UK court to rule on WikiLeaks founder Assange’s US extradition, Pursuit threatens media freedom

By Usaid Siddiqui & Julia Hall

Updated at 3:10 PM GMT on Monday, 04th January 21

Julian Assange faces up to 175 years in a US jail over espionage and hacking charges, as activists decry threats to future of press freedom.

A British judge is set to reveal whether she has approved Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States, where the WikiLeaks founder would face espionage charges for publishing secret US military documents.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is expected to deliver the decision at 10:00 GMT on Monday at the Old Bailey.

Assange is set to appear in court, while his supporters rally outside.

The 49-year-old Australian is accused of illegally hacking into US government websites and leaking documents containing logs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and diplomatic cables in 2010.

“I am expecting the worst,” MIT professor and prominent US foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky told Al Jazeera.

“I hope I am wrong,” the 92-year-old activist added, calling Assange’s incarceration “unfair, unjust and criminal – but power reigns”.

If extradited, the WikiLeaks publisher is likely to appeal the decision, which could delay extradition proceedings for an indefinite period.

In case he is not, Assange is expected to remain in jail in the United Kingdom.

A banner hangs outside the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court before WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrival, in London, Britain, January 4, 2021 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Assange, whose trial began in February last year and concluded in October, is currently being held at the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London and fears for his physical and mental health are rising.

Julia Hall, an expert on counterterrorism, criminal justice, and human rights at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera “it was best not to speculate at this point”.

“So many things have changed over the course of the trial to date. We are ready for either outcome,” she said.

The Australian citizen was arrested in April 2019 from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he was granted asylum in 2012, in order to avoid being arrested after Interpol issued an arrest warrant for him on rape allegations in Sweden, an investigation which was later dropped.

That same month, a grand jury in the US state of Virginia charged him with one count of computer hacking for allegedly assisting former US Army personnel Chelsea Manning in accessing the classified documents.

In May 2019, the WikiLeaks founder was indicted under the US Espionage Act of 1917 on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.

The Australian is the first publisher to be charged under the act and could face up to a maximum of 175 years in prison.

Among the contents published by WikiLeaks was a 39-minute video of a US military Apache helicopter firing over and killing more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters news agency journalists.

Daniel Ellsberg, a widely celebrated American whistle-blower, said Assange’s release of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs were “comparable in importance” to the Pentagon Papers, a study on the US war in Vietnam which he leaked in 1971.

Fears of ill-treatment

Rights groups fear if Assange is extradited to the US, he could face ill-treatment in a prison there.

Hall said her organisation’s research into maximum security or ordinary federal prisons in the US has revealed the use of Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), such as extreme isolation, which she said amounts to “torture”.

“When it comes to Assange, it is glaring the risk that he would be put into a maximum-security prison and subjected to SAMs,” the human rights lawyer said.

Assange has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as well as depression and other mental health-related issues, Hall said.

“If the decision comes to extradite Assange, we will come out very strongly against it as the UK will be going against its international obligations,” she said.

The United Nations Convention against Torture says “no State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.

Moreover, Hall claimed Assange’s right to a free trial in the US has already been “undermined”.

“Statements of political leaders at the very top [in the US] have already prosecuted him in public already. His presumption of innocence … in the United States, has already been woefully and profoundly undermined,” she told Al Jazeera.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” whose work must be “mitigated and managed”. He also accused Assange of being a “fraud”.

‘Chilling effect’

Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said if Assange is extradited, the ramifications for journalism and press freedom will be “severe and long-lasting”.

“We would see a distinct chilling effect on the publication of leaked information, which in turn impacts the public’s right to information,” Vincent told Al Jazeera.

The previous US administration led by former President Barack Obama refused to persecute Assange, fearing it may leave US news outlets such as the New York Times newspaper vulnerable as well who, together with WikiLeaks, also published the leaked documents.

Rapper M.I.A. and supporters of Assange outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London [File: Simon Dawson/Reuters]

In December, the UK-based The Guardian newspaper said charges against the WikiLeaks founder “undermine the foundations of democracy and press freedom in both countries”.

RSF’s Vincent said if the legal system fails to deliver justice, “it will be clear that a political solution is needed, as the targeting of Assange in itself is politically motivated”.

