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20 Dec, 2021 16:57

Why is the EU backing Navalny, but ignoring Assange?

Why is the EU backing Navalny, but ignoring Assange?

Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny has been handed the prestigious Sakharov Prize, billed as a top “human rights” award, by the European Parliament ostensibly for his activism and the personal cost he has incurred for it.

As Navalny is serving time in prison, his daughter, Darya, has accepted the prize in his place. She was also was invited to address the EU’s parliament with a speech that, as she explained in an interview, she closely coordinated with her father. In that sense, not only was Navalny awarded a prize; he was also given a voice before the EU’s popular assembly. The parliament’s president has reiterated its demand for her father’s “immediate release.” 

Navalny was given the prize as a recognition of, in essence, his opposition activities in Russia and the sacrifices the EU says he has made for them. The consensus in the West is that he is a political prisoner, even if the Russian authorities have always denied this and insist that he has been sentenced for legitimate criminal offenses. Moreover, Western governments, institutions, and experts agree that the Russian secret service attempted to poison Navalny with a nerve agent, while, again, Russian authorities deny any responsibility and say requests for evidence have been denied.

What matters when it comes to the anti-corruption campaigner’s Sakharov Prize is not whether you agree with the Western or the Russian view of Navalny. Just set it aside for a moment, please. What matters with this specific prize is how the West sees him: as a hero unjustly persecuted and incarcerated for trying to promote democracy and, in particular, transparency about political power where authorities prefer secrecy.

All of the above, however, clearly applies to the founder of Wikileaks, the outstanding investigative journalist Julian Assange, as well. Yet he has not received a Sakharov Prize. In fact, the European Parliament has not shown him either its support or its respect. 

But if Navalny’s daughter could be brought over from Stanford to address the assembly, it surely couldn’t be too hard to fly in Assange’s wife Stella Morris from London, for instance. Not to speak of the fact that the president of the parliament is not calling for Assange’s release. 

Assange, of course, is “our” prisoner, not “theirs.” Whereas Navalny is doing time in a penal colony, Assange has been incarcerated in an infamous high-security jail in London. 

There are differences between the two men as well. For instance, Assange’s hounding implies an extremely disturbing extraterritorial reach of American law. In Navalny’s case, the same cannot be said of Russia. Assange has been in various forms of detention longer than Navalny. When Navalny’s reputation suffered from his own recording of a vile racist clip in the past, that was simply true, even if his supporters still find it hard to plainly acknowledge that fact. When Assange’s reputation was assailed with charges of sexual assault, those have turned out to be untenable, to say the very least.

Most importantly perhaps, though, those who like the politics of one of them tend to dislike those of the other. For full disclosure, I, for instance, feel some affinity with Assange’s left positions, but not with Navalny’s mix of nationalism and liberalism. Yet I also believe that both – not only one of them – should be released. What is striking in this respect is that sympathy and bias so often trump fairness: For both men, your answer to the question if you should demand their release should depend not on how you “feel,” but on an effort to apply just and equal criteria.

So, please, set your sympathies aside for a moment. Then let’s look at Navalny and Assange again: Both have built large, media-savvy organizations. And while Navalny has also tried to stand for political office (unlike Assange), there is substantial overlap in that both founders’ organizations have explicitly pursued transparency by revealing what elites want to keep confidential.

Both have been accused of criminal offenses (fraud and extremism for Navalny; spying, in essence, for Assange); both claim that the real reason for their punishment is political. Both have found widespread support for their claims from institutions commonly recognized as important. In Navalny’s case, for instance, from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Transparency International. In Assange’s case, among many other individuals and institutions, the support has come also from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists

Yet, here’s the sad fact. Whether there is a “new Cold War” or not, all too many, in East and West, cannot stop thinking in right-or-wrong-my-side patterns. Navalny’s daughter and, with and through her, her father have missed a splendid opportunity to show solidarity by not mentioning Julian Assange during that speech before the European Parliament. 

That institution has lost credibility to speak about human rights and democracy because it does not pay at least equal attention to the case of the Wikileaks founder: A man who is, in essence, being slowly tortured to death for standing up for these values – in a prison in Europe, by two pillars of the West, the USA and Great Britain. 

And do not fool yourself: it would be so convenient to shout “Whataboutism” now, wouldn’t it? How dare someone apply the same standards to the Russians and us? Here’s news for you: It’s only “whataboutism” when you compare the incomparable. Yet that is the thing about Assange and Navalny. 

Notwithstanding differences, these are in-your-face comparable cases. If someone had scripted them for a novel manuscript or Netflix pitch, the analogies would probably be rejected as too improbable. 

It may be counter-intuitive to say this about an agnostic who helped build the Soviet H-bomb, but the physicist, human rights activist, and dissident Andrei Sakharov came as close to secular sainthood as anyone in the last century. There is a good reason a prize is named after him. Sakharov, once he found his convictions, was unbending and of crystalline impartiality about them. Truth was perhaps his single highest value. 

This is what he had to say on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, when his wife Elena Bonner traveled to Oslo in his stead: “I would like to end my speech expressing the hope in a final victory of the principles of peace and human rights. The best sign that such hope can come true would be a general political amnesty in all the world, liberation of all prisoners of conscience everywhere. The struggle for a general political amnesty is the struggle for the future of mankind.”

“In all the world… Of all prisoners of conscience everywhere.” 

Said by a man who could easily have looked only at the injustice he himself and his friends suffered, in his part of the world, and under his kind of regime, then the Soviet Union. But Sakharov had the moral scope and honesty to plead for everyone equally. 

Let that sink in and try to live up to it. Especially if you sit on a committee awarding a prize in his name. 

Those in the EU – and elsewhere – who cheapen Sakharov’s name by weaponizing it to go only after one, namely the other side, and show solidarity with only one kind of prisoner, namely those of the other side, should hang their head in shame. He would have pitied them. I admit that my feeling is closer to revulsion.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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