More Pleas For Julian Assange


In his significant best-selling book, ‘Indignez Vous’, the late Stephane Hessel, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wrote, “To be outraged by injustice is to maintain contact with your humanity. The alternative is indifference.”

In a New Matilda article on June 19th, John Pilger heeded Hessel’s plea by calling for Julian Assange’s release from three years of being holed up in a small room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

On the same day as the publication of Pilger’s article, participants in a ‘Free Julian Assange’ rally outside the UK Embassy in Sydney expressed their outrage, but individuals passing the rally appeared disinterested in the plight of Assange let alone any wider notion of justice. 

The political world also stays silent, probably intimidated by the powerful governments who have abused Assange’s human rights and make him understandably fearful of stepping outside his place of refuge.

The US government claims that they have no interest in Assange, yet a grand jury in Virginia has been trying to conjure charges against him. A succession of senior US politicians have claimed that he should be hunted down like Bin Laden, that execution would be too good for him, or, even though it might be unlawful, someone should ‘take a gun and shoot the son of a bitch.’

Officially Julian remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy because he will not return to Sweden to be interviewed about possible rape charges. The Swedish prosecutor refuses to come to London to interview Julian. However unjust the Swedish prosecutor’s behaviour, it is the determination of the US government to exact revenge which explains why Julian remains under virtual house arrest.

The Swedish government has a ‘fifty cents each way’ attitude, appearing to be studiously neutral, neither guaranteeing Assange’s safety nor openly admitting that he runs a risk of arrest by US authorities if he travels to Sweden.

The UK government claims to be a standard bearer for human rights but does not care about such rights if a dissident disturbs their idea of order. That government should have given Assange safe passage to Ecuador but instead they laid siege to a small country’s embassy.

To control an Australian citizen who had not been charged with any offence, it has maintained that siege by placing several London policemen outside the embassy on a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year surveillance. If it was not for the authoritarian gutlessness of such an operation, the whole affair would resemble a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, perhaps ‘Bobbies for Ecuador’, ‘Cops for Julian,’ or ‘The Siege of Free Speech.’

Cowardly Australia has not moved since former Prime Minister Julia Gillard claimed that Assange had broken the law. Since the AFP decided that Assange had broken no law, there has been hardly a peep from Australian politicians, and hardly any evidence that Australian consular officials give any valuable assistance to a captive Australian citizen.

Ecuador is the only government to have behaved courageously. Whatever observers may think of the Ecuadorian government’s human rights record at home, its’ response to an Australian citizen’s appeal for help has been generous. To much more powerful governments and in support of a vulnerable individual’s human rights, brave Ecuador has given a David versus Goliath response. 

Luckily for all of us, Julian Assange follows a long line of English speaking dissidents whose gutsy and principled non-conformity has built a tradition of respect for civil liberties, even if current governments want to discard them. At the beginning of the 18th century, when the English novelist Daniel Defoe was sentenced to jail and to sit in the pillory for his challenge to religious doctrines, he wrote the satirical poem, ‘Hymn To The Pillory.’ It contained the lines,

Extol the justice of the land,
Who punish what they will not understand,
Tell them he stands exalted there
For speaking what we would not hear.

Ninety years after the publication of Defoe’s poem, Tom Paine published The Rights of Man, and for this act an English government charged him with sedition. Paine fled to France where, undeterred, he wrote the pamphlet ‘Ways and Means of Improving the Conditions of Europe’.

As a forerunner of the need for Wikileaks-type revelations, and in derision at exaggerated claims about national security, Paine warned that governments wanted to suppress information and to hoodwink the public into a state of superstitious ignorance.

Jump almost two more centuries to America where former marine intelligence officer Daniel Ellsberg was so disgusted by the false claims about the progress of the Vietnam War, that he released the Pentagon Papers.

Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy and espionage but was subsequently acquitted on all charges. In a final judgment on the case, the US Supreme Court ruled that ‘only a free and unrestrained press could effectively expose corruption in government. ‘

Since Assange’s confinement to the Ecuadorian Embassy, the brave US soldier Chelsea Manning has received a sentence of 35 years in a US prison for leaking classified information to Wikileaks. Ellsberg says that Manning is a hero, her conduct no different from his Pentagon Papers revelations.

Since 9/11 and other related terrorist atrocities, governments have built huge, unaccountable spy networks. Anyone who challenges such anti-democratic practices is labelled ‘soft on terrorism’, or treated as a traitor for attempting to unmask government secrets.

Democracy is eroded, transparency is an illusion, justice is of no consequence. 

In response to Defoe, Paine, Ellsberg, Assange and Manning’s revelations about governments’ abuses of power, there’s a common pattern: use all the forces of law to stifle dissent. Following in those dissenters’ footsteps, Edward Snowden has revealed the extent of US government surveillance, as in their spying on most of their citizens. Fearing certain arrest, Snowden fled to Moscow.

In his NM article, John Pilger asked about Julian Assange, ‘Why don’t they let him go?’

One answer is that governments love bullying, cannot tolerate anyone who reveals their dark secrets and are fascinated with violent means of stifling dissidents.

There’s another reason. The Australian government claims that the public wants to be kept safe by knowing as little as possible. The stony-faced individuals who walked past the rally for Julian on Friday last, seemed to confirm the government’s assumption.

But participants in the rally know their obligations. If they and many others respond to Stephane Hessel’s plea by maintaining their outrage, justice should prevail, Julian Assange will walk free.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.