By Gwynne Dyer
On Monday morning, a British judge finally rejected the US attempt to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and jail him forever (or at least for 175 years in a high-security ‘supermax’ prison) on the grounds that he is, as Joe Biden once called him, a “high-tech terrorist”. The vindictiveness of the American security establishment towards whistle-blowers is awesome to behold.
The US government has worked quite hard to get around the natural British reluctance to extradite a non-American non-resident to the United States for a political crime. Washington says Assange’s sentence would “probably” be only four to six years (but there’s no guarantee that it wouldn’t turn out to be ten times that once he was on American soil).
The American prosecutors also tried to make their desire to get their hands on Assange look non-political by charging him with a civil crime (conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network), but he also faces seventeen charges under the Espionage Act for soliciting and publishing confidential information.
Chelsea Manning, the former US army intelligence analyst who gave WikiLeaks that spectacular dump of 725,000 classified cables from American embassies a decade before, was jailed again for eight months in 2019-20 in an attempt to force her to incriminate Assange. (She had already served four years of a 35-year sentence and then been pardoned by Obama in 2016.)
Manning held out under huge pressure, accumulating $1,000 fines for each day she refused to talk, and was finally released in March 2020 after attempting suicide. The fines still stand, however, and she is now a bankrupt who owes the US government $256,000.
Vindictive is definitely the word, and Judge Vanessa Baraitser at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) in London had to work quite hard to thwart the US government’s campaign to get its hands on Assange.
She found a way, in the end. She ruled that while the American prosecutors had met the legal criteria for Assange to be extradited to the US for trial, their request was denied because the US authorities could not prevent him from attempting to take his own life. He has effectively been in solitary confinement for the past eight years, and his psychological state is too shaky to survive back in solitary (as he certainly would be) in a US prison.
Assange now goes back to Belmarsh prison in London, and back to solitary confinement because the Covid pandemic is raging at Belmarsh. But his application for bail will probably be granted later this week.
He’s not completely out of the woods yet, since the US government undoubtedly will appeal, but Judge Baraitser probably based her decision on health grounds because a higher court would be less likely to reverse it. In the meantime Assange can be at home for the first time ever with his partner (whom he met while taking political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy) and his two young sons.
The road of the whistle-blower is long and lonely (Edward Snowden, who alerted the world to the scale of the US global electronic surveillance operation in 2013, is still in exile in Russia), but such people are among the few protections we have against the misdeeds of the overweening security state.
Daniel Ellsberg, celebrated for his theft and publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers” detailing the US government’s crimes in Vietnam, put it best: “The American public needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way to learn it than by unauthorised disclosure.”
Julian Assange is firmly in that tradition. His accusers trot out the usual allegation that the confidential material he published endangered people’s lives, but if that were true you would certainly have heard those people’s names and details by now.
His revelations about the US military’s misdeeds in Iraq were as valuable as Ellsberg’s about Vietnam. Few who saw it will ever forget the video in which the crew of a US Apache helicopter over Baghdad machine-guns innocent civilians while saying things like “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards” and “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle.”
There are aspects of Assange’s private life that still cast a shadow, like two charges of sexual assault (now dropped) against women in Sweden. But it is also the case that serious attempts were being made to discredit Assange and WikiLeaks even before the famous 2010 dump of the US embassy cables, and in any case his private life and his professional behaviour are separate issues.
So take a moment to honour Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. They have earned it.
Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces
By Jehan Perera
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.
It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.
In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.
The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.
As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.
President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”
It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.
Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.
WEDNESDAY – Movie Review
The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.
Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.
This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.
Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.
Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.
Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.
At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.
Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY
The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.
They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.
Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!
Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.
Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”
It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday
While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.
Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).
He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.
However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).
Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.
You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!
Bid to use private member’s motion to put off LG polls alleged
Use existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas
Lashmika, Rusanda guide St. Peter’s to final
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
U.S. Congress to probe assets fleecing by US citizens of Sri Lankan origin
Opinion6 days ago
Rohan Abeywickrema – A pioneer in transport professionalism
News5 days ago
GCE O/L results to be released today
Opinion6 days ago
Rise against state repression: A call to the people
News2 days ago
SLPP dissidents ask govt. to bring back USD 35 bn ‘parked’ overseas
News5 days ago
Public protests: Alles claims UN pleased with police response
Business6 days ago
SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka joins ‘Karuna.lk’ powered by Dialog Foundation
Sports3 days ago
Cricket needs to address discipline issues
News5 days ago
Weerakkody reminds parliament of Ranil’s murky past