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Julian Assange’s fight against extradition to the USA is entering its final stages. Speaking to Index on Censorship, Assange’s wife Stella says that “this really is the endgame”.
Her concern that time is running out follows the June decision by British High Court judge Jonathan Swift that her husband’s case should not be allowed to go to appeal, a decision she calls extraordinary.
The USA has been seeking to extradite Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to face charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents to international media in 2010 and 2011 about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, detainees in Guantanamo Bay and diplomatic cables. The documents had been sent to him by the US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
The story took a new twist when Assange, an Australian citizen, entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations. Ecuador’s then president Rafael Correa granted him asylum. The Swedish cases were eventually dropped. In 2019, Assange was evicted by the Ecuadorian government.
It has since been revealed that Assange was illegally monitored while in the embassy and that senior CIA officials in the Trump administration discussed options to kidnap and even assassinate Assange.
After Assange’s arrest on leaving the embassy, purportedly for breaching his bail conditions, the US government began extradition proceedings.
In January 2021, district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against his extradition on the grounds that “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” a decision that the US government appealed. That December 2021, the High Court ruled that Assange could be extradited after US authorities made assurances over how he would be treated in prison. In June 2022, the UK’s then home secretary Priti Patel approved the extradition.
Assange appealed to the High Court but Swift turned down the appeals saying it was “no more than an attempt to re-run the extensive arguments made to and rejected by the district judge”.
“Julian has only one option left now which is to ask two Court of Appeal judges to reconsider Swift’s decision,” said Stella Assange. “The good news, if you can call it that, is that this time the decision will not be issued behind closed doors. There will be a public hearing. If the two judges affirm Swift’s position, Julian will not be able to go to the Supreme Court. It will be the end of the road in the UK.”
The date of the public hearing is likely to be announced this week.
With time running out, Assange’s supporters have launched the Day X campaign to encourage supporters to protest at the hearing.
“On Day X, I am asking everyone who can to come to the High Court to support not only Julian but also press freedom and the public’s right to receive truthful information, which are being trampled on,” said Stella Assange.
If he is extradited, Assange faces charges under the Espionage Act, for which there is no public interest defence.
“The outcome is a foregone conclusion, particularly as the US has already argued before the British extradition judge that Julian will not ‘enjoy’ Constitutional protections for free speech under the First Amendment because he is not a US citizen and he was not in the US at the time of the receipt and publication of the information,” said Stella Assange.
Meanwhile, the Australian government is ramping up its efforts to get the US government to drop the extradition request. The current Australian government opposes his imprisonment, often citing the four and a half years he has been imprisoned to date without conviction. This week, it was revealed that 63 members of Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate had called on the US government to drop the extradition request. In a letter of support, the politicians said they were “resolutely of the view that the prosecution and incarceration of the Australian citizen Julian Assange must end”.
“Other Australian lawmakers cite the fact that he is accused of nothing other than acts of press freedom that are being recast as crimes (receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public). They also highlight that the source of said information, Chelsea Manning, is free whereas the publisher, Julian, remains imprisoned. There is a disconnect that sits very badly with the Australian temperament, where fairness matters a great deal,” said Stella Assange.
The US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy has made comments on Assange’s case which have led to speculation that there may be scope for a plea deal. If so, this would be announced when the country’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese makes an official visit to the USA in late October. Some are suggesting that the comments may have been made to placate the Australian public, who are strongly supportive of the campaign to drop the extradition request.
“No offer has been made by the United States. Julian has won awards for his extraordinary contribution to journalism so if the United States government considers journalism to be a crime then he is guilty and has many more press and integrity awards to show it,” said Stella Assange.
With the US elections on the horizon, the window of opportunity is closing for Julian Assange and his supporters
“Under Biden, under the guise of continuing an initiated indictment, the administration has reached a new catastrophic low by creating a new normal by failing to undo the political prosecution of the previous administration and keeping a journalist imprisoned for years and years. Julian’s role in exposing corrupt and illegal practices committed by his jailers has lowered the bar for political prosecutions targeting the press the world over. There simply is no moral high ground anymore,” said Stella Assange.
She argues that her husband’s situation is used as justification by authoritarian regimes that imprison journalists.
“It is undeniable that the intrinsics of Julian’s case are so shocking it is something one would expect from the worst dictatorships. A thin patina of ‘process’ cannot obscure the fact that he is facing 175 years for groundbreaking journalism, that the only agencies who will decide on the conditions and degree of isolation that he will be held in if he is sent to a US prison, pre- and post-trial, are the same agencies that were elaborating plans to kill him while he had political asylum at the embassy, that is to say, the CIA,“ she said.
