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Assange Hearing

The cost of being a whistle-blower is going up. When Daniel Ellberg stole and published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, revealing the monstrous lies that the US government was telling the American public about the Vietnam war, he was arrested and tried, but the court set him free.

When Edward Snowden released a vast trove of documents in 2013 about the global electronic surveillance activities of US intelligence agencies, he was already abroad, knowing that civil liberties had taken a turn for the worse in the US since 1971. Snowden is still abroad seven years later, living in Moscow, because hardly anywhere else would be safe.

And Julian Assange, whose court hearing on a US extradition request began on Monday at Woolwich crown court in east London, is facing 175 years in jail if Britain delivers him into American hands. The American authorities are really cross about his WikiLeaks dump of confidential material in 2010 that detailed US misbehaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everybody knew or at least suspected that terrible things were happening there, but without documentation there was really nothing they could do about it. What Assange did was give them the evidence.

The most striking piece of evidence was a video and audio clip from an Apache helicopter gunship attacking civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The crew spray their targets with machine-gun fire, making comments like “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They even target people in a vehicle that stops to help the wounded.

As for the claims of the US authorities that Assange has “blood on his hands” – that his 2010 data dump endangered the lives of some of those who were mentioned in the documents – there is not a shred of evidence that this is so. If anyone had come to harm over the past nine years as a result of his actions, don’t you think that the US government would have trumpeted it to the skies?

The whistle-blowers are among our last remaining checks on the contemptuous ease with which those who control the information seek to manipulate the rest of us. We don’t always respond to the whistle-blowers’ revelations as fast and as strongly as they would hope, but they are indispensable to keep the level of lying down. They should be praised, not punished.

So what are the chances that Julian Assange will escape extradition to the United States and a lifetime in prison? His lawyers will doubtless argue that nobody was harmed as a result of his revelations (except perhaps in their reputations for truthfulness) and that nobody profited by them. A British court might look unfavourably on an extradition request that is brought out of sheer vindictiveness.

The story that Donald Trump contacted Assange through an intermediary, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, might also help. Trump was allegedly offering to pardon Assange if the Australian would confirm that it wasn’t the Russians who gave him the Hilary Clinton campaign emails he released during the 2016 election campaign.

This has all been denied by both Rohrabacher and the Trump White House, but in carefully phrased ways that leave room for suspicion. Trump’s recent denial that he doesn’t know Rohrabacher and never spoke to him is especially suspect, since he invited the man to the White House for a one-on-one in April, 2017. British courts will not extradite if the request is politically motivated.

But Assange’s best chance probably lies elsewhere. During the seven years when he lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London as a political asylum-seeker, a Spanish security company called UC Global installed cameras in every corner of Assange’s space in the embassy and live-streamed every contact and conversation he had, including with his lawyers, directly to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

I don’t know how a British court will respond to that information, but I think I know how an American court would respond. That’s how Ellsberg got off in 1971: the government tapped his phone conversations (and sent burglars to break into his psychiatrist’s office and steal his file), so the judge dismissed the case because the government’s behaviour was outrageous and no fair trial was possible.

There will be many appeals, both in the UK and maybe later in the US, and Assange will not draw a free breath for a long time, if ever. But in the meantime, here’s one happy ending.

Edward Snowden couldn’t tell his girlfriend his plans before he left the US and released his documents, because that would have made her his accomplice. She was angry at first, but she forgave him, married him in 2017, and lives with him in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The whistle-blowers…punished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Coronavirus

In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is that it can respond very fast. The bad thing is that it won’t respond at all until the dictator-in-chief says that it should. All the little dictators who flourish in this sort of system won’t risk their positions by passing bad news up the line until the risk of being blamed for delay outweighs the risk of being blamed for the emergency in the first place.

You can see how this works if you consider China’s response to the emergence of nCov-2019 (novel coronavirus 2019), a new viral threat potentially as serious as the SARS virus of 2003. Some things it has done well, but others it did very badly, and the odd that the virus will spread globally are now probably evens or worse.

The local health authorities in Wuhan, the 11-million-strong city in central China where the virus first appeared, spotted it on 31 December, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention. That’s as fast as you could ask, and they promptly shut down the seafood and wild game market where the victims caught the disease. Score: 9 out of 10.

China’s national health authorities also acted fast. On 9 January they announced that they had a brand new coronavirus on their hands, and just one day later they released its full genetic sequence online so medical researchers worldwide could start working on it. Elapsed time: eleven days. Known deaths at that point: one. Score: 10 out of 10.

But these are medical professionals, doing their duty according to internationally agreed protocols. We don’t know what they recommended to China’s political authorities at that point, but they must have called for widespread testing, and probably also for travel restrictions to control the spread of the virus. But nobody dared to rock the boat: nothing was done.

A pause here to recall how you control the spread of a new infectious disease for which there is no vaccine, nor any effective cure. You isolate the victims as soon as they are identified, and give them what medical support you can: some will die, but most will usually survive. And if you do that soon enough and thoroughly enough, the global pandemic never gets going.

