Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Steve Shaw looks at Donald Trump’s decision to grant freedom to his close allies, and the two people the President should consider pardoning instead

A sniper’s bullet tore through the windscreen of a car which had allegedly failed to stop. Moments later a launched grenade caused the vehicle to burst into flames. Then all hell broke loose. Gunfire hit almost 40 civilians, ending the lives of 17 people who were trying to flee.

The gunfire came from American mercenaries – or “contractors” as they are commonly referred to – working for a private military firm known as Blackwater. Their convoy had been speeding to the scene of a car bomb which had exploded earlier that day. It had stopped at the intersection in Nisour Square, Baghdad, to halt the traffic so that they could pass. It resulted in a bloodbath.

The 2007 incident deeply strained relations between the US and the Iraqi Governments and led to a series of investigations, including one by the FBI that concluded at least 14 people had been shot without cause. Seven years later, four employees of Blackwater were tried and convicted – one of murder, and the other three of manslaughter and firearms charges.

But their punishment was not to last long. At the end of December, all four were pardoned by outgoing President Donald Trump.

The decision was condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, who said that it “contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future”. A UN panel of experts later added that the pardons “violate US obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law”. Yet they went ahead anyway.

Two weeks earlier, Trump had been accused of pulling American troops from the war-torn east African country of Somalia in order to replace them with mercenaries run by Erik Prince – the former CEO of Blackwater. In unverified claims, New York Times columnist Marie Myung-Ok Lee, tweeted: “Trump is withdrawing troops from Somalia not because with his loss [of the 2020 US Presidential Election] he’s become a peacenik, it’s so he can monetise the last gasp of his presidency with private contractors like the odious Erik Prince.”

Along with the mercenaries, Trump has also used his final days to let two of his most high-profile advisors – those linked to the investigation into Russian election interference – walk free. On 23 December, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and ex-advisor Roger Stone were both pardoned. 

Manafort, who said “words cannot fully convey how grateful” he was for the pardon, was convicted in 2018 during an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Meanwhile, Stone claims to have been the subject of a “Soviet-style show trial” and was convicted of lying to Congress.

Another man to walk free was Charles Kushner, father of Ivanka Trump’s husband Jared Kushner, who is also a White House advisor.


Shooting the Messenger

As these Trump loyalists are granted freedom, it is the people who have arguably acted most in the interests of the American public who have been left to suffer – most notably, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange.

Assange spent Christmas in a jail cell in Belmarsh Prison in the UK, counting down the days before a judge’s verdict on whether he should be extradited to America to face trial. His crime is exposing American war crimes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including publishing the controversial video which he titled ‘Collateral Murder’.

Taken from the cockpit of a US Apache helicopter in July 2007, this video shows an air crew slaughtering Iraqi civilians, including two journalists working for Reuters. In grainy black-and-white, it shows the gunship’s 30mm machine gun cutting down the men on the ground as the Apache gunners are repeatedly told to “keep shooting”.

Assange is facing prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917, marking the first time it has ever been used to prosecute a media organisation for publishing classified information. It would be a trial in which Assange would not be able to defend his actions using a defence of public interest. Reporters Without Borders has warned that it would “threaten the work of all journalists”.

Daniel Ellsberg, who went on trial under the Espionage Act following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, wrote in 2014: “When I finally heard my lawyer ask the prearranged question in direct examination – why did you copy the Pentagon Papers? – I was silenced before I could begin to answer. The Government prosecutor objected – irrelevant – and the judge sustained. My lawyer, exasperated, said he ‘had never heard of a case where a defendant was not permitted to tell the jury why he did what he did’. The judge responded, well, you’re hearing one now. And so it has been with every subsequent whistleblower under indictment.”

The day before Trump pardoned the Blackwater employees, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, warned the President that not pardoning Assange would be the equivalent of ‘shooting the messenger’. “I visited Mr Assange in Belmarsh High Security Prison in London, with two independent medical doctors, and I can attest to the fact that his health has seriously deteriorated, to the point where his life is now in danger,” Melzer wrote. 

“I ask you to pardon Mr Assange, because he is not, and has never been, an enemy of the American people. His organisation, WikiLeaks, fights secrecy and corruption throughout the world and, therefore, acts in the public interest both of the American people and of humanity as a whole.”

While a judge this week blocked Assange’s extradition on mental health grounds, saying that the US Government is incapable of preventing the whistleblower from attempting to take his own life, the Trump administration is expected to appeal the decision.


Living in Exile

Further away, living in exile in Moscow, is another whistleblower that has not been afforded the same privileges as Trump’s mercenaries and convicted campaign allies.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden sacrificed his life in America to expose the illegal US and British surveillance apparatus created to spy on the public without their consent. Almost every revelation dropped by the Snowden files revealed that governments had acted illegally, yet he continues to face arrest and prosecution if he returns to the US.

The people behind the mass surveillance, including former director of national intelligence James Clapper – who lied to Congress about the programme’s existence – have not faced any repercussions. Meanwhile, Mike Rogers, a former member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Snowden exposed wrongdoing, has been allowed to write baseless claims about how pardoning Snowden would “embolden the enemies of America”.

In an article for the US political publication The Hill, Rogers accuses Snowden of fleeing to Russia, yet Snowden only ended up in Russia because the US cancelled his passport as he was about to board a connecting flight. Rogers also says that Snowden is responsible for “releasing” the classified documents taken from the National Security Agency, which is also false as Snowden has not personally published any of the material.

He goes on to say that “if Snowden truly believes in his actions and that what he did was both patriotic and right, he is welcome to present his case in the American judicial system”. But, like Assange, he would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act and his intention, the public interest, would be seen as irrelevant.

Rumours have been abounding on social media about whether Trump will ultimately pardon Snowden or Assange – but the chances remain bleak.

Earlier in the year, the President said he would be willing to “take a look” at a pardon for Snowden, yet it seems likely that this idea would be rebuffed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. While serving as director of the CIA in 2016, Pompeo publicly called for Snowden’s execution and urged the then President Barack Obama not to pardon him at the end of his term, calling the whistleblower a “liar and a criminal” who deserves “prison rather than pardon”.

Meanwhile, Trump’s stance on Assange has been erratic. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he publicly praised him after WikiLeaks published a series of leaked emails which damaged Hillary Clinton’s chances at the polls. But, once elected, Trump claimed to “know nothing of WikiLeaks” adding it is not his “thing”.

Making matters more complicated, at the beginning of 2020, Assange’s barrister claimed that the former Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher had been sent by Trump to visit Assange in 2017 – offering a pardon on the condition that Assange would say that the emails did not come from Russia. The motive was apparently to undermine allegations made of foreign interference in Trump’s campaign. However, Rohrabacher has denied the claim and Assange has continually refused to give any information on his sources. 

Most recently, Snowden has even sided with calls for Assange to be pardoned rather than himself. He tweeted: “Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency during your time in office, please: free Julian Assange. You alone can save his life.”

As Trump enters his final weeks in the White House, it is likely that he will pardon as many of his allies as possible. The New York Times has even reported that Trump has asked advisors whether he can pre-emptively pardon himself – and is even considering giving immunity to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a lawsuit accusing him of attempting to kill a former Saudi intelligence official.

In an interview with the Associated Press, senior US District Judge Robert Pratt of the Southern District of Iowa, said: “It’s not surprising that a criminal like Trump pardons other criminals… Apparently to get a pardon, one has to be either a Republican, a convicted child murderer or a turkey.”


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