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“In Defense of Julian Assange”: Why WikiLeaks Founder’s Case Threatens Press Freedom

StoryNovember 22, 2019
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This week Swedish prosecutors dropped an investigation into sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stemming from 2010. Assange, who has always denied the allegations, took refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for over seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden on the charges. British authorities dragged him out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in April, and he has since been jailed in London’s Belmarsh prison on charges related to skipping of bail in 2012, when he first entered the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over the now-dropped sexual assault charges. The United States is still seeking Assange’s extradition to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison on hacking charges and 17 counts of violating the World War I-era Espionage Act for his role in publishing U.S. classified military and diplomatic documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. A full extradition hearing will take place in February. We speak with the co-editors of the new book “In Defense of Julian Assange”: Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author and an editor of the New Left Review, and Margaret Ratner Kunstler, civil rights attorney in private practice.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the case of Julian Assange. We’re joined now by the co-editors of a new book. It’s called In Defense of Julian Assange. It’s a collection of essays by leading activists, journalists and whistleblowers who lay out the story of WikiLeaks and Assange and the need to defend attacks on journalism and the public’s right to know.

Tariq Ali joins us from London, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, editor of New Left Review. And here in New York, civil rights attorney Margaret Kunstler is with us.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tariq, let’s begin with you in London. You are not that far from the Belmarsh prison, where Julian Assange has been held since April, since police went in and took him out of the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had political asylum for over seven years. This past week, the Swedish government announced — I believe it’s for the third time — that they have ended their sexual assault investigation into Julian Assange. He was never charged, and he always denied the allegations. Can you talk about the significance of this development and then talk about what is happening with Julian Assange as he awaits whether Britain will agree to extradite him to the United States, where he faces well over a century in prison under the Espionage Act, that is rarely invoked in this country, that World War I-era law, Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, the situation in relation to the Swedes is quite peculiar. They have been at loggerheads amongst themselves as to whether to charge Julian with anything since this whole case began. When they first started off, the two female prosecutors disagreed. One said there’s no case to answer; the other pushed for an investigation. She won out. But every time Assange offered them to interview him, come and question him in London, they refused to do so.

And many of us close to Julian and defending him right from the beginning felt that there was something fishy, that they didn’t really have a case. And Julian, who gave us the whole account of his side of it, was absolutely convinced that the reason this was being done was to lock him up in a Swedish prison ’til the Americans were ready — the American government was ready to extradite him. He said there can be no other explanation.

And with the Swedes now dropping the case for the third time and saying it’s more or less over — and one reason they give for it being over, that the women concerned who made these allegations, it’s a long time since they made them, and, you know, they’re confused, they can’t remember — well, I will just point out that much literature on rape, written by women and men, says that the one thing a woman who has been raped never forgets is that particular event. She can forget many other things; she won’t forget that. So the fact that the women who charged him are now not prepared to come forward is an indication that something was wrong from the beginning.

In any case, what this has done is that for the first time since April, when Julian has been locked up in a top-security prison, Belmarsh, the liberal newspaper The Guardian has finally come out and defended him, using the fact that the charges have been dropped by the Swedes, and said he should not be extradited, that it would be an outrage if he was. All he did was publish information which The Guardian published in its pages, The New York Times published, El País published, Repubblica published in Italy. So it would be a severe attack on civil liberties. So, at long last, something is beginning to move on the mainstream front to defend Julian.

Now, basically, he should not be in prison at all. He was given a maximum sentence for not complying with the bail legalities. It’s very rare for anyone who’s done that to serve a full sentence. Anyway, that sentence was served ages ago. So why is he still being kept in a maximum-security prison? It is a vindictive punishment by the English judicial system, on the authority of the government, which obviously wants this, to satisfy and appease the United States and to punish Julian. I mean, they want him to be in this state that he is, as been described by the United Nations rapporteur a few minutes ago on this program. And they want to demoralize and destroy him. Otherwise, he showed even if he has to be in prison, which I don’t accept for a minute, he could be in an open prison where conditions are very different.

So, the English judicial system is behaving like an authoritarian system, it has to be said. One shouldn’t have any illusions about it. The judge, Lady Arbuthnot, who was supposed to be trying this case, is linked, we now know, to a whole number — her husband has got many, many dubious links to the American arms industry, etc. I don’t want to go into that in detail. It will probably come out. But more importantly, just a few days ago, she gave bail to two people from Asia, South Asia, who are accused of murder in their own countries, of having killed people, and their extradition has been demanded. She quite happily, without a care in the world, gave them bail. So, why keep Julian in prison and not grant him bail or move him to another prison? It’s an appalling situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there has also been other news that came out, that you referenced. In September, the Spanish newspaper El País revealed the CIA worked with a Spanish private security company to spy on Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had political asylum for over seven years. Ecuador had hired the firm, called Undercover Global SL, ostensibly to protect the embassy, but the firm reportedly also secretly handed over audio and video to the CIA of meetings Assange had with his lawyers, journalists, doctors and visitors. The firm installed secret video cameras inside the embassy, placed microphones in the embassy’s fire extinguishers, in the women’s bathroom. The head of the firm is now being investigated by Spain’s National Court, Tariq?

TARIQ ALI: Yeah, this is going on. El País published a very strong report, and there was a lot of anger in Spain, not just from the usual suspects. People were extremely angry that a Spanish firm had carried out illegal surveillance of Julian Assange. And not that he was particularly surprised. None of us are. One expects this to happen. But it still is shocking that it can happen so easily.

And this firm and its bosses are under assault now, in legal assault in Spain, and hopefully they will have to answer something or the other. But, I mean, the notion — I mean, that would make it clear what Julian — if anyone watches these things these people have filmed and recorded, all it would do, if a neutral person watched them, is to strengthen the case in defense of Julian Assange and say that he is basically what he is, a publisher and a journalist who publishes material that is sent to him, that he gets hold of — in order to do what? So that the public knows.

