The fight to free Julian Assange is a fight for press freedom and the right to know

The Wikileaks founder, a political prisoner, faces life in prison amid the danger of extradition to the US after the latest court ruling.

Published : Aug 01, 2023 14:27 IST - 9 MINS READ

Julian Assange supporters protest outside the Old Bailey in London, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020.

Julian Assange supporters protest outside the Old Bailey in London, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

The WikiLeaks founder and a leading crusader for media freedom, Julian Assange, continues to be incarcerated in a British jail since his forcible extraction from the Ecuadorian embassy more than four years ago. In the second week of June, Jonathan Swift, a London High Court judge, ruled that Assange has no legal grounds to challenge the British government’s decision to extradite him to the United States to face trial. 

American authorities have filed 18 charges against Assange relating to the release of the US government’s confidential files by WikiLeaks, regarding American military activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world following the events of 9/11. Most of the classified documents disseminated by WikiLeaks were provided by Chelsea Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst. Manning was given a 35-year prison sentence but was freed after serving four years. President Barack Obama gave Manning a Presidential pardon in 2017.

A spokesperson for “Reporters sans Frontières,” one of the many journalistic organisations fighting for Assange, said that it “was absurd” that a single judge could make a decision that could condemn a world-renowned whistleblower journalist to a lifetime in jail. “The historical weight of what happens next cannot be overstated; it is time to put a stop to the relentless targeting of Assange and act instead to protect journalism and press freedom,” the statement from the organisation said.

The case against Swift 

Swift, the judge in question, had made his reputation as a lawyer for Britain’s Home and Defense Ministries, the same government departments that have a vested interest in extraditing Assange to the US. Swift was the “First Secretary Counsel,” the British government’s top lawyer from 2006-2014. In that post, he had regularly represented the government in high-profile cases. Swift, in an interview published in 2018, admitted that while practising as a lawyer, his “favourite clients were the security and intelligence agencies” of the UK.

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In June 2022, Judge Swift upheld the Boris Johnson government’s controversial decision to send illegal immigrants to the Republic of Rwanda. A High Court Bench in a majority opinion, however, ruled in June this year against the forcible repatriation of refugees to the African country. Swift in 2008 represented the Ministry of Defence as a lawyer in a case filed by an Iraqi who was jailed by the British occupation forces in Iraq. 

The man, who holds dual Iraqi and British citizenship, argued that his detention was an infringement of his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. A significant portion of the disclosures by WikiLeaks pertains to human rights violations by the American and British occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party and a man widely tipped to be the next Prime Minister, had played a key role in the American-led witch hunt against Assange. Starmer, before entering active politics, served as the Director of Public Prosecution, the body charged with fighting the British government’s case supporting the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder to Sweden, where he was initially wanted for alleged sexual misconduct. 

Sweden dropped the trumped-up case against Assange in 2019, citing statutes of limitations. It was evident at the time that the Swedish government was pursuing the case against Assange at Washington’s bidding.

American government records show that Starmer had visited Washington three times from 2009 to 2013. He had meetings with the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, to discuss ways to hasten the extradition of Assange to Sweden. Starmer advised the Swedish police against interviewing Assange in London after he had taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. This move prevented Assange from clearing his name on the sexual misconduct issue. And when the Swedish authorities wanted to drop the case against Assange in 2014, Starmer’s office warned Stockholm against making such a move.

The noted British filmmaker, Ken Loach, speaking during the release of a new film highlighting the political incarceration of Assange titled The War on Journalism: The Case of Julian Assange, called for an explanation from Starmer. “Starmer speaks of openness in his dealings; well, let him be open about this, and let’s hear what he has to say about the torture and the illegal oppression of Assange.” The Assange case is the most political case of this century so far and a defining one for the Left in the UK and the wider world.

Extradition fears 

After the latest ruling by the British Court, Assange is now “dangerously close” to being extradited to the US and spending the rest of his life incarcerated in an American prison. The UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, signed an extradition order against Assange in June 2022. A lower court judge had initially ruled that given Assange’s mental state, he was unfit for extradition to the US. Assange’s family has said that they would make yet another appeal to the British High Court. Stella Assange, the WikiLeaks founder’s wife, has said that she still remains optimistic about the eventual outcome.

In a letter to the new British monarch, King Charles, at the time of his coronation, Assange described himself “as a political prisoner, held at your majesty’s pleasure on behalf of an embarrassed foreign sovereign.” He said in his letter that “one can truly measure the society by how it treats its prisoners, and your kingdom has surely excelled in that regard.” In November 2022, five leading western media companies issued a joint statement denouncing the American government’s actions against Assange.

