On 27 and 28 October, the UK High Court was scheduled to hear further submissions regarding the US’s attempt to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The US department of justice charged Assange with 18 offences, 17 of which come under the Espionage Act. In January 2021, judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that the charges were valid. However, she also ruled that Assange shouldn’t be extradited for health reasons and because there was a risk he could end his life.
The prosecution appealed against the latter ruling and Assange’s defence subsequently offered a rebuttal to their objections. Meanwhile, journalists have exposed the prosecution’s bogus claims about the US prisons that await Assange if he’s extradited.
Journalists Kevin Gosztola and Mohamed Elmaazi summarised the prosecution’s five objections as follows:
the district judge improperly applied the United Kingdom’s extradition law; the district judge should have sought assurances from the U.S. government after she decided to deny the request; the district judge ought to have disqualified a key psychiatric expert; the district judge erred when considering evidence of suicide risk; and the U.K. government was issued a package of assurances that address the problems the district judge detailed in her decision.
The prosecution listed a number of ‘assurances’ regarding the kind of prison regime Assange would face if extradited.
One such assurance was that Assange would not be subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and a human rights centre at Yale Law School published a report on SAMs in 2017. CCR explains that:
SAMs are the darkest corner of the U.S. federal prison system, combining the brutality and isolation of maximum-security units with additional restrictions that deny individuals almost any connection to the human world. Those restrictions include gag orders on prisoners, their family members, and their attorneys, effectively shielding this extreme use of government power from public view.
Another assurance was that Assange wouldn’t be detained in the super-max prison ADX Florence. In September 2020, Gosztola commented:
if Assange was convicted and wound up in what is known as the H Block at ADX Florence, he would be housed in what has been described as the “only known black site on American soil,” or as Alan Prendergast put it for Westword, “A black hole, a void where men are slowly buried alive in layers of isolation until they vanish entirely.”
Instead, prosecution lawyer James Lewis claimed Assange would likely be detained in a Communications Management Unit (CMU). The prosecution maintains that this is a less harsh form of detention. And he added that Assange could even serve out his sentence, if found guilty, in an Australian prison.
Edward Fitzgerald QC for the defence accused the prosecution of trying to “minimise the severity of Mr Assange’s mental disorder and suicide risk”. As for the Australian option, it’s reported that has not been agreed, and if it was it could take a ‘decade’ to organise.
Gosztola and Elmaazi explain that if Assange was detained in a CMU:
he would likely be limited to two scheduled 15-minute phone calls per week. Those calls could be restricted to immediate family, and the prison could deny him a call if an FBI agent was not available to monitor his conversation.
The visitation policy for a prisoner in a CMU is harsher than the policy for SAMs. Contact visits are not allowed, meaning Moris and his children, Gabriel and Max, would not be able to hug or kiss him.
Gosztola and Elmaazi also addressed the issue of a “speedy trial” raised by the prosecution:
Lewis put forward a rosy but unrealistic scenario, where Assange’s legal team could apply for a “speedy trial,” challenge the prosecution on First Amendment grounds, and then Assange would prevail and go free.
The only way Assange would have his “speedy trial” rights respected is if he pleaded guilty to the charges or accepted some kind of a plea deal that would include prison time, but avoid a trial. That presumes the prosecutors would bargain with him.
All down to trust
In a video, Gosztola commented that the defence asked how the US can be trusted to abide by their assurances, given that the CIA, with encouragement from Mike Pompeo, wanted Assange killed. The Canary previously reported on death threats by US political figures, as well as the recent revelations concerning a CIA plot to kill or kidnap Assange.
Gosztola and Elmaazi comment on how the US government:
“retains the power” to designate Assange for either SAMs or ADX Florence if he commits “any future act” that meets the “test for such designation”; for example, if officials deem they must prevent a “breach of national security.”
Moreover, Assange could still end up under SAMs on the CIA’s recommendation. According to the defence:
One agency with power to recommend SAMs to the attorney general (on the basis of some unspecified ‘act’ they perceive Mr. Assange to have committed) is the CIA—the very same agency whose criminal acts Mr Assange has sought to expose, and who are under active investigation in Spain for plotting to kill him.
Fitzgerald further told the court that:
There are great grounds for fearing what will be done to [Assange] given the revelations of surveillance in the embassy and plots to kill him.
Condemnation by journalists’ bodies
Meanwhile, media organisations representing 600,000 journalists worldwide have condemned Assange’s prosecution and are calling for his immediate release:
Veteran BBC reporter John Simpson says that the attempt to extradite Assange is a threat to media freedom:
Indeed, Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, commented:
if the US is successful in securing his [Assange’s] extradition, then the precedent it could set for any media organisation cannot be overstated.
More support for Assange has come from a number of high profile figures. They include Labour MP John McDonnell, saying “if Assange is silenced, they can silence anyone”:
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP also reminded us that journalism is not a crime:
Could take weeks
Journalist Stefan Simanowitz warned that the High Court could take several weeks to reach a decision on what happens next. Meanwhile Assange’s fiance Stella Moris is demanding his release:
Whatever the court’s ruling, there could be further appeals by either the prosecution or the defence.
Featured image via Flickr