It was the week WikiLeaks boiled over. The revelations kept coming: Oil company Shell embedded employees in every ministry of the Nigerian government; Burma’s military junta considered a $1bn bid for Manchester United; Nato drew up secret military plans to repel a Russian attack on the Baltic states. But there was no avoiding the sound of a prison door slamming shut on Julian Assange as America and its allies turned their embarrassment into a many-fronted attack on the Australian’s whistleblowing website.
Assange, lionised as “the Ned Kelly of the digital age” by the press in his home country for his burgeoning folk hero reputation as an icon of resistance, was finally arrested in London and this weekend remains in Wandsworth prison on remand relating to rape charges in Sweden. The howls of protest that the move was a politically motivated acquiescence to American pressure were matched by satisfaction in the US hierarchy that the man Senator Joe Lieberman accused of perpetrating the “most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history” was finally behind bars, albeit on unrelated charges. “Sounds like good news to me,” said a smiling Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, standing in front of a row of tanks.
PayPal suspended the WikiLeaks donations account under pressure from the state department, MasterCard and Visa refused to process transactions and a Swiss bank froze Assange’s fighting fund. In tit-for-tat reprisals, WikiLeaks supporters co-ordinated cyber attacks against companies who took sanctions. War had broken out on the internet, where the leaks began 13 days ago. Assange’s British lawyers Mark Stephens and Jennifer Robinson even complained their homes were under surveillence by the security services, with Robinson saying there were “people sitting outside my house in the same cars with newspapers”.
The focus of the story had swung round so much to the backlash against WikiLeaks that Russia, only days earlier accused of being “a virtual mafia state” in the cables, appeared to be so much enjoying America’s discomfort that a source in President Medvedev’s office called for Assange to be considered for the Nobel peace prize. On the streets of the Pakistani city of Multan, demonstrators burned US flags in front of banners declaring “Arrest of Julian Assange is a big slap on the face of UK champion of democracy.” Revelations that Pakistan was considered so unstable that American and British diplomats feared its nuclear material would fall into the hands of terrorists were brushed aside, as were admissions by Pakistan’s army’s top brass that hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid had been diverted into the Islamabad coffers. “Don’t trust WikiLeaks,” declared the Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, after revelations that he supported CIA drone strikes. But still the disclosures kept coming from the apparently fathomless database of more than 250,000 classified cables.
It emerged that London supported the early release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, after the Libyan leader, Muammar Gadafy, made “thuggish” threats against UK interests if the convicted murderer, this weekend said to be close to death more than 15 months after he was released supposedly on compassionate grounds, was not freed. Victims’ families were outraged.
“This backs up what we have been saying – that Megrahi was not released on compassionate grounds … that this was about business. It’s despicable,” said Susan Cohen, whose daughter, Theodora, was killed in the 1988 explosion.
Pfizer, the drugs giant, was reported by the US embassy in Abuja to have used private investigators to pressurise the Nigerian attorney general to drop legal actions over claims that a clinical trial of an antibiotic had harmed children, and there was more embarrassment for Gordon Brown in the UK. Two senior Whitehall officials contradicted his public statements that there would be some disarmament of the Trident nuclear submarine programme . They assured US diplomats that the renewal of the Trident deterrent would go ahead in spite of what the prime minister said.
In the Middle East, shortly after the gulf state of Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, having presented itself as the most open and modern state in the region, it emerged that the Qatari authorities are using the al-Jazeera TV network as a diplomatic bargaining chip, even offering to cease transmissions in Egypt altogether if it persuaded the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to change his position on Israel-Palestinian negotiations. In Saudi Arabia, diplomats reported on a Halloween party thrown in 2009 by a Saudi prince that lifted the lid on the country’s reputation for pious Islamic abstinence. A well-stocked bar was staffed by Filipino bartenders, while guests danced to a DJ and prostitutes worked the room. The dispatch signed off: “Though not witnessed directly at this event, cocaine and hashish use is common in these social circles.”