Because we live now in societies where governments either tell blatant lies or conceal stuff from their citizens, who they feel are best treated as children. “Not in front of the children.” Well, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the organization, broke with this and published everything. And incidentally, quite a lot of what they published showed that behind the scenes quite a few American diplomats were aware of what was going on and actually telling their government in Washington, “This has gone too far,” in relation to various things. So they come out quite well. So it’s not even the case that this material encouraged terrorism or any nonsense like that. It just provided any citizen anywhere in the world of a chance to have a look at what was really going on. And this has been Julian’s aim in life, actually — more recently, obviously — to do this.

And, Amy, I think we should be in no doubt that the reason they’re doing this — the British, the United States, etc. — is to make it — it’s a deterrent. It’s to tell any other people who publish unauthorized material, “Look, this is what happens. Look what happened to Julian Assange. We locked him up. We tortured him. We want to lock him up for life.” And the aim is to frighten people off. Of course it won’t work. It never works, because sooner or later someone will get upset by witnessing an atrocity, someone working for the government, and it will come out again. This is never prearranged, if someone like Snowden gets angry and reveals the information. So even as a deterrent, which is what their aim is, it isn’t going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I wanted to go to one of the most explosive documents that WikiLeaks revealed. I’m going back to 2010, when WikiLeaks published the shocking U.S. military video showing the indiscriminate targeting and killing of civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters employees, a journalist and his driver. They were killed in the attack along with eight other people, and two children were injured. At least eight people were killed.

The video was made July 12th, 2007, by a U.S. military Apache helicopter gunship. The video was taken from the gunship. They are focusing with a target down on the ground, and these two Reuters employees, the up-and-coming videographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, who was 22 years old, had a camera, as did his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40-year-old father of four. You hear the men, the soldiers laughing, calling back to base to see — they weren’t rogue — if they could get permission to open fire, which was granted. It is a chilling video, as they laugh and they curse and you see the men killed below.

So, at that time, Julian Assange was in the United States when this was released, and we talked to him in a studio in Washington, D.C. — this is well before he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy; this was April 2010 — about the video that they had called “Collateral Murder.”

JULIAN ASSANGE: When we first got it, we were told that it was important and that it showed the killing of journalists, but we didn’t have any other context. And we spent quite some months after breaking the decryption looking closely into this. And the more we looked, the more disturbing it became. This is a sequence which has a lot of detail. And I think, in some ways, it covers most of the bad aspects of the aerial war in Iraq and what we must be able to infer is going on in Afghanistan. … These are not bad apples. This is standard practice. You can hear it from the tones of the voices of the pilots that this is in fact another day at the office. These pilots have evidently and gunners have evidently become so corrupted, morally corrupted, by the war, that they are looking for excuses to kill.

AMY GOODMAN: So, yes, that’s Julian Assange in the United States after this video “Collateral Murder” was released. We’re joined by Tariq Ali in London and Margaret Kunstler here in New York. Together, they co-edited the new book In Defense of Julian Assange. Margaret, you are a human rights lawyer. Talk about why you’ve released this book at this point and the significance of what we just saw, the video showing the killing. You know, Reuters, after Namir and Saeed were killed by the U.S. military, they demanded of the military to give them evidence of what had happened, and the military did not release this video, even admit that they had it. This brings in Chelsea Manning.


AMY GOODMAN: And it brings in — who is in jail still, although he’s — this brings in Chelsea Manning, who was let out of jail after seven years, but then now she’s back in jail in another but related case.

MARGARET KUNSTLER: Well, it’s closely related, in fact. And Chelsea Manning’s release of that, sending that material to Julian Assange, was prompted by the Reuters request for it. She had heard that Reuters was after it, so she looked for it. And she wanted to help and explain what happened. Then she was so shocked —

AMY GOODMAN: And she was an intelligence officer in Iraq.

MARGARET KUNSTLER: She was an intelligence officer in Iraq. And she was so shocked when she saw it that she couldn’t help but send it on. Of course, she tried to send it on to other sources, to The New York Times and to other news places, but Julian took it and released it, as you can see.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why you have edited this volume now, In Defense of Julian Assange?

MARGARET KUNSTLER: Well, there’s been so much distraction from what the real — what is really at stake here, that we felt that if we put out enough information about what in fact was happening, what was the threat to Julian and the threat to the Constitution, the First Amendment in this country, that people would come back and understand it and get together and fight against this, because that’s the only way that this is going to come — that Julian will not be brought to this country, will not be jailed for the rest of his life, and the First Amendment will still exist.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what’s happening. He’s in jail right now. He faces 175 years in prison if he is extradited to the United States for espionage?

MARGARET KUNSTLER: That’s correct. There are 17 charges that cover espionage in this indictment. This is the first time that a reporter has ever been charged with espionage. And that is because the press and reporters have always been held up as the most important and only way to reveal what is happening in government. And so far, it has never happened before. The espionage charge is not meant to cover this kind of activity, and the espionage charges in this indictment are in fact a violation of the First Amendment. Perhaps I could read —

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 10 seconds, but if you can —

MARGARET KUNSTLER: I’ll try to read very quickly. This is from Hugo Black’s concurrence in The New York Times case, in the Pentagon case. “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bear the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free [and] unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

AMY GOODMAN: And those are the words of Justice Hugo Black. I want to thank you, Margaret Kunstler and Tariq Ali, co-editors of the new book In Defense of Julian Assange. I’m Amy Goodman. Tonight we’ll be with Juan González at the People’s Forum in New York.

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