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Press Freedom

US a step closer to getting Julian Assange?

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

US a step closer to getting Julian Assange?

Julian Assange in London on May 19, 2017, when he was in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Julian Assange in London on May 19, 2017, when he was in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy. | Photo Credit: Frank Augstein/AP

The possible extradition and trial in the US of Assange would strike a blow against press freedom.

As most international legal luminaries had predicted, the British government succumbed to pressure from the US and is fast-tracking the process of deporting Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to that country to face trial on the serious charges of espionage. British Home Secretary Priti Patel, notorious for her tough stance on immigration, gave the green light for his deportation.

The Supreme Court of the UK ruled in February that Assange could not appeal the decision of lower courts in his extradition case. In April, a magistrates’ court ordered Assange’s extradition under laws relating to the US’ Espionage Act.

Under British laws, Assange had a month’s time to appeal to the Home Secretary against the Supreme Court’s ruling.. In a statement in mid June rejecting the appeal, the British Home Office claimed that the UK could comply with the US government’s long-standing extradition demand because “the UK courts” have come to the conclusion that it would not be “oppressive, unjust or an abuse of power to extradite Mr Assange”. It went on to say that the courts did not find that extradition “would be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to the freedom of expression, and that whilst in the US he will be treated appropriately, including in relation to his health”.

Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel. | Photo Credit: AFP Photo / Jessica Taylor

In early July, Assange exercised one of his last options to stay his extradition by applying to the High Court for permission to appeal against the decisions of the lower courts and the Home Secretary. Assange’s legal team argued that the leaked documents exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and were in the public interest. The documents showed that the US occupation forces in Afghanistan had killed innocent civilians, numbering in the tens of thousands. This fact was previously unknown to the general public in the US and the wider world. The leaked files on Iraq revealed that 66,000 civilians were killed and thousands more tortured under US supervision in notorious prisons such as Abu Ghraib.

The WikiLeaks files also threw light on the torture practices in the US’ Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba. WikiLeaks released the “collateral murder” video that showed a US Apache helicopter targeting civilians in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2007. At least 18 innocent civilians were killed in that attack, which the Pentagon had kept under wraps. The war crimes recorded in that video alone were clear violations of the Geneva Conventions and the US Law of War Manual.

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Obrador branded the Assange trial “as an embarrassment to the world”.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Obrador branded the Assange trial “as an embarrassment to the world”. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in his reaction to the UK government’s decision, said Assange was “the best journalist of our times and he has been very unfairly treated, worse than a criminal”. He branded the trial “as an embarrassment to the world”. Lopez Obrador said he would request his US counterpart to end the witch-hunt. Assange, he said, was most welcome to come and live in Mexico.

Since Assange’s incarceration in a high-security British jail in 2019, his health issues have only exacerbated, according to his doctors and his family. His years living holed up in the relatively small Ecuadorian embassy in London after seeking asylum there in 2012 had already taken a mental and physical toll on him.

Chelsea Manning was convicted by a US military court in 2014 but was given a presidential pardon by President Barack Obama.
Chelsea Manning was convicted by a US military court in 2014 but was given a presidential pardon by President Barack Obama. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky/File Photo

Under the editorship of the Australian-born Assange, WikiLeaks started releasing archives of official US military and diplomatic documents from 2010. These documents were mainly passed on to the organisation by Chelsea Manning, who was at the time working as a US military analyst. Manning was convicted by a US military court in 2014 but was given a presidential pardon by President Barack Obama.

The said WikiLeaks documents were published in many leading newspapers in the West, such as The New York Times, Le Monde, and The Guardian. On June 17, following the UK Home Secretary’s decision, an editorial board of The Guardian wrote that “this action potentially opens the door for journalists anywhere in the world to being extradited to the US for exposing information deemed classified by the American government”. Barring a few such editorials, the Western media, after using WikiLeaks for short-term gains, have now distanced themselves from Assange and virtually left him to his fate.

This image taken from a video shot from a U.S. Apache helicopter gunsight, posted at Wikileaks.org and confirmed as authentic by a senior U.S. military official, shows the scene on a street of eastern Baghdad just after the helicopter fired on a group of men on July 12, 2007.
This image taken from a video shot from a U.S. Apache helicopter gunsight, posted at Wikileaks.org and confirmed as authentic by a senior U.S. military official, shows the scene on a street of eastern Baghdad just after the helicopter fired on a group of men on July 12, 2007. | Photo Credit: Wikileaks.org/AP

The Donald Trump administration formally made the first move to extradite Assange from Britain. Assange’s claim was that the US deep state was out to get him soon after the first tranche of the files detailing US war crimes was leaked. The “rape charges” against him in Sweden came soon after. Assange refused to go to Sweden to face trial on those charges, claiming that it was a pretext to arrest and extradite him to the US.

