Protester confronts Antony Blinken on stage in support of Julian Assange

The Secretary of State was appearing at a World Press Freedom Day event

Abe Asher
Friday 05 May 2023 01:12 BST

Protesters on Wednesday used US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s appearance at a World Press Freedom Day event to call for the freedom of jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Mr Blinken had just taken the stage at the event to be interviewed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius when protesters including CodePink’s Medea Benjamin took the stage to call for Mr Assange’s release.

“Excuse us,” Ms Benjamin said. “We can’t use this day without calling for the freedom of Julian Assange.”

As security rushed onto the stage to eject Ms Benjamin, she hooked her leg around Mr Blinken’s chair to make it more difficult to remove her.

Mr Blinken remained relatively calm throughout the protest, at one point asking security to “take it easy” on Ms Benjamin.

While Ms Benjamin struggled to get her message out from the stage, another protester in the audience at the event yelled that attendees had heard nothing about Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian journalist allegedly killed by Israeli forces in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank in May of last year.

Israel has refused to open a criminal investigation into the IDF soldiers who allegedly shot and killed Ms Abu Akleh despite the fact that an investigation by CNN found that her death was likely the result of a targeted assasination. Other independent investigations reached similar conclusions, and the US Department of Justice opened an investigation into the killing last November over Israeli objections.

Still, a number of observers have implicated the US in Ms Abu Akleh’s death given its steadfast support for Israel and its military. Ms Abu Akleh was a celebrated and highly visible Palestinian journalist who had reported for Al Jazeera for a quarter century.

Mr Assange, meanwhile, remains the target of a US extradition request — wanted on espionage charges for publishing thousands of classified military documents leaked to him in 2010 and 2011. Mr Assange is currently incarcerated in the UK and fighting the extradition request. He faces up to 175 years in prison in the US if convicted of the charges he’s facing.

Protesters insist there is an irony in the US celebrating press freedom while attempting to lock up Mr Assange, whose supporters argue he is being persecuted simply for carrying out journalism. Mr Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador and lived in the country’s embassy in London from 2012 to 2019, when he had his asylum withdrawn and was arrested by UK police. He still remains a celebrated figure for proponents of free speech and opponents of state power.

After Ms Benjamin was removed from the stage, the event continued.

“We’re here to celebrate freedom of expression, and we just experienced it,” Ignatius said.

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