Police sirens, an opened door, a step out of the flat that had been an abode and a prison for 6-years-9 months-23 days—freedom at last?
Julian Assange was under no such false impression as the British police dragged him out of the Ecuadorian embassy to the Category-A London prison, Belmarsh. U.K’s own Guantanamo, the maximum-security prison was only the next in a long list of persecutions faced by the world-renowned journalist.
As founder and editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, Julian Assange published documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars, countless cables, and leaks of the American government in what is famously called the cable gate on the site. Since its inception in 2006, the leaks published on the site not only revealed the war crimes committed by the military but also implicated its intelligence agencies in espionage and compromising governments and world leaders for geopolitical gains.
In the hugest information leak in American history, the war logs and classified documents were revealed to Wikileaks by an American military analyst, Chelsea Manning. The intention of publishing the leaks, Manning said, was to expose the abuses of human rights and breaches of international law and to inform the American public of the ruthless wars its military actively waged in other countries.
The Times, Washington Post, and media outlets world over published reports and articles containing data published by Wikileaks. Julian Assange was hailed as the voice for democracy, free speech, and the right to information. He earned many accolades and honors for his unmatched contribution to Journalism in modern history.
So, how does Julian Assange go from publishing over 1.7 million documents to possibly facing 175 years in prison? How does an internationally accredited journalist get labeled as a mere hacker by the media?
The CIA had already been building a case against Assange and Wikileaks. In 2010, upon his visit to Sweden, he was accused of committing sexual assault. The allegations were proven false, and the case was closed after further investigation. After his subsequent return to London and publishing more cables, the Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant against Assange. The British authorities obliged and arrested him, later releasing him on bail. The British courts ruled in favor of the extradition. A man with no charges against him was to be extradited to Sweden and face the law. Simply put, this was a political witch hunt.
In 2012, his legal team applied for political asylum in Ecuador when it became clear the authorities were persecuting Assange. He was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy located in London. Any step out of the embassy would be under British jurisdiction. Julian was confined to the tiny space of the embassy for almost 7-years which markedly deteriorated his mental and physical health. The security team at the embassy was secretly working with the CIA and spying on all of his meetings. There was an assassination attempt, DNA stolen from his 6-month-old son, and a constant invasion of his privacy.
In 2019, the asylum granted to Assange was suspended under the new government in Ecuador. British police barged into the embassy and dragged Julian to the HMP Belmarsh, where he is imprisoned, to this day. The allegations against Assange, contained within an official indictment, accused Assange of 17 counts under the Espionage act.
Julian and his lawyers appealed against the charges at the district-level court and won the trial. The U.S government appealed the decision to a higher court in 2021.
The charges under the Espionage Act are in direct contradiction with the First Amendment, which protects press freedom and freedom of speech. The lawsuit against WikiLeaks’ founder sets a dangerous precedent, as any journalist can now be prosecuted for publishing news obtained from whistleblowers and informers.
One of the political claims is that the release of documents by Wikileaks has led to threats to national security and put diplomats in danger. The Information Task Force set up by the Pentagon found no individual harmed due to the leaks. Wikileaks under the editorship of Assange had redacted and withheld documents that could do so.
There has been a relentless smear campaign against Assange that has wrongly portrayed him as a hacker and as someone acting out of personal interest. The first indictment charged Assange with one count of Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion. The key witness who made these claims against Assange revealed in the high court trial that he had fabricated the evidence in exchange for sureties from the US authorities. In the same trial, an expert on computers, Dr. Christian Grothoff testified that there had been no hacking in publishing the leaks. In Belmarsh, a special rapporteur from the United Nations—consisting of two medical experts in psychology—visited Assange to assess his state and concluded that he was a victim of intense psychological torture and was at a high risk of suicide if extradited to the U.S
Julian Assange faces not just violations of his human rights, but also the criminalization of journalism. Justice is on trial. Not a single war criminal exposed by Wikileaks is standing trial. Instead, it is the ones who exposed them facing the law. The focus has shifted to Assange and not the truth he brought to light; this has always been the aim of the governments that relentlessly persecute him.
The human rights watch, the International Federation of Journalists, and several people stand in solidarity with Assange. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower is serving a 35 years sentence in the U.S for having leaked the documents. Julian Assange faces 175 years for publishing the same.
On 17 June 2022, U.K’s home secretary, Priti Patel, approved the extradition of Assange. He now faces solitary confinement in ADX prison for 175 years. In August, his legal team filed an appeal against the decision. The appeal might not go through, and Assange may never get justice. This is an affront to free speech and democracy around the world.
In a world where looking away from the truth is easier, the question remains: Who watches the Watchmen?
– The phrase— “Who Watches the Watchmen” originates from the Latin “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, which translates to, who will guard the guards?