“There is a need for greater public pressure on the UK government not to extradite Assange, and on the US government to drop the charges against him. One means of accomplishing that could be a presidential pardon by President Donald Trump in his final days in office, or by [President-elect] Joe Biden following his inauguration,” she told Al Jazeera.

Demands in the US that Trump, who now has fewer than three weeks in office, should pardon Assange have increased in recent months, with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a Republican, and US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard calling for it.

Julian Assange: What you need to know about the WikiLeaks founder

The Australian-born whistle-blower is fighting a court battle in the UK against extradition to the US on espionage charges.

Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK [File: Frank Augstein/AP]

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is facing extradition to the US from the UK.

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange is an Australian-born computer programmer and founder of WikiLeaks – an international, non-profit whistle-blowing organisation that was created in Iceland in 2006.

The 48-year-old, a father, is WikiLeaks’ publisher and former editor-in-chief. In 2018, Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson took over as editor.

Assange came to prominence in mid-2010 after WikiLeaks published US military logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, and US cable leaks in November that year.

Former US military personnel Chelsea Manning sent the information to Assange.

Manning was charged and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, and other offences.

The Espionage Act was passed to deter any interference in US military operations and prevent individuals and groups from supporting enemies of the United States.

Manning’s sentence was commuted in January 2017, days before then-US President Barack Obama left office.

What did WikiLeaks reveal?

WikiLeaks shot to fame in April 2010 after the website released a 39-minute video of a US military Apache helicopter firing over and killing more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists.

The footage leaked by private Manning led to global outrage, reigniting a debate over the US’s occupation of Iraq and wider presence in the Middle East.

In July that year, WikiLeaks, together with several media outlets, such as the New York Times, published more than 90,000 US military documents related to the War in Afghanistan.

These included previously unreported details about civilian deaths, friendly-fire casualties, US air raids, al-Qaeda’s role in the country, and nations providing support to Afghan leaders and the Taliban.
Former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning [File: Ford Fischer/News2Share/Reuters]Months later, WikiLeaks published 391,832 documents related to the Iraq War. The reports, also referred to as The Iraq War Logs, provided on the ground details as reported by US troops, dating from January 2014 to December 2019.

The leaks were the single largest in US military history, exposing huge civilian casualties.

In November 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, in what is now better known as the Cablegate scandal.

Some 250,000 reports were released, dating back to 1996 up until February 2010. The cables provided analysis and insights from more than 270 US embassies and consulates from around the world.

What is Assange charged with?

After Assange was arrested, a grand jury in the state of Virginia charged him with one count of computer intrusion/hacking for allegedly assisting Private Manning in accessing classified documents.

In May 2019, Assange was further charged – under the US Espionage Act of 1917 – on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.

Assange is the first publisher to be charged under the act.

The leaks highlighted in the indictment include the US diplomatic cables, information on Guantanamo Bay prison detainees and Iraq and Afghanistan activity reports.Assange is seen in a police van after his arrest by British police at the Ecuadorian embassy in London [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

What could happen to Assange?

If Assange is extradited to the US and charged under the Espionage Act, he could face up to 175 years in jail. On the less serious charge of computer intrusion, the WikiLeaks founder would receive a maximum of five years.

Extradition between the UK and the US is rare.

In 2012, a request from the US to extradite UK hacker Gary Mackinnon for hacking into US military databases was rejected. Similarly, the US refused a request from the UK earlier this year to hand over Anna Sachoolas, the wife of a US intelligence officer accused of killing a British citizen due to dangerous driving.

What happened to the sexual assault charges against him in Sweden?

The US indictment against Assange does not include any charges of rape, of which he was accused of by two Swedish women in 2010. Assange has repeatedly denied the accusations.

A Swedish court issued an international warrant for his arrest in 2010 so he could be extradited back to the nordic country. After being released on bail in the UK, Assange was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012 by then-President Rafael Correa, where he resided for nearly seven years.

On November 19, 2019, all rape charges against Assange were dropped.

Why is this case important?

According to rights groups, Assange’s possible extradition and sentencing in the US would be a serious threat to free-speech rights and to the work of investigative journalists around the world.

