Julian Assange denied bail, but London court upholds U.S. government charges against him

Print edition : February 12, 2021

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He is likely to face a kangaroo court if he is extradited to the U.S. Photo: AP

Supporters outside the court after Assange was denied bail on January 6. Photo: Matt Dunham/AP

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, addresses the media outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London after Assange was denied bail on January 6. Photo: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

The sitting judge in a London court refuses to extradite Julian Assange on the grounds of health risk but upholds the U.S. administration’s charges, including violation of the Espionage Act.

THE HOPE THAT THE WHISTLE-BLOWER Julian Assange would finally walk out of prison a free man was extinguished within a matter of two days. On January 4, judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled at the Old Bailey that Assange could not be extradited to face trial in the United States but chose to deny the journalist bail sitting in the Westminster Magistrates Court on January 6. The judge gave a convoluted judgment while rejecting the demand of the U.S. authorities for extradition of the WikiLeaks founder. She upheld all the charges made by the U.S. administration against Assange, including that of violating the country’s draconian Espionage Act.

This is the first time such a charge has been made against a journalist. The Espionage Act defines unauthorised publication of classified national defence material as felony. It does not differentiate between a whistle-blower exposing a government’s dirty secrets and a spy selling state secrets. The Act was rarely invoked against journalists before the events of 9/11.

The U.S. government has selectively prosecuted journalists since 9/11 for exposing embarrassing state secrets but had not gone to the extent of invoking the Espionage Act. The Barack Obama administration stood out for the way in which it went after whistle-blowers in the media. Ten years ago, when President-elect Joe Biden was Vice President, he had compared Assange to a “high-tech” terrorist. Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State, had said that WikiLeaks was mounting “an attack” on the world. Assange is most likely to face a kangaroo court if he is extradited to the U.S. now.

Focus on Assange’s mental health

Ruling against Assange’s extradition, Vanessa Baraitser said he would be at extreme risk of suicide if incarcerated in a U.S. jail. The judge preferred to focus on Assange’s mental health issues and rejected the plea of his lawyers that the U.S. government’s demand for its client’s extradition was an attack on the fundamental tenets of press freedom and were motivated by political considerations. The judge instead said that she was satisfied that the U.S. authorities had filed the case against Assange in “good faith” and questioned his motivations. The court refused extradition on the grounds that there was evidence that there was a risk to Assange’s health if he were to face trial in a U.S. court. The judge said that extradition “would be unjust and oppressive by reason of Assange’s mental condition”. Assange has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and depression.

Also read: Assange languishes in jail

Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture, said in 2019 that the treatment meted out to Assange amounted to “psychological torture”. The U.S. government said it would go in appeal within the stipulated two weeks period. The U.S. Justice Department said it was “extremely disappointed” with the judge’s decision to deny extradition but “gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised”.

Rights groups and media organisations, while welcoming the judge’s decision to deny extradition, deplored her assessment that the case against Assange was not politically motivated. Rebecca Vincent, a spokesperson for Reporters without Borders, said that they continued to believe that Assange was targeted for “his contributions to journalism, and until the underlying issues here are addressed, other journalists, sources and publishers remain at risk”. The judge’s decision has demolished the assumption that under British law public interest defence is available to whistle-blowers and journalists.

Vanessa Baraitser’s decision to reject Assange’s bail plea at the hearing in Westminster court caused further disappointment to Assange and supporters of WikiLeaks worldwide. She said Assange had a reason to abscond and that he should remain in jail as the U.S. prosecutors continued to demand his extradition. Assange’s lawyer said that his client was willing to opt for police-supervised house imprisonment if given bail. The appeals process could last several months and end up in Britain’s Supreme Court.

The editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsonn, said that the judge’s ruling was unjust, unfair and illogical considering the fact that she had ruled just days before that the conditions in the prison had adversely impacted on Assange’s health. Assange’s lawyers are planning to appeal for bail again. Assange has already completed a 50-week jail sentence in Belmarsh prison for skipping bail after he entered the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Influenced by the executive

The judge was apparently reading out from a script written by the “deep state”. Britain is after all an important member of the “five eyes” grouping. The U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada are the other four members of the intelligence sharing group. There have been previous instances in which the judiciary has been influenced by the executive.

The British double agent George Blake, who passed away recently, was given a 42-year jail sentence in 1961. Chief Justice Lord Parker, who was the presiding judge at the time, had a word with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan before announcing the sentence. Blake, who was working undercover for the Soviet security agency, KGB, had allegedly betrayed 42 British spies. The decision was controversial at the time, with even British military Intelligence, MI6, complaining that the severity of the judgment would inhibit future spies from confessing. Blake, however, managed to escape from the high-security prison in 1966 with the help of local anti-war protesters.

