Wikileaks leader speaks out from embassy refuge

A Supporter hold vigil outside the embassy where Assange has taken refuge © Getty Images

On Sunday, millions listened as Julian Assange made a public plea for justice, truth and freedom of speech. But the radical icon is dodging charges of rape and sexual assault. Is this man a hero?

A strange presence is haunting Ecuador’s London embassy. Tall and pale, he sleeps on a camp bed and lives off takeaway meals. Though he devotes every day to radical, world-changing work, he has not left the embassy for months, and has little hope of doing so in the near future.

This strange figure is Julian Assange: the idolised founder of international whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks. And on Sunday, he made a rare appearance on the balcony of his refuge to make an impassioned plea for justice and freedom.

‘As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does freedom of expression, and the health of all our societies,’ he said. ‘The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks.’

His speech was met with cheers from a huge crowd of supporters. But one crucial detail was not mentioned. Assange cannot leave the embassy because he is an international fugitive: in Sweden, he stands accused of rape and sexual assault.

For nearly two years, the British government has been trying to send Assange to face trial in Sweden. He has fought them every step of the way. First, he challenged the extradition in court. Then, when that failed, he fled to the embassy of Ecuador.

Today, Assange is trapped in a strange limbo. British authorities cannot legally enter the embassy’s diplomatic territory. But if Assange steps outside, they will immediately arrest and extradite him. Though Ecuador have offered him political asylum, the chances of him reaching South America are slim.

Why is Assange resisting the law? He believes the Swedish charges are a conspiracy: an attempt to muddy his name, and a stepping-stone to another extradition – to the USA. There, he says, the FBI are compiling a case that could shut down WikiLeaks and have him punished for exposing US secrets.

Assange could be right to be afraid. By releasing secret documents into the public sphere, WikiLeaks has exposed shocking deceit and brutality. American authorities have responded harshly. One WikiLeaks source, US private Bradley Manning, has been imprisoned without trial, and in brutal conditions, for over two years.

Facing the music

Given this abuse – and other cases like it – many think Assange is right to be suspicious. If Wikileaks’ work is anything to go by, they say, many international institutions are not to be trusted. Cooperating with the authorities would be risky and foolish.

But Assange, others point out, is not wanted for his work with WikiLeaks. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault, and being a celebrity activist does not make him immune to the law. If Assange really cares about justice, they say, he would face the accusations head on.

You Decide

  1. Is Assange right to dodge his trial?
  2. Do the accusations against Assange – or the way he has reacted to them – discredit the work of WikiLeaks?

Activities

  1. For the past three months, Assange has been confined to a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy, and is unable to go outside. Draw a room plan that you think could provide for someone’s needs in such confined circumstances.
  2. Imagine you are one of the women whom Assange allegedly assaulted. Write a short piece describing how you feel about the way he has been portrayed by his supporters and the media.

Some People Say...

“All heroes turn out to be flawed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does WikiLeaks matter?
By exposing top-secret documents, WikiLeaks has shone a light into the shady practices of governments, institutions and corporations. Its revelations include videos of US helicopters opening fire on Iraqi civilians and journalists, and evidence that Bill Clinton’s American government ordered diplomats to illegally spy on US citizens.
There’s a lot about America...
One criticism of WikiLeaks is that it follows an explicitly anti-American agenda, and ignores the crimes of other nations. In Assange’s eyes, however, the bias is justified. He believes America’s global power makes its behaviour particularly dangerous, and is keen to demonstrate that, while the USA might promote itself as the land of democracy and freedom, it still has a long way to go.

Word Watch

Wikileaks
Founded by Julian Assange and his associates in 2006, WikiLeaks is an online organisation that publishes documents ‘leaked’ by individuals from a wide range of organisations. Information uncovered by WikiLeaks has shed light on corruption in Kenya, possible war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and abuse in Guantanamo Bay.
The extradition
Extradition refers to a state sending a suspected or convicted criminal to another nation. Many countries – including Britain and Sweden – have signed treaties that say they will cooperate with each other when it comes to extraditing individuals.
Bradley Manning
Whilst stationed at a base in Baghdad, Bradley Manning was arrested for leaking classified US Army information to Wikileaks. Throughout 2010, he was accused of exposing 250,000 diplomatic cables, 500,000 army reports, and several videos of combat – including damning evidence of US troops firing on civilians. After being charged he was held in solitary confinement, provoking concern and condemnation from many experts.

Subjects

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