Amnesty International has said the effect of Assange being convicted on investigative journalists, publishers and anyone who publishes classified government material would be “immediate and severe”.


US lawyers argue that charges against Assange could be challenged under the US’s First Amendment law, which protects the right to freedom of speech and expression.Assange supporters hold placards outside the Central Criminal Court ahead of a hearing to decide whether Assange should be extradited to the US, in London, UK [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]


The US’s pursuit of Julian Assange threatens media freedom

Assange’s extradition to the US would set a chilling precedent for those who publish leaked or classified information.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, UK, January 13, 2020 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, UK, January 13, 2020 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The last time I saw Julian Assange he looked tired and wan.

Dressed neatly in casual business attire, the WikiLeaks founder was sitting in a glass-enclosed dock, at the back of a court adjoining Belmarsh high-security prison in London, flanked by two prison officers.

I had travelled from the United States to observe the hearing. He had travelled via a tunnel from his cell to the courtroom.

On Monday, Assange will be in court again, for the resumption of proceedings that will ultimately decide on the Trump administration’s request for his extradition to the US.

But it is not just Assange that will be in the dock. Beside him will sit the fundamental tenets of media freedom that underpin the rights to freedom of expression and the public’s right of access to information. Silence this one man, and the US and its accomplices will gag others, spreading fear of persecution and prosecution over a global media community already under assault in the US and in many other countries worldwide.

The stakes really are that high. If the United Kingdom extradites Assange, he would face prosecution in the US on espionage charges that could send him to prison for decades – possibly in a facility reserved for the highest security detainees and subjected to the strictest of daily regimes, including prolonged solitary confinement. All for doing something news editors do the world over – publishing public interest information provided by sources.

Indeed, President Donald Trump has called WikiLeaks “disgraceful” and said its actions in publishing classified information should carry the death penalty.

The chilling effect on other publishers, investigative journalists and any person who would dare to facilitate the publication of classified information of government wrongdoing would be immediate and severe. And the US would boldly go beyond its own borders with a long arm to reach non-citizens, like Assange, who is Australian.

The US government’s relentless pursuit of Assange – and the UK’s willing participation in his hunt and capture – has now landed him in a prison typically reserved for seasoned criminals. It has diminished him both physically and emotionally – often to the point of disorientation. Breaking him by isolating Assange from family, friends and his legal team, seems part and parcel of the US’s strategy – and it seems to be working.

You do not need to know the vagaries of extradition law to understand that the charges against Assange are not only classic “political offences” and thus barred under extradition law, but more crucially, the charges are politically motivated.

The 17 charges levelled by the US under the 1918 Espionage Act could bring 175 years in prison; add a conviction on the single computer fraud charge (said to complement the Espionage Act by dragging it into the computer era), and you get another gratuitous five years. Assange is the only publisher ever to bear the brunt of such espionage charges. 

There is no doubt that the charges are politically motivated under this US administration, which has all but convicted Assange in the public arena. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that WikiLeaks is a “hostile intelligence service” whose activities must be “mitigated and managed”. The flagrantly unfair prosecution of Assange is an example of how far the US will go to “manage” the flow of information about government wrongdoing and thus undermine the public’s right to know. 

Assange was on Barack Obama’s radar, too, but the Obama administration declined to prosecute him. Current US Attorney General William Barr, however, has turned out not one, but two indictments since 2019, the latest at the end of June. That second indictment was a surprise not only to Assange’s defence team, but to the crown lawyer and the judge who were also taken unawares by the new indictment.

Earlier this year, sitting 20 feet away from Assange, I was struck by how much of a shadow of his former self he had become. He did spontaneously stand up several times during that week of hearings to address the judge. He told her he was confused. He told her he could not properly hear the proceedings. He said barriers in the prison and in court meant that he had not been able to consult with his lawyers. He was not technically permitted to address the judge directly, but he did repeatedly, flashes of the aggressive tactics used in the past to advocate for himself and the principles he has espoused. 

If Assange is extradited it will have far-reaching human rights implications, setting a chilling precedent for the protection of those who publish leaked or classified information that is in the public interest.

Publishing such information is a cornerstone of media freedom and the public’s right to access information. It must be protected, not criminalised.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect HICGI NEWS AGENCY’s editorial stance.

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