A human chain to defend free speech

  • 04 Oct 2022

NEC member Tim Dawson urges members to join journalists on 8 October in Parliament Square, opposing Julian Assange's extradition.

On Saturday 8 October, NUJ members will join others forming a human chain around the Houses of Parliament to demonstrate our opposition to the extradition of Julian Assange. Doing so will create a vast visual symbol of our determination to protect free expression.

Assange is at the final stages of his campaign to stay in the UK. After a miserable seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, he was ejected, arrested and for the past three years has been in HMP Belmarsh. Should he face trial in the US, it will be with the possibility of a 175-year prison sentence, to be spent in, in all likelihood, in solitary confinement.

There is a humanitarian case for saving Assange from this fate. He has spent a decade in effective, or actual imprisonment, he is frail and in poor mental health, and his wife and primary-school aged sons await him in London. Whatever one thinks of his prior behaviour, a penal sentence in line with those handed out to terrorists and drug-cartel bosses is shockingly disproportionate.

The NUJ’s concern is far broader, however. The offences for which Assange is sought, are activities intrinsic to journalism. He is accused of seeking out a confidential source with access to information proving terrible wrong-doing. He is accused of encouraging his source – Chelsea Manning – to search for more evidence of state crimes. And he is accused of helping his source to discreetly remove records, such as the Collateral Murder video showing US service personnel whooping it up as they gun down civilians and journalists.

Assange’s conviction would place journalists the world over in similar jeopardy. Who in future would report on a classified US document when it might result in a lifetime of medieval-style incarceration?

Avoiding this fate now hangs in the balance. Thus far the courts have dismissed the arguments made by Assange’s lawyers that extradition is unjustified. There remain, however, strong legal and moral arguments against handing him to the US Department of Justice.

For example, the US/UK extradition of 2007 treaty clearly states: “Extradition shall not be granted if the offence for which the extradition is sought is a political offence”. James Lewis KC, representing the US government, persuaded the court that this provision is, in fact, a deceit on the British people that creates no such protection. 

There are also serious questions about whether Assange could receive a fair trail in the US. It is broadly accepted that meetings between the Wikileaks founder and his lawyers were bugged by the CIA during his time in the embassy. That violates a basic tenant of justice.

Either of these points could be considered by the Appeal Court, the Supreme Court, or even the European Court of Human Rights. In each instance, however, the courts themselves have discretion over the cases that they hear. Only those of sufficient gravity, or legal import are accepted.

That is why 8 October is so important. It is the first chance to show just how strongly the public believes that this extradition is morally wrong and creates a terrible precedent.

It is a cause that unites left and right. Conservative commentators such as Andrew Neil and Peter Orborn have joined those of us calling on the government to halt this process. Jeremy Corbyn is a regular at demonstrations against the extradition, as are Vivienne Westwood and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

You should join us too. Criminalising investigative journalism enables every other kind of repression. If enough of us come together to surround Parliament in a few weeks, that process can be stopped in its tracks.

NUJ members and other journalists will assemble in Parliament Square on the day, close to the Cromwell statue, with a banner to advertise our presence.

Find out more: https://dontextraditeassange.com/human-chain/ 

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