Assange’s first extradition hearing took place in London over several weeks from February to September 2020. A decision regarding his extradition is expected to be handed down in the New Year – on January 4, 2021.
This hearing is the culmination of a struggle which has lasted a decade, ever since Assange had the courage to publish troves of classified information which revealed, amongst other things, the war crimes committed by Western allies during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
These publications earned Assange and his website many awards which recognized his heroism and contribution to journalism. In spite of this recognition, he now faces the overwhelming might of the United States government which is doing everything in its power to silence him and deny him the protections ordinarily reserved to the press.
This fight is monumental, and Assange’s personal future is not the only thing at stake. Fundamental democratic freedoms and the rights to dissent will be shaped by the outcome of this fight. Should he be extradited and, almost certainly found guilty, Assange faces 175 years in a U.S. Federal prison for publishing the truth about American imperialism and the wars that have been waged by its allies.
Julian Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006 with the aim of empowering citizens by granting them access to information that is otherwise suppressed by those in power. In 2010, Wikileaks published the famous “Collateral Murder” video which showed the callous murder of two Reuters journalists and other civilians by an American helicopter in an Iraqi suburb. This video was followed by the Iraq War Logs, the Afghanistan War Diaries and Cablegate, which revealed US army field reports and diplomatic cables, thrusting Assange and Wikileaks into the public spotlight.
In 2010, Assange faced allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden. He always denied the allegations and, contrary to most reports, always sought to answer them, provided guarantees be made against a possible onward extradition to the United States. In 2013, a Freedom of Information1 request (FOIA) filed by Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi revealed that the U.K. authorities were pressuring the Swedish prosecution against interviewing Assange in London and dissuading them from dropping the preliminary investigation. Finally, after Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2019, Sweden officially dropped the case2. The U.N Special Rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer investigated the initial allegations made by the Swedish prosecution and declared them to be unusual, in addition to noting several procedural abnormalities.
It is crucial to understand that the only crime Assange has ever been charged with is a bail violation. This charge is highly contestable under international law, given that Assange sought and was granted political asylum by Ecuador in 2012. Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy, not because he was fleeing from Swedish justice, but because he had a credible fear of persecution from the United States government in relation to his publishing work. He was indeed granted asylum by the left-wing government of Rafael Correa on the strength of these fears, which were clearly justified given the prosecution he now faces. However, the U.K. refused to grant him safe passage out of the country, which resulted in his 7-year de facto imprisonment in the London Embassy.
Despite experiencing harsh conditions within London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, such as a daily police presence and constant surveillance, Assange continued to work and publish during his confinement.
In 2016, Wikileaks published the leaked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails which showed the extent of corruption within the U.S. Democratic Party. This release drew condemnation from those who falsely equated the revelations to an endorsement of Donald Trump. Having been the object of much disinformation, Assange now found himself embroiled in the absurd Russiagate scandal propagated by the mainstream press (since debunked by journalists such as Aaron Maté3, Glenn Greenwald4 and Matt Taibbi5). Prior to his expulsion from the Embassy, Assange also faced increasingly cruel smears from the media who made a point of ridiculing him over petty allegations and repeatedly disparaged his character.
The motivations behind his 2019 expulsion and subsequent arrest were made clear as the United States immediately filed their extradition request with U.K. authorities. Having never been charged with a crime or displayed violent behavior, Assange was found guilty of breaching bail by a judge – who thought it appropriate to label him a narcissist – and carted off to HMP Belmarsh, a high-security prison built to house terrorists. In fact, the degree of procedural abuse and bias that has thus far emerged from the Assange case is bewildering.
Beyond the outrageous and politically motivated claims of espionage and treason directed against Assange, the absurdity of this case further emerged as the secret spying operation6 conducted against him in the Ecuadorian Embassy was revealed by the security staff tasked with surveilling him. According to testimony, the company hired by the Ecuadorian state to surveil the Embassy, U.C Global, was in fact spying on Assange as he held legal meetings and transmitting the information to the CIA. That this breach of lawyer-client privilege did not lead to an immediate dismissal of the case is a clear sign of the judicial bias against the Wikileaks founder.
The U.S. Case
The importance of this prosecution can hardly be overstated. The U.S. government is seeking to extradite Assange on the basis of two categories of offenses. First, he is alleged to have conspired with whistleblower Chelsea Manning to hack a password hash, the inference being that this would have enabled her to anonymize her access to sensitive files. There is no evidence either of the hack taking place, or indeed of the motivation for wanting to do so in the first place. As heard in the defense’s opening statement, Manning was eventually identified using an I.P address, not through her user identification. Moreover, since she already had access to all the documents she eventually leaked, there was no need for her to require special access.
