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The United State’s effort to have WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange extradited seems successful as authorities won the appeal filed earlier this year. A lower court judge’s decision was based solely on the possibility of the defendant being held in a maximum-security prison if he were handed over to the U.S. authorities; the ruling indicated that he could not be handed over due to concerns over his mental health. This ruling was overturned by the High Court justices.
Assange can be deported to the United States, where he faces charges for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The 50-year-old Australian was charged with 17 counts of espionage. The charges relate to the 2010 hack and publication of classified U.S. government documents. Prosecutors allege he distributed hundreds of thousands of pages containing military records and diplomatic cables about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They further assert his actions put the lives of American allies at risk.
Protesters disagree with the United States prosecuting Assange. Instead, they believe charging anyone with espionage violates the 1st Amendment of the Constitution by refusing them their guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
Those who contend he is a journalist say the U.S. government is restricting the freedom of the press and that he should be freed from London’s Belmarsh Prison, where he has been since April 2019.
Assange’s road to incarceration at Belmarsh started months after the first hacked documents were released. In November 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued a European arrest warrant related to sexual assault allegations from two Swedish women. He was arrested at a London police station on December 7 and later released on bail.
In February 2011, a British judge ruled in favor of Assange’s extradition to Sweden. Not only did he claim innocence against the Swedish charges, but he expressed concern that the Swedish government would extradite him to America. After a series of failed appeals, he sought political asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy in 2012.
After expulsion from the embassy on April 19, 2019, London police arrested Assange on behalf of the United States government. Extradition hearings began in February 2020. However, COVID-19 caused a delay in the court proceedings until September. Finally, on Jan. 4, 2021, the judge did not allow the U.S. to extradite the WikiLeaks founder.
Since the high court overruled the January decision, Assange can be turned over to the United States Marshals Service for a flight to the U.S., where he would stand trial in Northern Virginia. First, however, his legal team is considering launching an appeal to the British Supreme Court to contest the United States’ diplomatic assurances; it is unlikely he will be leaving London soon.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, wrote in a statement:
Julian’s life is once more under grave threat, and so is the right of journalists to publish material that governments and corporations find inconvenient. This is about the right of a free press to publish without being threatened by a bullying superpower.
Amnesty International’s former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks is concerned the High Court’s determination “poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.”
The facts cannot be denied. The U.S. government wants to deport an Australian citizen from London because he did what other journalists receive praise for doing, writes Sven Egil Omdal for NDLA.
If the leaks had been about China instead, Washington would have invited Assange to give lectures and receive awards. Instead, “now he risks dying in a high-security prison.”
Omdal voiced further concerns. WikiLeaks collaborated with some of the world’s leading journalistic institutions; their reporters could be threatened with the same legal consequences if Assange is extradited.
Moreover, some American politicians say Assange is not a journalist in their attempt to circumvent the allegation that prosecuting Assange threatens free press globally. But that assertion bears no logic since only authoritarian leaders decide who journalists are. Omdal adds:
In what we like to refer to as the free world, journalism is nothing more than the systematic exercise of civil rights that belong to all citizens.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RFCP) explains journalists in the United States have never been successfully prosecuted. In their statement concerning Assange’s case, they cited Steven Aftergood, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Project on Government Secrecy director. He said the Espionage Act is very vague and poorly defined. As such, he believes it is hard to convey what it does and does not cover.
Another person cited by the RCFP was University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone. During his testimony before Congress last December, he stated the prosecution of journalists under the Espionage Act violates the 1st Amendment. Furthermore, he reminded Congress members that the U.S. government has only successfully prosecuted a government employee for distributing unlawfully leaked classified information.
Indeed, there may be 1st Amendment implications that would make prosecuting Assange difficult. Moreover, there are political consequences concerning government censorship. But, ultimately, the final decision would be in the hands of the United States Supreme Court justices.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
BBC: Julian Assange can be extradited to the US, court rules; by Backy Morton
The Guardian: Julian Assange can be extradited to US to face espionage charges, court rules; by Ben Quinn
The Washington Post: British High Court rules in favor of U.S. extradition of Julian Assange; by William Booth and Rachel Weiner
Reporter’s Committee For Freedom of the Press (RFCP): WikiLeaks and the Espionage Act of 1917
Nasjonal Digital Læringsarena (NDLA): Julian Assange is press freedom in links; Media commentary by Sven Egil Omdal [Google translate from Norwegian to English]
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Ars Electronica’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Images Courtesy of The Left’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License