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Tariq Ali: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange Must Not Be Extradited for Exposing War Crimes in Afghanistan

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As an appeals court in London is deciding whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes, we go to London to speak with British writer and activist Tariq Ali. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison in the U.S. under the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ali calls the case “a political trial” and a “punitive attempt by the British government … to try and punish Julian on behalf of the United States.” We also discuss the significance of WikiLeaks revelations in exposing U.S. drone strikes, civilian deaths, torture and other abuses committed in Afghanistan, which Ali examines in his new book, “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today going to London. Lawyers representing the Biden administration are back in a London courtroom seeking the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The U.S. is appealing a ruling by a British judge who blocked Assange’s extradition in January, saying he would not be safe in a U.S. prison due to his deteriorating mental state and that he would be at high risk of committing suicide. Assange faces up to 175 years in prison in the U.S. under the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange has been jailed in England for two-and-a-half years. Before that, he spent over seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been granted political asylum.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the United States questioned the testimony of the psychiatrist who said Assange was a suicide risk. The U.S. also offered some assurances about how Julian Assange would be treated if he was extradited. Lawyers said he also could serve his prison time in his native Australia if convicted by a U.S. court. The hearing comes just weeks after Yahoo News revealed the CIA had considered assassinating or kidnapping Assange.

On Wednesday, Julian Assange watched some of the extradition hearing by video link, but his partner Stella Moris says he has not been feeling well. She spoke outside the London courtroom Wednesday before the extradition hearing began.

STELLA MORIS: I’m very concerned for Julian’s health. I saw him on Saturday. He’s very thin. And I hope that the court will end this nightmare, that Julian is able to come home soon and that wise heads prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: Stella Moris is the mother of two of Julian Assange’s children. She also repeated her call for Assange to be freed.

STELLA MORIS:Julian should never be extradited, because he was doing his job as a journalist. He’s being criminalized as a journalist. And the U.S. has abused the laws, the agreements with this country. It’s abusing the extradition agreements with this country in order to have this hearing today. This has to come to an end. Julian has to be freed.

AMY GOODMAN: Calls for Julian Assange to be freed are growing. Earlier this month, 25 civil society groups wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding extradition proceedings be dropped. The groups include Amnesty International, the ACLU, Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Freedom Foundation. As the hearing got underway Wednesday, the International Federation of Journalists, representing more than half a million reporters worldwide, ran a full-page advertisement in the print edition of The Times of London that said, “Media freedom is suffering lasting damage by the continued prosecution of Julian Assange.”

We go now to London, where we’re joined by Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, and editor of the New Left Review. He’s co-editor of the 2019 book In Defense of Julian Assange. Tariq has a new book coming out soon titled The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tariq.

TARIQ ALI: Hi there, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You served on the Belmarsh Tribunal around the case of Julian Assange last weekend, which was modeled on the Bertrand Russell Tribunal around the Vietnam War in the 1960s, which you also served on. We want to talk extensively about Afghanistan, but that links directly to Julian Assange for what he is charged with releasing, among other things, the Iraq War Logs and the Afghanistan War Diary, the thousands upon thousands of documents of what the U.S. did in Afghanistan for decades. Can you talk about the significance of this hearing, if this is being raised in these two days?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, as you already pointed out, today is the second day of this trial. We think it will come to an end today. The defense is putting its arguments forward today, and their line is very clear: A, that this is a political trial, which is not allowed by British law. We are also going to hear that Julian’s health is as bad as he says and that he is in no fit condition to be in prison, leave alone be extradited to the United States.

Effectively, what is taking place is a punitive attempt by the British government — I have to say this — to try and punish Julian on behalf of the United States. No British court could convict Julian or allow him to be extradited under existing laws. And therefore, there is still a hope that if the High Court decides in a few months’ time not to support the U.S. appeal for extradition, the Supreme Court here will take no more appeals. There is also a hope that the Biden government will accept this ruling, if it takes place. If the High Court, listening to the case, even as we speak, decides that Julian should be extradited, we will immediately appeal to the Supreme Court, which means it will be delayed. But the fact that Julian is being kept in a top-security prison, Belmarsh, which is hell, where his health is deteriorating, is an absolute scandal. If he is to be kept in prison at all, it should be in a low-grade prison, as they put lots of corporate criminals in when they’re charged with huge financial crimes. Why Julian should be in this prison is just vindictiveness. There is no other way to describe it. And this government and its home secretary should be ashamed of themselves, because that is where the orders come from.

Now, what Julian has done is what others have done before. It was done during the Vietnam era, as we know. It was done most recently by Edward Snowden. Releasing secrets in the public interest, that is all he did. There’s nothing he put out that is illegal, that threatens anyone. He just put out documents, handed to him by Chelsea Manning, revealing and exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. Apart from that, WikiLeaks have published documents made available to it, which are perfectly legal documents but just denied to the public. It’s as if to say the public, the citizens of the United States and the rest of the world, are children, and “not in front of the children.” We commit crimes, but not in front of the children. But the children know. And when the children are told and given more information, there’s complete panic.

