Julian Assange and Europe's Last Dictator

The former WikiLeaks chief will moderate a public discussion about Belarus, despite damaging the cau

The Old Vic will tonight host the premiere of Europe's Last Dictator, a documentary about the savage dictatorship that thrives in the heart of Europe. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state, in the fashion of his hero Joseph Stalin: public assembly is banned, the press is censored, the internet is monitored, telephones are tapped, and people's livelihoods -- and lives -- depend on eschewing politics.

A film that casts a spotlight on Lukashenko's crimes deserves a wide audience. And yet, paradoxically, staying away from this film would be one of the strongest expressions of solidarity with the battered pro-democracy opposition movement in Belarus. The reason is the filmmakers' decision to invite Julian Assange of WikiLeaks to moderate the post-premiere Q&A session. Why does this matter? Because to dignify Assange with a place on the podium at an event about Belarus is to mock the men and women who endure the brutality of Lukashenko -- a tyrant whose vicious grip on Belarus Assange helped tighten.

In December 2010, Israel Shamir, a WikiLeaks associate and an intimate friend of Julian Assange -- so close, in fact, that he outed the Swedish women who claim to be victims of rape and sexual assault by Assange -- allegedly travelled to Belarus with a cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning the country. He reportedly met Lukashenko's chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, handed over the documents to the government, and stayed in the country to "observe" the presidential elections.

When Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner on 19 December 2010 with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, Belarusians reacted by staging a mass protest. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. As their truncheons bloodied the squares and streets of the capital, Minsk, Shamir wrote a story in the American left-wing journal Counterpunch extolling Lukashenko ("The president of Belarus ... walks freely among his people"), deriding the dictator's opponents ("The pro-western 'Gucci' crowd", Shamir called them), and crediting WikiLeaks with exposing America's "agents" in Belarus ("WikiLeaks has now revealed how... undeclared cash flows from the U.S. coffers to the Belarus 'opposition' ").

The following month, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by WikiLeaks. Among the figures "exposed" as recipients of foreign cash were Andrei Sannikov, a defeated opposition presidential candidate presently serving a five-year prison sentence; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov's press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest.

Did Assange at this point repudiate Shamir or speak up against Lukashenko? No. Instead he upbraided Ian Hislop for publishing an article in the Private Eye that exposed Shamir as a Holocaust denier and white supremacist. There was, he claimed, a "conspiracy" against him by "Jewish" journalists at the Guardian. Addicted to obedience from others and submerged in a swamp of conspiracy theories, Assange's reflexive reaction to the first hint of disagreement by his erstwhile friends was to hold malign Jews responsible.

His subsequent attempts to distance himself from Shamir were undermined when James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, revealed that not only did Assange authorise Shamir's access to the cables -- how else could he have got hold of the documents from this impenetrably secretive organisation consecrated to transparency? -- he also stopped others from criticising Shamir even after news of his Belarusian expedition became public.

Reasonable people can have genuine disagreements about America's foreign policy, but the fact remains that many dissidents in repressive states across the world seek Washington's support. In Assange's dogmatic worldview, this is an unpardonable crime. As he told the Guardian's David Leigh about Afghans who cooperated with the United States against the Taliban,"[I]f they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it." A man who lacks the intelligence to make a distinction between the Taliban and its victims -- and relishes the prospect of Afghan civilians being butchered for the crime of aligning themselves with America -- perhaps should not be expected to feel troubled by the excesses of a European dictatorship.

Belarus needs all the attention it can get. But why are the custodians of its cause in the west aligning themselves with a charlatan who has not only helped Lukashenko, but is also now employed by Russia Today, the official mouthpiece of the Kremlin, which is Lukashenko's principal enabler? When I pleaded with the filmmakers to reconsider their stance, they sounded very much like zealous converts to the Cult of Julian Assange. Every piece of evidence I offered was dismissed as malicious hearsay -- or as downright propaganda from "Julian's enemies" at the Guardian.

The absurdity of seeking greater western interference in Belarus, and then inviting along a man who imperilled the dissidents who received western support, did not occur to them. It is difficult to imagine a more sordid insult to the brave opposition of Belarus than to let Assange whitewash his appalling record by attaching himself, unquestioned, to this screening.

In all of this, the stance of Irina Bogdanova, a participant in the documentary and one of the chief organisers of its premiere, is startling. Because she is the sister of the opposition leader Sannikov, she regards herself best placed to judge Assange's role in Belarus. But to say that Sannikov is not the sole victim of Lukashenko's crackdown is not to demean him. When I urged her to reconsider her invitation to Assange, she told me that she had carried out investigations and could not find any opposing voices.

She should have spoken to Tatsiana Shaputska, a journalist in Minsk who has spent more than her fair share of time in the fetid detention camps of Belarus. She considers it a "shame to invite Assange to the film". She's not alone. Reporting from Minsk last year, I met young Belarusians living in fear of being paraded as traitors on live television because they feared their names had appeared in the American cables. It is on the fears and anxieties of these activists that Assange built his tawdry fame. In seeking to stir up sympathy for the plight of Sannikov, it is sad that Bogdonova remained, despite repeated pleas, so unsympathetic to the feelings of others.

Even without this baggage, it is difficult to see what precisely qualifies Assange to play the expert -- to moderate others' views -- on Belarus. The only Belarusian his work ever truly benefited is Lukashenko. And in 2010, fresh from suppressing the pro-democracy uprising, the dictator paid rich tribute to Assange by disclosing his desire to start a "Belarusian WikiLeaks" -- designed to name and shame the traitors who collaborated with the United States.

Assange may attempt to slam the door on further scrutiny of his squalid conduct in Belarus by casting his invitation to the premiere of Europe's Last Dictator as a certificate of exoneration. But an endorsement from some blinkered Belarusians drawn to the lustre of his trashy celebrity cannot erase the harm Assange has done to the cause of democracy -- and to democrats -- in Belarus.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times.

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.