The rule of law and Julian Assange

The rule of law is a fundamental principle, at least as basic or maybe more basic than voting rights and freedom of the press.

This is part of our British heritage, going back to Magna Carta—the idea that nobody, not even the King, is above the law, and nobody, not even the humblest cottager, is below the protection of the law.

For us Americans, the rule of law was part of our Constitution even before we had a specific Bill of Rights.

The Constitution from the beginning has guaranteed the right of habeas corpus, which means the right of  arrested persons to be told what law they are accused of breaking, and forbid ex post facto laws, which declared things illegal after they were done, and bills of attainder, which declared certain persons outside the protection of the law.

I was shocked and disillusioned by how easily, after the 9/11 attacks, these fundamental principles were forgotten.

The Bush administration, the Obama administration and now the Trump administration claim the right to order the killing of anyone they deem a threat to the state, based on secret criteria and without accountability to anyone.

George W. Bush had a kill list.  Barack Obama called has a “disposition matrix”.  I don’t know what Trump calls it.  Most of us middle-class white Americans of have come to regard it as normal, possibly because we think only people with dark skins and Arab names will ever be on it.

I read a chilling article by Matt Taibbi about a journalist who figured out he is on the kill list, and is trying to get off it.  He doesn’t know what he is accused of nor how to appeal.

Julian Assange is in a situation in some ways similar to this journalist.  A grand jury has been meeting in Alexandria, Va., since 2010 to consider his case.  James Comey, when he was FBI director, and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions have said they intend to apprehend Assange.

Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, has said he’s not interested in testimony from Assange until Assange is in custody.  Yet no charges against Assange have ever been announced.  If the grand jury has indicted him, those indictments are sealed.

Neither the US nor the UK government has been willing to say whether an extradition request is on file.

Assange was put under house arrest in 2010 after a Swedish prosecutor requested that he be extradited to answer questions about alleged sexual misconduct.  Contrary to what has often been reported, Assange was never charged with any crime in Sweden nor have the two women with whom he has sex accused him of rape.

He said he would be willing to go to Sweden to answer questions if he could be assured he would not be re-extradited to the United States.  The Swedish prosecutor refused to give that assurance.

He requested political asylum from Ecuador in 2012 and has been in Ecuador’s London embassy over since.  He also said he was willing to be cross-examined by Swedish authorities in Britain.  This eventually was done and the charges were dropped.  At the request of the British government, this was not announced at the time.  He is still subject to prosecution for evading bail and possibly contempt of court.

In 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that “the various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subject constitute a form of arbitrary detention.”  It called on the British and Swedish governments to drop charges and let him go.

Earlier this month the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which is based in Costa Rica, ruled that asylum seekers are entitled to travel to the country that has granted them asylum.  This would mean that Assange has a right to leave the Ecuadorian embassy and fly to Ecuador.

Both rulings have been ignored.  Of course the whole case is a pretext.  If Assange were not a thorn in the side of U.S. intelligence agencies, all these matters would have been settled years ago.

If Assange is charged with anything, it probably will be a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.  The relevant portions forbid providing information related to “national defense” to “anyone not entitled to have it,” or conveying information with intend to hinder the operation or success of the U.S. armed forces or to aid its enemies,

Revealing the truth about how the U.S. government abuses power could, arguably, fall under those provisions.  Juries in Arlington County, Va., the location of the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, would no doubt be sympathetic to that argument.

In 1971, the New York Times published the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War, and was not prosecuted.  I don’t think the supposed crime of publishing classified information outweighs the real crimes that the Pentagon Papers revealed.

The U.S. government violates the idea of the rule of law by engaging in extrajudicial killings and undeclared wars.  It forgives torture and refuses to prosecution high-level financial fraud.  Julian Assange has not advocated or practiced violence.  If you think he should be singled out for prosecution, and the crimes that he exposed be ignored, you don’t really believe in the rule of law.

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