There are often complicating factors. The spread will be far faster if the virus can pass from one person to another in the air. It will be much harder to isolate the people carrying the virus if they become infectious before they develop visible symptoms. But the methods available to slow or stop the spread are still the same: identify the carriers and isolate them.

Now, back to what happened in China. The medical people did their job; the political people did not. It was two more weeks before the city of Wuhan was cut off from the rest of the country and the world. I live in London, fifteen hours’ flying time away, and during those two weeks 2,000 people arrived from Wuhan at London’s airports.

Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in China’s calendar, was coming up fast, but nothing was done although half the population goes home for a visit at this time every year. Wuhan and a dozen other Hubei cities are now in lockdown, but it’s too late: Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admits that 5 million people have already left the city for the New Year celebrations. Score: 2 out of 10.

We now have two pieces of bad news that would have made it even more urgent to seal Wuhan off had we known them at the time. The new virus does propagate through the air, and people carrying it do become infectious before they display any symptoms.

Zhou didn’t dare advocate isolating the city, and neither did anybody else, until the Great Panjandrum Himself had spoken. President Xi Jinping finally spoke last Saturday (25 January), saying that China faces a “grave situation”, and now the system is racing to do what it should have been done two weeks ago.

Too bad, but this pandemic (if that is what it becomes) will probably be on the same scale as the Sars virus, and that is not really horrific: deaths in the high hundreds or a few thousands worldwide. The mortality rate among those who catch it appears to be about 2%, compared to 1 % for ordinary seasonal influenza. And ordinary ‘flu kills about 400,000 (mostly elderly) people every year.

But one of these days something like the 1918 virus that caused the ‘Spanish’ influenza will emerge again. That killed around fifty million people worldwide, out of a global population only a quarter of what it is now.

Since Chinese food markets now seem to be a prime source of dangerous new ‘flu-related viruses, the Chinese government has a particular responsibility to contain them early. The Chinese doctors will do their duty, as always, but it would be nice if China had its political act a bit more together before then.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“There are…them”; and “We…symptoms”)

30 Minutes in Salisbury

Salisbury is a nice old English town with a fine cathedral, only an hour and a half from London by train, but it doesn’t see many Russian tourists in wintertime. It’s not as cold as Moscow, but Russians tend to prefer Mediterranean destinations for holiday breaks in early March – unless, of course, they are planning to kill somebody.

The person of interest in Salisbury was Sergei Skripal, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service who started selling information to the British in the mid-1990s and was caught and jailed by the Russians in 2004. He was pardoned and allowed to go to Britain as part of a spy swap between Western countries and Russia in 2010, and he settled in Salisbury.

On 4 March of this year, Skripal and his daughter, who was visiting from Moscow, were found semi-conscious on a bench in the street in Salisbury and taken to a hospital. They spend weeks in intensive care, and it was determined that they had been poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that falls into the category of banned chemical weapons.

A policeman who went to Skripal’s house was also struck down by the poison, which had been sprayed on the handle of the front door, but he also recovered eventually. Three months later a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained leftover novichok was found in a charity bin in Salisbury, and a woman who sprayed it on her wrists died.

Britain accused Russia of sending assassins to kill Skripal and of using a banned weapon. It had no hard proof beyond the novichok, but Skripal was still helping Western intelligence agencies to understand Russian training and techniques, so Moscow had a motive.

Many people pointed out that it would have been foolish for Moscow to choose such a complicated method and risk exposure. Why didn’t it just hire a non-Russian hitman to do the job? But Moscow has done this sort of thing before: Russian agents, exotic substances, the lot.

Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the FSB secret service, got into trouble after his investigation into links between Russian mafia groups and his own organisation made him unpopular with Vladimir Putin, the FSB’s head. Litvinenko fled Russia for Britain after Putin took over the presidency in 2000.

Litvinenko remained a harsh critic of Putin, and in 2006 Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both former FSB agents, were sent to London to kill him. CCTV images showed the killers with Litvinenko at a London hotel where they dosed his tea with a tiny amount of polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance that would not normally be spotted because it does not emit gamma rays.

That was a reasonably competent operation, exposed only by bad luck. The 2018 operation was different. CCTV images, released only last week, showed Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, two 30-something Russian ‘fitness trainers’, making a brief trip to Salisbury on 3 March, presumably to do a reconnaissance, and back to the town on the 4th to do the dirty deed.

But then it got weird. Putin publicly urged the two men to go on TV, and last Thursday they appeared on RT, a Russian international news channel, to explain their brief trip (which gave them only 54 hours in England).

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said Petrov. They especially wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, said Boshirov: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock….” But they looked like heavies from Central Casting, and not at all like clock-tower enthusiasts. ‘Nekulturny’ (uncultured), as the Russians say.

