In Defense of Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by Ecuador, but he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. If he leaves the compound, he will be arrested and extradited to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault. Assange denies the allegations and claims they are part of an effort to get him to the United States to face more serious charges related to his work for WikiLeaks. High-profile defenders like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone have recently published editorials in support of Assange. Now, professor and activist Noah Chomsky weighs in.

Julian Assange faces serious accusations from two women in Sweden, yet you’ve said that any decent country should grant him asylum. Why?

The accusations should be taken quite seriously, just as all such accusations should. Independent of that, no decent country would permit a person to be sent to a country where the chances of his receiving a fair trial are very limited. The apparent conflict can be easily resolved. Sweden claims only that they want to interrogate Assange. They have been invited to do that in England, or in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. They refuse. They could also issue a statement that they will not extradite Assange to the United States. They refuse.

Suppose that Assange had leaked Russian, rather than American, documents, and the circumstances were otherwise the same. Then Sweden would not hesitate for a moment to question Assange in the United Kingdom and to guarantee that he would not be extradited to Russia. Those who think that this analogy is unfair have something to learn about contemporary history. They can, for example, look at the brutal and criminal treatment of Bradley Manning, to take one of many examples.

It is worth adding that Sweden is quite willing to follow Washington’s orders in even worse circumstances than this – for example, when the United States wanted Sweden to send someone to Mubarak’s Egypt to be tortured.

According to documents published by WikiLeaks, the Ecuadorian government doesn’t support freedom of the press domestically. Is it hypocritical for Assange to accept asylum from such a country?

Of course not, no more than it is hypocritical for him to stay in London, which has a shameful record of violation of freedom of press – of course, targeting weak and defenseless journals, so that it passes without comment. As for the charges against Ecuador, they should be evaluated seriously, just like those against England, France, and others. But it is irrelevant here.

What’s at stake here?

At stake is the question of whether the citizens of a country have a right to know what their elected officials are doing. Those who have a lingering affection for an odd notion called “democracy” believe that this is important. To be sure, a state has the right to keep some matters secret. I haven’t read all the WikiLeaks exposures, but I have read quite a few, and I have not seen an example of anything that could legitimately be kept secret, nor, to my knowledge, have the horde of angry critics presented an example. I should say that this is not unusual. Anyone who has spent time studying declassified documents is well aware that overwhelmingly, they are kept secret to protect elected officials from the scrutiny of citizens, not for defense or some other legitimate purpose.

Someone who courageously carries out actions in defense of democratic rights deserves applause, not hysterical denunciation and punishment. We understand that very well with regard to official enemies. Since you bring up the matter of “hypocrisy,” it is the extreme of hypocrisy to refuse to apply the same standards to ourselves.

Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also written and lectured widely on intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs, and U.S. foreign policy.

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