The US government wants Julian Assange dead. In concert with British authorities, and with the silence of the Australian government, it intends to isolate him until his body gives out. Assange is now in south-east London’s HM Prison Belmarsh, having been sentenced to 50 weeks in one of the country’s highest security jails for ... skipping bail. 

This comes after seven years’ confinement in Ecuador’s London embassy as a political prisoner, denied fresh air and sunlight, his senses and body fading. Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, said in a statement on 31 May, having visited Assange earlier in the month:

“In the course of the past nine years, Mr Assange has been exposed to persistent, progressively severe abuse ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement ... to his oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy, and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination ...

“Mr. Assange’s health has been seriously affected by the extremely hostile and arbitrary environment he has been exposed to for many years ... The evidence is overwhelming and clear, Mr. Assange has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.”

The lengths to which the US will go to destroy Assange came to light in late May when the Department of Justice brought espionage charges against him. If extradited and convicted on all counts, the WikiLeaks founder faces up to 175 years in a US gulag. The multiple indictments relate to his role in helping former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to make public a trove of documents exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and corruption and duplicitous conduct in the highest reaches of government. 

The indictments have been years in the making. Barack Obama’s Justice Department in 2011 convened the grand jury now releasing its charges. But the Obama administration reportedly baulked at launching a prosecution under the Espionage Act because of the constitution’s first amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. If Obama had lost the case, it would have been an embarrassment to the DoJ and a massive victory for Assange and the left; if it had won, media outlets and Obama’s political opponents would have, rightly, gone berserk over the trashing of the Bill of Rights. Yet antipathy toward Assange and WikiLeaks and the view that disclosing state secrets is treasonous have led the Trump administration to go full steam ahead.    

The corporate media – those who dined out on Pulitzer Prizes and the advertising money that came with the clicks from publishing WikiLeaks’ treasures – not only left Assange to his fate but perpetuated the government smears against him. They are singing a new tune now that their own businesses are on the line. If the US government succeeds in this prosecution, investigative journalists will have the sword of Damocles hanging over them. 

But it’s not just the corporate media that need to take stock. Many on the left have been silent for too long in the face of imperialism’s pursuit of Assange. Allegations of sexual assault against him have been used against, and within, our ranks and progressive circles to silence any defence of a man who has done more than any other person in recent memory to facilitate the exposure of the brutality at the heart of the US Empire – the murder, the torture, the rape and the mutilation that are standard practice in “spreading democracy”. 

Those still unfamiliar with the defence of the charges against the WikiLeaks founder should read Caitlin Johnstone’s thorough Medium piece: “Debunking all the Assange smears”. But even if everything said about Assange were true, the collective restraint or, worse, the linking of arms with the authorities in their vilification of him, was cowardly and an illustration of the shallowness of some so-called progressives. 

The United States is the most destructive force on the planet. To turn our backs on Assange is to turn on every victim of US imperialism past, present and future. Not because they will not or would not be raped or dead if only for WikiLeaks, but because the world would not and will not know of their plight were the US Department of Justice to succeed in its quest to bury anyone unearthing imperial criminality.

Those insisting that Assange is egomaniacal and an altogether ugly human being, and therefore undeserving of defence, are in my mind only putting a mirror to themselves – there are few things more self-centred than making an individual character assessment the litmus test for granting or withholding political support for someone persecuted by authority. If Assange’s alleged personal failings are a basis for ignoring one of the greatest attacks on press freedom we’ve seen, then there is little left to do but find faults with our neighbours while the world burns around us.

In this respect, Assange is a test case not only of what we will allow the US government to get away with. It is a test for how we approach politics and our capacity to build resistance to imperialism. As the editor of US-based magazine Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson, wrote in the Guardian:

“Anyone who doesn’t stick up for [Assange] against this prosecution is both unprincipled and foolish. Unprincipled, because they don’t care about protecting the liberties that are essential to exposing government crimes, and foolish because authoritarianism doesn’t come all at once. It creeps slowly, normalising itself bit by bit, until you don’t realise that it’s too late. First they came for Assange, and if you say nothing, they’re coming for you next.”