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The pursuit of Julian Assange is an assault on freedom and a mockery of journalism

The British government’s threat to invade the Ecuadorean embassy in London and seize Julian Assange is of historic significance. David Cameron, the former PR man to a television industry huckster and arms salesman to sheikdoms, is well placed to dishonour international conventions that have protected Britons in places of upheaval. Just as Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq led directly to the acts of terrorism in London on 7 July 2005, so Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have compromised the safety of British representatives across the world.

Threatening to abuse a law designed to expel murderers from foreign embassies, while defaming an innocent man as an “alleged criminal”, Hague has made a laughing stock of Britain across the world, though this view is mostly suppressed in Britain. The same brave news­papers and broadcasters that have supported Britain’s part in epic bloody crimes, from the genocide in Indonesia to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, now attack the “human rights record” of Ecuador, whose real crime is to stand up to the bullies in London and Washington.


It is as if the Olympics happy-clappery has been subverted overnight by an illuminating display of colonial thuggery. Witness the British army officer-cum-BBC reporter Mark Urban “interviewing” a braying Sir Christopher Meyer, Blair’s former apologist in Washington, outside the Ecuadorean embassy, the pair of them erupting with Blimpish indignation that the unclubbable Assange and the uncowed Rafael Correa should expose the western system of rapacious power. Similar affront is vivid in the pages of the Guardian, which has counselled Hague to be “patient” and that storming the embassy would be “more trouble than it is worth”. Assange was not a political refugee, the Guar­dian declared, because “neither Sweden nor the UK would in any case deport someone who might face torture or the death penalty”.

The irresponsibility of this statement matches the Guardian’s perfidious role in the whole Assange affair. The paper knows full well that documents released by WikiLeaks indicate that Sweden has consistently submitted to pressure from the United States in matters of civil rights. In December 2001, the Swedish government abruptly revoked the political refugee status of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed el-Zari, who were handed to a CIA kidnap squad at Stockholm airport and “rendered” to Egypt, where they were tortured. An investigation by the Swedish ombudsman for justice found that the government had “seriously violated” the two men’s human rights.

In a 2009 US embassy cable obtained by Wiki­Leaks, entitled “WikiLeaks puts neutrality in the Dustbin of History”, the Swedish elite’s vaunted reputation for neutrality is exposed as a sham. Another US cable reveals that “the extent of [Sweden’s military and intelligence] co-operation [with Nato] is not widely known” and unless kept secret “would open the government to domestic criticism”.

The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, played a notorious leading role in George W Bush’s Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and retains close ties to the Republican Party’s extreme right. According to the former Swedish director of public prosecutions Sven-Erik Alhem, Sweden’s decision to seek the extradition of Assange on allegations of sexual misconduct is “unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate”. Having offered himself for questioning, Assange was given permission to leave Sweden for London where, again, he offered to be questioned. In May, in a final appeal judgment on the extradition, Britain’s Supreme Court introduced more farce by referring to non-existent “charges”.

Accompanying this has been a vituperative personal campaign against Assange. Much of it has emanated from the Guardian, which, like a spurned lover, has turned on its besieged former source, having hugely profited from WikiLeaks disclosures. With not a penny going to Assange or WikiLeaks, a Guardian book has led to a lucrative Hollywood movie deal. The authors, David Leigh and Luke Harding, gratuitously abuse Assange as a “damaged personality” and “callous”. They also reveal the secret password he had given the paper which was designed to protect a digital file containing the US embassy cables. On 20 August, Harding was outside the Ecuadorean embassy, gloating on his blog that “Scotland Yard may get the last laugh”. It is ironic, if entirely appropriate, that a Guardian editorial putting the paper’s latest boot into Assange bears an uncanny likeness to the Murdoch press’s predictable augmented bigotry on the same subject. How the glory of Leveson, Hackgate and honourable, independent journalism doth fade.

Not a fugitive

His tormentors make the point of Assange’s persecution. Charged with no crime, he is not a fugitive from justice. Swedish case documents, including the text messages of the women involved, demonstrate to any fair-minded person the absurdity of the sex allegations – allegations almost entirely promptly dismissed by the senior prosecutor in Stockholm, Eva Finne, before the intervention of a politician, Claes Borgström. At the pre-trial of Bradley Manning, a US army investigator confirmed that the FBI was secretly targeting the “founders, owners or managers of WikiLeaks” for espionage.

Four years ago, a barely noticed Pentagon document, leaked by WikiLeaks, described how WikiLeaks and Assange would be destroyed with a smear campaign leading to “criminal prosecution”. On 18 August, the Sydney Morning Herald disclosed, in a Freedom of Information release of official files, that the Australian government had repeatedly received confirmation that the US was conducting an “unprecedented” pursuit of Assange and had raised no objections. Among Ecuador’s reasons for granting asylum is Assange’s abandonment “by the state of which he is a citizen”. In 2010, an investigation by the Australian Federal Police found that Assange and WikiLeaks had committed no crime. His persecution is an assault on us all and on freedom.

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John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.