(Thank you to C.I. who came up with the big idea when I read this to her over the phone.)
This is C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot" for today:
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to look at the case of Julian Assange as calls grow for him to be freed.
The WikiLeaks founder has been locked up for four years in London’s Belmarsh prison, where he awaits possible extradition to the U.S. to face espionage and hacking charges for publishing leaked documents about U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He faces up to 175 years in prison in the United States, if convicted.
This comes as a growing number of politicians in Australia are calling on the United States to drop its case against Julian Assange, who is in Australian citizen. In April, 48 Australian lawmakers signed a letter to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland saying the U.S. prosecution of a journalist and publisher has, quote, “set a dangerous precedent for press freedom.” A group of Australian lawmakers also met recently with U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy. Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also spoken out. In May, he talked about Assange during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC.
PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: Enough is enough. This needs to be brought to a conclusion. It needs to be worked through, including we’re working through diplomat channels. But we’re making very clear what our position is on Mr. Assange’s case. … When Australians look at the circumstances, look at the fact that the person who released the information is walking freely, now having served some time in incarceration but is now released for a long period of time, then they’ll see that there’s a disconnect there. There is nothing to be served by his ongoing incarceration.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the Australian prime minister.
Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald made headlines when it reported the FBI has restarted its probe of Julian Assange, but representatives of WikiLeaks say the U.S. investigation was never closed.
We’re joined now in London by the Australian human rights attorney Jen Robinson, who’s been a legal adviser to Julian Assange since 2010.
Jen, welcome back to Democracy Now! You’re just back from Australia, where you live, where actually President Biden was expected to go for the Quad meeting with the prime minister of Australia, but had to cancel that and return from Hiroshima to Washington to negotiate the debt ceiling legislation. Can you talk about what Albanese now is calling for? And what response do you have to this information from The Sydney Morning Herald that the U.S. has reopened a probe that no one knew had been closed?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, first, great to speak to you again, Amy, and great to be back on Democracy Now!
I’ve just returned from Australia, where I was in Australia for a visit with Stella Assange, Julian Assange’s wife. It was her first trip to Australia, which we had planned to coincide with Biden’s visit to Australia. What Biden would have seen, had he come to Australia, was a huge amount of support both from the Australian public — we saw a huge protest in Sydney against the extradition request and the United States’ prosecution of Assange. We saw a packed-out room of MPs in a cross-party briefing. Now in Australia, we have bipartisan support, so it’s not just our prime minister, Prime Minister Albanese, calling for this case to be brought to an end, it is also the leader of the opposition. And when Stella and I briefed MPs in Parliament, there was standing room only. There was that many MPs from across the political spectrum there wanting to hear from Stella and I about the latest in the case, and who are pushing for this case to be brought to an end. So we’ve seen a sea change in the political response in Australia. We’re seeing polling, unprecedented polling, of an overwhelming majority of the Australian public who support our government in seeking to have this case closed. And the question is now what the United States will do with it.
The story last week about the FBI supposedly reopening this investigation, this is an investigation that has been open for a number of years. This is a Trump administration indictment. We know that the FBI had been conducting inquiries in the interim period. And it’s important to recognize that the FBI reached out to — or, allegedly reached out to a ghostwriter on Julian’s book. This, to us, shows the desperation of the FBI and how they’re grasping at straws in terms of their investigations in this case. There are no new facts in this case. The U.S. government has known the facts that form the basis of this indictment since Chelsea Manning went on trial back in 2012. And the fact that the FBI is now suddenly starting to make inquiries from bit part players is — I think, goes to show the lack of the strength, or lack thereof, of the U.S. case.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jen Robinson, I wanted to ask you about other developments in the case, especially concerning the surveillance conducted of Julian Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Spain’s El País had a story headlined “Police omitted folder called 'CIA' from the computer of Spaniard who allegedly spied on Julian Assange.” Who was this Spaniard? And what do you know about this?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: So, in addition to fighting the extradition case and fighting the prosecution of Assange, Julian and our legal team have been fighting back through various different legal actions. There’s the action that I took successfully against the British government for unlawful sharing of information with the United States government as Julian’s lawyer. We have the action against the CIA in the United States, taken by a group of lawyers on Julian’s team who visited him in the embassy, and the Spanish case, which you’ve just raised, where Julian has taken a criminal complaint against David Morales, who was the head of UC Global, the security company that was providing, quote-unquote, “security” inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. But it was revealed by El País in recent years, thanks to whistleblowers, that he was providing information — allegedly providing information to the CIA.