They assume that what is going to happen is Julian will be sentenced, effectively, to death, if he’s extradited to the United States. I don’t believe a word American lawyers are — lawyers defending the United States are saying in the High Court. They can make all sorts of promises. The CIA, the U.S. secret state can override these promises whenever they want, quite legally. They have the right to do so. So, no one is believing anything that has been said.

And the punishment of Julian Assange is designed to stop others from doing the same. That never works. Deterrent never works, as the U.S. should already have realized from its capital punishment programs. And it’s not going to work in this case. As the Snowden case reveals, what happens is someone innocent, working for one of these agencies or in the Army, as in the case of Chelsea Manning, reads something or witnesses something that is so horrific that it is against their conscience to keep silent. And this decision by them to go public, no one has — it’s not preordained. It’s not a conspiracy. They have been shocked by what they have seen. That is the case of Julian Assange. It will not stop it by punishing him. It will happen again and again, as long as these crimes keep being committed. Instead of trying those who have committed these crimes, they are targeting the messenger who broke news that these crimes are happening, in every single war that has been waged since 9/11, six wars in total.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tariq, can I ask you specifically about one of the arguments that U.S. lawyers made in the British High Court, saying that Julian, if he is convicted, could serve his sentence in Australia? Now, Australia has not accepted that, and any trial that happens in the U.S. may take up to 10 years. But how significant do you think that is? I mean, you’ve said that it could be overturned, but do you think this will alter the perception of the arguments against extradition?

TARIQ ALI: Well, it would be very — it would be a very foolish British judge, and a dishonest one — I will say that, a dishonest one — to accept that argument. Basically, what is being proposed is Julian’s extradition to the United States, for which there is no basis at all. What U.S. lawyers are saying in court, you know, it will disappear very rapidly if Julian is extradited. I mean, the Australians won’t accept him. By the time the decision is made, even if it is made, which I don’t believe, Julian could well be lying dead in a U.S. prison cell. His health is not good, as everyone who’s seen him has testified. So, I don’t believe a word of this. And in any case, it’s unacceptable. He shouldn’t be extradited anywhere. He should be released immediately.

And if Biden actually — you know, he’s withdrawn from Afghanistan, which we’ll discuss in a minute, but dropping these charges against Assange, the White House will be doing a huge favor to the freedom of the press and the freedom of journalists to publish what they please. And this affects even programs like Democracy Now! If someone walked into your offices with a file exposing some horrific crime taking place in Somalia or Yemen or wherever, I hope you would go public with it. You could all be arrested and charged, if Julian goes down in this case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Tariq, let’s go to the significance, the details of what WikiLeaks exposed about the War in Afghanistan. We’re going back to 2010, Julian speaking to Channel 4 about the Afghan War Logs.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It is the most comprehensive history of a war to have ever been published during the course of a war.

STEPHEN GREY: And how significant is that?

JULIAN ASSANGE: There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent disclosure made during the course of a war, during a time where it might have some effect. The nearest equivalent is perhaps the Pentagon Papers release by Daniel Ellsberg in the ’70s. That was about 10,000 pages, that already that was about four years old by the time it was released.

STEPHEN GREY: And how many pages in your report?

JULIAN ASSANGE: There’s about 200,000 pages in this material. Pentagon Papers was about 10,000 pages.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Julian speaking in 2010 to Channel 4. Now, the Afghan War Logs provided a devastating portrait of the War in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents at the time, how a secret black ops Special Forces unit was hunting down targets for assassination or detention without trial, and how Taliban attacks had soared and Pakistan was fueling the insurgency. Tariq, talk about the significance of these revelations at the time in 2010.

TARIQ ALI: Well, what they showed, Nermeen, was that the war was going badly as early as 2010, early — I mean, 10 years or nine years into the war. But they were not winning the war at all, which was the impression being given to people at home. I mean, the propaganda of the government, of all the U.S. governments involved in this war, has been — after the Iraq War turned out to be a total disaster, we were told that, OK, the Iraq War admittedly has gone bad, etc., etc., it was Bush, this, that and the other, but the Afghan War is a good war. That’s what Obama said. I hold Obama mainly responsible for the escalation of the War in Afghanistan and the killings that have taken place. Bush did Iraq. Obama really escalated in Afghanistan. And Biden had no option but to withdraw.

But the point being made is the war logs revealed that there was no way the United States could win the war, because when you treat an occupied population in the way they did — there were lots of little incidents reported. I remember at the time, and before, in the Pakistani press, a wedding bombed, all the wedding guests and lots of children killed; huge civilian casualties in some parts of the country. And they carried on doing this, thinking that this is the way to pacify a country, not learning anything from what had happened in Vietnam and other parts of the world where they had suffered huge setbacks.

