Journalism is not a crime. But when Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States became legal, it was a classic case on the attack on press freedom. Ironically, a court in London paved the way for Assange’s prosecution on Human Rights Day. It is also cynical that all this happened on the day two journalists were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, believed that his case is a ‘grave miscarriage of injustice.’
The prison where he lived is called ‘British Guantanamo’ for its tough conditions. He was jailed there for breaching the conditions of his bail, after his asylum was revoked by the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Some of the charges of his alleged disruptive behaviour inside the embassy were outrageous, according to his supporters, including smearing faeces on its walls.
The US had won its appeal against a January 2022 court ruling where it was being said that he could not been extradited due to concerns over his mental health. They charged him for violating the Espionage Act.
What Julian Assange did was basically that he divulged classified documents that proved United States committing war crimes by exposing the abuses done by the US military. No one has been held accountable for those war crimes until now. Instead, a revenge ritual has been unleashed against a journalist to whom the world owes a debt for those revelations.
While he was in prison, pledges were made that Assange will not be held under inhumane prison conditions. But, his assassination plans concocted by the former US administration under Donald Trump made a mockery of those pledges. In fact, Yahoo News had made a report public in September 2021 that the CIA had plotted to poison, abduct or assassinate Assange in 2017. As a reaction, Kristinn Hrafnsson, current editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, compared the alleged CIA plot to the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Assange’s defence team will appeal the verdict but the case will drag on. But Assange shouldn’t endure the further proceedings sitting in a prison cell. He should rather be released immediately and placed under house arrest. In other cases, the British legal system has done exactly that. The most prominent example is the case of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, a man responsible for the executions of thousands of regime opponents. When Spain demanded his extradition at the end of the 1990s, he was allowed to spend the 16 months of the proceedings in the comforts of a villa south of London, until he was released.
Assange is wanted on eighteen charges in the United States and faces a maximum 175-year prison sentence, if convicted. His lawyers have long argued that the protracted case against him is politically motivated. Assange’s supporters believe that he never sold out and remained true to his cause. He himself also denies any wrongdoing. His lawyers say he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of the press protections for publishing documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the BBC, Assange’s team are likely to try to reverse this judgement in two ways. First, they want to challenge findings that his leaks amounted to an alleged crime, but it is not clear if such an appeal would be heard. Second, they may ask the British Supreme Court to examine the US’s diplomatic assurances, but there is no guarantee it will take up the case because they would have to argue that there is a fundamental problem with the law, which has never been the case in the past. And so, time may be running out.
Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters solicitors in London and a former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, gives a clearer picture. He told Al Jazeera that it was unlikely that the appeal would be granted because Assange’s lawyers can only take the case to the Supreme Court if the High Court rules that there are matters of ‘general public importance’ to consider.
The US had offered assurances, including that Julian Assange would not be a subject to solitary confinement, pre or post-trial, or detained at the ADX Florence Supermax jail, a maximum security prison in Colorado, if extradited. Lawyers for the US said he would be allowed to transfer to Australia to serve any prison sentence. And they argued that it does not even come close to being severe enough to prevent him from being extradited. But, lawyers representing Assange argued the assurances over his future treatment were ‘meaningless’ and ‘vague’.
It was in October 2021 when the appeal hearing began in the British High Court. Assange did not attend due to poor health. But he later appeared from a video link in prison. Lawyers representing the US argued that Assange’s health issues were not as severe as his legal team had claimed during the initial extradition hearing. In the previous proceedings Assange’s psychiatrist had failed to disclose Assange’s relationship with Stella Moris, a lawyer originally on his legal team, and the couple’s two children, who were conceived during Assange’s stay in the embassy. Having the responsibility of children lowered Assange’s likelihood of suicide, US lawyers argued. They also pointed to the lower rate of suicides in prisons in the US compared to the UK, and argued that Assange’s depression was ‘moderate’ rather than ‘severe’.
In Assange’s defence, his lawyers argued that his risk of suicide remained substantial and defended the psychiatrist’s decision not to disclose Assange had a partner and two children.
Representing Assange, Edward Fitzgerald pointed to several revelatory investigations by the press concerning Assange’s time in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2019, Spanish newspaper El País published evidence that a Spanish security firm tasked with protecting the embassy building had been secretly surveillaing Assange, his lawyers, and visitors, and reporting information to the CIA. Security staff allegedly also took samples from a baby’s diaper to check whether Assange and Moris were the child’s parents. That’s why, given the threat of constant surveillance, Assange’s psychiatrist withheld Stella Moris’s relationship with Assange for safety reasons, Fitzgerald argued in court. Moris went public as Assange’s partner in April 2020.
Moris argued that Assange is innocent because the Espionage Act should not be used against publishers of information in the public interest. However, a senior extradition practitioner who spoke to Time on the condition of anonymity did not believe Assange’s actions could not be considered journalism. ‘Normally there is a crucial journalistic process of reviewing material and presenting it’, the source said. But, in Assange’s case, ‘there was no filter, no analysis, just: publish’. International press freedom advocates, including RSF and Amnesty International, however, are defending Assange on the basis that he acted in the public interest, as they believe his leaked documents were an incredible contribution to journalism around the world.
The writer is an author of seven books, and editor of Globe Upfront. [email protected]