We’ve learned just this week that in the disclosure in those proceedings, in which Mike Pompeo himself has been subpoenaed to give evidence about the nature of this unlawful spying on Julian and on us as his lawyers, which fundamentally flaws the U.S. criminal investigation, that the Spanish police failed to disclose further evidence, including files marked ”CIA,” that further indicate the involvement of the CIA in spying on us as lawyers inside the embassy. This is really important revelations. As Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, said in our extradition case, his case, his espionage case, was thrown out under the Nixon administration for unlawful spying on his doctors. In this case, you’ve seen so much more abuse.
So, a Trump-era indictment, now under a Biden administration, this prosecution is still being pursued, despite widespread and huge amounts of evidence of unlawful spying on lawyers, on the seizure of legally privileged information, and, indeed, plots to kidnap and kill Julian Assange by the CIA in London. At this point, you need to ask — even leaving aside the free speech implications of this case, the First Amendment concerns that are now increasingly being raised by Democrat lawmakers in the U.S. calling on the U.S. to drop this case, there has been so much abuse in this case, and it begs the question: If abuse of this nature was enough to throw out a case under the Nixon administration, why is he still being pursued under the Biden administration?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned a group of Democrats in Congress pushing for the case to be dropped. Do you have hopes that the Biden administration will stop seeking his extradition and that Julian can be freed?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: We certainly hope that the Biden administration will do the right thing and drop this case. We now have the Australian government and our prime minister coming out hard in support of the case being dropped. We have special relationships with the United States, between Australia and the United States. And this is — the Australian government should be able to make this ask of the United States.
But separate from the international concerns, we are thrilled to see that Democrat lawmakers like Rashida Tlaib, AOC, Ilhan Omar have written to Garland, pointing out the First Amendment consequences of this case, asking for the case to be dropped. And I think the more that there’s noise in Washington pressuring the DOJ to do the right thing, pressuring Biden to do the right thing, then we’ll get to the right outcome. And the right outcome is that this case is dropped.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the model that the Julian Assange case brings? I mean, let’s remember, we say four years in the Belmarsh prison. But before that, seven years really in captivity in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He had been granted political asylum, but he could never leave the embassy in order to — or, the consulate in order to get to Ecuador, because he was afraid of being arrested and then extradited. But this issue of a publisher facing these espionage and treason charges in the United States? You have Evan Gershkovich, who has been arrested in Russia. The world recognizes the problem with a journalist — they say he was trying to get military secrets. It’s really what journalists do. What did Julian Assange do? He published State Department, Pentagon secrets and, he said, and many people agree, including human rights lawyers around the world, evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may not be convenient for the U.S., but it is the job of a journalist. Can you talk about what this case means for how, then, the U.S. can raise cases like Evan Gershkovich, that he should be freed by Russia?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Thank you for raising this point, Amy. It is such an important point. First of all is the precedent that’s set by this case. This case means that any journalist anywhere in the world could be extradited and prosecuted in the United States for publishing truthful information. That is creating a dangerous race to the bottom globally. What message does that send to Russia and to China about extraditing and prosecuting journalists who publish the truth about Russia or China?
Then we get to the point of how it diminishes the moral authority of the United States to be able to raise free speech issues. Now, in the Evan Gershkovich case, we’re seeing a case where Russia is using the espionage charges against a journalist for the first time since 1987. So, this is picking up and running with the precedent that the United States is setting at home because of the Assange case. That is dangerous. When you’ve got a country that purports to bring democracy and free speech to the rest of the world prosecuting a journalist for espionage, it is a dangerous situation that we’re in. It threatens the First Amendment, but it actually threatens free speech around the world. And that’s one of the reasons why this case needs to be dropped.
