Formal hearings for the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange commenced on Monday 7 September 2020. Over three days, the defence fielded witnesses and presented legal arguments that cumulatively reveal some of the real reasons why Assange is being prosecuted.
Day one of the hearings saw the defence argue that “conduct from a fresh extradition request” [superseding indictment] recently submitted by the US should not be allowed to stand. The judge, however, disagreed.
Former vice chairman of the New York Times James C Goodale and lawyer Timothy Cuffman referred to the possible reason why this indictment was presented:
U.S. prosecutors packed the newest indictment with paragraph after paragraph of allegedly conspiratorial activities of Assange and his Wikileaks associates that happened as recently as 2015 and are therefore timely.
However, they added:
But the supposedly conspiratorial “recruitment” activities on which the indictment depends are indistinguishable from standard journalistic practices and political expression, and they are thus not criminal at all.
On day two Professor Mark Feldstein told the court that soliciting information is the “lifeblood” of journalistic practice:
Feldstein made it clear in statement to court that soliciting information is "not only consistent with standard journalistic practice, they are its lifeblood, especially for investigative or national security reporters." He shared his personal record of soliciting info. #Assange pic.twitter.com/ijsZvr9Q1p
— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) September 8, 2020
Feldstein provided details of over 20 examples of published leaks from 1844 to 2018:
Though from yesterday, this is a comprehensive list from Professor Mark Feldstein, witness who testified on Day 1 about frequency of published leaks in journalism.
— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) September 8, 2020
Also on day two Reprieve human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith provided details of war crimes committed by the US that WikiLeaks helped expose. His testimony was accompanied by a written statement. In the statement he referred to how a court in Pakistan ruled that US drone strikes were a “blatant violation of basic human rights”. He added that evidence provided by WikiLeaks was key in the submission to that court.
Moreover, he quoted US cables, published by WikiLeaks, regarding extraordinary renditions. Smith also mentioned how Trump announced “an Executive Order that threatens sanctions against anyone who helps the I.C.C. [International Criminal Court] investigate American crimes”.
On the matter of whistleblowers and soliciting leaks, Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) executive director Trevor Timm explained that SecureDrop, a “secure submission system” developed by FPF, is used by 70 media outlets globally. These include: “the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, USA Today, Bloomberg News, CBC, and the Toronto Globe and Mail”. In other words, each of these media outlets encourage and facilitate leaks.
Again from Goodale and Cuffman:
In order to perform their core function, journalists of all sorts must have the latitude and flexibility to undertake the types of actions that the government now alleges amount to criminal conspiracy, at least in combination. These actions include associating with sources, communicating with sources, issuing broad invitations for sources to provide newsworthy information (including and especially classified information), telling potential sources what types of information would likely be newsworthy, promising to publish newsworthy content, receiving newsworthy information from sources, and publishing such information.
Paul Rogers, emeritus professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, testified about the Iraq war and the conflict in Afghanistan. He pointed out the importance of the Iraq War Logs (aka War Diaries), published by WikiLeaks and the additional civilian deaths found:
Rogers emphasized that the Iraq War Logs "enabled a proper appreciation" for civilian deaths. Iraq Body Count did good work and through the incident reports found additional 15,000 civilian deaths #Assange
— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) September 9, 2020
A show trial
A film by Juan Passarelli (below) provides an overview of Assange’s prosecution. First, there is an ominous comment by journalist John Pilger on Assange: “what happens to him can happen to any journalist who does his or her job”.
And with regard to the soliciting of information, investigative journalist Barton Gellman comments:
I solicit and I receive information. I ask questions and I hope to obtain answers.
The video also provides examples of top officials in US, including Trump, who want to see Assange dead. Assange himself comments on the flawed charge of conspiracy he is facing:
If I am a conspirator to commit espionage, then all these other media organisations, and the principled journalists in them, are also conspirators to commit espionage.
Moreover, Journalist Matt Kennard provides an example as to why the prosecution case should be thrown out:
When Daniel Ellsberg was on trial for the Pentagon Papers [leak] during the Vietnam War, his case was thrown out because it come up that Nixon had ordered a raid on his psychologist’s office to try and get information which was embarrassing to Ellsberg… Assange has been surveilled by the CIA. That by itself should mean the case is thrown out.
Journalist and former intelligence officer John Kiriakou further explains how if the extradition of Assange proceeds, his trial will take place in the eastern district of Virginia, where the jury would consist of people:
from the CIA, FBI, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and intelligence community contractors or their family members.
On 6 February 2018, Lady Arbuthnot dismissed the request by Assange’s lawyers to have his arrest warrant for skipping bail withdrawn, after the Swedish investigation into sexual assault allegations was dropped.
If this request had been granted, Assange may have been able to negotiate safe passage to Ecuador to prevent his persecution by the US government.
A week later, in a second ruling, Lady Arbuthnot said: “I accept that Mr Assange had expressed fears of being returned to the United States from a very early stage in the Swedish extradition proceedings but… I do not find that Mr Assange’s fears were reasonable.”
In addition to other irregularities, Daily Maverick points out that Arbuthnot’s husband has close connections with the Henry Jackson Society (HSJ), which was the subject of exposes by WikiLeaks. Further, it’s shown that home secretary Priti Patel, who signs off on extradition cases, was a member of the HJS council.
The Canary has published more links between the Arbuthnots and defence and intelligence bodies.
Concealing government crimes
Moreover, there’s the matter of extraterritorial overreach. Assange is an Australian who is currently in the UK. Yet if the US extradition goes ahead, this will have two major consequences. One: the US will find it a lot easier to seek the extradition of other journalists who publish information it considers secret. Two: other countries will also regard journalists, whether domestic or foreign based, as fair game.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet believes if the extradition goes ahead it means journalists and publishers will be at greater risk:
If this extradition is allowed, it will send a clear signal that journalists and publishers are at risk whenever their work discomforts the United States government. Media freedom the world over will take a significant backward step if Assange is forced to face these charges at the behest of a US president.
In short, the wider reason for the prosecution of Assange is about making it easier for governments to conceal their criminal behaviour, including war crimes such as massacres, outright murder, and torture.
But there are major flaws in the prosecution case that could form the basis for legal challenge.
The hearings are expected to resume on 14 September 2020.
Featured image via Youtube
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