THE DARK SIDE OF WIKILEAKS: REVISITED
Julian Assange, Ecuador, and the Belarus Connection
by Bill Weinberg, Al Jazeera
Aliaksandr Barankov is breathing easier, after Ecuador's highest court on August 28 rejected a request for his extradition to Belarus—the country known as "Europe's last dictatorship," facing international isolation for its harsh repression. Barankov, a former police investigator from the ex-Soviet republic, was granted asylum by Ecuador in 2010, after he was charged with fraud and extortion in his homeland—charges he claimed were bogus, and brought in retribution for having exposed a petrol-smuggling ring implicating high officials of President Alexander Lukashenko's regime. Barankov said he feared for his life should he be sent back home. An extradition request by Belarus was refused last October.
But on June 7, Barankov was arrested at his home in Quito, and imprisoned while Ecuador's courts reviewed a new extradition request from Lukashenko's government. Shortly thereafter, probably not coincidentally, Lukashenko visited Quito and signed various cooperation pacts with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. "Everything changed after Lukashenko came," Barankov told the Associated Press by phone from his Quito prison cell.
Barankov should soon be free again, and the high court's ruling is a testament to the independence of Ecuador's judiciary. However, his case probably would have received little international attention if it did not come just as Ecuador has granted diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange, the controversial mastermind of WikiLeaks, which has aroused the ire of Washington with its release of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables. And few media reports have noted the special irony in the juxtaposition of the Assange and Barankov cases: a rights group is demanding a full accounting from WikiLeaks on claims that it may have actively collaborated with the Belarus dictatorship.
In unrest following the evidently stolen elections of December 2010, strongman Lukashenko (ruling since 1994) had over 600 protesters and dissidents rounded up. Some were tortured, and the campaign to win their release brought courageous "silent protesters" repeatedly to the streets. The affair won Belarus the opprobrium of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, EU, US State Department and global rights groups, but (happily for Lukashenko) few international headlines.
Last year, the free-press advocacy group Index on Censorship cited evidence that WikiLeaks' "accredited" representative in Belarus, Israel Shamir, may have provided the Lukashenko regime with intelligence from US diplomatic cables to help determine who to round up. Lukashenko boasted in the state-controlled media of receiving WikiLeaks intelligence that revealed who was "working behind the scenes" in the December protests. Shamir was meanwhile boasting claims on CounterPunch website that WikiLeaks cables provided "proof positive" the protests were "orchestrated" by the State Department. (The "proof positive" consisted of some indications of a US AID contractor's involvement in money smuggling.)
Did Shamir turn over WikiLeaks cables to Lukashenko that "named names" of activists identified or cultivated by the State Department? Index on Censorship queried WikiLeaks on the issue, submitting a list of questions about what material WikiLeaks or Shamir may have provided the Lukasheno regime, and Shamir's official status in the WikiLeaks organisation. One WikiLeaks representative responded tersely: "We have no further reports on this 'rumour/issue'." Another told Index: "Obviously it is not approved."
Adding to the controversy, Israel Shamir is a notorious and obsessive anti-Semite. The charge of anti-Semitism is of course often used unfairly against critics of Israel—but even Palestine solidarity activists have issued denouncements of Shamir, warning that association with him could hurt the movement. Shamir's website avidly promotes Holocaust revisionists, and runs such non-ironic headlines as "Down With Human Rights" and "In Defense of Prejudice"—this in response to protests of Shamir's references to war-mongering "Jewish media-lords." Lukashenko, perhaps not coincidentally, has also used ugly Jew-baiting rhetoric against the opposition movement.
Assange has not weighed in publicly on the Belarus affair. But the New York Times last March reported that he had complained of a "Jewish smear campaign" against his organization in response to protests about his association with Shamir. It should be noted that the Times used statements attributed to Assange by others—particularly the British magazine Private Eye. Assange accused the magazine of distorting his words. However, he did not disavow Shamir, or his claim to be "accredited with" WikiLeaks.
