Less than a decade ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had media outlets eating out of his hand and governments with secrets to hide on high alert. Now, he’s at the mercy of an Ecuadorian government that’s running out of patience – and he may be running out of time.
Last week, in court papers filed in the United States, in a case completely unrelated to Assange, was a paragraph confirming that a secret indictment had been filed against him. Prosecutors called it an administrative mistake, meaning a supposed clerical error.
It seemed to confirm something that Assange had always feared, but that the US Department of Justice never admitted: It wants him in jail.
However, what hasn’t been revealed in that paragraph is “what the charges are and what period of WikiLeaks activity they relate to,” points out James Ball, author of WikiLeaks: News in the Networked Era.
The clerical error took place at a court in Alexandria, Virginia, right next door to Washington, where a grand jury has reportedly been investigating Julian Assange since 2010.
Back then, WikiLeaks was in its heyday. The Iraq and Afghan war logs revealed brutal truths about those invasions, confirming war crimes previously denied by the Pentagon. And the Diplomatic Cables would later expose the US’s duplicity in its dealings with foreign governments.
Challenging powerful institutions comes with a price, says Glenn Greenwald. “There was actually a 2008 US Army report that described WikiLeaks as an enemy of the state and talked about different ways to destroy the organisation. And we can read about that document because ironically it got leaked to WikiLeaks which then published it on its own website.”
In 2010, a legal case was opened against Assange in Sweden, for sexual assault – based on the testimonies of two women. Assange denied the allegations and asked to be questioned in London, a common practice in such cases. He said he feared that going to Sweden could lead to extradition to the US.
While the Swedes eventually dropped the case without ever laying charges – a fact that seemed lost on news organisations – the UK says it will arrest Assange if he steps out of the embassy for breaching his bail conditions. It’s a standoff the UN calls a case of arbitrary detention, a denial of Assange’s human rights.
“Whatever you think of Julian, whatever you think of WikiLeaks, what has been done to him over the last six to seven years is a very sustained serious and deliberate violation of his basic liberties. And yet that has been almost entirely disregarded by the western media,” says Greenwald.
All the measures to discredit Assange are meant to punish him and serve as a deterrent for others, according to Stefania Maurizi, an investigative journalist who has probed how the Assange case has been conducted, in both Sweden and the UK.
“They fear a domino effect, they realise that inside the US intelligence community there are many people who have seen all sort of abuses. They are terrified that there could be a hundred Chelsea Mannings, a thousand Edward Snowdens. They cannot kill Julian Assange. So all they can do is use legal cases … against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which they have done.”
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