Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Freedom of Speech

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

It is always good to see the Minister of State. I thank him for coming into the House. I raise the issue of the continuing incarceration of Julian Assange and ask for urgent action from the Irish Government on this issue and for it to speak out about it. Since 9/11 and the subsequent, and misnamed, war on terror, respect for international law by the US, NATO and other allied countries has virtually collapsed. That has led to the most horrific war crimes and abuses being committed. Sadly, Ireland is implicated in this situation because of our facilitation of the US military at Shannon Airport.

Mr. Assange has spent ten years incarcerated, first in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and then in solitary confinement for the past two years in Belmarsh Prison in the UK. Although a British court refused to extradite Mr. Assange due to fears that he would not survive the US penal system, that decision is now being challenged by the US Government. If the appeal succeeds, then Mr. Assange will face a sentence of 175 years in prison. He will likely spend that time in extreme isolation. This is clearly a politically motivated case, taken simply because Mr. Assange exposed US military and other war crimes, human rights abuses and corruption in the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The documents released by WikiLeaks were published widely by mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Mondeand many others. First came revelations of the breaches of international law at Guantanamo Bay and then the collateral murder video, which recorded US pilots in an Apache helicopter gleefully slaughtering 18 innocent Iraqi civilians. In co-ordination with international media organisations, Mr. Assange followed those revelations with the Afghan war diaries and the Iraq war diaries, which exposed major war crimes committed by US forces and their allies.

Mr. Assange is, in effect, a political prisoner. His continued incarceration and threatened extradition to the US, therefore, is not just a threat to him personally but to all journalists, editors and publishers and the cause of investigative journalism, press freedom and freedom of speech generally. It is ironic that western countries, which claim to be defenders of freedom, are acting in this way. In fairness to the Government, in recent times the Minister for Foreign Affairs has been very outspoken on both the failures of international policies and the very clear abuse of power shown by nations, in particular in respect of journalists and political opponents. Recently the Minister condemned the incarceration of Alexei Navalny in Russia. He also spoke out about the Ryanair flight that was in effect hijacked over Belarus to detain Roman Protasevich, a journalist who was outspoken against the Belarusian Government. Even more recently the Minister outlined his views on the catastrophic failures in US foreign policies in Afghanistan. It was those failures of American policymakers that Julian Assange helped to highlight and let the world know about. He is an outstanding journalist and a credit to the work he has done. He should be treated as such and should not be held in captivity any more. He should be released immediately. Ireland now has a very strong voice in our position on the UN Security Council. It is time we used that for the common good and spoke up for Julian Assange.

Mr. Assange has suffered enough simply because he exposed through his journalism extensive government deceit, corruption, war crimes, state-sponsored killings, extraordinary rendition, military cover-ups of unlawful killings and, ultimately, the true wholesale horror of the disastrous, futile wars led by the US and British Governments. It is time for us to speak out. We cannot pick and choose which human rights issues we wish to speak out about. If we believe in freedom of speech, it must apply to Julian Assange as well as others.


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