Prosecuting Assange hands Putin a big leaf

A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson posted an extraordinary video on social media. He addressed himself to the people of Russia – in their own language. “Look at what is being done in your name”, he demanded. Images from Ukraine followed: civilians left dead in the street, women raped in front of their children, and mass graves filled with burned corpses. All were horrific.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking outside Westminster Magistrates. Photo Credits: Tim Dawson

“The Russian people deserve the truth, you deserve the facts”, Johnson continued. He said of the images from Bucha and Irpin they were “so shocking, so sickening, its no wonder your government is seeking to hide them from you”.

Our Government’s hope, of course, is that people in Russia will be encouraged to look beyond intense Kremlin information management. Little or no independent media now exists in Russia. Journalists there can be sent to prison for 15 years for spreading ‘fake’ information – 14 have been jailed since February’s invasion. Specialist software is required to access non-approved websites.

Johnson’s efforts should be applauded, save that Putin will unpick his hypocrisy with such devastating ease that British efforts risk doing more harm than good.

If our Prime Minister really believes that people have a right to know the details of war carried out in their name, why is Julian Assange facing 175 years in prison?

At a court hearing in April, chief magistrate Paul Goldspring passed Assange’s case to Home Secretary Pritti Patel. Lawyers for the Wikileaks founder were granted four weeks to present a legal case for dismissing the application.  Patel now has a similar period to deliberate.

There are abundant arguments for ending the grotesque side-show of Assange’s detention. Extradition on political grounds is explicitly excluded from the treaty between the UK and the US. The US bugging of Assange’s meetings with his lawyers make a fair trial impossible. And, the assurances provided by the US since the extradition hearings concluded have not been tested in court.

More than anything else, however, Patel should turn down the application as a first step in repairing the UK’s reputation as a bastion of media freedom.

The offences for which Assange is pursued mostly relate to the release in 2010 of the Afghan and Iraqi ‘war logs’. These were allegedly leaked to the Australian by young American soldier, Chelsea Manning. The ‘Collateral Murder’ video is their emblematic revelation. In this, in 2007, two US soldiers in an Apache helicopter, gun down a group of unarmed civilians on a hillside near Baghdad. Between 12 and 18 died, including two Reuters journalists. The soldiers gleefully whoop and cheer like sugar-crazed teenagers playing a computer shoot-em-up as their 30mm shells cut their victims to shreds. 

For so long as Boris Johnson allows the persecution of Assange to proceed, his demand that Russians should be allowed to “see what is being done in their name”, rings hollow.

Given our Prime Ministers relaxed attitude to the truth, and his distracting bluster when exposed, fresh hypocrisy might be seem par for the course. In this instance, however, he is damaging the case of those who support Ukraine’s right to self determination.

A point will come when Russians start to turn against Putin. Handing Russia’s president fig leaves behind which to hide repression and war crimes delays this process. Patel and Johnson should will spend a few minutes looking again at those images from Bucha and Irpin and then ask themselves if it is ever defensible to persecute those who expose war crimes? There can be only one conclusion: to effectively call out Putin, they have to free Assange.

Text by Tim Dawson