As Julian Assange edges towards freedom investigative journalism takes a big hit.

It’s been a week of mixed fortunes for Julian Assange. On Monday many were taken aback by the ruling of district judge Vanessa Baraitser not to allow the US to extradite Julian to stand trial on criminal charges of conspiracy, hacking and violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. On closer reading it was clear that the judge had rejected all the defence arguments against extradition to protect free speech, that the extradition was politically motivated and he would not get a fair trial in the US. It was the appalling state of the US prison system that was the key factor and the ‘supermax’ prison ADX Colorado, where it is generally accepted Julian would have been sent, if sentenced by a US court. This taken with Julian’s mental health history led her to believe that he would be potentially in danger of taking his own life if so incarcerated.

Two days after her ruling against the US extradition came the setback when the same Vanessa Baraitser sitting at Westminster magistrates court rejected his application for bail, saying that Julian “…still has an incentive to abscond from these, as yet unresolved, proceedings. As a matter of fairness the US must be allowed to challenge my decision…”

So Julian will remain in Belmarsh prison in south-east London where he has been held for the past 18 months following his eviction from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he sought asylum for seven years.

Immediately following Monday’s judgement NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet was quick to point out the implications of the judge’s ruling. “This decision will be welcomed by all who value journalists’ ability to report on national security issues” she commented. “However, whilst the outcome is the right one, Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s judgement contains much that is troubling. Her basis for dismissing the US’ extradition request was the suicide risk that Assange poses in a US penal system that would probably have kept him in near total isolation.”

She added that “the judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists. In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist”.

These are critical points. In her 40 minute ruling on Monday Vanessa Baraitser spent some 37 minutes dismissing the defence case. In the final three minutes came the decision to deny extradition and the reasons why. So she conceded nothing on most of the key points made by the defence. In summary she agreed on almost all points with the arguments put forward by the US government. As a result, Julian Assange, press freedom, investigative journalism and the right to report all remain at risk.

After the verdict, the following statement was issued by the US Justice Department: “While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised. In particular, the court rejected all of Mr Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offence, fair trial, and freedom of speech. We will continue to seek Mr Assange’s extradition to the United States.” That seems to sum up the judgment quite well I would have thought!

However, the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a statement reported in The Guardian on 6 January that the charges against Julian were a direct assault on the US first amendment which protects freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Other press freedom organisations have been quick to raise concerns about the judgment.

International Federation of Journalists General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger said: “The IFJ welcomes the judge’s decision not to extradite Assange because of the risk the extradition would pose to his health and well-being. However we are disappointed that the judge appears not to adequately address the threat to media freedom his extradition would have posed in today’s ruling. For years the IFJ and all its affiliates, particularly in the UK, Australia and the USA, have been reminding people that the detention of Julian Assange is contrary to international law and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, Julian Assange’s health has deteriorated dramatically since his imprisonment in April 2019 and the Covid-19 virus in his prison poses a serious threat to the survival of our colleague, holder of the IFJ International Press Card. It is time for the US to drop its attempts to extradite him.”

Reporters without Borders Director of International Campaigns, Rebecca Vincent said: “We are immensely relieved that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the US. At the same time, we are extremely disappointed that the court failed to take a stand for press freedom and journalistic protections, and we disagree with the judge’s assessment that the case was not politically motivated and was not centred on journalism and free speech. This decision leaves the door open for further similar prosecutions and will have a chilling effect on national security reporting around the world if the root issues are not addressed.”

Just how the root issues referred to are addressed is an urgent question. Last summer the Law Commission, a statutory independent body that recommends reforms in England and Wales, called for the creation of a public interest defence for people who leak information in violation of the1989 Official Secrets Act. The law needed to be “brought into the 21st century” they said. This would be a good start, but so far the government has not acted on the recommendation.

Julian’s defence team also need to challenge the judge’s rejection of their case against extradition which could, if adopted into law, create a dangerous precedent. This they should do as part of the appeal process which the US authorities have already given notice of.

Meanwhile it’s worth remembering that in February 2018 the computer scientist and alleged computer hacker Lauri Love, won his High Court appeal against extradition to the US. Appeal judges said extradition would be “oppressive by reason of his physical and mental condition” after he was arrested on suspicion of hacking into FBI, US Central Bank and Nasa systems. His supporters warned if he was extradited there was a “high risk” Mr Love would kill himself.

With the change of government in the US only days away, it is by no means clear if the Biden administration will take up the prosecution.

The US prosecutor seeking to put Julian on trial in the US has said he was uncertain if Joe Biden’s incoming administration will continue to seek the extradition of the WikiLeaks co-founder. The Guardian reported that Zachary Terwilliger, who was appointed by Donald Trump, made the following comments to the US NPR News as he was stepping down as the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia (where the case would be heard): “It will be very interesting to see what happens with this case. There’ll be some decisions to be made. Some of this does come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies.”

Be that as it may here in the UK we need to keep the pressure up for Julian’s release, the US charges to be dropped and the right to report strengthened in the light of the judge’s ruling. Then there is the matter of Julian and his family’s future. He is an Australian citizen (I’m unclear of his legal status in the UK) and I’m sure the US would love to see him deported from the UK at some time in the future, back to Australia where they could start proceedings to extradite him to the US since the Extradition (United States of America) Regulations declare that the US is an extradition country and enables Australia to receive extradition requests from the US!

Farfetched? You never can be sure, except to say that the struggle is far from over.

 

 

 

 

 

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