The new evidence, adding as it does to a mountain of previous disclosures, underscores the criminality of the US pursuit of Assange. It again makes clear that the attempted US extradition and prosecution of Assange, for publishing evidence of US-led war crimes, is the pseudo-legal arm of a murderous campaign that has involved violations of innumerable laws within domestic jurisdictions and internationally.
Previously, there had been substantial indirect evidence of the CIA spying. On the one hand, a Yahoo! News article in late 2021 had indicated that the Trump administration and the CIA had conducted dirty tricks against Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy, up to and including discussions of a kidnap attempt or an assassination. Those revelations were based on the statements of 30 former US officials.
On the other hand, whistleblowing former employees of UC Global, the Spanish security firm contracted at the time by the Ecuadorian authorities to provide security for its London embassy, alleged that the company had essentially gone rogue.
Behind the backs of the Ecuadorian government, it had installed extensive surveillance equipment which it had transmitted to secret third parties in the United States. It was alleged that UC Global had entered into relations with the company of Trump ally and casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson, whose firm appeared to have played the role of a cutout for US intelligence in obtaining the material. That UC Global had conducted spying was clear from vast amounts of video and audio material of Assange in the embassy, including privileged discussions with lawyers.
The latest revelations bring the two threads together. They establish irrefutably that UC Global was acting as the essential ground force of the CIA campaign against Assange.
UC Global’s owner, David Morales, is being criminally prosecuted in Spain on several interrelated charges, including for spying on Assange, his lawyers and other journalists.
[. . .]
In other words, all of the US legal efforts targeting Assange, including the superseding indictments adding Espionage Act charges and the extradition bid, can be traced back to illegal CIA operations targeting the WikiLeaks founder when he was a political refugee. That entirely refutes the assertions of the US Justice Department, which has said that even if the CIA did spy on Assange, it has no bearing on their case due to the supposed “Chinese walls” between different branches of the American government.
The frenzied US-CIA campaign against Assange in 2017, moreover, was not motivated by fears of any risks he and WikiLeaks posed to the population, or even of prior wrongdoings. Instead it was retribution for WikiLeaks’ March 2017 publication of Vault 7, a vast trove of documents proving that the CIA was conducting illegal spying on a global scale and was one of the world’s largest purveyors of computer malware.
Assange has not even been charged by the US for those publications, which plainly were the central motive of the campaign against him that culminated in his arrest, detention and prospective extradition.
Troops with LGBTQ+ family members have been forced to move to new bases because of harassment at school, a Department of the Air Force official said.
“When I'm forced to move families from installations, because their school will do nothing when their LGBT kid is being bullied—that worries me, because that's distracting from the mission, that's detracting from our readiness,” said Alex Wagner, assistant Air Force secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
Wagner’s comments come amid escalating attacks by right-wing politicians on the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, in Florida, home to several Air Force and Space Force bases, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill bans public school teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom. Hundreds of other anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been introduced or passed elsewhere in the country.
The Air Force could not immediately say which military bases Wagner was referring to.
“If servicemembers are thinking and concerned about the experience their kids are having, they're not going to be focused on their jobs. They're not gonna be focused on their mission,” Wagner said Tuesday at the Center for a New American Security’s annual National Security Conference.
The first encounter with racism that Harmony Kennedy can remember came in elementary school. On a playground, a girl picked up a leaf and said she wanted to “clean the dirt” from Harmony’s skin.
In sixth grade, a boy dropped trash on the floor and told her to pick it up, “because you’re a slave.” She was stunned — no one had ever said anything like that to her before.
As protests for racial justice broke out in 2020, white students at her Tennessee high school kneeled in the hallways and chanted, “Black lives matter!” in mocking tones. As she saw the students receive light punishments, she grew increasingly frustrated.
So when Tennessee began passing legislation that could limit the discussion and teaching of Black history, gender identity and race in the classroom, to Harmony, it felt like a gut punch — as if the adults were signaling this kind of ignorant behavior was acceptable.
“When I heard they were removing African American history, banning LGBTQ, I almost started crying,” said Harmony, 16. “We’re not doing anything to anybody. Why do they care what we personally prefer, or what we look like?”
As conservative politicians and activists push for limits on discussions of race, gender and sexuality, some students say the measures targeting aspects of their identity have made them less welcome in American schools — the one place all kids are supposed to feel safe.
