Parallel travesties

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By Mahir Ali

AT the time of writing, almost five days after the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was reported to have suddenly died in an Arctic penal colony, his mother was still searching for his remains.

Yesterday, the UK high court was scheduled to begin a hearing on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could have the right to appeal the decision to extradite him to the US, where he faces 18 charges that could potentially lead to a 175-year prison term.

Navalny emerged as Vladimir Putin’s most visible challenger little more than a decade ago. He was previously better known as a stalwart of the ethno-nationalist right who, in a 2007 video, compared immigrants to cockroaches. He subsequently shifted his focus to the Putin clique’s extravagant corruption, which broadened his local appeal and turned him into something of a blue-eyed poster boy for Western liberals desperate for an alternative to the status quo in Moscow.

Navalny does not seem to have formally recanted his xenophobic past, and he appeared to share Putin’s views that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially indistinguishable, although he opposed the war that enters its third year this week. He was also resistant to the idea of a broad anti-Putin coalition. His videos exposing the venal elite that helps to prop up the crème de la Kremlin are a useful resource, but their influence was largely restricted to Moscow and St Petersburg.

There is speculation about why Putin might have wanted Navalny dead at this juncture, but none of it so far is convincing. Only an independent forensic examination of the 47-year-old’s corpse could reveal the immediate cause of death, little more than three years after he barely survived an assassination attempt by poisoning. His choice of returning to Russia for almost certain incarceration after treatment in Germany was undoubtedly brave, and possibly foolhardy.

Assange must not suffer Navalny’s fate.

Even if he hadn’t been imprisoned, there is little Navalny could have done to thwart Putin’s re-election next month. Perhaps the only possible explanation for Putin’s paranoid intolerance of even the mildest resistance is some kind of psychosis, His next term could propel him past Joseph Stalin’s 29-year record as dictator. Stalin had a lot more blood on his hands, but Putin keeps striving to catch up.

But why would ‘Genocide Joe’ — as US President Joe Biden has been dubbed after refusing to take action to halt Israeli atrocities in Gaza, and striving to expand the Middle Eastern conflict — wish to add Julian Assange to his lengthening list of victims?

The crux of the case against Assange hinges on the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War Diary that WikiLeaks helped to publicise almost 15 years ago. The massive trove of documents exposed the sordid reality and immoral grounding of the twin conflicts spearheaded by Washington under false pretences — echoing the Pentagon Papers, which had, back in 1971, laid bare the egregious lies that kept the Vietnam War going.

Barack Obama’s vice president absurdly labelled Assange a “high-tech terrorist”, but the administration wisely chose not to pursue charges, as that would have entailed also charging The New York Times and other respectable media outlets that worked with WikiLeaks to highlight US excesses and hypocrisies. Donald Trump was exuberant when WikiLeaks released internal Democratic Party messages broadly highlighting the deficit of democracy in a floundering political system, and specifically the dedicated efforts to deny Bernie Sanders the presidential nomination in 2016.

It’s open to question whether those revelations tipped the balance in Trump’s favour, but he was briefly a WikiLeaks enthusiast until the outlet spilled the beans on some of the CIA’s egregious global practices. The whistleblower in this instance, Joshua Schulte, was sentenced this month to 40 years in prison for leaking classified information. Chelsea Manning, the Iraq/ Afghan whistleblower in the instance pertinent to the pending case against Assange, faced humiliation, torture, and a 35-year sentence, but Obama pardoned her after seven years.

Biden has so far seemed incapable of even that modicum of decency, despite bipartisan parliamentary representations from various American allies as well as the US Congress. If the travesty continues to unfold, the effect on journalism globally of the US persecuting an Australian conduit for uncomfortable truths whose publishing venture was based in Europe will be chilling.

Just as many who disagreed with some of Navalny’s inclinations are appalled by his fate, almost everyone who was rubbed the wrong way by Assange agrees that his unrelenting persecution is an abomination. The British justice system can liberate him in short order after seven years of confinement and five years of brutal imprisonment. It’s too late for Alexei, but Julian must walk free.

(Published in Dawn)

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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