The Arrest of Julian Assange

A few minutes after Juli­an Assange was scan­dal­ously arres­ted and dragged out of the Ecuadori­an Embassy in Lon­don last week, I was con­tac­ted by RT​.com to do an inter­view. While fur­ther com­ments will fol­low, here are my ini­tial thoughts:

Another abuse of UK terrorism laws

First pub­lished on RT Op-Edge.

Dav­id Mir­anda had just spent a week in Ber­lin, before fly­ing back to his home coun­try, Brazil, via London’s Heath­row air­port. As he attemp­ted to trans­it on to his flight home — not enter the UK, mind you, just make an inter­na­tion­al con­nec­tion —  he was pulled to one side by the UK’s bor­der secur­ity officers and ques­tioned for nine hours, as well as hav­ing all his tech­nic­al equip­ment con­fis­cated.

Glenn Greenwald and his partner David MirandaHe was detained for the max­im­um peri­od allowed under the dra­coni­an terms of Sched­ule 7 of the UK’s Ter­ror­ism Act (2000).  His appar­ent “crime”? To be the part­ner of cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald who broke the Edward Snowden whis­tleblow­ing stor­ies.

Miranda’s deten­tion has caused out­rage, rightly, around the world. Dip­lo­mat­ic rep­res­ent­a­tions have been made by the Brazili­an gov­ern­ment to the Brit­ish, UK MPs are ask­ing ques­tions, and The Guard­i­an news­pa­per (which is the primary pub­lish­er of  Greenwald’s stor­ies), has sent in the law­yers.

This epis­ode is troub­ling on so many levels, it is dif­fi­cult to know where to begin.

Magna_CartaFirstly, the Ter­ror­ism Act (2000) is designed to invest­ig­ate, er, ter­ror­ism — at least, so you would think. How­ever it is all too easy for mis­sion creep to set in, as I have been say­ing for years.  The defin­i­tion of ter­ror­ism has expan­ded to cov­er act­iv­ists, plac­ard wavers, and pro­test­ers as well as, now appar­ently, the part­ners of journ­al­ists.  The old under­stand­ing of due leg­al pro­cess is merely yet anoth­er quaint, Brit­ish arte­fact like the Magna Carta and habeas cor­pus.

In the UK we now have secret courts cov­er­ing all things “nation­al secur­ity”, we have per­vas­ive Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance as exem­pli­fied by GCHQ’s TEMPORA pro­gramme, and we have our spies involved in kid­nap­ping and tor­ture.

So Sched­ule 7 of the Ter­ror­ism Act is just anoth­er small nail in the coffin of his­tor­ic Brit­ish freedoms. Under its terms, any­one can be pulled aside, detained and ques­tioned by bor­der secur­ity guards if they are “sus­pec­ted of” involve­ment in, the com­mis­sion­ing of, or fin­an­cial sup­port for ter­ror­ism. The detain­ee is not allowed to speak to a law­yer, nor are they allowed not to answer ques­tions, on pain of crim­in­al pro­sec­u­tion. Plus their prop­erty can be indef­in­itely seized and ran­sacked, includ­ing com­puters, phones, and oth­er gad­gets.

Under Sched­ule 7 people can be ques­tioned for a max­im­um of 9 hours. After that, the author­it­ies either have to apply for a form­al exten­sion, charge and arrest, or release. Accord­ing to a UK gov­ern­ment doc­u­ment, 97% people are ques­tioned for less than 1 hour then released and only 0.06% are held for six hours.  Mir­anda was held up until the last minute of the full nine hours before being released without charge.

Secondly, this abuse of power dis­plays all too clearly the points that Edward Snowden has dis­closed via Gre­en­wald about a bur­geon­ing and out-of-con­trol sur­veil­lance state. The deten­tion of Mir­anda dis­plays all the obsess­ive vin­dict­ive­ness of a wounded secret state that is buzz­ing around, angry as a wasp. Snowden has the pro­tec­tion of the only state cur­rently with the power to face down the brute might of US “dip­lomacy”, and Gre­en­wald still has the shreds of journ­al­ist pro­tec­tions around him.

