Artist Pyotr Pavlensky, a supporter of the jailed members of Pussy Riot, protesting outside the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg:
Oddly we haven't yet seen any of Julian Assange's many supporters adopting such a dramatic form of protest. Could it be that they're aware of the difference between a genuine struggle for freedom of speech in a society with a long history of tyranny, where a dictator in all but name is attempting to stifle any opposition, and the efforts of a narcissist to thwart attempts to put him on trial as a sex pest? They'd say the cases were comparable, no doubt; but they're not really serious.
Hugo Rifkind in the Times is very good on this. Here's a chunk, since the article's behind a paywall:
“On Friday,” said Mr Assange, “a Russian band were sentenced to two years in jail for a political performance. There is unity in the oppression. There must be absolute unity and determination in the response.”
This is the founder of WikiLeaks likening his situation to that of Pussy Riot. As far as I can make out, his point seems to be that just as Pussy Riot faced bogus charges of blasphemy because of their opposition to Vladimir Putin, so he faces bogus charges of sexual assault because of his opposition to America.
Is this his point? I think it must be. Certainly, this is what most of his supporters regard as his point. So I want to discuss, in this perhaps unfamiliar non-mocking way, why they and he are so very wrong. Broadly, there are three reasons.
First, if there was some sort of global, unified response to oppression, I quibble with Mr Assange’s confidence that he deserves a place in it. I’ve no doubt that he does truly look at the Western world and see an oppressive military industrial complex, hellbent on all the usual drivel. But that doesn’t make him, in practical terms, an enemy of all non-Western oppression, too. Often, it makes him the reverse.
It is a matter of record that US documents on the opposition in Belarus, for example, were given to the Belarussian Government by people working for WikiLeaks, thereby giving President Lukashenko (often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”) a ready-made hit-list. Mr Assange highlighted the case of Nabeel Rajab, a jailed Bahraini human rights activist. But it is precisely such people who had the most to fear from the leaking of documents that gave an overview of unredacted dissenting activity garnered from people who felt they were speaking in secret.
WikiLeaks documents named witnesses against the Taleban in Afghanistan, Beijing lawyers who briefed on reform and Zimbabwean generals who chatted freely with a US ambassador. Meanwhile, Mr Assange’s new protector, President Correa of Ecuador, has jailed and harassed journalists for criticising him. Time and again, Mr Assange considers himself on the side of the oppressed. The oppressed might disagree.
Second, the mechanics of Mr Assange’s case render comparisons with Pussy Riot unsustainable. Were he facing prosecution for something as nebulous as, say, tax fraud (as is Ai Wei Wei in China) he might have an argument. But sexual assault is not a nebulous charge. It requires a corporeal complainant, or in this case two. If you were the CIA, think for a moment about the massive risk involved in staging such a thing. Think of the people that you would need to trust intimately. Flaky people, for the most part. Grandstanding prosecutors and women prepared to sleep with Julian Assange. And all for what?
Ultimately, it boils down to a simple question: do we believe this is a likely way for Britain, America and Sweden to behave? Hmm, if only we had some sort of secret cache of documents that shows what governments say and do when they think nobody is watching! Oh wait. We do.
This leads to our third reason, which is the crux of the matter. Mr Assange is wrong about the nature of Western governments. He is wrong about Britain and Sweden and also wrong, albeit not as wrong as he should be, about America. His view is a sort of stoner corruption of the philosophy of Noam Chomsky, which wasn’t that coherent to start with. Essentially, it holds that the West draws a false distinction between its own crimes and those of others, when they are equivalent.
Mr Assange and his supporters express these view by habit, perhaps without even thinking about it. You or I might think he spent 18 months tagged and fighting extradition; to Assangeites he was “detained without charge”. Throughout this time he was at liberty, but with a curfew, free to travel to London and give lectures. To his supporters, nonetheless, the British Government had put him “under house arrest”. Even in his speech Mr Assange spoke like this: “A threat was sent to this embassy and the police descended on the building. If the UK did not throw away the Vienna Convention the other night that is because the world was watching.”
There’s a temptation to get angry about this sort of thing. But it is far more effective to point out that it is wrong, using as your example Mr Assange. If Britain is in the habit of detaining people without charge, why go through the rigmarole of sex charges and extradition to Sweden? How, when under house arrest, do you flee to Knightsbridge? The world brims with countries where he would have been properly jailed by now, or knocked on the head in a dark alley or extracted from an embassy perhaps via a mysterious poison, making him flee to A&E with suspected appendicitis. Plus, it is simply untrue to suggest that the UK would have “thrown away the Vienna Convention the other night” if people hadn’t been watching — the process of de-embassying an embassy would take a week.
The need even to have this sort of conversation, in Britain, for God’s sake, is infuriating. I worry, though, about the response to that fury. This is what I mean about the onus being on Britain. I don’t think a non-furious Foreign Office would have found itself threatening to revoke an embassy’s status to ship a suspected sex pest to Scandinavia. Do they realise how stupid that was? It’s as if they had spent so much time listening to him harp on about being a dissident that they started to believe him.