Monday, December 13, 2010


There are different kinds of heroes. Some are people who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time but who rise to the occasion. There are the quiet heroes who sacrifice to give their children a better start, the parents who break the cycle of abuse so that their children never have to endure what they did. There are professional heroes – fire fighters and ambulance operators. People like Police Inspector Mike O'Leary, who risked his life and suffered severe burns to rescue two children from a burning vehicle. These are the people we celebrate.

But there are those who bear as much emnity as acclaim. People who put themselves on the line in order to expose the truth and challenge power. The danger these people face is not from random natural events, from enemy soldiers or dangerous criminals. The danger they face is from their own governments and its allies, their armies, their police forces and their secret services.

One of these is Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of Wikileaks which last week released 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables into the public domain. The cables have already proven to be highly embarassing both to the US Government and to others. They show the US spying on its allies and on UN officials, including taking iris scans, DNA samples and fingerprints from foreign officials. It shows the US Government condoning corruption and human rights abuses in “friendly” governments and using its diplomatic power to advance the interests of US corporations. It shows collusion in torture.

You may ask what is new about any of this. We know that the Whitehouse's rhetoric on 'freedom' and 'anti-terrorism' goes hand in hand with funding terrorists and supporting dictators. What these cables provide, though, is self incriminating evidence of the corruption at the heart of American foreign policy. It is worth reflecting on the role that the Waihopai spy base plays in this, as the New Zealand Government prepares to persecute the 3 men who helped pull the cover from that place almost 3 years ago.

Of course Mr Assange isn't sounding much like a hero after being accused of various sexual offenses in Sweden. He is currently detained in Wandsworth Prison, London after being refused bail and is being held almost incommunicado. On Wednesday, according to The Guardian, he was allowed one 3 minute phone call with his lawyer.

Rape accusations should not be belittled. Women face major obstacles to get justice in the courts, especially in Sweden. However I can't help noting some suspicious elements to the case. First, no charges have been laid. He is only wanted for questioning. The allegations led to a police arrest warrant in August but it was rescinded a day later by a senior prosecutor. Apparently she said that she believed the women, she just didn't feel what happened was a criminal act.

It is hard to see how Assange can be denied bail and extradited just so he can attend a police interview. Katrin Axelsson of 'Women against Rape' has remarked at the unusual zeal of Swedish and British authorities to pursue Assange. “There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety” she writes. “Women don't take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst”.

According to media reports the USA has already talked to Swedish authorites about on-delivering him to the USA, where media commentators are calling for him to be assasinated and the Justice Dept is talking about espionage charges. Given Sweden's compliance (documented by Wikileaks) in delivering prisoners up for torture to Egypt under US pressure, it seems unlikely they would refuse. What remains to be seen is whether making a martyr out of Assange will weaken Wikileaks, or just make it grow.

(from my Waikato Times column 11 Dec 2010)