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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Mixed reaction to Assange’s release

Norwegian government officials generally hail critical journalism and freedom of expression, but they were unusually quiet when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was finally released from prison last week. Assange’s longtime supporters in Norway, however, were clearly relieved.

Julian Assange has long had lots of supporters in Norway. His wife Stella Assange (lower left) was in Oslo last year to accept Norsk PEN’s award for freedom of expression on his behalf. From top left, Professor Rune Ottosen, Norsk PEN leader Jørgen Watne Frydnes and Ann-Magrit Austenå, leader of the organization’s board of directors. PHOTO: Norsk PEN

“Congratulations, Julian Assange!” read the headline on newspaper Aftenposten’s lead editorial after news broke that Assange was on board a flight from London and heading home to Australia. A legal deal struck between Assange’s prosecutors and defenders didn’t clear him of alleged violations of espionage laws, and Assange admitted to them, but the 62 months he spent locked up in a British prison and facing extradition were viewed as sufficient and he avoided both extradition and a potential US jail term of 35 years.

Even though Assange was charged with hacking and publishing classified information, Aftenposten and others concluded that he and Wikileaks “did the world a favour by publishing documents that cast light” over how the US was conducting its war on terror. Wikileaks published, among other things, a video showing how the US killed 11 people in Baghdad including two Reuters journalists. Wikileaks’ many revelations about US warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and torture at Guantanamo, embarrassed the US and, according to former Vice President Mike Pence, put American soldiers’ lives in danger. Assange’s supporters contend that as in previous cases like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, the public had a right to know how warfare was carried out.

The Norwegian government, keen on promoting free speech, found itself in an awkward position since the US government is its biggest ally. As late as last fall, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide of the Labour Party had dodged questions in Parliament on Assange’s imprisonment and the consequences it could have on press freedom in Norway and Europe. He and his predecessors claimed the UK was bound by the same human rights obligations as Norway and that extradition cases must be handled by the courts, not politicians.

Many other Norwegians were far more critical of how both the US and the UK were handling Assange’s case. They included actress and human rights activist Liv Ullmann, journalist and author Erling Borgen, anti-corruption- and legal expert Eva Joly and the leaders of Norwegian press organizations. Ullmann and Borgen were among a group of Assange supporters who led an appeal outside the British Embassy in Oslo last year and presented a letter demanding that Assange be released.

Norwegian actress and human rights activist Liv Ullmann has been among those supporting Julian Assange. She’s shown here reading aloud from one of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo’s many essays, when Chinese officials prevented him from attending the Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in December 2020.. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Ullmann, who lived in the US for many years, read aloud from the British poem No man is an island, and claimed Assange should not face more prison time “for what he actually did: Reveal terribly dirty tricks by the Americans.” She has also marched in earlier demonstrations supporting Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked Pentagon papers that revealed horrifying details of US warfare in Vietnam that swayed public opinion against it.

Joly, meanwhile, told newspaper Klassekampen that she thinks US officials realized that they risked even more pressure and criticism from academics, artists and others. The price of continuing its case against Assange became very high, agree others, not least now that the US needs to keep Assange’s native Australia as a close ally in the event of more conflicts with China in Asia and the southern Pacific. Australia was already pressuring the UK and US against an extradition.

“This shows that it’s possible to win over the CIA and the FBI,” Joly told Klassekampen. And now the US’ other allies don’t need to make more excuses for Washington, at a time when western alliances are more important than ever.

Assange, meanwhile, is now back home in Australia and Norwegians leading the Norwegian chapter of PEN International, are relieved. “Julian Assange is free!” read the headline on Norsk PEN’s own website last week, nearly a year after the organization awarded its Ossietzky Prize to Assange. It’s named after Carl von Ossietzky, who also published information about Adolph Hitler’s violations of the Versailles Treaty after World War I with his military buildup in the 1930s. Ossietzky was also jailed, badly mistreated and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his bravery, but never allowed to receive it. He ultimately died of tuberculosis in 1938 after five years in police custody.

Norsk PEN, led by the young man who also now leads the Norwegian Nobel Committee, has noted parallels between Assange and Ossietzky. Assange deserved the prize, its leaders claimed, because his own bravery “underscores the need to protect freedom of expression globally.” Berglund



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