Friday, May 24, 2019

To Ola Bini, a political prisoner caught up in the Assange debacle

My Swedish friend is sitting in a jail cell.

Image Credit: Expreso/Archives

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Dear Ola,

The last time we had a long conversation, it was about the night. We were at a hotel in South America, where the ambient noise near your room was fairly loud. By ambient noise, I mean music. There was a band playing, a bar in motion, people happy for the evening. You said that it was impossible for you to sleep with noise. I asked if you ever considered a white noise machine. You laughed, saying that the white noise would bother you more than anything. We left it at that. You went to your room and probably stayed up all night, looking at the ceiling, thinking about the mysteries of the internet or of software, or else wondering about the long silences of the winter from your Swedish childhood.

When word came that you had been removed from a flight by the Ecuadorian police on April 11 and that you were being held in detention, I thought immediately about how you would be able to sleep. I wondered where you had been detained and whether the cell would be noisy. Then, as news trickled out that you were not being charged, but merely held in the airport and interrogated, I thought about that band, the white noise machine, the laughter of the people. How far away that must seem as you sit now in a cell in Quito, Ecuador.

You are not the first of my friends to be imprisoned over the past 12 months. The Bangladeshi photographer and intellectual Shahidul Alam spent 100 days in a Dhaka prison last year. Shahidul, a sensitive and decent man, had gone on television to say that his government had failed its population, particularly the young children who merely wanted to be safe as they walked to school. For his remarks, Shahidul was arrested, interrogated, and then jailed. His crime was simply to speak with honesty about the collapse of basic human behavior in our kind of societies.

But, with Shahidul, we knew what he had done – even if what he had done was not a crime. With you, Ola, there was no reason for your detention and your interrogation. The officials in Ecuador did not charge you, nor did they offer a coherent public statement about your detention. Everything sunk into the well of rumors, which came rushing out of the shadows of the Ecuadorian state. Nothing was confirmed, little was credible, but the flood continued.

The police took you from hours of detention to your apartment, which they made you open and which they then ransacked. You are a software engineer, an intellectual of the internet, a person who has long championed privacy and free software. Our conversations about these matters were always uneven – with me unable to always follow the precision with which you spoke about the web, about privacy and about security. What the police found in your apartment were many computers, many hard drives, many zip drives, many wires and devices that I can’t identify. They took a picture of these and suggested that somehow possession of the basic tools of a software engineer is sinister. It would be like coming into the home of a carpenter and saying that the saw on the workbench is an object of suspicion.

There were stories going around that two Russian hackers and a WikiLeaks person had been plotting mischief inside Ecuador. My friends in the press asked if you were the WikiLeaks hacker and if you had been somehow involved with Julian Assange as well as others in former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s government to threaten the current government of President Lenin Moreno. All this sounded absurd to me because it was absurd. The former foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, who smelled the making of a conspiracy charge, hastily said he had never met you – because he had never met you. That was that. But Patiño’s denial meant little. The rumors continued, absurd as they sounded.

You knew something was wrong. On the morning of April 11, in the United Kingdom, the London police entered the Ecuadorian embassy – which is sovereign Ecuadorian territory – to arrest Julian Assange – a man who was given Ecuadorian citizenship by President Moreno. This was an act of extraordinary rendition in plain sight, with the media in tow. There was no need for the police to force themselves into the embassy. Moreno handed Assange over to them. This had distressed you, as it distressed me and others. Assange was not being handed over for any inquiry in Sweden about sexual misconduct (including an allegation of rape). He was being handed over to the British so that they might turn him over to the United States of America. Why does the United States want Assange? Because they want to punish him – and the WikiLeaks network – for publishing the materials taken by Chelsea Manning from the U.S. government. These materials showed evidence of war crimes. The U.S. and the U.K. did not want to investigate the war crimes. They wanted to muzzle those who had revealed evidence of them.

You saw that the Ecuadorian interior minister María Paula Romo had said that there were “Russian hackers in Ecuador, and also that there is one person – part of WikiLeaks – living in Ecuador since several years.” This was part of a tweet you sent out that morning, before you left for the airport in Quito to go for a martial arts training course in Japan (which you had advertised days before on Twitter). The second part of your tweet is worth putting on the record: “Very worrisome news – this seems like a witch hunt to me.” I read your tweet that day and wondered where all this was going. Then, they picked you up – with the insinuation that you were the person who was “part of WikiLeaks.”

“Part of WikiLeaks.” This is such a vague statement. You had visited Julian Assange. So had a list of other people, including well-known intellectuals and celebrities. Julian and you shared an interest in privacy, security and free software. You know Julian. I know you. I have extensively used the WikiLeaks materials in my reporting. Am I too “part of WikiLeaks?” Should I also fear arrest?

What do they want you to say, Ola? The U.S. government has Chelsea Manning in prison. They want her to incriminate Assange. Is the Ecuadorian government acting for the U.S. government, asking you to say things about Assange, things that you would obviously not know? You first met Julian in 2013, long after Chelsea Manning provided WikiLeaks with the U.S. government material. But logic is not important when the point is to punish and to sow fear. The Ecuadorian government received an IMF loan of $4.2 billion just a few weeks ago. I wonder if that loan was provided with the quid pro quo that President Moreno would hand over Assange and do his best to find a way to implicate Assange in various crimes. Perhaps this is part of the equation.

We know that a few weeks before Assange was betrayed, and before you were detained, leaked documents – the INA papers – showed evidence of widespread personal corruption by Lenin Moreno and his circle. There was documentation about funds from mysterious sources that purchased apartments in Spain and there were photographs that showed Moreno in uncomfortable circumstances. This material came from a hack of Moreno’s mail account and his phone. It was not published by WikiLeaks, and the organization also said that it had not done the hack. This talk of “Russian hackers” and a person who was “part of WikiLeaks” was intended to suggest that your arrest was somehow part of this hack of Moreno’s private materials. There is no evidence for it, and neither will there be any evidence.

It is far easier for governments to point fingers at whistle-blowers and to throw dust in the air about “Russian hackers” and “WikiLeaks” than to take responsibility for war crimes or for corruption. It is far easier to pretend that everything is a conspiracy rather than to face the music for the terrible things they have actually done. There is no investigation into George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s push for an illegal war against Iraq, no investigation of the Western soldiers who committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have immunity. You, who did nothing, are the one in prison.

Ola, we know that you have done nothing. We know that you are sitting in prison for a 90-day pre-trial detention without a bail hearing. We know that they will try to make you the sacrificial lamb for the accusations that they face. We know that. But I’m also thinking of you as you try to close your eyes and go to sleep. I worry that the noise will keep you awake for 90 days. Not just the noise of the prison and the noise of the flickering tube light above your head. But the noise of the accusations and the fear that this generates. I am writing you this letter, Ola, in the hope that you will read it and know that millions of us are outside your prison, just as we were outside the prison of Shahidul Alam, and the prison of Lula, and the prison of Mumia Abu Jamal, and the prison of so many thousands of political prisoners around the world. And yes, that is what you are, Ola. You are a political prisoner.

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