Despite the road rapidly running out, Stella Assange still feels that her husband can avoid extradition. She said:
“The fact that this is a political case gives me hope that individual agency, on the streets, through press freedom groups and those who have the ear and the conscience of those in power, will come together to end this. Julian needs to come home and all that needs to happen is for people to individually and collectively live up to our principles. A society cannot be free, open and democratic without a free press, and press freedom is incompatible with imprisoning Julian Assange.”
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue,
October 15, 2021
Attorney General Merrick Garland:
We, the undersigned press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights advocacy organizations, write again to share our profound concern about the ongoing criminal and extradition proceedings relating to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In February, members of this coalition wrote to the Acting Attorney General, urging that the criminal charges against Mr. Assange be dropped. We now renew that request with even greater urgency, in light of a recent story in Yahoo News describing alarming discussions within the CIA and Trump administration before the indictment against Assange was filed. The Yahoo News story only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution, and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.
As we noted in our earlier correspondence, the signatories to this letter have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization. We are united, however, in our view that the criminal case against him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We were disappointed that the Department of Justice appealed the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. Especially in light of the recent news report, we urge you to drop that appeal and dismiss the underlying indictment.
As we explained in our earlier letter, journalists routinely engage in much of the conduct described in the indictment: speaking with sources, asking for clarification or more documentation, and receiving and publishing official secrets. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.
We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy. In our view, a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.
Major news organizations share this concern. The charges against Assange have been condemned by virtually every major American news outlet, even though many of those news outlets have criticized Mr. Assange in the past.
In light of these concerns, and in light of the shocking new reporting on the government’s conduct in this case, we respectfully urge you to drop the ongoing appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange. Respectfully,
(in alphabetical order)
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International USA
Center for Constitutional Rights
Committee to Protect Journalists
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress Education Fund
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fight for the Future
First Amendment Coalition
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship
Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
National Coalition Against Censorship
Open The Government
Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Project on Government Oversight
Reporters Without Borders
The Press Freedom Defense Fund of First Look Institute
Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, is remaining resolute despite his extradition hearing decision being less than a month away and him being held in a prison that has recently had a Covid-19 outbreak.
Speaking over the phone to Index, Moris discusses the hearing’s details and what it could mean for the future of freedom of expression. And she talks about the deep implications it has had for her and her young family.
“Obviously it is very difficult. I speak to Julian on a daily basis unless there is a problem. [But] he is in prison. Soon to be for two years. He has been there for longer than many violent prisoners who are serving sentences. All in all, he has been deprived of his liberty for ten years now,” she told Index. She adds:
“The kids speak to their father every day; we try to normalise it as much as we can for them. But of course, this is not a normal situation and our lives are on hold. It is inhumane and shouldn’t be happening in the UK.”
The current hearing – which will decide whether there are grounds for Assange to stand trial in the USA – should reach a conclusion on 4 January. A trial in the USA (should the decision go against Assange) will have major ramifications for free speech and whistleblower journalism.
The WikiLeaks founder is charged with conspiring with US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and hackers from groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec to obtain and publish classified information. Each of the 18 charges laid by US authorities, if Assange is extradited and convicted, carry a maximum penalty of 10 years. The allegations brought forward under the 1917 Espionage Act, alongside one other under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, mean Assange could face up to 175 years in prison – effectively a life sentence. Manning was initially sentenced to 35 years, but under the Obama administration her sentence was commuted to less than seven years.
It is easy to get sidetracked about the current extradition hearing and get into arguments about whether Assange is a journalist, whether he is guilty of other crimes or whether the publication of the documents brought harm to anyone involved. Instead people’s attentions should focus on the precedent that will be set should the case go to trial in the USA.
As it stands the case is unprecedented. No publisher has ever been tried under the Espionage Act, which itself was essentially created for spies imparting official secrets either for profit or otherwise. This is perhaps a direct contradiction of rulings of the courts in the UK. In December 2017, the UK’s information tribunal recognised WikiLeaks as a media organisation, in direct contradiction to the view of the US State Department. Australia’s media union, the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance, also presented an honorary member card to Assange’s Melbourne-based lawyer.
Amidst the noise of the separate matters around the case, Moris insists people need to “forget what they think they know” and assess the issues involved.
“There are a lot of assumptions being made over what this case is really about. There are all these sideshows. It is not about people being harmed because the US has admitted it has no evidence to make this argument. It comes down to the fact that the material published was classified. People who care about free speech and press freedom need to forget what they think they know about this case and look at it afresh and understand Julian is in prison for publishing. This is not something that democracies do.”
