Julian Assange is a political prisoner who has never been charged with a crime.
That few people know this and that large media outlets have conveniently ignored this fact is an indictment of all Western political leaders and journalists who claim to care about human rights and civil liberties but remain silent – or worse – about one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience.
In 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that the governments of the United Kingdom and Sweden had arbitrarily detained Assange. They ordered his release and compensation.
He is, in effect, imprisoned in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where the government of Ecuador has granted him political asylum. If he tries to leave, he will be extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in a criminal case in which no charges have been brought.
But the real threat is that Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where a grand jury would likely indict him. In fact, it’s considered likely that a sealed indictment has already been prepared.
He would be imprisoned pending trial and could face life in prison or even the death penalty.
But Assange has not committed crimes. He and his WikiLeaks organization have committed acts of journalism, focusing in particular on defending human rights and civil liberties. That’s why he’s received so many journalism awards.
WikiLeaks’ real offense has been exposing the crimes of the most powerful people in the world.
Thanks to WikiLeaks, millions have seen the classified video of the U.S. military gunning down 18 people in Iraq, including two Reuters employees, in July 2007.
In July 2010, WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Diary, which included more than 75,000 previously secret reports from the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The Iraq War Logs, which recorded over 66,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, were also released by WikiLeaks, exposing the widespread use of torture by Iraqi forces. The files indicate the U.S. may have known about the torture when it was turning over thousands of prisoners to Iraqi custody.
The thousands of diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in November 2010 – in collaboration with major news outlets including The New York Times and The Guardian of London – also revealed human rights abuses, corruption and other crimes by various governments.
WikiLeaks also developed a methodology for protecting whistleblowers who expose abuses and crimes. Human rights advocates throughout the world have used WikiLeaks documents to challenge governments and defend their citizens in court and in the realm of public opinion.
It is not surprising that the most powerful people in the world, especially in the United States, would want to silence and punish someone who exposes their crimes and atrocities.
What is surprising, or should be, is that they could get so much help in doing so.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Readers may write him at CEPR, 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW, suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20009.