Amazingly, for all the media focus on the Assange sex scandal, there has been virtually no coverage of the accusations over collaboration with the Belarus dictatorship. One rare exception was an article in the UK's New Statesman this March, noting that Assange had been invited as a guest speaker at the London premiere of a new movie on Lukashenko, Europe's Last Dictator. Writer Kapil Komireddi noted the irony of this invitation in light of charges of WikiLeaks "damaging the cause of democracy" in Belarus.
Even before the Belarus revelations, Index on Censorship had raised concerns that Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai could be put at risk by WikiLeaks' release of a cable in which a US diplomat reported his views on sanctions. Assange hardly helped when he told an Al Jazeera interviewer that figures who visit US embassies are often "spies for the US in their countries."
But with Lukashenko's boasts (and Shamir's clear enthusiasm for Lukashenko) the Belarus case may go beyond mere WikiLeaks "blowback" to active collaboration with repression. The lack of concern with this question by WikiLeaks' advocates on the left raises questions about a single-standard commitment to human rights.
Meanwhile back in Ecuador, the country's indigenous movement—which accuses Rafael Correa of wantonly opening lands to oil and mineral interests even while assuming a populist posture—saw an element of hypocrisy in the granting of asylum to Assange. "Democracy should begin at home and cannot be reduced to a discourse for the juncture," said Gerardo Jumí Tapias, leader of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations (CAOI), adding that protection of free expression should apply to all citizens, not just a high-profile foreigner.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) issued a communique saluting the asylum granted Assange, but at the same time denouncing "the immense contradiction and double discourse of President Correa, who within the country insults, persecutes and prosecutes indigenous leaders and social strugglers as terrorists, judicially harasses journalists like Calderón and Zurita, seized the magazine Vanguardia and communications media like Telesangay, and condemned three indigenous leaders to prison for supposed obstruction of roads in protection of water resources and the Rights of Nature."
Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita are writers facing litigation from Correa over an unflattering biography they wrote of him. The magazine Vanguardia had its offices raided and assets seized in early August, supposedly over its failure to meet affirmative action guidelines on the hiring of disabled persons—a charge denied by the magazine, and met with scepticism by the Inter American Press Association, which protested the action. Telesangay, TV station of the provincial government of Morona Santiago which is controlled by the indigenous-based opposition party Pachakutik, was ordered closed by the Correa government in May, ostensibly for failure to comply with unspecified broadcast guidelines. Last year, three indigenous leaders from Morona Santiago were charged with "terrorism" for allegedly inciting violence at protests against Ecuador's pending Water Law, which opponents claimed gave a free hand to exploitation of water resources by mining and other extractive industries.
Correa's defenders portray all opposition in Ecuador as co-opted by the US, but in the case of CONAIE and Pachakutik, with their fiercely anti-corporate and anti-imperialist stance, this is quite a stretch. Pachakutik has vigorously denied accusations from journalist Evo Golinger that it has received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The closest Golinger has come to corroborating her charge is a 2005 document (PDF) from the NED-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) which indicates that Pachakutik was among Ecuadoran political parties to have received instruction from NDI "master trainers." But given that the document boasts of a "training-of-trainers" approach, the actual link between Pachakutik and NDI may be tenuous. There is certainly no mention NDI funding Pachakutik.
Assange, meanwhile, provided a platform for Correa when he did a very soft and favorable interview with him in May on his programme on Russia Today TV, owned by Moscow's state news agency RIA-Novosti. (Assange gave similarly favourable treatment when he interviewed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who of course spoke in defence of Bashar al-Assad, in the midst of the bloody repression in Syria.)
A final irony is that some of the very cables released by WikiLeaks portray Correa's Ecuador in an unfavorable light. One 2009 cable from the US embassy in Quito noted the government's seizure of control over private TV stations and the proliferation of " 'public' media outlets that...in practice mainly report favourably on government actions... Taken together, President Correa's actions and the provisions of the new constitution present a serious challenge to Ecuadorian media and freedom of the press."