Foreign and Defense Policy

Assange’s Christmas Gift to Zimbabwe May Be a Death Sentence

morgan-tsvangiraiJulian Assange spent Christmas at a elegant British estate outside London enjoying the life of a country gent. In a photo shoot for Newsweek, he is seen relaxing with a glass of champagne and dressing up as Santa Claus. But in Zimbabwe, no one is thanking this particular Father Christmas. Assange’s gift to the leader of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition may be a death sentence.

In an important Wall Street Journal column you may have missed over the New Year’s holiday, James Kirchick reports:

Last week, the crusading “anti-secrecy” website released a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Harare. It describes a 2009 meeting between Mr. [Morgan] Tsvangirai [the prime minister of Zimbabwe and the leader of its democratic opposition] and diplomats from the U.S. and Europe, both of which have imposed sanctions on the Zimbabwean regime….

In the conversation with Western ambassadors, Mr. Tsvangirai acknowledged the important role that sanctions have played in forcing concessions from Mr. Mugabe. But, as he noted to his American and European counterparts, his private support for the measures conflicts with his public opposition. He publicly opposes the sanctions because Mr. Mugabe has successfully mischaracterized them as an assault on regular citizens, even though they only target top regime officials with asset freezes and visa bans. (Western companies are permitted to do business in Zimbabwe and international food aid, when it isn’t blocked by the regime, flows freely).

As a result of the WikiLeaks revelations, Mr. Mugabe’s handpicked Attorney General, Johannes Tomana, this week formed a commission to determine whether Mr. Tsvangirai committed treason by working with foreign governments to impose and sustain sanctions. If found guilty, he could face the death penalty.

As AEI’s Roger Bate told to me, Tsvangirai has been charged with treason before, but the previous charges went nowhere because they were obviously trumped up. Now Assange has given the regime evidence of an act that it may be able to sell to a court as treasonous—effectively handing Mugabe the rope with which to hang the leader of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition.  As The Zimbabwe Mail put it this weekend, “Wikileaks may have just signed Morgan Tsvangirai’s death warrant.”

Even if Tsvangirai is not put on trial, Assagne has given Mugabe a pretext to fire or impeach his most powerful political rival, and thus sideline the country’s most effective champion of democratic reform. This would be a devastating setback for Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, as WikiLeaks continues to disseminate such dangerous and possibly deadly secrets, the Obama administration continues to dither. The Justice Department keeps telling us it is planning to take action against Assange, but nothing ever happens. If this shameful inaction persists, at some point President Obama will begin to share culpability for the damage caused by WikiLeaks. At a bare minimum, the president now bears some responsibility for the fate of Morgan Tsvangirai.

Assange is facing extradition to Sweden on sex crimes charges. He ought to be facing extradition to the United States to stand trial under the Espionage Act. And if Tsvangirai is jailed, executed or fired as a result of Assange’s recklessness, the WikiLeaks founder ought to pay a price.

Image by Nick-Clegg.

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