Assange Is Trapped in the Web of the US Legal Empire

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may have been described by British foreign affairs minister Alan Duncan as a “miserable little worm,” but his situation is in fact far more like that of a fly, trapped in the web of a powerful predator.

On June 13, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid signed off on the United States’s request to extradite Assange from the United Kingdom. This enables the process to move forward to the courts — although the barely concealed political nature of the espionage charges against Assange should disqualify them as grounds for extradition, since political crimes (excepting “terrorism”) are expressly excluded as extraditable offences.

The Assange case represents the continuation of a longstanding tradition of trans-Atlantic collaboration in injustice.

In the project of constructing an immense legal and extralegal apparatus for wielding maximum power with minimum accountability, the U.K. has long served as the U.S.’s willing accomplice. The U.K. has shared crucial intelligence for the U.S.’s extrajudicial drone killings, provided territory and even payment for extraordinary rendition flights, and has generally acted as a “junior partner” in the CIA’s torture program (to quote a June 2018 report from the U.K. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee).

The U.S.-U.K. treaty under which Assange is facing extradition was revamped in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to facilitate extraditions while dismantling key safeguards against severe rights violations.

Under the new treaty, the U.K. must demonstrate “probable cause” while the U.S. is only required to meet the standard of “reasonable” suspicion, and so does not even have to provide any prima facie evidence that could be challenged in a court to make its case. The agreement is lopsided in operation as well as formulation: The U.K. has delivered more than twice as many people into U.S. hands as vice versa, even though it has only one-fifth the population.

Among the victims of extradition are a number of Muslim men, charged with violating amorphous U.S. terrorism laws that have the incredible power of shape-shifting to fit practically whatever set of facts are alleged. Several of these men have pleaded guilty under threat of multi-decade sentences if convicted at trial, after being subjected to prolonged pre-trial solitary confinement, tantamount to torture, in U.S. supermax prisons that provided the blueprint for Guantánamo’s brutality.

“Although international human rights organizations and bodies, such as the Council of Europe, have condemned and lobbied against illicit practices such as [extraordinary] rendition [to torture], there has been relative silence on the juridified practice of extradition, which for all intents and purposes is used against some accused of terrorism to achieve the same means,” British sociologist Nisha Kapoor observes in her book Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism.

As Assange himself warned in 2014, “What happens to the Muslim community sure enough, sooner or later, happens to everyone else as well…. Injustices which affect the Muslim community soon enough expand out to the rest of the community at large.”

Assange’s predecessors subjected to injustice include Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistani-American studying in London who was accused by the U.S. of “material support” for al-Qaeda. This was not for any personal contact or involvement with the group on Hashmi’s part, but on the bizarre grounds that he had once shared his flat with a visiting acquaintance whose suitcase contained socks and ponchos that U.S. authorities alleged were subsequently delivered to al-Qaeda.

Hashmi was extradited to the U.S. in 2007, where he pleaded guilty after being threatened with a 70-year sentence and kept in the living death of solitary confinement for three years, treatment condemned by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture as “unworthy” of a “civilized democracy.” He is currently serving out a 15-year sentence at the Terre Haute Penitentiary in Indiana, a supermax known as “Guantánamo North” which specializes in the execution of convicted terrorists.

Similarly ensnared were British citizens Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, both for administering a website that covered the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.

The U.S.’s indictment against them was based on the very same evidence that U.K. prosecutors had concluded was insufficient to charge them with any criminal offense under British law. Although neither Ahmad nor Ahsan had ever stepped foot on U.S. soil, the U.S. asserted jurisdiction by claiming that one of the website’s many servers was at some point hosted in Connecticut. Facing life in prison, both men pleaded guilty after being interred in solitary for two years.

While Assange has not formally been charged as a “terrorist,” he has been treated much like one — held in the infamous Belmarsh prison in the U.K., where Muslims convicted or even just suspected of involvement in terrorism have been “entombed in concrete” and had their most fundamental rights abused. U.S. political leaders across the bipartisan divide, such as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have managed to find common ground in labeling Assange a “high-tech terrorist.”

In the “terrorism” extradition cases, the U.S. has grasped at the most tenuous straws to extract the pounds of flesh its appetite for vengeance demands. The long arm of the U.S. legal system extends itself to grab “evil-doers” on the other side of the world, but wraps its own organs in a thick cloak of impunity — including for atrocities that would likely have remained concealed except for WikiLeaks.

Contrast the zeal for exacting punishment against individuals like Hashmi, Ahmad, Ahsan and now Assange, against the complete lack of punishment for U.S. military massacres brought to light by WikiLeaks — the 2007 Shinwar shooting in Afghanistan, for instance, described as an apparent war crime by experts from Amnesty International and the International Bar Association on the basis of WikiLeaks evidence, but dismissed as “in accordance with the rules of engagement” by an internal U.S. Marine Corps inquiry.

Contrast the insistence that Assange be held to account for his “crimes” against the utter lack of accountability for the 15,000 Iraqi civilian casualties that WikiLeaks demonstrated were missing from official state body counts of the war; for the traumatized children and elderly men with senile dementia that WikiLeaks revealed had been wrongfully swept up and locked away in Guantánamo Bay; for the almost 700 civilians, including children and pregnant women on their way to the hospital, that WikiLeaks showed had been gunned down at checkpoints by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

As with the CIA torture regime, the primary people punished have been those brave enough to expose the heinous reality. Just as WikiLeaks revealed “the truth of 21st-century asymmetric warfare,” in the words of incarcerated and tortured whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the treatment of leakers Manning and Assange now reveals (yet again) the fact of the U.S.’s asymmetric “justice” — which presumes to police the world but violently rejects any policing of itself.

So, the U.S. demands that other countries produce evidence before it surrenders “wanted” individuals to them for extradition — but bombed and invaded Afghanistan for requesting the same before agreeing to extradite Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. claims the right to liberally exercise violence beyond its borders — but strictly limits application of its Constitution outside its own territory, creating extraterritorial “legal black holes” where people can be kidnapped, interrogated, imprisoned, tortured and killed, but are barred from legally challenging it.

“The United States now extends aggressively its criminal laws to activity occurring halfway around the globe,” as Columbia Law School associate Anthony Colangelo writes — but insulates its own troops stationed in hundreds of bases around the world from having to answer to any law other than its own. Frequently, this effectively means not answering to any law at all.

WikiLeaks uncovered some of the bully tactics employed to make Global South governments submit to Article 98 Agreements, which protect Americans from being turned over to the International Criminal Court. The U.S. currently has 95 such agreements in place with different countries.

U.S. military personnel are also largely shielded by Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) from being criminally prosecuted in the domestic legal systems of the countries they wreak havoc in. These SOFAs are reupholstered versions of imperial 19th-century “unequal treaties” that allowed Westerners to inhabit and economically exploit countries in Asia and North Africa without being subject to their laws — a privilege that did not extend in the other direction.

In the force field of empire, the gravity of “justice” pulls only one way.

When it comes to Assange, those baying loudest for blood already have their hands soaked in it. In the hegemon’s rule of “law,” it is not those who commit its crimes but those who dare reveal them who are required to pay the price.