Assange faces first steps towards extradition
A London demo in support of Assange heard fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and Assange's father John Shipton call for the extradition to be halted. - © Tim Dawson
The NUJ joined an estimated 4,000 demonstrators in London on Saturday 22 February. - © Tim Dawson
24 February 2020
When Julian Assange emerges from the tunnel connecting Belmarsh prison with Woolwich Crown Court this morning, it will be his first public appearance since May 2019. Then, Judge Deborah Taylor sentenced the Wikileaks founder to 50 weeks in prison for violating his bail conditions in 2012. Today starts in earnest his fight against extradition to the United States and a potential 175-year jail sentence.
The hearings promise to set precedent for the extraterritorial reach of US justice, and the potential prosecution of those who publish leaked US government information. Also likely are fresh revelations about the geopolitical reach of the Wikileaks saga.
In a preparatory hearing last week, it was alleged that an emissary for Donald Trump offered Assange a pardon. The suggested condition was that the Wikileaks founder rule out Russian involvement in the publication of Hilary Clinton’s emails. Their appearance, late in the 2016 US presidential election, proved timely for the Trump campaign. The White House has subsequently denied that it authorised the offer of a pardon.
The initial hearings are expected to last for five days, concentrating on the operation of the extradition treaty that exists between the United States and the United Kingdom and the possibility that abuses of process make a fair trial impossible. Assange’s defence team will argue that the Australian’s actions were political and therefore outside the scope of the extradition treaty. They are also likely to point to suggestions that conversations between Assange and his legal team were bugged during him time in the Ecuadorian embassy in such a way that a fair trial is now impossible.
The NUJ and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have highlighted the risks to journalism posed by Assange extradition. If successful, it would create a precedent for judicial snatch squads to be directed at any journalist who published material that made a US administration uncomfortable. The NUJ has written to government ministers calling for the extradition to be halted, while the IFJ has raised the issue at the UN.
The unions have also been represented at demonstrations, pickets and rallies drawing attention to the issues arising from the Assange case.
At the end of this week the case will be adjourned with the hearing expected to continue 18 May. When that hearing concludes, it is possible that Assange will be extradited – although there is also potential for months of further legal wrangling.
When Assange skipped bail in 2012, and took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, he was facing extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges – which he has always denied. During his sentence in Belmarsh, Swedish prosecutors reopened their investigation into these allegations. Months later, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecution Eva-Marie Persson declared that the investigation was discontinued because “the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question”.
In the ensuing months, however, the US Department of Justice indicated its intention to seek prosecution of Assange with 17 crimes under the Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
These alleged crimes relate to the great bulk of the revelations that brought Wikileaks to prominence, including the Iraq Rules of Engagement 2007–2009, the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War Logs, Cablegate, and the Guantanamo Files. The essence of the case against Assange is that by encouraging Chelsea Manning, then a serving US soldier, to covertly obtain classified documents, he acted in the manner of a foreign spy. His defence rests, in part, on the argument that his actions were no different to any investigative journalist working with a confidential source to expose wrongdoing in public office.
Assange supporters argue that, among many other things, the Wikileaks’ revelations brought to light significant war crimes. These include the 12 July 2007 helicopter airstrike in Baghdad in which US soldiers appear to wilfully fire on civilians. No charges have arisen as a result of this video’s publication in 2010 or any other Wikileaks revelations. Nor, say supporters of Assange, has evidence been presented of any military personnel suffering detriment as a result of his work.
If Assange is extradited, he will be placed under Special Administrative Measures while awaiting trial in the US. These forbid contact with family, and lawyers are forbidden from conveying messages from such prisoners, on pain of prosecution. No public interest defence is allowed under the Espionage Act. Nor, say the Trump administration, would Assange be allowed to claim First Amendment Rights (which guarantee free speech and a free press) because he is a foreign national. Indeed, in a chilling aside in 2010, Trump suggested in front of a television camera that he believed that Assange should face the death penalty.
Should Assange reach trial the US, it will be in the Eastern District of Virginia. This court has become well-known as the venue for many of the country’s most significant espionage and national security cases. Critics point out that the geographic area from which jurors are drawn includes an unusual concentration of Pentagon, National Security Agency and CIA families.
The journey between Woolwich and Virginia, however, is likely to be involved.
One issue is Assange’s health. In November, more than 60 doctors from around with the world wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel expressing their fears that Assange requires urgent medical treatment and the he is potentially too unwell to stand trial.
Their testimony rests, in part, on the report by Nils Melzer the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. On 9 May 2019, Melzer spent two and a half hours with Assange inside Belmarsh on behalf of the UN. He was accompanied by a medical doctor and a psychiatrist. They assessed Assange using the provisions of the Istanbul Protocol – the tool used by the UN to evaluate whether an individual has suffered torture. Their report to the UK government was unequivocal: “Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”
On the day that Melzer handed his report to UK government ministers, Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign Secretary, tweeted that Melzer was being "inflammatory" and that courts should be left to decide Assange’s fate.
That is what will now happen, in a blaze of cameras, on London’s eastern periphery. Whether compassion and legal argument are any more persuasive in the judicial sphere, than they have been in the political, remains to be seen – unless some other event brings this narrative to a premature conclusion.
There will be an IFJ observer at the extradition hearings.