The formal charges against Assange are that of conspiring to commit “unlawful computer intrusion”. The US government has invoked this subterfuge to sidestep criticism that it is acting against the media’s right to the unfettered dissemination of news. According to one of Assange’s lawyers, Barry Pollack, the US government’s real reason for targeting Assange boils “down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source”. He warned that journalists around the world have reason “to be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges” against Assange. Fifteen associations representing journalists and publishers met in Geneva following Patel’s decision and demanded Asssange’s immediate release.

Outside a court in London on May 30, 2019, where there was a hearing in Assange’s extradition case. 
Outside a court in London on May 30, 2019, where there was a hearing in Assange’s extradition case.  | Photo Credit: TOLGA AKME/AFP

The 17 charges against Assange under the Espionage Act carry prison terms of up to 175 years. Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, said that the British government’s decision meant “that any publisher who exposes national security information of an allied country may face extradition to two lifetimes in prison”.

“The 17 charges against Assange under the US’ Espionage Act carry prison terms of up to 175 years.”

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, seemed to have harboured a special animus towards Assange and WikiLeaks though his boss had once publicly thanked the organisation for uploading documents from the Democratic Party headquarters that showed its presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light. Pompeo had labelled WikiLeaks as “a hostile intelligence service” working at the behest of the Kremlin and accused Assange of making “common cause with dictators”.

The new Democratic administration under President Joe Biden seems even more determined than the previous one to exact revenge on Assange. Many top Democratic party functionaries hold WikiLeaks responsible for Trump’s surprise electoral upset in 2016. WikiLeaks figured prominently in the Democratic Party’s bid to impeach Trump. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller conducted the probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and had tried to indirectly implicate WikiLeaks.

A protester holds up a placard in defence of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The “Assange Defence” committee, co-chaired by Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame), and Alice Walker, described the UK government’s decision as “an abomination”.
A protester holds up a placard in defence of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The “Assange Defence” committee, co-chaired by Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame), and Alice Walker, described the UK government’s decision as “an abomination”. | Photo Credit: NIKLAS HALLE’N / AFP

The UK government’s decision on Assange triggered protests in many parts of the world. Hundreds of people gathered in London to denounce it, calling it “politically motivated” and “a grave threat to the freedom of the press”. The “Assange Defence” committee, co-chaired by Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame), and Alice Walker, described the decision as “an abomination”. In a statement, the committee said that the US government had argued “that its venerated Constitution does not protect journalism the government dislikes, and that publishing truthful information in the public interest is a subversive, criminal act. This argument is a threat not only to journalism, but to democracy itself.”

Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, warned that the decision had put Assange “at great risk of prison conditions that could result in irreversible harm to his physical and psychological well-being”. Nils Melzer, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, tweeted in December last year that “the UK is literally torturing him to death”. In the second week of June, more than 300 doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists under the banner of “Doctors for Assange” wrote to Patel saying that Assange’s “deteriorating health” made it “medically and ethically unacceptable” to extradite him.

Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, warned that the decision had put Assange “at great risk of prison conditions that could result in irreversible harm to his physical and psychological well-being”.
Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, warned that the decision had put Assange “at great risk of prison conditions that could result in irreversible harm to his physical and psychological well-being”. | Photo Credit: Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP

In a speech delivered at the so-called Summit of Democracies in December last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaimed that media freedom played “an indispensable role” in informing the public and holding governments accountable. “The US will continue to stand up for the brave and necessary work of journalists around the world,” he said just two days before the UK’s High Court’s ruling.

As many international legal experts have pointed out, the US has never punished a journalist for publishing classified information. Even as the Biden administration was reading the riot act to Assange, it gave the killers of the Saudi and Palestinian journalists Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh a clean chit. Both governments implicated in the killings, Saudi Arabia and Israel respectively, are among the US’ closest allies.

Stella Moris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Stella Moris, partner of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. | Photo Credit: NIKLAS HALLE’N / AFP

Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, said that her husband was being punished for doing his duty “as a journalist and a publisher” and pledged to fight on. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other organisations representing the media condemned the British government’s decision to cave in to the demands from the US. “The US pursuit of Assange against the public’s right to know poses a grave threat to the basic tenets of democracy, which are now becoming increasingly fragile worldwide,” the statement from the IFJ said. “Irrespective of personal views on Assange, his extradition will have a chilling effect, with all journalists and media workers at risk.”

Option to appeal to European Court

Assange has the option of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, which in a recent ruling grounded a flight that was transporting non-European asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda against their will. The Boris Johnson government had in a controversial move taken the decision to transport asylum seekers illegally crossing the English Channel to the thickly populated landlocked state of Rwanda. Although the UK exited the EU, it continues to be a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Conservative government in the UK is now talking of leaving the European Court of Human Rights. It fears that the court will give Assange a favourable ruling in the case.

Assange’s family has once again demanded that the Australian government intervene on his behalf . So far, the new Labour government in Australia, headed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has refused to intercede publicly with the US government on behalf of the WikiLeaks editor. Mark Dreyfus, Australia’s new Attorney General, and Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the Assange issue had been dragging on for too long and “should be brought to a close”.