Media freedom is almost over. Only one thing can save Julian Assange from dying in prison.

Julian Assange
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Media freedom is on its last legs. Julian Assange now faces an extradition hearing that begins on 25 February 2020 in the magistrates’ court. That’s under chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, who has previously thrown Assange and the United Nations’ version of events out the window.

The opinion of UK judges like Arbuthnot is crucial. Because there will be no jury at any stage of Assange’s UK extradition process. Supposedly, he’ll receive his right to a fair trial in the requesting state. In this case – the US. But in the words of UN official Professor Nils Melzer, he has “no chance” of that. Once extradited, it could be all over for the WikiLeaks co-founder.

The truth is there’s only one thing that can stop Assange dying in prison and media freedom along with him. And that’s if public opinion doesn’t stand for it.

No fair trial in the US

In the US, the authorities can simply invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA), which means Assange would face a secret trial with no jury. This closed trial would take place in what’s known as the ‘Espionage court’ under national security judge Leonie Brinkema, who Bill Clinton appointed. According to CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, who was tried in the East District of Virginia court under Brinkema, no national security defendant has ever won a case there.

And as Kiriako explains, it’s even worse than that:

My attorney told me, very angrily, near the end of the case. You know what your problem is? Your problem is that you think this is about justice. And it’s not about justice. It’s about mitigating damage. He said in the Eastern District of Virgina they would convict a baloney sandwich if the government asked them to. He said ‘take the deal, if you were my own brother I would beg you to take the deal’. And so I took the deal.

No fair trial in the UK

That leaves the UK extradition process, where there’s also no jury at any stage. And Arbuthnot – who prominent Conservative Elizabeth Truss appointed – has previously upheld the official version of events. In a ruling on 13 February 2018, Arbuthnot said that she gives “little weight” to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which found that Assange was being ‘arbitrarily detained’ in the Ecuadorian embassy. The UN group demanded the authorities allow Assange to walk free in 2015. Dismissing this, Arbuthnot argued there was no evidence “that Mr Assange’s fears” of extradition to the US “were reasonable”. Arbuthnot, therefore, referred to Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, which began in 2012, as “his decision”.

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But there are major problems with this characterisation. Because the chief magistrate ignored the fact that the US Grand Jury had opened an investigation into WikiLeaks, calling witnesses as early as 2011. And now, of course, the US indictment has vindicated Assange and his supporters’ fears of US extradition. The former WikiLeaks editor faces 175 years in prison for basic journalistic activity relating to story hunting, source protection and publishing.

Despite the grand jury investigation and the clear risk of US persecution, Sweden refused to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to the US. That left Assange with no choice but to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, as the UN ruling found. And contrary to what some have argued, Sweden could have guaranteed not to extradite the WikiLeaks co-founder. The extradition treaty between the US and Sweden states that Sweden could refuse to extradite if it believed the US case concerned “a political offense” or a lack of evidence.

Nonetheless, the UK’s chief magistrate dismissed the UN and Assange’s account, favouring the official narrative.

Assange’s supporters also question the impartiality of the chief magistrate. She is married to prominent Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has links to the intelligence services.

Not the be all and end all

Following the magistrates’ court ruling, Assange will be able to appeal the process in the High Court and then perhaps the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. The decision on his fate will then lie with the opinions of the judges there.

“Not binding on this court”

On 1 May 2019, Assange received a 50-week prison sentence for seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy while on bail. The former WikiLeaks editor received double the sentence than Jack Shepherd, who in the same month, skipped bail after actually killing someone with a speedboat. Since February 2018, the US has indicted Assange and called for his extradition – vindicating his decision to obtain asylum in the embassy. Nonetheless, judge Deborah Taylor upheld Arbuthnot’s ruling:

As far as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention opinion is concerned, this is not binding on this court, and, as is apparent from the ruling of the Chief Magistrate, with some personal knowledge of the matters relied upon, it was underpinned by misconceptions of fact and law.

With the UK court action in mind, WikiLeaks has questioned whether Assange – a high profile enemy of the US and UK establishments – can receive a fair hearing in Britain.

It’s down to us

Anyone who wants to uphold the right for journalists to expose the worst excesses of governments should be very concerned. The only way to uphold this right is if the public do not stand for the criminalisation of journalism.

In order to do this, we must separate the man from the issue of press freedom. The US indictments are not about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, which Assange should face separate proceedings for. They are specifically concerned with WikiLeaks publishing documents exposing war crimes that the US would have preferred to remain under wraps. Such as the US indiscriminately gunning down journalists in Iraq and tens of thousands of unreported civilian deaths. Whatever you think of Assange, what’s at stake is our ability to hold governments to account.

In the US and the UK, Assange will not receive a fair trial. If he’s convicted, it will set a precedent that puts journalists at risk worldwide. So it’s down to us. We cannot simply sit by and watch crony capitalist neocons take away such a fundamental freedom. We must fight back immediately.

Featured image via Cancillería del Ecuador/ Flickr

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