154 lawyers and legal academics worldwide and hundreds more represented by their professional associations have written to UK government heads to request that extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange end immediately. The letter is addressed to prime minister Boris Johnson, the lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice Robert Buckland QC, the secretary of state for foreign affairs Dominic Raab, and home secretary Priti Patel.
One of the lawyers who signed the letter is Australian barrister Greg Barns (featured in main image alongside Assange).
The letter begins:
We write to you as legal practitioners and legal academics to express our collective concerns about the violations of Mr Julian Assange’s fundamental human, civil and political rights and the precedent his persecution is setting.
We call on you to act in accordance with national and international law, human rights and the rule of law by bringing an end to the ongoing extradition proceedings and granting Mr Assange his long overdue freedom – freedom from torture, arbitrary detention and deprivation of liberty, and political persecution
The signatories argue that the extradition of Assange would be illegal for several reasons:
- The “risk of being subjected to an unfair trial in the US”.
- “The political nature of the offence prohibits extradition”.
- The “risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the US”.
Regarding the first point, the signatories point out that the surveillance conducted on Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy was unlawful:
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Mr Assange’s legal privilege, a right enshrined in Art. 8 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and long recognised under English common law, was grossly violated through constant and criminal video and audio surveillance at the Ecuadorian embassy carried out by the Spanish security firm, UC Global. This surveillance was, according to witness testimony, ordered by the CIA. …
The Council of Bar and Law Societies of Europe, which represents more than a million European lawyers, has expressed its concerns that these illegal recordings may be used – openly or secretly – in proceedings against Mr Assange in the event of successful extradition to the US. The Council states that if the information merely became known to the prosecutors, this would present an irremediable breach of Mr Assange’s fundamental rights to a fair trial under Art. 6 of the ECHR and due process under the US Constitution. Furthermore, the prosecuting state obtained the totality of Mr Assange’s legal papers after their unlawful seizure in the Embassy.
Regarding the second point, the signatories observe that “Charges 1-17 [raised against Assange] are brought under the Espionage Act 1917, which, in name alone, reveals the political and antiquated nature of the charges”. The letter adds: “The UK-US Extradition Treaty, which provides the very basis of the extradition request, specifically prohibits extradition for political offences in Art. 4(1)”.
there is broad international consensus that political offences should not be the basis of extradition.[ix] This is reflected in Art. 3 of the 1957 European Convention on Extradition, Art. 3 ECHR, Art. 3(a) of the UN Model Treaty on Extradition, the Interpol Constitution and every bilateral treaty ratified by the US for over a century.
Regarding the third point and what awaits Assange in the US, the letter notes:
Under the principle of non-refoulement, it is not permissible to extradite a person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be subjected to torture. This principle is enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, specifically Art. 33(1) from which no derogations are permitted. Also relevant are Art. 3(1) UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum 1967, Art. 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and Art. 2 of the Resolution on Asylum to Persons in Danger of Persecution, adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1967. As an obligation arising from the prohibition of torture, the principle of non-refoulement in this area is absolute and also takes on the character of a peremptory norm of customary international law, i.e. jus cogens.
Freedom of press violated
The letter also points out that the US prosecution of Assange would be a violation of the “freedom of the press and the right to know”:
Counts 1-17 of the indictment under the Espionage Act violate the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of the press and the right to know. These counts present standard and necessary investigative journalistic practices as criminal.[xvi] Such practices include indicating availability to receive information, indicating what information is of interest, encouraging the provision of information, receipt of information for the purpose of publication, and publication of information in the public interest.
Under the charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, the initial indictment criminalised also Mr Assange’s alleged attempt at helping his source to maintain their anonymity while providing the documents in question, which falls squarely under the standard journalistic practice and duty of protecting the source.
The letter adds that “Extradition on the basis of the indictment would gravely endanger freedom of the press, a cornerstone of European democracies enshrined in Art. 10 ECHR”.
There are other implications:
The extradition to the US of a publisher and journalist, for engaging in journalistic activities while in Europe, would set a very dangerous precedent for the extra-territorialisation of state secrecy laws and “would post an invitation to other states to follow suit, severely threatening the ability of journalists, publishers and human rights organisations to safely reveal information about serious international issues.
The letter further argues that the treatment of Assange and the conditions under which he is imprisoned amounts to torture. It notes:
Although Mr Assange has now served the sentence [for skipping bail], he remains imprisoned without conviction or legal basis for the purpose of a political, and thereby illegal, extradition to the US
The signatories add:
We would like to remind the UK government:
- of its duty to protect Mr Assange’s right to life, which is the most fundamental human right enshrined in Art. 6 of the ICCPR, Art. 2 of the ECHR and Art. 2 of the Human Rights Act (HRA);
- that the prohibition of torture is a norm of international customary law and constitutes jus cogens. The prohibition is absolute and so there may be no derogation under any circumstances, including war, public emergency or terrorist threat. It is also enshrined in Art. 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Arts. 7 and 10 ICCPR, CAT, and Art. 3 ECHR;
The letter refers to more violations and in particular conflicts of interest. In this respect, the letter points out that:
Senior District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts) Emma Arbuthnot, who as Chief Magistrate oversees Mr Assange’s extradition proceedings, has been shown to have financial links to institutions and individuals whose wrongdoings have been exposed by WikiLeaks, the organisation which Mr Assange founded.[xxxviii] This seemingly clear conflict of interest was, however, not disclosed by the District Judge. District Judge Arbuthnot did not recuse herself and was permitted to make rulings to Mr Assange’s detriment, despite the perceived lack of judicial impartiality and independence.
The letter indicates further violations, such as denial of adequate resources to Assange to help in his defence.
The letter’s signatories number 154 individuals and 15 professional associations which in turn represent hundreds more practitioners of law.
The letter ends: “we respectfully request that the UK government bring an end to the US extradition proceedings against Mr Assange and ensure his immediate release from custody”. Indeed, the extradition proceedings against Assange are not only arguably a violation of his legal rights, but arguably a violation of legal procedure.
Assange should be freed now and the extradition farce halted.
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