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“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” wrote the editors and publishers of The Washington Post, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais. “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of the free press in a democracy.”

Assange’s legal team has been arguing, with justification, that his trial has always been “a politically motivated” one.

Assange’s legal team has been arguing, with justification, that his trial has always been “a politically motivated” one. | Photo Credit: WinnyMcNamee/Getty Images via AFP

These media outlets had published the explosive revelations gleaned from the 250,000 military documents released by WikiLeaks thirteen years ago. The US Justice Department formally charged Assange in 2019 under the stringent 1917 Espionage Act, when Donald Trump was President. The Act was never previously invoked to prosecute a journalist or a media outlet.

Assange’s father, John Shipton, said that the legal grounds for a new hearing of his son’s appeal were “clear, firm, and just”. Assange’s lawyers and supporters argue that the extradition order issued by the former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, violated the basic tenets of the US-UK extradition treaty. The treaty explicitly states that “extradition shall not be granted if the offence for which extradition is requested is for a political offence”. 

Assange’s legal team has been arguing, with justification, that his trial has always been “a politically motivated” one. Assange’s final appeal will be heard very soon by a two-member bench of the UK High Court. If this appeal too fails, then the only chance for a judicial reprieve for Assange is in the European Court of Human Rights. Assange’s lawyers have already made a preliminary appeal to the European Court at the end of 2022.

The Australian government, now run by the Labour Party, is at least formally calling for the release of Assange, an Australian citizen by birth. The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has raised the issue with American officials and has said that he was “frustrated” that there has not yet been a diplomatic resolution to the issue. The Australian Prime Minister has also expressed concern about the “mental health” of Assange, languishing in solitary confinement at the Belmarsh high-security prison in the UK. “I just say enough is enough,” he recently told the media.

Other foreign leaders, especially from Latin America, have called on the Biden administration to drop the charges against Assange. The Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in a letter to President Joe Biden, said that arresting Assange would be “an affront to press freedom”. The Colombian President, Gustavo Petro, said that he planned to tell his American counterpart that Assange should not be arrested “just for telling the truth”.

The files released by WikiLeaks exposed American criminality in the wars it has been waging since the turn of the century. Stefania Maurizi, an Italian investigative journalist who was associated with WikiLeaks for several years, had recently written a book on Assange.

Maurizi, who has worked with leading Italian newspapers like La Republica and had exposed the Italian government’s complicity in the CIA’s torture programme after America declared its “war on terror”, has said that the WikiLeaks founder “had radically transformed journalism”. She said that WikiLeaks documents have been made freely accessible to billions of people, “so that everyone can make up their minds.”

The WikiLeaks revelations were greeted with much fanfare in the mainstream western media when they were first released. The major newspapers in the US, UK, France, and other countries published the explosive leaks on their front pages. But prying into the dark secrets of the “deep state”, as Assange and the WikiLeaks team soon learned, had its consequences. 

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The Obama administration, outraged by the leak of such a massive dossier, decided to strike back. The US administration claimed that Assange was not a bona fide journalist, just a mere “hacker” working for interests inimical to Washington. Successive American administrations, including the Biden administration, have claimed that the WikiLeaks revelations would endanger the lives of American officials. The documents which were first published in 2010 have not resulted in any physical harm to officials and individuals named in the document.

Ellsberg and after

Meanwhile, the passing away of another famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, in the third week of June, was headline news. Ellsberg, who worked for the Pentagon in a senior position, was the man who engineered the 1971 leak of the “Pentagon Papers” which blew the lid on American duplicity in the war in Vietnam. 

He had leaked thousands of government files that provided conclusive evidence of American war crimes and the lies that led to the Vietnam War. Eighteen leading newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers at the time.

The US Supreme Court had ruled in Ellsberg’s favour despite the best efforts of the Nixon administration to convict him under the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court in a majority ruling said that the government had not provided the evidence required to overturn the presumption of press freedom to publish based on the First Amendment.

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The American Supreme Court in those days had a more liberal bent. The current Supreme Court is one of the most conservative in the history of American justice. Assange cannot expect the kind of favourable treatment meted out to Ellsberg.

Ellsberg had gone on to play a prominent role in the antiwar movement and in the defence of free media. He was an outspoken supporter of the whistleblowers who had followed his illustrious example like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Assange. He spoke on behalf of Assange until the very end. “I was the first whistleblower prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and now he is the first prosecution (under the Espionage Act) for publishing,” he had said.

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