Julian Assange prosecution should be dropped, says specialist extradition lawyer

Julian Assange
Tom Coburg

The latest indictment issued by the US against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange includes 17 new charges. But a lawyer specialising in extradition argues that UK authorities should reject the case against Assange.

Selective prosecution

The 17 additional charges listed in the indictment relate to the Espionage Act. The Canary previously warned that the US authorities may be planning to apply the act against Assange.

But if it can be shown that the prosecution of Assange is selective – and therefore biased – then his UK lawyers could raise this as yet another reason why the US extradition request should be refused by the UK.

Under UK extradition arrangements, selective prosecution of this kind equates to political prosecution. And that is grounds for the extradition to be denied.

Indeed, UK Home Office guidelines clearly state that a bar will be applied if extradition is:

made for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing a person on account of their race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions, or, if extradited, they might be prejudiced at their trial or punished, detained or restricted in their personal liberty by reason of their race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or political opinions

US lawyer Jacques Semmelman, who specialises in extradition cases, argues that the charges raised against Assange are clearly political:

It is a classic political offense. I have a difficult time seeing a British court departing so significantly from legal tradition and saying in this case they will make an exception. The political offense exception as it has existed for probably 150 years has consistently maintained that for espionage charges, they are not extraditable. That’s just a classic principle of international extradition law.

Allegations

In addition to US charges related to WikiLeaks revelations, Assange also faces a rape allegation in Sweden. Now that Assange no longer has asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, Swedish authorities have reopened this investigation at the request of the alleged survivor’s lawyer. Assange’s lawyer has previously insisted that “Julian has never been concerned about facing British justice, or indeed Swedish justice”. It is “American injustice”, she said, that concerns him.

The Canary believes that no allegations of sexual assault or rape should ever become politicised by either side.

WikiLeaks‘ partners

Some of the world’s most high profile media outlets directly partnered with WikiLeaks to publish the content of leaked documents. But for the US to go on to prosecute the Guardian, El PaisNew York Times, Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Der Spiegel – to name but a few – would not only be technically difficult, but hugely politically damaging.

And, so, it can be argued that unless the US authorities guarantee such prosecution of those media partners – which, of course, would be vigorously opposed – then to proceed to prosecute Assange would be entirely selective.

Call their bluff

Assange’s UK lawyer Jennifer Robinson raised the threat to press freedom posed by the charges against Assange in an interview with Democracy Now. She said:

I think it’s very important that The New York Times and other major media organizations come forward and speak about this principle and stand against this prosecution, because, as you’ve rightly pointed out, this will have a chilling impact on all media organizations and is a cause for concern that the precedent that is being set by the Trump administration could be used against The New York Times and other media organizations. We’ve been saying, since 2010, that the media needs to get behind WikiLeaks, and they need to acknowledge that any prosecution would set that precedent and cause them risk.

The New York Times has now clarified its position on this matter:

Though he is not a conventional journalist, much of what Mr. Assange does at WikiLeaks is difficult to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from what traditional news organizations like The New York Times do: seek and publish information that officials want to be secret, including classified national security matters, and take steps to protect the confidentiality of sources.

A lot at stake

Given the inflammatory statements against Assange by US politicians and political commentators – some of whom have called for him to be murdered – it can also be argued that the WikiLeaks founder will not get a fair trial in the US.

There’s also the not-so-insignificant matter of the “seizure” of Assange’s belongings by the Ecuadorian and US authorities (and therefore breaching of client-lawyer confidentiality):

And it can be further argued that given the controversial work of WikiLeaks, Assange’s life in prison – especially in the US prison system – would be in constant danger.

But this is not just about WikiLeaks or even the media. Should Assange be extradited and prosecuted, who knows what Donald Trump’s justice system has in store for Chelsea Manning, whose sentence was commuted by US president Barack Obama.

There is a lot at stake.

Featured image via Channel 4 News/YouTube

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us