This past Sunday, June 19, Julian Assange began his fifth year inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum from the United States in 2012. The date was marked with simultaneous worldwide events—with 60 prominent supporters, including Noam Chomsky, Ai Wei Wei, Patti Smith, and Michael Moore, demanding Assange’s release. The theme of the day was “First They Came for Assange,” an allusion to Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem warning of the dangers of staying silent in the face of rising state repression.
“All who care about freedom of information should demand that the threats made against Julian should be lifted,” said British filmmaker Ken Loach, who was among the participants. “He should be able to leave his place of safety without fear of deportation or being handed over to those who intend him harm.”
Assange’s ordeal continues despite the fact that on February 5, the United Nations’s highest authority on detention, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), found that Assange was being arbitrarily and illegally detained. The WGAD held that Assange’s confinement is a result of the United Kingdom and Sweden’s failure to honor his right to asylum and fear of persecution by the US government.
It is telling that Sweden and the United Kingdom refuse to respect the WGAD process—one they chose to participate in, and one they helped create. Even though the United Kingdom has since changed its law to block extraditions in cases like Assange’s, he faces extradition to Sweden, where he has not been charged with a crime—and where he would likely be given a one-way ticket to a US prison. His fate would almost certainly be a lifetime in solitary confinement.
The US government has fought tooth and nail to keep every shred of paper about its WikiLeaks case secret (in 2012, the FBI file was over 42,000 pages). Both the Justice Department and FBI, for instance, have litigated to crush freedom-of-information lawsuits related to the case: one seeking to shed light on surveillance of WikiLeaks supporters, the other by alleged WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning for the FBI file relating to her now-concluded court-martial.
Nonetheless, what is known about the United States’s attempt to build a case against Assange and WikiLeaks is serious, sinister, and frightening. It includes a grand jury that was secretly impaneled in Alexandria, Virginia; invasive searches of WikiLeaks staff; surveillance of WikiLeaks supporters; and coordinated attempts to discredit, bankrupt, and destroy the publisher. So much for the First Amendment.