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Julian Assange Rots in Jail as U.S. Slaughters First Amendment

COUNTERPUNCH - Years pass, and journalist Julian Assange languishes in a British jail. His crime? Truthful reporting of U.S. military atrocities in Iraq, reporting that sparked a lust for vengeance among U.S. politicos and military men.

With Assange, the American empire would manage what imperialists couldn’t with whistleblower Edward Snowden, who slipped through their fingers by wisely fleeing to Russia – namely, torture him to death in prison. 

For whatever reason, perhaps a mistaken belief in the rule of law, the power of a free press and the force of public opinion, Assange did not take refuge in Russia, China or Venezuela. This was a fatal mistake. Legal niceties simply fall like matchsticks in the wind when the empire takes offense. Its gaudy invocations of truth and justice are then exposed as mere words. 

If you doubt that, recall U.S. military jets forcing the grounding of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013, because Obama hacks were convinced Snowden hid on board en route to Latin America. The U.S. didn’t hesitate to violate international law, not for a second. Eight years later, the West hollers its outrage over the authoritarian government of Belarus doing the same thing. But it’s useless to call out this hypocrisy, because the U.S. does what it pleases almost anywhere in the world, and the first law of its precious, thoroughly mendacious rules-based order is that those rules never apply to IT. 

That so-called rules-based order very damagingly replaces international laws and United Nations agreements. If the U.S. abided by a system of laws applied to all countries equally, it would not impose criminal sanctions on countries it deems too independent; hunger would not stalk Venezuelans, plague would not sicken Iranians, because without sanctions, both would have access to food and medicine. If the U.S. abided by international law, it would not so easily snap its fingers and have a vassal state like the UK assault its own hallowed legacy of press freedom by locking up a journalist in a dungeon. 

Think – if the U.S. honored international law, another country might even take legal action against American judicial abuses, like the de facto double jeopardy of Chelsea Manning. Even more critically, if the U.S. adhered to international law, which includes the Nuremberg laws, it never would have committed the war crime that caused its scandalous treatment of Assange and Manning to begin with – namely, invading and destroying Iraq. 

Assange has suffered from years holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he sought asylum. Dignitaries like Hillary Clinton lamented publicly that he couldn’t be “droned.” The press vilified him for everything from a phony rape case to how he treats his cat. He has been held for years in Belmarsh prison, full of murderers and covid. And yet, if extradited to the U.S., his treatment would surely be shockingly worse. That’s why judge Vanessa Baraitser, no friend to Assange, whom journalist Chris Hedges in fact compares to the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, refused his extradition in January – she thought he would commit suicide. 

Speaking of the extremely anti-Assange biased Baraitser and how she managed her courtroom, Hedges called the trial “a judicial farce. There was no legal basis to hold Julian in prison. There was no legal basis to try him, an Australian citizen, under the U.S. Espionage Act. The CIA spied on Julian in the embassy…recording the privileged conversations between Julian and his lawyers as they discussed his defense. This fact alone invalidated the trial.” 

Hedges also cites the indispensable reporting of Craig Murray, who documented how the U.S. government directed the London prosecutor, James Lewis. “Lewis presented these directives to Baraitser,” Hedges writes. “Bariatser adopted them as her legal decision. It was judicial pantomime.” Close to one thousand years of English law just whooshed out the window with what this courtroom travesty inflicted on Assange, and scarcely a peep about it in our cowardly corporate media.

Those already alarmed by the life-threatening abuse heaped on Assange and Manning by the U.S. government surely noted that prospects for the longevity of the first amendment dimmed even more in early June. That’s when news came of a justice department assault on the first amendment, brewing below the headlines, since the close of the Trump administration. I say below the headlines, because while the four New York Times reporters whose emails the DOJ had demanded did not know about this, Times executives did. However, the Biden administration had imposed a gag order on those executives.

This battle for the emails started under Trump – no surprise there, from that sworn enemy of truth and a free press – and continued under Biden, for the first few months of his administration. Biden’s March 3 “gag order prevented the executives from disclosing the government’s efforts to seize the records,” according to the Times on June 4, “even to the executive editor, Dean Baquet, and other newsroom leaders.”

The Biden administration ultimately “notified the four reporters that the Trump administration, hunting for their sources, had in 2020 secretly seized months of their phone records from early 2017,” the Times reported. Google had refused to cooperate with these prosecutorial excesses. A similar confiscation of records and gag order involving CNN and the Washington Post unfolded recently also. 

If this news didn’t chill every reporter and potential source who read about it, I don’t know what would. It is classic, brazen, government overreach to subvert freedom of the press. The Times article also reveals that “the government had never before seized the Times’ phone records without advance notification of the effort.” So things are getting worse. U.S. rulers and their legal henchmen became even more arrogant under Trump. Surprise! But it didn’t stop there. There were also secret seizures of congressional phone records. The Trump team drove several nails in the coffin of the first and fourth amendments, and the Biden folks quite tellingly hesitated for months to pull them out. 

So while Biden claims to support free speech, actions speak louder than words. Prosecuting Julian Assange speaks loudest of all. If Assange is convicted under the Espionage Act, that will kill off the first amendment once and for all. It will mean any reporter, of any nationality, working in any country, who digs into the U.S. government’s dirt, risks fatal grasp in the empire’s iron talons, namely, being hustled onto a plane, hijacked to Northern Virginia, charged with Espionage Act violations and being buried alive, for 175 years, in supermax, solitary confinement. True, most reporters are far too timorous ever to find themselves in that predicament. But for those brave souls who do, it will be cold and bitter comfort to know that their abduction, arrest and imprisonment testify to the truth of their reporting. 

(Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist who is featured on Counterpunch.org. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.)