The recent arrest of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in the UK must be viewed with extreme prejudice, given the shenanigans surrounding the issuing of the arrest warrant against him and the attempts by Western governments, led by the US, to cripple his organisation.
The West has pulled all the stops in its attempt to get Assange and knock out Wikileaks. The fact that he is yet to be accused of violating any laws has not stopped governments trying to find, or perhaps manufacture, a reason to detain him. In his home country, Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said that the Australia Federal Police were going through ''thorough processes'' to find any laws Assange may have broken. The Attorney-General has intimated that Assange might not be welcome back if convicted over the leaks, while at the same time declaring that Australia was providing ''every assistance'' to US authorities in their investigation. According to The Age, one of Australia's leading newspapers, government authorities around the world are working overtime to determine whether Assange could be charged with a crime related to the leaks.
Assange’s arrest is based on a warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor. He is wanted for questioning in Sweden for what his solicitor has called “sex by surprise.” Interestingly, though, at the same time the Swedes were issuing arrest warrants claiming they could not find him, news organisations such as Al Jazeera had no problems locating him for on air interviews.
According to Bjorn Hurtig, Assange's Stockholm-based lawyer, the warrant itself is based on "exaggerated grounds." The accusations, which Assange denies, apparently stem from a malfunctioning condom and a refusal to wear one during a separate encounter. A report on the Reuters website says the two women involved were not initially looking to file charges but rather to track him down and persuade him to get tested for an STD.
Citing several people in contact with Assange's entourage at the time, some of whom have since fallen out with him, the report says that it was only after the women had trouble finding Assange -he had turned off his cellphone out of concern his enemies might trace him- that they turned to the police. An initial arrest warrant on rape and molestation charges issued mid-August by an on-call prosecutor was dropped a day later by another prosecutor and the charges later reinstated by a third, Marianne Ny, who, according to AOL News, has been active in proposed reforms of Swedish rape laws, including a radical redefinition of consent.
The women’s lawyer, Claes Borgstrom confirmed to reporters at the time that his clients' allegations against Assange related to efforts he made to have sex with them without wearing condoms, and his subsequent reluctance to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, following Assange’s arrest, a lawyer representing the Swedish government laid out for a British judge four specific charges of sexual misconduct but the word "rape" was not part of the charges which cited "unlawful coercion" and Assange's alleged reluctance to use condoms. A spokeswoman for Swedish prosecutors has also affirmed that at the moment Assange is not formally charged in Sweden, but is only wanted for questioning.
The Swedes also seemed determined to make exceptions for Assange. According to the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, which in August hired Assange to contribute bimonthly columns on politics and freedom of expression, last year a couple of Irishmen aboard a sea vessel were caught on tape beating a Swede, Christer Skoog, unconcious and then stomping on his head. However, despite the assault having taken place in Swedish waters, having the surveillance tape, and witnesses recognising and identifying both assailants, Sweden's public prosecutor decided to drop the case. Asked why he had not sought their extradition from Ireland, prosecutor Thomas Holst declared: “If we were to try to go after all the people who committed less serious crimes, we would have a lot to do.”
According to the Reuters report, however, the most serious accusation Swedish prosecutors made against him in a statement on their website is that he committed "rape, less serious crime" -- the least serious of three levels of rape charges that are on the statute books in Sweden. Conviction carries a maximum four year jail sentence and a minimum of less than two years, depending upon the circumstances. According to Assange's London lawyer, Mark Stephens, punishment could also be as light as a fine of 5,000 kronor or about $715. Despite this, it seems, however, that the Swedes have decided the accusations against Assange are of a sufficiently serious nature to justify an international arrest warrant.
Western governments have not been above using dirty tricks get to Assange and to knock out his website. After cyber attacks caused it to be dropped by its server, the US government leaned on US corporations to get them to stop servicing the now rogue site. According to TIME magazine, thanks in part to an effort by the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, who heads the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Wikileaks has been pushed off a series of servers in the US. PayPal, the online money transfer service, cut off Wikileaks after being requested to do so by the US State Department. Mastercard and Visa quickly followed, seriously threatening the operations of Wikileaks, which depends on donations from supporters.
In Europe, French Industry Minister Eric Besson called for the site to be banned from French servers and the Swiss postal system shut down Assange's bank account, stripping him of yet another key fundraising tool. Postfinance, the financial arm of Swiss Post, apparently only recently discovered that Assange had “provided false information regarding his place of residence during the account opening process,” because he used his lawyer's address in Switzerland for his correspondence with the bank.
Much of the criticism of Wikileaks revolves around the notion that releasing such information risks lives, exposing or compromising the identities of informants, spies, human rights activists, journalists and dissidents. According to former US House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, “Julian Assange is engaged in warfare,” and his actions are “information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed.” US state department legal adviser Harold Koh has said that Wikileaks' document dump "could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals" as well as "ongoing military operations."
However, following the release of another haul of US defence department documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in August, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the Washington Post: "We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the Wikileaks documents." The fact is Wikileaks had already redacted names and other information in the Iraq War logs. And though criticized for not redacting names in the Afghanistan files, the site had asked the government for help in doing exactly that but the government declined.
Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers which detailed US government lies and cover-ups in the Vietnam War, is sceptical of whether the government really believes that lives are at stake. He told the BBC's World Today programme that US officials made that same argument every time there was a potentially embarrassing leak. "The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid."
Ellsberg is now fronting a group of ex-intelligence officers from the CIA, FBI and the British Government that has written an open letter of support for Assange and WikiLeaks. He has previously said that labelling the Pentagon Papers leak as 'good' whilst the Cablegate leaks are 'bad' makes no sense. "That's just a cover for people who don't want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy. The truth is that EVERY attack now made on Wikileaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time."
Others are also rallying to Wikileaks’ defence including a clandestine group of internet vigilantes, known only as Anonymous and operating under the banner Operation Payback, which has launched cyber attacks against the websites of the companies that have yanked their support for WikiLeaks, temporarily taking some of them down. “At stake is not just the future of WikiLeaks, the protesters seem to believe, but freedom on the net in general — a principle worth defending by any means possible, however dubious,” writes Ray Singel in an article published by the online tech magazine, Wired.com.