Some of the new restrictions have been championed by conservative state leaders and legislatures, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who say they are necessary to counter liberal influence in schools. Others have been pushed by local activists or school boards arguing teachers need more oversight to ensure classroom materials are appropriate.
Books have been pulled from libraries. Some schools have insisted on using the names transgender students had before they transitioned. And teachers wary of breaking new rules have shied from discussions related to race, gender and other politically sensitive topics, even as students say they desperately need to see their lived experiences reflected in the classroom.
Among them are a transgender student at a Pennsylvania school where teachers are directed to use students’ birth names, a bisexual student in Florida who sensed a withdrawal of adult support, and Harmony, a Black student outside Nashville alarmed by efforts to restrict lessons on Black history.
For these and other students of color and LGBTQ+ kids, it can feel like their very existence is being rejected.
For the first time in its four-decade history, America’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization has declared a national state of emergency for members of the LGBTQ+ community, the Human Rights Campaign said Tuesday.
“LGBTQ+ Americans are living in a state of emergency. The multiplying threats facing millions in our community are not just perceived – they are real, tangible and dangerous,” the group’s president, Kelley Robinson, said. “In many cases they are resulting in violence against LGBTQ+ people, forcing families to uproot their lives and flee their homes in search of safer states, and triggering a tidal wave of increased homophobia and transphobia that puts the safety of each and every one of us at risk.”
Alongside the emergency declaration, the group will release a digital guidebook, including health and safety resources, a summary of state-by-state laws, “know your rights” information and resources designed to support LGBTQ+ travelers and those living in hostile states, it said.
The historic announcement – just a few days into Pride Month – follows “an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 2023,” according to the Human Rights Campaign, as violence against LGBTQ people continues and the community’s rights have become a flashpoint in the 2024 election.
And the Human Rights Campaign just last month issued an updated travel notice for Florida, outlining potential impacts of six bills recently passed there, many already signed by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican contender for president who’s championed “don’t say gay” and pronoun bills.
Across US state legislatures, at least 417 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in roughly the first quarter of 2023 – a new record and twice the number of such bills introduced all of last year, according to American Civil Liberties Union data.
A federal judge has struck down parts of Florida’s laws and policies banning gender-affirming care, saying that the bans contradict “widely accepted standards” of medical care. While the judge’s decision only affects three of the seven families of trans youth who sued state officials over the ban, legal observers say the judge’s ruling could help restore healthcare for countless trans Floridians of all ages.
In his 44-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle (appointed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton) affirmed the existence of transgender identities. He also said that the defendants’ families may pursue puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and their doctors may provide it without fear of criminal or civil penalties.
Hinkle’s ruling noted that an estimated 1% of the population identifies as trans and that Florida officials only presented one defense expert (Dr. Stephen Levine) who has actually treated a significant number of transgender patients. Hinkle added that the state’s experts all seemed to hold the “unspoken suggestion… that transgender identity is not real, that it is made up.”
The judge noted that among the state’s experts, Dr. Paul Hruz called trans identity a “charade” or “delusion,” and Dr. Patrick Lappert called gender-affirming care a “lie,” a “moral violation,” a “huge evil,” and “diabolical.” Hinkle wrote that he considered Cruz “a deeply biased advocate, not as an expert.”
Hinkle noted that other state employees and consultants have called gender-affirming healthcare a “woke idea” or a profiteering scheme by the pharmaceutical industry or doctors.
The judge wrote that “any proponent of the challenged statute and rules should put up or shut up” by stating clearly whether they acknowledge the existence of individuals whose gender identities differ from the sexes they were assigned at birth. “Dog whistles ought not be tolerated,” he added.
The Iraqi authorities must take concrete action towards revealing the fate and whereabouts of at least 643 men and boys who were forcibly disappeared in June 2016 by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah from the so-called Islamic State, Amnesty International said, marking seven years since the men and boys were abducted.