Friends and part­ners, how­ever, can be seen as fair game.

I know this from bit­ter per­son­al exper­i­ence. In 1997 former MI5 intel­li­gence officer, Dav­id Shayler, blew the whistle on a whole range of UK spy crimes: files on gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, illeg­al phone taps, IRA bombs that could have been pre­ven­ted, inno­cent people in pris­on, and an illeg­al MI6 assas­sin­a­tion plot against Gad­dafi, which went wrong and inno­cent people died.

Work­ing with a major UK news­pa­per and with due respect for real nation­al secrets, he went pub­lic about these crimes.  Pre-empt­ively we went on the run togeth­er, so that we could remain free to argue about and cam­paign around the dis­clos­ures, rather than dis­ap­pear­ing into a max­im­um secur­ity pris­on for years. After a month on the run across Europe, I returned to the UK to work with our law­yers, see our trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies, and pack up our smashed-up, police-raided flat.

Annie_arrest_BWIn Septem­ber 1997 I flew back with my law­yer from Spain to Lon­don Gatwick. I knew that the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch wanted to inter­view me, and my law­yer had nego­ti­ated this ahead of my travel.  Des­pite this, I was arres­ted at the immig­ra­tion desk by six heav­ies, and car­ted off to a counter-ter­ror­ism suite at Char­ing Cross police sta­tion in cent­ral Lon­don, where I was inter­rog­ated for six hours.

At that point I had done noth­ing more than sup­port Dav­id. As anoth­er ex-MI5 officer I agreed that the spies needed great­er over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, but actu­ally my arrest was because I was his girl­friend and going after me would be lever­age against him. But is got worse — two days later Shayler’s two best friends and his broth­er were arres­ted on flag­rantly trumped-up charges. None of us was ever charged with any crime, but we were all kept on police bail for months.

Look­ing back, our treat­ment was designed to put more pres­sure on him and “keep him in his box” — it was pure intim­id­a­tion. Journ­al­ists and stu­dents were also threatened, har­assed, and in one case charged and con­victed for hav­ing the temer­ity to expose spy crimes dis­closed by Shayler. To this day, none of the crim­in­als in the UK intel­li­gence agency has ever been charged or con­victed.

So the threats and intim­id­a­tion around the Snowden case, and the deten­tion of Greenwald’s part­ner, are old, old tac­tics. What is new is the sheer scale of blatant intim­id­a­tion, the sheer bru­tish force. Des­pite the full glare of glob­al inter­net and media cov­er­age, the US and UK spooks still think they can get away with this sort of intim­id­a­tion. Will they? Or will we, the glob­al cit­izenry, draw a line in the sand?

Oh, and let’s not for­get the sheer hypo­crisy as well — the US con­demns Snowden for seek­ing refuge in Rus­sia, and cas­tig­ates that coun­try for its civil rights record on cer­tain issues. Be that as it may, the US estab­lish­ment should look to the log in its own eye first — that one of its young cit­izens faces the death sen­tence or life-long incar­cer­a­tion for expos­ing (war) crimes against the glob­al com­munity as well as the country’s own con­sti­tu­tion.

There is an inter­na­tion­ally-recog­nised leg­al pre­ced­ent from the Nurem­burg Nazi tri­als after World War 2: “just fol­low­ing orders” is not a defence under any law, par­tic­u­larly when those orders lead to vic­tim­isa­tion, war crimes and gen­o­cide.  The UK bor­der guards, as well as the inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence com­munit­ies and mil­it­ary, would do well to heed that power­ful les­son from his­tory.

So this overzeal­ous use of a law to detain the part­ner of a journ­al­ist merely trav­el­ling through the UK should make us all pause for thought. The West has long inveighed against total­it­ari­an regimes and police states. How can they not recog­nise what they have now become? And how long can we, as cit­izens, con­tin­ue to turn a blind eye?