In one sense, it’s surreal to think that I worked for some time in a part of London that was in fairly close proximity to the Ecuadorean Embassy where Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, was confined, sheltering under political asylum from British police. He was due for extradition to Sweden to face questioning on sexual misconduct allegations, though he had not been charged by Swedish prosecutors. His offer to go to Sweden for questioning, if their authorities gave assurances that they would not extradite him to the US, was rejected.
In September 2012, he had breached bail and taken refuge in Ecuador’s UK embassy, where he was granted asylum on the grounds of political persecution. It was widely suspected that should he be extradited to Sweden, that country would extradite him, in turn, to the US, where there is bipartisan political support for his severe punishment for Wikileaks’ publication of classified documents that revealed, amongst other things, possible war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq. Whilst no evidence has been produced to show that Wikileaks’ publications has endangered any lives, the current US President, Joe Biden, likened Assange to a “hi-tech terrorist”, in 2010, when he was vice-president.
After over six years in the embassy, on 11 April 2019, a new Ecuadorean leadership withdrew Assange’s asylum and soon after, British police entered the embassy and arrested him. The Swedish prosecutors dropped their sexual misconduct investigation into Assange that year, citing that the period of time that had passed weakened evidence. Images published around the world showed Assange being dragged out of the embassy building in Knightsbridge, London. He was imprisoned for breaching his bail and US prosecutors unsealed an indictment that charged Assange with breaches of the Espionage Act 1917, for allegedly assisting Chelsea Manning in accessing and leaking the Iraq War logs. In fact, Manning already had access to the logs and Assange is alleged to have provided some advice on how he might hide his traces better, a category of support that all publications involve themselves in when working to protect sources leaking classified information.
This year, 4 January 2021, with Assange in maximum security prison, a UK judge refused the US’ extradition request, citing the impact that it would have on Assange’s deteriorating mental health. In the US, he would likely face spending the rest of his life in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. Back in 2019, the United Nations special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer, warned that Assange health was failing, stating, “in addition to physical ailments, Mr Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.” Assange remains in a British prison, denied bail, pending an appeal by the US.
On one hand, my personal physical proximity to these historic events feels surreal but, on reflection, it isn’t. I was quietly sitting at work streets away from where Assange was holed up but our society, largely, was indifferent. We live in a society of amnesia and fear, encouraged by a media and political system that forgets or buries important news. Julian Assange’s story has significance for press freedom globally. It raises questions of whether the media can publish classified information which sheds light on the actions of our governments and, at times, their wrongdoing. However, the UK media and political establishment had decided that the imprisonment by their government of a media publisher, which Assange was, was not particularly remarkable.
On Monday, this week, news emerged from Belarus, that opposition activists, Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak had been sentenced to 11 and 10 years of imprisonment respectively, for their role in the political opposition and protest movement that erupted after the widely disputed 9 August 2020 election victory claimed by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko claimed an 80% share of the vote, against opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now in self-exile, having fled the country, fearing the safety of her children. Her husband, a Youtuber and pro-democracy activist, had been imprisoned in May 2020.
The vote was condemned internationally as not being fair and transparent and major civil unrest followed with large protests attracted crowds of tens of thousands of citizens. Lukashenko responded forcefully, with an estimated 35,000 people arrested. Over 650 political prisoners are thought to currently be imprisoned and a “purge” of opposition organisations has occurred.
39 year old Maria Kolesnikova, who is a former flautist in the Belarus Philharmonic Orchestra, has been called a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. On 7 September 2020, after joining a seven-member Coordination Council to challenge Lukashenko’s election victory claim, she was kidnapped by masked men in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and taken to the border with Ukraine. It is reported that rather than accept forced exile, she tore up her passport to prevent her own deportation. She has since been in pre-trial custody in Belarus and, nearly a year later, sentenced to 11 years of prison for crimes, including, plotting to seize state power unconstitutionally and calling for action to damage national security.
All the opposition leaders that challenged Lukashenko in August 2020 have been imprisoned or are in exile. Lawyer, Maxim Znak, who was sentenced with Maria Kolesnikova, has undertaken a hunger strike to protest his pre-trial detention. Whilst, the UK media covered Belarus during the mass public protests and arrests at the end of last year, now that the streets are quiet, coverage is muted.
Earlier this year, the organisation, Index on Censorship, published a letter written by Maria Kolesnikova to her father, from prison. The letter was written by Kolesnikova on the day that a court rejected her complaint against the extension of her pre-trial detention to 1 August 2021. Her father attended court that day, but he was only permitted to do so after he turned the t-shirt he was wearing inside out, to hide the image of his daughter printed on it. Kolesnikova’s sister, Tatsiana Khomich, referenced as “Tania” in the letter, says that their father has been repeatedly prevented from visiting Maria in prison.
Letter from Maria Kolesnikova to her father Aliaksandr Kalesnikov:
16 July 2021:
Hi my dearly beloved world’s best dad!
How are you doing in this trying time?
I’m constantly thinking of you, grandpa and all our nearest and dearest – sending my hello’s and lots of hugs to all!
The court hearing took place today so I already know how you had to ‘get changed’ – I bet everybody in the detention centre could hear me laugh! You really think fast on your feet. You see, now nobody can doubt that I’m my father’s daughter – and I’m so proud to be one!
I’m so glad that you are keeping your spirits high and are managing to get through these crazy days with a good sense of humour 🙂
Keep it up!
Today I received two! Letters from you and two from A.
You wrote that you’re in awe with Tania – I’m also writing this in every letter to her. What she’s doing for me and our whole team is unbelievable and incredible.
Please ask her, as do I, to make sure that she takes good care of herself and makes every effort to find time to rest.
And of course, the joke that your Berlingo [car] is crumbling and ageing faster than you are has also put a smile on my face. And so it should be, Dad, you’ve got no need to crumble!
I’m well, healthy and cheerful!
Sending you and everybody a big-big hug!
May goodness persevere!
Love and hugs