“Are they saying what he published was not in the public interest? They say that is irrelevant. They can’t deny [what he published] wasn’t in the public interest because he was publishing information and evidence of state crimes, of state abuse, torture, of rendition, blacksites and of illegal killings. What they are arguing is that Julian published information that was secret and therefore he can be prosecuted over it.”
Journalists publishing secret information is not new (nor is pressure for them not to publish) and can often be key to upholding democracy and ensuring states act properly. The Watergate revelations relied heavily on news organisations pressing on with publication despite attempts by the USA to stop them, including the threat of jail time. It proved a significant victory for free speech.
If Assange is extradited and tried the case will impact journalists and the media “for years to come”, says Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“It feels like many in the media do not see the implications of this case as something that will possibly affect them,” she told Index. “This case will have ramifications on the climates for journalism and press freedom internationally for years to come.”
“This is the first time we have seen the US government prosecute anybody for publishing leaked information. If they are successful, they will not stop with Assange and WikiLeaks. This could be applied, in theory, to any media outlet.”
It’s common for journalists and publishers to cite a public interest defence for disputed documents. It is a centrepiece of a defence case against libel, for instance.
“The information published was certainly in the public interest; it served to inform extensive public interest reporting that exposed war crimes and other illegal actions by states,” said Vincent.
“The Espionage Act lacks a public interest defence. He cannot use it if he is sent to the United States and tried.”
Essentially, what this means is that Assange is being treated as a spy not a publisher. If Assange is extradited and loses his case against the US government, any time classified information is published by a journalist there will be a precedent set that they can be charged and tried as a spy in the same way.
“These sorts of cases are really highlighting the need for more robust legislation that cannot be manipulated to be used against journalists, whistleblowers and other sources. Ultimately, it is the public’s right to access information that is being impacted,” Vincent added.
“You can see this for what it is; this very much feels like a political prosecution by states that are not meant to engage in this behaviour. The reason our states can get away with this is because of a lack of public pressure. A lack of public sympathy has resulted in a lack of widespread public pressure to hold our governments to account.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
It has been over a decade since WikiLeaks released its cache of leaked documents and a little under a decade since it was awarded The Economist New Media Award at the 2008 Freedom of Expression Awards. In the following years, the non-profit organisation has published a considerable body of documents, holding to account states, corporations and individuals. Such actions would imply that it remains an apolitical organisation, whose mission is to ensure the defence of free speech and vitiation of censorship, although of late some would dispute its primary function. On the day of this year’s Dutch general election, WikiLeaks made separate Tweets with links to all documents referencing either Prime Minister Mark Rutte or right wing populist Geert Wilders.
Their fight for freedom of expression is often amorphous, which is well demonstrated by two publications from 2009. First, the March release of a website blacklist, proposed by Australia’s then communications minister, Stephen Conroy. Although it had been suggested by the Australian Government that the compulsory firewall would obstruct access to child pornography and sites related to terrorism, it was revealed to have included numerous websites which suggested a veiled political agenda. Second, the September release of an internal report on a toxic incident clean-up in the Ivory Coast by the oil trading company, Trafigura. That draft report was released after Trafigura obtained a super-injunction against The Guardian. Comparing the two, it is clear they share a commonality in combating instances of censorship, but beyond that an underlying characteristic in the material released is hard to find.
Where the organisation has had a focused, profound, and some would say not impartial, impact is on American politics. Three particularly notable moments were the 2010 Iraq and Afghanistan ‘War Logs’ and diplomatic cables associated with Chelsea Manning, the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak, and the recent CIA Vault 7 release. It is perhaps the second of these that questions WikiLeaks’ apolitical position; in an interview with ITV, Julian Assange stated that he hoped the leaks would harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Certainly, the furore which surrounded Clinton’s use of a private email server in handling sensitive documents and the March 2016 release of her email archive was a boost for the Trump campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration or affiliated groups will be the subject of a WikiLeaks publication.
Whether one considers WikiLeaks a paragon, a zealot, or Machiavellian, it remains a powerful force against censorship. Although their profile has grown since being awarded The Economist New Media Award, they are still an organisation that appears wholly unconstrained by diplomatic pressures in holding bodies to account, who or whatever the target.
Samuel Rowe is a member of Index on Censorship’s Youth Advisory Board. He is currently a law conversion student at City, University of London, planning on practicing as a public law barrister with a focus in information law.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”85476″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/11/awards-2017/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]
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