The second and most dangerous category of offense is being pursued under the 1917 Espionage Act. Under the Act, which was notably used to prosecute union leader Eugene Debs for his outspoken condemnation of the First World War, Assange is alleged to have conspired with Manning to release classified information, causing irreparable harm to U.S. interests and putting the lives of military service members and informants at risk.
What is remarkable about these allegations is that they have already been solidly disproven. During Chelsea Manning’s court martial in 2013, the U.S. government tried very hard to come up with evidence of harm caused by the Wikileaks revelations – they found none. In addition, many journalists who worked on the revelations have since attested to Assange’s rigorous harm minimization efforts. This is corroborated by the recent release of a recorded call7 where Assange attempts to convince the U.S. State Department to protect at-risk individuals.
As for Manning conspiring with Assange, she has clearly stated on several occasions that she was solely driven by her own morality. Having borne witness to the atrocities of U.S. imperial wars, Manning mobilized her own agency to denounce them. In chat logs released8 by Wired magazine in 2011, Manning stated “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Abuse as Process and the Ongoing Show Trial
Speaking to the United Nations during his Embassy confinement, Assange deftly identified a new and disturbing trend. Having been arbitrarily detained for a decade without charges, he presented his situation as abuse-through-process. He noted how this tactic is increasingly used in cases to intimidate and dissuade dissidents by subjecting them to lengthy and incoherent bureaucratic processes designed to strip them of their energy and will to fight.
There is no doubt that process has been used to abuse Julian Assange. The man who was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy by police in April 2019 had visibly suffered from prolonged isolation and increasing punitive treatment. Visiting him shortly after his arrest and incarceration in Belmarsh, Melzer declared that Assange was exhibiting all the signs associated with psychological torture. Undeterred by these findings, British authorities proceeded to place Assange in solitary confinement and deny him the basic tools needed to adequately prepare his defense, including proper access to his lawyers. In a subsequent demonstration of cruelty and bad faith, the authorities reportedly subjected him to strip searches and other ill-treatment on the first day of his trial.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Assange has further suffered from prolonged isolation, in addition to being arbitrarily kept in an environment where risk of infection is high. As he has been in poor health since his 7-year incarceration in the Embassy, Assange’s chances of fatally succumbing to COVID-19 are elevated; accordingly, many doctors have called for his immediate release9 on medical grounds. Authorities have thus far refused calls for his release, despite the fact that he is no longer serving a sentence.
The case against Assange is clearly driven by political interests and malice. The objective is to silence him, whether it be by breaking him to the point of death or to lock him away in a U.S. prison.
Assange’s defense has, so far, presented very strong and coherent arguments. They have torn apart the false narratives that underpin the U.S. prosecution. During the evidentiary proceedings in September 2020, they argued against extradition on two points. First, they showed how this prosecution constitutes an abuse of process – as it is both politically motivated and based on a misrepresentation of facts. The political argument is extremely significant and was supported by witness statements attesting to the Trump administration’s manifest desire to curtail press freedoms. Secondly, they argued that Assange’s rights are highly likely to be violated as he is subjected to the inhumane conditions of U.S. detention. They also stressed his suffering physical and mental health.
Implications for Press Freedoms
This case is tremendously important, as the extradition of the Wikileaks founder not only poses an existential threat to journalism with the risk of setting a precedent, but also charts the course for the recognition of universalized American jurisdiction. Assange is an Australian citizen, not American. Yet, the U.S. government is trying to justify an indictment based on treason laws in a case where the alleged offences occurred outside of their jurisdiction. Incredibly, this prosecution would also preclude the invocation of both a public interest argument and the First Amendment, which serves to protect press freedoms.
This effectively means that any foreign journalist who publishes sensitive information outside of the U.S. is at risk of prosecution. The implications for journalism and freedom of the press are therefore immense and universal. As evidenced by the indictment of journalist Glenn Greenwald in Brazil, other jurisdictions are already following the American example to prosecute members of the press.
Much has been made of the potential (though yet unproven) harm caused by Wikileaks revelations. This has been an effective smokescreen used to mask the actual, empirical harms caused by American imperialism in the context of its illegal wars. Assange revealed war crimes and human rights violations at great personal risk. Indeed, he has paid a great price for his courage. His future now depends on the collective outcry and opposition to the judicial charade taking place in London. We must stand up for Julian Assange and prevent his extradition at all costs.
Elizabeth Leier is a freelance writer, graduate student and academic researcher at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a regular contributor to Canadian Dimension and her writing has appeared in ROAR Magazine and Truthout.org. She is presently conducting research on international politics and climate justice. She resides in Montreal.