Also read: Assault on media freedom

Assange was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in 2017 on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and conspiring to hack government computers. If Assange is extradited to the U.S., he will face a jail term of 175 years. U.S. constitutional experts and legal commentators said that prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs was a violation of the country’s “First Amendment” law.

Assange has been hounded by the U.S. government ever since he released the secret documents provided by the U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 in collaboration with The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and other publications. These publications have now turned their back on him. The documents provided graphic first-hand information about the dreadful war crimes committed by the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange had subsequently partnered with The Guardian to release U.S. State Department files that gave detailed accounts of behind-the-scenes activities intended to destabilise countries that the U.S. government viewed as adversaries. The files were released as the Arab Spring uprisings were starting. The inner workings of many authoritarian Arab governments and their links with Washington were also exposed. The news generated by the WikiLeaks files grabbed world headlines for two years running.

The U.S. authorities in cahoots with their counterparts in Sweden and Britain, foisted a sexual molestation case against Assange. The Swedish authorities wanted Assange to present himself in their country to face charges. WikiLeaks and its supporters worldwide saw the Swedish government’s move as a trap laid by the U.S. intelligence agencies to set Assange up for deportation to face charges in a U.S. Federal Court. Assange was willing to be questioned by the Swedish police on British soil. With the British government intent on doing Washington’s bidding, Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange was out on bail at the time awaiting trial on sex abuse charges in Sweden. The sexual impropriety charges were dropped when Assange remained holed up in a small room in the embassy.

Ecuador’s U-turn

During his last years in the embassy, all his movements and interactions were closely monitored by the U.S. intelligence agencies. Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President who had agreed to Assange’s request for political asylum, had demitted office. His successor made a U-turn and agreed to cooperate with Washington in its pursuit of WikiLeaks and Assange. In 2019, the British police entered the Ecuadorean embassy, forcibly removed Assange and took him to the high-security Belmarsh prison. Since April 2020, the prison, which houses those convicted of violent crimes, has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Assange has been kept in virtual solitary confinement in the squalid prison.

Assange’s lawyers have been insisting right from the outset that his trial was a politically motivated one and an attack on press freedom worldwide. They argued that there was no chance of him ever getting a fair trial in any U.S. court. There is a bipartisan support in the U.S. to scapegoat the Australian-born Assange as a traitor to the West. The Democratic Party establishment was particularly incensed after Assange released a tranche of Hillary Clinton’s personal emails in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign and hold him partially responsible for Donald Trump’s upset electoral victory.

The Democratic Party alleged that WikiLeaks had got the dossier from the Russians, who wanted to harm the prospects of Hillary Clinton in the election. Trump at the time had publicly thanked WikiLeaks, but once in office he toed the line adopted by the country’s security establishment. It was the Trump administration that framed the damning charge sheet against Assange, accusing him of grievously harming U.S. national security interests.

Also read: A ‘secret’ exposed

Mike Pompeo, who had welcomed the WikiLeaks’ expose of the Hillary Clinton dossier, changed his tune after Trump first appointed him as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In his first speech as the CIA Director, Pompeo said WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence unit acting at the behest of Russia and other enemies of the U.S. He described Assange as “a narcissist” and “a fraud”. WikiLeaks continued its investigative journalism and released thousands of pages of documents after Trump became President, describing the sophisticated tools used by the CIA to break into smartphones and computers.

Assange’s lawyers said the Trump administration wanted WikiLeaks to state on record that the Russians had not given access to the Democratic Party dossier to undermine the Hillary Clinton campaign in exchange for a presidential pardon. WikiLeaks has always denied that it got the dossier from Russian intelligence services. The Robert Mueller investigations (2017-19) failed to provide any clinching proof of Russian involvement in the 2016 American presidential election.

Anyway, WikiLeaks, unlike the CIA, has never said that “it steals secrets”. Pompeo had famously boasted that when he was CIA Director the agency was in the business of “stealing secrets” and that there was no need to be apologetic about it. If Assange is convicted under the Espionage Act, every journalist around the world writing on national security issues will be liable to meet a similar fate as more governments will take their cue from the U.S. Following a 1961 amendment, the U.S. Espionage Act has universal jurisdiction.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has been invoking the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act with alarming regularity against its citizens ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power at the Centre.

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