And the small senior people in the U.S. administration, in the Defense Intelligence Agency, in the Pentagon, had absolutely no doubt that the war was going badly. Once you realize that, then you have to make a decision when you’re going to get out, because no other decision is possible. And as we know from the Washington Papers later on, basically, they knew that they could never win this war, and there was a huge cover-up.

I mean, I recall — we tend to forget these things, but there was a public debate between generals on whether to send more troops or not to Afghanistan, with the general who is at the embassy in Afghanistan, I think McChrystal, saying, “We don’t want more troops,” because he knew that wasn’t the solution. But Obama insisted on sending more troops.

So, the whole Afghanistan War, which was being covered up, was exposed in 2010 by WikiLeaks, and subsequently by the Washington Papers. It was no secret as to what was going on. And to try and cover it up, to denounce WikiLeaks for telling the truth, it doesn’t cut much ice with people now, who know. It’s just public knowledge that the war has been a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, if you could compare — well, first of all, the horror the world felt when the media exposed the last drone strike in Afghanistan, that we know of, right before the final U.S. withdrawal, of this family, at least seven people killed, among them a number of children, and it turned out to be a family of a man who was an NGO worker and had worked with the United States. The horror is because we saw the strike. We saw the drone strike, and we learned the names of the families. Multiply this hundreds and hundreds of times over in all remote areas and other cities of Afghanistan, and then people would get a picture of what happened over this 20 years. If you could talk about this and, finally, how Afghan refugees are being treated now in the United States and Europe, and compare that to, well, where you first started offering commentary in, back in the ’60s, with Vietnamese refugees after the U.S. war there?

TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, what we saw the week after the United States announced the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a classic case of utilizing misinformation, bad information, and knocking out civilians. The whole point about these drone strikes, which their makers boast are the most effective and targeted weapon ever created in military history, is total nonsense. Not only these unfortunate family members who were killed after the withdrawal announcement, but, as you point out quite correctly, for throughout the war, the drones have been wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, on the other side of the border, where similar attacks have destroyed Pashtun families. So, you know, when people underestimate or try and say, “Oh, the Afghan War wasn’t so bad. A few NGOs improved the condition of women,” it’s just nonsense, really.

And this is what explains what many people can’t realize or can’t understand: How is it that this 20-year occupation was rolled back in the course of seven days by the Taliban guerrilla fighters and militia? How could they do it? And the reason they could do it is they had public support. And the reason they had public support is that they were the only force in the country resisting the occupation. That was all. No one, you know, bothered about other things. They just said, “Get rid of this occupation for us.” And that is why a 300,000-strong puppet army, created by the United States gradually over 20 years, collapsed within a week. Even this army refused to fight back. That has not happened on this scale ever before in U.S. imperial history. In Vietnam, they created a puppet government and a puppet army, which was, compared to this disaster, very effective. I mean, they were killers and criminals, but they were effective. In the case of Afghanistan, they couldn’t create or build anything.

And the main, the principal reason for that is, of course, the drone attacks, the killings, the indiscriminate tortures that took place in Bagram prison, and the rapes. No one talks about the rapes. People get embarrassed. Whenever I’ve asked and others have asked, “What are the rape figures for the 20-year occupation?” there’s nervousness. No one will describe how many brothels were built and created, housing sex workers to serve the needs of the NATO armies. No one will tell us about that, because that’s still forbidden and they feel it would be explosive news in Afghanistan. But what they don’t understand is that people know. The Afghan people know what’s going on, because they live there. It’s their country.

Now, when the war ends and the U.S. has no option but to withdraw, obviously, lots of people — let’s say tens of thousands — who did collaborate with them are scared that they will be punished. They were scared in South Vietnam after the tremendous Vietnamese victory of April 1975. In the case of Vietnam, the U.S. permitted more refugees than they are permitting from Afghanistan today. And what — the shock horror of our mainstream media: “Look at all these poor people trapped in the border!” It’s not the fault of the Afghans or the Taliban government even that they are trapped. The reason they are trapped is because you haven’t made arrangements to pull them out. And 'til this day, they are not allowing Afghan refugees. This is the shock horror story of Europe and the United States. “Oh, no more refugees, please. We've got enough.” But you get these refugees because of the wars you wage or the wars you intervene in, civil wars you intervene in. That is what creates refugees. And then you don’t let them in.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, editor of the New Left Review. He is co-editor of In Defense of Julian Assange and is releasing a new book entitled The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold.

Next up, we talk about the pandemic with a doctor who says she will not get a booster shot as long as the world faces the global vaccine inequity it does. Stay with us.

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