Julian Assange is a divisive figure in many circles. Many people condemn the WikiLeaks founder for allegations of sexual assault (and his failing to surrender to bail in the United Kingdom for those allegations, instead being granted diplomatic immunity within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London). Meanwhile, others praise him for his work with the whistleblowing website responsible for releasing classified information – including thousands of American diplomatic cables. Avant-garde artist/musician and counter-culture icon Yoko Ono Lennon shows no such ambivalence, however, giving Assange the Courage Award for the Arts 2013 at a special ceremony this past weekend.
The annual award was created by Ono in 2009, with recipients chosen in recognition of their strength in following their own passion – especially when faced with disbelief and doubt from onlookers, or censorship and persecution from authorities. Previous award winners included art buyers Gil and Lila Silverman, feminist art group Guerrilla Girls Broadband, and musician Meredith Monk. “Our public officials have forgotten that they are ultimately accountable to the people who put them in office; that the information they keep in secrecy belongs to all of us,” Ono spoke of her decision to elect Assange as this year’s award recipient. “Julian Assange took a courageous step by rightfully returning what belongs to the public domain. For that reason, I believe we need to stand behind him.”
Assange was, of course, unable to accept the award in person; in his absence, it was accepted by his legal team, the Honorable Judge Baltasar Garzon Real and Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Assange also released a statement in response to the award, in which he thanked both men for their “courageous and unyielding support,” as well as the Ecuadorian people, whose support “strengthens not just my rights but the rights of political refugees everywhere.”
“People often ask me how I keep going,” Assange wrote. “They ask as if my work was some kind of burden to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no greater pleasure than fighting for your principles. There is no greater pleasure than in fighting for those who have risked all to share your vision. And there is no greater pleasure than seeing those who you admire, in turn, move to fight for you. And while the embassy that shelters me is still surrounded by armed police, my voice is free.”
He dedicated his award “to our courageous sources, supporters and to my staff,” adding that “through their courage and wit they are revealing the true nature of our global human civilisation.
“This is how we may reform it. Elevate it – and make it just, beyond its humble origins. Their courage in documenting war crimes, gross human rights violations, and the corruption of our societies is unequaled.”