The political dissident is an important component of any democracy. People must have the right to challenge their leaders, no matter how uncomfortable that process might be. Thus we in the West today honour independent voices, with one major caveat: they should only target our enemies and their crimes.
Take the case of Alexei Navalny, a critic of the Russian state who was jailed in February. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab thundered that this was a ‘perverse ruling’, a failure on the part of Russia to meet the ‘most basic commitments’ of ‘any responsible member of the international community.’ Raab’s assessment is quite correct, but inexcusably hypocritical. Britain continues to hold Julian Assange, a journalist, in the high security Belmarsh prison.
What was Assange’s crime? Unacceptably, he worked to expose Western atrocities taking place in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, perpetrated by the US and UK. Torture, abuse, the murder of civilians— those who tell the truth about such matters cannot be tolerated. Instead they must be silenced, punished, and made an example of. This is the fate of those who ask the wrong questions, and start looking into the details of ‘national security’. The US demanded Assange’s extradition, and British officials faithfully collaborated in robbing him of his freedom for years, only stopping at granting the extradition request itself.
It was in January 2021 that Judge Baraitser ruled Assange should not be extradited to the US for mental health reasons, yet he remains in prison, denied bail. The US has appealed the ruling, but there is no reason for Assange to be detained in Belmarsh, particularly when his lawyers have said he will accept strict bail conditions. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has since 2015 voiced the opinion that Assange has been wrongfully deprived of his freedom, and recommended that his detention be ended. The recommendation continues to be ignored.
In a further indictment of British authorities, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said in 2019 after visiting Assange in prison that he displayed ‘all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture’. Melzer further decried the government’s ‘outright contempt for Mr Assange’s rights’. Naturally, this condemnation was also ignored. Assange must learn his lesson for revealing the ugly truth, and part of that process is to keep him in a secure facility, far away from his partner and children.
We might also begin to ask questions about those who enabled and executed the atrocities that Assange has had a key role in documenting. They include such prominent figures as George Bush and Tony Blair, not to mention Barack Obama and other senior American and British officials.
Let’s limit ourselves to Blair. What penalty has he faced for invading Iraq, destabilising the country and helping to cause a minimum of 200,000 deaths throughout the war and occupation over subsequent years? The Nuremberg Tribunal established in 1945, in its judgement of Nazi war criminals, said that initiating a war of aggression was ‘the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole’. What penalty has Blair faced for his leading role in carrying out one of the most grievous wars of aggression in our century?
The answer, of course, is that Blair has not even been made to stand trial before the International Criminal Court for his actions, let alone face any form of penalty beyond mild reputational damage. He continues to appear in the British media as a political pundit, as if to insult the victims of his crimes. It is an outrage against the principles of justice that the true criminals continue to walk free, and the man who played an essential role in exposing the atrocities—including 15,000 previously unknown civilian casualties in Iraq— is confined to a cell. Such are the realities of our modern liberal democracy.
As usual, the media has performed its long-standing task of serving power. Upon his expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy, the Times branded Assange a ‘narcissist’ who had rightfully been served his ‘overdue eviction’. The Labour MP Jess Phillips labelled him ‘everyone’s least favourite squatter’ as well as a ‘grumpy, stroppy teenager’ in the Mirror. The left-wing New Statesman suggested Assange was a ‘demented-looking gnome’ and the far-right Daily Mail celebrated that Assange had been ‘dragged out to face justice’— ‘THAT’LL WIPE THE SMILE OFF HIS FACE’ their headline ran. Those with inquiring minds should compare this to how our media has reported the imprisonment of Navalny; the hypocrisy is astonishing.
The mainstream denigration of Assange continued after the extradition ruling. The Daily Mail branded him a ‘reckless narcissist and sexual predator’ and the Times judged him ‘reckless, incompetent and immoral’ and ‘a threat to quality journalism’.
Demonisation of the kind Assange has been subjected to is the price that anyone who reveals our own crimes can expect to pay. The exposure of human rights violations, speaking truth to power—those are things that happen in other countries. They do not happen here.