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Editorial: Assange's trial shames our country

THE spectacle of a frail and confused Julian Assange struggling to answer questions in a Marylebone court house today should ring alarm bells for anyone still clinging to the idea that Britain is a “free” country.

This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s personal view of Assange. When he sought political asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy seven long years ago, he avoided extradition to Sweden for questioning on suspicion of rape charges. 

The WikiLeaks founder always insisted these charges were a politically motivated ruse to cloak his dispatch to the United States for political reasons, and many others, especially on the left, thought so too: but it is true some of his defenders made light of very serious allegations in their determination not to be hoodwinked.

Today’s legal process is entirely different. Assange faces extradition not to Sweden but to the US itself, and not on suspicion of sex offences but for trial on charges under the Espionage Act relating to his work for WikiLeaks.

That work includes uncovering war crimes by the US military, most infamously the Collateral Murder video comprising gun-sight footage as an attack helicopter guns down 18 people — some unarmed, including journalists — as crew laugh and joke about the killings.

Other classified information revealed by WikiLeaks included the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, detailing tens of thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of the US-led coalitions occupying each country, files on the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay that confirmed the long-term detention of entirely innocent people there without trial, evidence of widespread US snooping on political leaders around the globe and the release of diplomatic cables that exposed US intelligence assets (including a certain Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, labelled “strictly protect” in the US cables).

The British government is directly responsible for the persecution of Assange for revealing these crimes by its closest ally. Sajid Javid, as home secretary back in June, signed off the US government’s extradition request. 

When his Labour counterpart Diane Abbott took him to task for this shameless assault on public interest journalism, Javid sneered that Assange had “a track record of undermining the UK and our allies and the values we stand for.”

It would be truer to say he is being hounded for exposing how far “the values we stand for” are from the brute reality of US and British state power.

The darker side of the British state has become more obvious in recent years. This is partly because the fearless and tireless campaigning of groups like the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, the Blacklist Support Group and Police Spies Out of Lives have shone a light on savagery and deceit by security forces acting to smash resistance and snoop on law-abiding citizens.

It’s partly because the rebirth of a mass-membership Labour Party with a socialist leadership has given many more people cause to question the powers that be. Socialist comedian and author Mark Steel once noted that the first thing an activist new to participating in marches, strikes or protests learns is that “the police aren’t neutral and the press isn’t fair.” 

For hundreds of thousands of idealistic Labour Party activists the unprecedented smear campaign launched by almost the entire British media against Jeremy Corbyn has provided that lesson, just as the sniping from generals, spooks and civil servants that the Labour leader would be an unacceptable PM has shattered the idea that the “permanent state” is some kind of neutral administrative machine answering to whoever is elected to government.

But it’s also partly down to brave whistleblowers like Assange and former US soldier Chelsea Manning, risking liberty and — given repeated warnings from doctors about the former’s health and from prison inspectors about the appalling conditions at his jail — even life to tell the truth to, and about, power.

Assange’s trial shames our country. 

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