Why did they only spend 30 minutes in Salisbury the first time? “It was cold.” (It was 10 degrees C warmer than Moscow.) Why did they take another train down to Salisbury the next day? “We really wanted to see Old Sarum and the cathedral.” (Old Sarum is an Iron-Age hill fort near Salisbury that was closed on 4 March.)

And on 4 March one of the CCTV cameras picked them up close to Skripal’s house and far from the cathedral or any other tourist attractions.

Is Russia deliberately trolling the British government to show its contempt? Probably not, because it has tried very hard to distance itself from the crime in other international venues. Did Putin’s regime put those two highly implausible ‘tourists’ on RT because it forgot that different standards of truth prevail elsewhere? Maybe.

But the likeliest answer is that these clumsy and self-defeating actions are indicators of how far the rot in the regime has gone. Elements of the system, like the armed forces (which have performed well in Syria), retain their efficiency and discipline, but corruption and incompetence rule elsewhere.

The Salisbury debacle would not have happened eighteen years ago, when Putin’s reign was new. It suggests that the regime is a lot closer to its end than its beginning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“A policeman…motive”)

Pakistan Election

“Look, we have no other choice,” Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said last May. “These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.” Then he left to be with his wife Kulsoom, who is on life support while receiving treatment for cancer in England. But last week he and his daughter Maryam returned to Pakistan to begin serving the jail sentences imposed on them by a Pakistani court.

Why did he do that? He may never see Kulsoom again, and the Pakistani military would not have tried to get him back if he stayed in exile. The family has plenty of money (including four luxury apartments on Park Lane, one of London’s grandest streets), and he could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement far from Pakistan’s brutal politics.

He went home, and Maryam went with him, to serve jail sentences of ten and seven years respectively, because his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), could still win the national election on Wednesday. Or at least it could win enough seats to form a coalition government with the other anti-military party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The PPP is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son and grandson of former prime ministers. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a terrorist attack that may have been orchestrated by elements in Pakistan’s all-powerful military, and his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by one of Pakistan’s military dictators. He does not love the army.

The PPP will come third in the election, behind both Nawaz Sharif’s party and the pro-military party led by former star international cricket player Imran Khan, because its support is largely confined to the province of Sindh and the rural poor. But if the PML-N and the PPP together win more seats in parliament than Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), they might be able to form a coalition government that could face down the army.

Nawaz Sharif cannot run for parliament from jail, but his brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently leading the PML-N, certainly would become prime minister–and Nawaz Sharif’s conviction would probably then be overturned on appeal. To lodge an appeal, however, he must first show up and go to jail, so there he sits (at least for the moment).

He would stand a good chance of winning an appeal if the military didn’t intervene, because the case against him is weak. It is preposterous and shameful that around a thousand rich Pakistani families, most of them in effect semi-feudal land-owners, dominate the politics of a country of nearly 200 million people at both national and local levels, but it is not illegal.

Most of those families keep much of their wealth abroad, and as many as half own an expensive house or apartment in London. Nawaz Sharif’s family used a company in Panama to manage their overseas properties, and all the details were disclosed with the publication of the Panama Papers.

The case against Nawaz Sharif and his children, probably constructed by the military, charged him with owning assets beyond his income. An anti-corruption court that was probably under heavy military pressure removed him from the prime ministership last year and another court then sentenced him to prison. But it’s not a safe conviction.

When a reporter from Pakistan’s biggest TV news channel, Geo, dug up information in March that suggested the grounds on which Nawaz had been removed as prime minister were “extremely weak”, its cable distributors cut it off, almost certainly under military pressure.

In May, the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, Dawn, published an interview with Nawaz in which he questioned the army’s wisdom in “allowing” Pakistani militants to go to India and kill 150 people in Mumbai in 2008. Dawn’s distribution was immediately suspended across large parts of urban Pakistan that are controlled by the army’s real estate giant, the Defence Housing Authority.

The rest of Pakistan’s media, once lively, are now thoroughly cowed: they did not even report on these events. Some 17,000 activists of the PML-N are facing criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules. But unless the army directly interferes with the vote-counting – which would certainly trigger mass protests – Nawaz Sharif may still end up back in power.

As Nawaz remarked, “There was a time when we used to say (the army is) a state within a state. Now it’s a state above the state.” This election is really about whether the army keeps that power over civilian politicians, and also holds on to the vast business empire that guarantees its senior officers a prosperous retirement.

To justify its privileged position the army needs a big military threat, so it supports various militant groups to maintain a guerilla war in Afghanistan and a permanent military confrontation with India. Whereas every civilian politician who has gained a firm hold on power has tried to normalise Pakistan’s relationship with India – and several (including Nawaz himself in 1999) have been overthrown by the army for daring to try.

Nothing less is at stake in this election than peace in the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan’s release from the burden of an over-powerful military (which might at last allow it to match India’s high economic growth rate). And it is even possible that the anti-military parties could win.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“The PPP…dictators”; and “He would…Papers”)