WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Reuters)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Reuters)

Opinion | In protest of Julian Assange’s possible extradition

For the sake of liberalism, journalists must oppose any move to extradite him to the US

My meetings with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took place in the same small room. As the intelligence services of several countries know, I visited Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy many times between the fall of 2015 and December 2018. What these snoops do not know is the relief I felt every time I left.

I wanted to meet Assange because of my deep appreciation of the original WikiLeaks concept. As a teenager reading George Orwell’s 1984, I, too, was troubled by the prospect of a high-tech surveillance state and its likely effect on human relations. Assange’s early writings, particularly his idea of using states’ own technology to create a huge digital mirror that could show everyone what they were up to, filled me with hope that we might collectively defeat Big Brother.

By the time I met Assange, that hope had faded. Surrounded by bookcases featuring Ecuadorian literature and government publications, we would sit and chat late into the night. A device on top of a bookshelf emitted mind-numbing white noise to counter listening devices. As time passed, the claustrophobic living room, the badly hidden ceiling-mounted camera pointing at me, the white noise, and the stale air made me want to run out into the street.

Assange’s detractors have been saying his confinement was self-inflicted: he hid in Ecuador’s embassy because he jumped bail in the United Kingdom to avoid answering sexual assault allegations in Sweden. As a man, I feel I have no right to express an opinion regarding those allegations. Women must be heard when reporting assault.

I recall telling Julian that, had it been me, I would want to confront my accusers and listen to them respectfully. He replied that he, too, wanted that. “But, Yanis," he said, “if I were to go to Stockholm, they would throw me in solitary and, before I got a chance to answer any allegations, I would be bundled into a plane heading for a US supermax prison." He showed me his lawyers’ offer to Swedish authorities to go to Stockholm if they guaranteed that he would not be extradited to the United States. Sweden never considered the proposal.

During Assange’s years in Ecuador’s embassy, in circumstances that the United Nations deemed “arbitrary detention", many friends mocked his fear and lambasted me for believing him. Last September, the historian and feminist intellectual Germaine Greer summed up that belief on Australian public radio: “He won’t be extradited to the United States," she said derisively, blaming Julian’s lawyers for misleading him into fearing an extradition while collecting his book’s royalties.

Now he is languishing in Belmarsh, a notorious, high-security English prison, in a windowless basement cell with less fresh air and light than before. Unable to receive visitors, he awaits extradition to the US. “Let him rot in hell," is a frequent response from people around the world who were incensed by WikiLeaks’ release of Hillary Clinton’s emails ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, which blew fresh wind into Donald Trump’s sails. Why, they ask, has he not released anything damning on Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Before I explain why his detractors should reconsider, let me state for the record my personal frustration with his support of Brexit, his injudicious attacks against his feminist critics, his editorializing in favour of Trump, and, crucially, his communications with Trump’s people.

WikiLeaks was established as a digital mailbox where whistle-blowers could deposit information that is true and whose revelation is in public interest. This is WikiLeaks’ sole obligation. Its technology prevents even Assange from knowing a whistle-blower’s identity. If this means that most leaks will embarrass Western powers, that is WikiLeaks’ great, if imperfect, service to us.

Recent developments prove that his current predicament has nothing to do with the Swedish allegations or his role in aiding Trump against Clinton. With Chelsea Manning in prison again for refusing to confess that Assange incited, or helped, her to leak evidence of US atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the best explanation of what is going on comes from Mike Pompeo, Trump’s first Central Intelligence Agency director and now US secretary of state.

Pompeo described WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service". That is right. However, it is an equally accurate description of what every self-respecting news outlet ought to be. As Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky have warned, journalists who fail to oppose Assange’s extradition to the US could be next on the hit list of a president who considers them the “enemy of the people." Celebrating his arrest and turning a blind eye to Manning’s continued suffering is a gift to liberalism’s greatest foes.

Assange’s persecution by the US security-industrial complex has another victim: women. No woman will get justice if he is now thrown into a supermax prison for revealing crimes against humanity perpetuated by awful men in or out of uniform.

Let us join forces to block Assange’s extradition from any European country to the US, so that he can travel to Stockholm and give his accusers an opportunity to be heard. Let us work to empower women, while protecting whistle-blowers who reveal nefarious behaviour that governments, armies, and corporations would prefer to keep hidden. ©2019/Project Syndicate

Yanis Varoufakis is former finance minister of Greece and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens