We are witnesses to a shameful injustice, the prolonged persecution of one man and a sinister threat to the freedom of the press. The extradition of Julian Assange would destroy him and be a devastating blow to press freedom. It would set a disquieting precedent for publishers and journalists all over the world.
Eve Ottenburgh, journalist and novelist, in a recent article published in Counterpunch, explains clearly the iniquities and inconsistencies in the persecution of Julian, which has lasted for over a decade, and the attempts to build a case against him: “The course of this case since 2011 is simply extraordinary.” From the allegations in Sweden, to taking refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador to the four long years in Belmarsh, we can trace the persecution and the totally unacceptable suffering endured by a fellow human being who revealed important truths to the world. We wrote about Julian almost two years ago and he is still confined in Belmarsh, ‘Britain’s Guantanamo’.
The leaks and reaction around the world
The United States wants Julian Assange to be prosecuted by their Department of Justice for allegedly taking part in a hacking conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, former army intelligence analyst, to reveal classified information. He now faces a total of 18 criminal counts. In 2010, five leading western publications revealed a wide range of information disclosed by Wikileaks, details of American political, military and diplomatic operations. This information was based on 251,287 documents from the US State Department. The publications which made use of and benefitted from the leaked information were the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. There were more than 400,000 classified army reports from the Iraq War and 90,000 from the war in Afghanistan. They provided remarkable insight into the international workings of the US state. A number of sources provide details of Wikileaks’ activities and disclosures.
There was fury in Washington. US politicians argued that Wikileaks was a terrorist organisation. There were calls for Julian to be assassinated, and there is evidence that the CIA was aiming to have him killed. Amazon removed the Wikileaks website from its servers and Visa, MasterCard and PayPal blocked donations to the site.
Initially there were attempts to discredit Assange by trying to prove that the disclosures led to the deaths of US personnel and to damage to US interests, but in 2011 Reuters commented: “Internal US government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to US interests abroad, despite the Obama administration’s public statements to the contrary.” Furthermore, no proof could be found of deaths among the thousands of agents in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Much of the world’s media began to portray Assange as a pariah. This was done partly by referring repeatedly to allegations of rape and sexual assault made against him in Sweden. This investigation was closed, although subsequently reopened again by different prosecutors, until the charges were dropped completely. But the press did not forget. And disgracefully the newspapers which had published the disclosures prominently in 2010 began to distance themselves from Julian. The Guardian and some of the other publications which benefited from the disclosures have at last taken a different line, now acknowledge that this case is wrong and are speaking out against his extradition.
Julian is not without supporters. Last year 160 current and former world leaders and diplomats signed a letter demanding that the government of the UK prevent his extradition. Nils Melzer, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, was so shocked by the corruption of justice, official secrecy, the violation of human rights and the undermining of the rule of law that he found he lost his “trust in Western democracies as states governed by the rule of law”.1 In the UK some MPs have protested at the long persecution of Julian, notably John McDonnell, Apsana Begum and Jeremy Corbyn. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pressed for him to be released. There has been consistent support from Noam Chomsky, Craig Murray, Miko Peled, Ai Weiwei and celebrity figures such as Roger Waters, the late Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga among many others. On 7th July Ben Cohen, founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, was among others arrested outside the US Department of Justice in Washington for demanding the US drop the charges against Julian and for speaking about the importance of press freedom.
Attack on press freedom
In the west we regularly criticise the suppression of press freedom elsewhere in the world. However, as Glen Greenwald pointed out in 2020, when he was writing for the Intercept, Western media have “largely ignored what is, by far, the single greatest attack on press freedoms by the US government in the last decade at least: the prosecution and attempted extradition of Julian Assange”.
It should be an unassailable right for members of the public in any country to know what their governments are doing in their name. In the words of Agnès Callamard, French human rights activist and Secretary General of Amnesty International: “Publishing information that is in the public interest is a cornerstone of media freedom”.
During the course of the struggle to free Julian, his lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, has expressed concern that the charges and possible extradition may set a precedent and this could criminalise activities which are necessary for investigative journalism. Furthermore, work done by Julian and the information he published revealed evidence of war crimes which were carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses“.
Barry Pollack, who is an American attorney for Julian, has commented: “These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavour to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government.”
The protection of press freedom and basic legal fairness hang in the balance. “The first duty of the press,” Robert Lowe wrote in the Times in 1852, “is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation…The press lives by disclosures”.
The justice system
Our courts will always remain places of uncertainty. Sometimes justice prevails; very often it does not. Many of us cling to the belief that courts are symbols of hope. But often the different parts of the justice system seem to be stacked against individuals and groups, especially those who are perceived as a threat to the status quo.
There have been a number of reports of the CIA recording lawyers’ conversations with Julian in the Embassy of Ecuador and copying the data on their phones and computers. This is a clear violation of a lawyer’s constitutional right to privacy with their client. Evidence has also come to light of the US government’s plots to interfere with judges, attempts to silence the International Criminal Court (ICC) and plans to carry out a kidnapping and rendition of Julian or to assassinate him. “The Trump administration was up to its neck in criminal machinations on how to murder or kidnap Assange,” states Eve Ottenburgh. There has been a clear violation of Julian’s human rights, a violation based on his political views, views which are unacceptable to the US. However, the judges presiding over the court cases in the UK failed to take any notice of these violations.
It is clear that central to Julian’s case are concerns about the freedom of the media and the publication of sensitive material. Many supporters had hoped that Julian would be assisted by the protections offered by the First Amendment of the American constitution, which protects against government limits on freedom of expression and on the press. The Constitution in fact aims to ensure that “fundamental rights would not be at risk”. But the prosecuting team argues that his activities fall outside this protection and that, as a citizen of a foreign country, he cannot expect to benefit from it.
Last month UK High Court judge, Jonathan Swift, rejected all the arguments put forward by Julian’s defence team. This is a judge who has close professional links to the government ministries which are pursuing Julian’s extradition. The judges who presided over Julian’s previous hearings were also unacceptably close to the government, confirming the fears of many of us that we can no longer claim to have an independent judiciary. Our courts have felt like accomplices to the US prosecutors. One argument presented to the high court was that the extradition should not have been approved by Priti Patel as it violated the UK’s extradition treaty with the US which states: “Extradition shall not be granted if the offence for which extradition is requested is a political offence”. Julian’s legal team has also said the US government has consistently misrepresented the core facts of the case to the British courts.
Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said they are deeply concerned by the high court judgement: “It is absurd that a single judge can issue a three-page decision that could land Julian Assange in prison for the rest of his life and permanently impact the climate for journalism around the world.”
Julian has made a renewed application for appeal to the high court. This would be heard by two different judges. So now he has another chance to avoid 175 years in a US jail for telling the truth. At times the case feels hopeless and the obstacles created by the justice system insurmountable. Nils Melzer believes this lengthy persecution has not been about Julian personally, but that the “primary purpose is to establish a generic precedent with a global deterrent effect on other journalists, publicists and activists”.2
Matt Kennard, chief investigator at Declassified UK, recently summed up the significance of this case, which goes way beyond the shameful and degrading torture of one man who spoke the truth, revealed war crimes and stood up for victims: “It’s about all of us; it’s about democracy; it’s about the future we want to leave to our kids”.
Julian’s father, John Shipton, believes the grounds for a further hearing are “clear, firm and just”. But there is so much at stake for Julian, for his family and for the freedom of the press. Stella Assange, Julian’s wife, says that her husband’s situation is critical. She stresses how important it is for the world to pay attention. But there is hope. When individuals with the stature of the Pope draw attention to the family, this could be a sign that the world is waking. As Stella pointed out recently, “The Pope does not just meet anyone”. She is still hopeful: “The fight is on. It’s not unwinnable. We remain optimistic that we will prevail and that Julian will not be extradited to the United States.”
1Nils Melzer, The Trial of Julian Assange, (Verso Books, 2022), p. 97. 2Melzer, p. 319.