Last Thursday, human rights and Julian Assange lawyer Jennifer Robinson was held up on her flight from London to Sydney for security reasons. Over the years, journalists have been interrogated and detained at borders, often for purely political reasons. This incident was unprecedented with a lawyer now facing similar treatment.
Robinson was told that she is on an "inhibited" list of mysterious origin and that the Australian High Commission in London needed to be contacted before her departure. At some point, she was given the green light to board without that call being made and was able to get to her destination. When pressed, Australian Attorney General Roxon showed concern about the incident. She said that "this is not the result of any action taken by the Australian Government. We believe [Robinson], as an Australian who is not subject to any criminal charges or allegations, should be free to travel in and out of Australia."
The Guardian reported that "The Australian high commission in London has no record of a call being received from UK authorities concerning her travel". Virgin Atlantic, the airline that stopped Robinson, deferred responsibility to security services, while the UK Border Agency and DFAT each deny involvement.
Bernard Keane at Crikey found that the term 'inhibited', used to describe Robinson's flight status, was not used by Australian or British agencies, but that it was listed in the US Department of Homeland Security's operating manuals for airlines.
Robinson has represented Julian Assange in his legal battle against extradition to Sweden. Was she on some kind of US watch list because of her association with Assange? There is clear precedent with other people associated with WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning who have been stopped and interrogated when entering the US. She is not the only WikiLeaks associate or supporter to be detained at an airport.
David House, founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, is currently pursuing a court case against the US government regarding similar border harassment for his political affiliations. He has been repeatedly interrogated and his computer confiscated while entering the US.
Computer researcher and journalist Jacob Appelbaum described several accounts of interrogations and surveillance since he volunteered for the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks. He has been a target of government surveillance and hassled at the US border. He is also under a controversial court order from the US to obtain his email communication. He spoke in an interview on DemocracyNow! about his experience:
...they wanted to know about my political views. They wanted to know about my work in any capacity as a journalist, actually, the notion that I could be in some way associated with Julian .... They didn't ask me anything about terrorism. They didn't ask me anything about smuggling or drugs or any of the customs things that you would expect customs to be doing. They didn't ask me if I had anything to declare about taxes, for example, or about importing things. They did it purely for political reasons and to intimidate me...denied me a lawyer. They gave me water, but refused me a bathroom, to give you an idea about what they were doing.
Are these people being intimidated by the US government in a kind of insinuation of guilt by association? What is really troubling is the lack of factual reasoning for this seeming guilt. Contrary to misconceptions delivered by the corporate media, Assange and WikiLeaks have not been charged with anything. Yet they have generally been treated as criminals, with prominent US politicians and pundits even calling for Assange's assassination. It is a classic Gandhian formula - first they ignore you, then laugh at you and then try to destroy you. WikiLeaks and Assange have certainly experienced these three phases. From establishment media smears and ridicule to high US officials calling him a high tech terrorist, Assange has gone through character assassination and been terrorized in the public mind.
In a way, it seems those who are associated with Assange or WikiLeaks are also being treated as potential 'terrorist associates'. The pattern of intimidation and demonization of people who have never been violent or even charged with breaking a law is similar to the treatment of Assange himself. In the eyes of the US government, perhaps they all appear as dangerous individuals who need to be intimidated, controlled and tracked. On the face of it this is patently absurd. None of these people have ever been violent or advocated violence.
Yet now with this Robinson case, a very dangerous line has been crossed - the 'inhibiting' of a lawyer from re-entering her home country from England, far from the shores of the US. What is unique and disconcerting about this situation is that she is a lawyer and this will likely have a chilling effect on all lawyers, as one of their own has been apparently harassed simply for associating with her clients. This is ominous in its implications for justice systems worldwide. The international organization Commonwealth Lawyers' Association (CLA) issued a statement concerning Robinson's interception and called for an explanation. They addressed deep concern regarding their profession's independence by citing Article 13 of the UN Principles on the Role of Lawyers that "lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients' causes as a result of discharging their functions". In addition, Robinson was not entering or leaving the US. This incident revealed that the US may be intervening in foreign border controls to apply their own political blacklists in other countries, which raises the real specter of loss of sovereignty to a lawless hegemony.
What we may have here is the political crime of intimidation. The Department of Homeland Security is apparently treating journalists and now maybe even lawyers as 'associative terrorists'.
Oscar-and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras spoke about her own experience of repeated intimidation at the US border. In an interview with DemocracyNow! she described how she was detained, interrogated and searched by federal agents. She recounted a recent incident where while she was taking notes during the interrogation with a pen and she was ordered to put it away:
They said that my pen was a dangerous weapon... that my pen was a threat to them... I mean, in terms of the context, you have to understand that I'm surrounded by border agents who are all carrying guns, and I'm taking out... a pen that they find threatening. And so, this was profoundly upsetting.
This inane picture of government agents viewing a pen as a weapon is very telling. Imagine the picture of a pen in the hand of nonviolent woman who is surrounded by armed agents. There is something quite compelling in this image. The pen can be seen as representing the ideals of the Press, the Fourth Estate and those who advocate for free speech and laws that protect human rights and equal justice. To those authorities who stop journalists and human right lawyers at the border, this symbol of the pen clearly appears to be a threat. It is similar to the blatantly unconstitutional laws passed in some states in the US against the videotaping of police officers in public.
In the name of security and stopping 'terrorism' a question arises. Who are actually the ones creating an atmosphere of terror? Isn't it those who are attempting to make lawyers, journalists and the public more fearful? The word terrorist itself has become a catch-all term defined by empirical power to label and control anyone who legitimately questions their authority.
Those clinging to power act as if they actually know that the pen is mightier than the sword and any physical weapon. Could what is revealed in this abuse of border control be a desperate attempt by a failing power to intimidate people globally who expose abuse by the US government? By singling out those who are associated with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the US government is violating the very ideals enshrined by the First Amendment; those of free assembly (association), speech and press.
This kind of political persecution must be borne witness to by the international community and not tolerated, because any one of us could be next and treated as a 'terrorist by association'. History has shown that this is one step down the dangerous road toward tyranny.