers have noted that organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty appear to be dismissive of the threats faced by Assange. For instance, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted on 21/06/2012 15:44, “Odd that free-speech advocate Assange would seek asylum with #Ecuador, known under Pres Correa for suppressing speech.” No regard for very public threats pronounced by Western politicians and media personalities:
“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.” Sarah Palin, former US Vice Presidential Candidate.
“A dead man can’t leak stuff…This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I’m not for the death penalty, so…there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a b###h.” Bob Beckel, FOX News commentator.
“I think Assange should be assassinated, actually. (laughs) I think Obama should put out a contract or use a drone or something. I wouldn’t feel happy, uh, unhappy, if Assange disappeared. Thomas Flanagan, former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list. G. Gordon Liddy, former White House Adviser, talk show host.
What if similar utterances had been made in China? Or, Iran?
More intriguing is why human rights organisations such as Amnesty and HRW do not think that Ecuador, having closed down the US military base at Manta, is an eminently suitable place for free speech advocates and defenders of democracy. Human rights organisations would per se be against militarisation, no? Would be happy that at least one of the 737 officially acknowledged US military bases had been shut down, that it was a step in the direction of world peace.
The FP article which I mentioned earlier, notes that dissidents often pay a price for their work in the form of “surveillance, kidnappings, beatings, assassinations, arrests, and torture.”
With president Obama having been dubbed  the “assassin-in-chief” for his Secret Kill List — nominating terrorist suspects for assassination via remotely piloted drones — maybe it is high time that the West acknowledged that it too has, should have, and rightly so, dissidents?  For, not all of us are really keen to kiss Ms. Hillary Clinton.
Published in New Age, Monday, June 25, 2012

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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