The PMU are comprised of large, well-established militia groups and are legally considered part of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
“It has been seven years since then-Prime Minister Haidar Abadi formed a committee to investigate those disappearances and other abuses committed by the PMU during the Fallujah operations. But so far, the committee has not made any of its findings public and no one has been held accountable,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The victims of enforced disappearances are not only those who are missing, but also their families and loved ones who continue to live in agony not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Multiple governments have failed to provide these families with the answers that they deserve and with reparations. In order to end the reign of impunity in Iraq, the government must make the findings of the investigative committee public, ensure that any information on the fate or whereabouts of the missing men and boys is disclosed to their families, and that evidence is shared with judicial authorities so that perpetrators can be brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.”
“To this day, we don’t know anything about them”
In early June 2016, thousands of men, women and children fleeing the area of Saqlawiya in Anbar Province were met by armed individuals carrying machine guns and assault rifles. They were identified by witnesses as members of the PMU, based on emblems on their uniforms and flags.
As detailed in a 2016 Amnesty International investigation, the armed men put some of the captured men and boys onto buses and a large truck. The fate of those who were driven away in these vehicles remains unknown. Despite multiple attempts by the families of the disappeared over the years to press the authorities for investigations, they have not been given answers.
One woman, who was among those captured by the PMU on 3 June 2016, told Amnesty International that at least six other members of her family were abducted. Her husband and one of her brothers remain missing. She said: “There is no bigger of a disaster than losing someone dear to you. We lost our loved ones, husbands, uncles, fathers. Everyone left. I don’t remember anything other than sadness.”
She was released on the same day of her abduction and four of her brothers were released three days later. She said that her brothers were tortured day and night and that they witnessed the PMU burying people alive and heard the sounds of people being tortured.
Another woman whose loved ones were abducted by armed men in PMU vehicles on 2 June 2016 told Amnesty International that 15 members of her family, including her husband, brother and son, remain missing. Despite her efforts, the authorities have not taken action nor provided the family any redress.
“We were living a happy life… If they could hear me, I would tell them enough of being gone. We are tired. We need you, because life is not worth it without you. Your children need you and they ask about you. If only you could return… I am prepared to forget everything and forget all the pain and start life over again and we live happily, if only.”
According to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, Iraq has an estimated range of 250,000 to 1 million missing persons since 1968, making it one of the countries with the highest number of missing persons worldwide.
Authorities fail to take concrete action to investigate disappearances
On 5 June 2016, the office of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi set up a committee to investigate disappearances and other violations committed in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah, including by the PMU. He also tasked the local government of Anbar with setting up a separate investigative committee, which on 11 June 2016 published findings that it sent to the Prime Minister, revealing that 643 men and boys from the area of Saqlawiya were missing. Families of the disappeared claim that the actual number is higher.
Since that date, it is unclear what steps the committee set up by the former Prime Minister has taken to effectively investigate the disappearances, and it has failed to publicly report on any findings. Rights groups and families told Amnesty International that the authorities have not communicated any outcome to the families of the disappeared. To this date, the Iraqi authorities have been silent as to the action they have taken to address and investigate these violations and provide justice and redress to victims.
Since 2016, Amnesty International has repeatedly requested information regarding this investigation, including in letters addressed to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 19 May 2023. To this day, Amnesty International has not received a substantive response detailing the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared.
On 4 April 2023, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances issued a report following its visit to Iraq in November 2022. It urged Iraq to “immediately include enforced disappearances as a separate offence”. It also called upon Iraq to “establish a comprehensive search and investigation strategy for all cases of disappearances, and to strengthen and enlarge the national forensic capacity to ensure that all victims have access to exhumation processes and forensic services”.
An obligation to criminalize enforced disappearances
Enforced disappearance is currently not a crime under Iraqi law and therefore cannot be prosecuted as a distinct offence. As a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearance, Iraq has an obligation to criminalize enforced disappearances, investigate, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure reparation for victims.
Al Haq Foundation for Human Rights, an independent civil society organization based in Baghdad, told Amnesty International: “The failure to legislate a law to protect persons from enforced disappearance is an indication of the failure to put an end to cases of enforced disappearance. Our organization continues its efforts to support the voices of the victims and their families to together reveal the truth about the fate of thousands.”
Amnesty International calls on the authorities to provide redress and reparation, including compensation and rehabilitation, for the families of those disappeared in June 2016 and to pass effective legislation criminalizing enforced disappearances in accordance with international law.