To write about the greatest press freedom case in recent history, it has been necessary to rely almost exclusively on the work of independent journalists reporting from the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court. Detailed coverage of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing in the Guardian, the New York Times, et cetera, is almost nowhere to be seen. This is indeed troubling: the press itself is one of the greatest barriers to infringements on the First Amendment.
This article will offer a brief overview of the Assange hearing to date, 30 September. The Canary will be on the ground to cover the remaining two days of proceedings.
Assange is accused of violating the US Espionage Act on 17 counts and of one count of conspiracy to commit a computer crime. This would be the first time that a US or extraterritorial publisher is indicted under the Espionage Act for the publication of official secrets. If extradited, and later convicted, Assange could serve up to 175 years in prison.
In the words of journalist Kevin Gosztola, the charges “criminalize the act of merely receiving classified information, as well as the publication of state secrets of the US government, which is why the case is widely viewed as an attack on press freedom”.
While this trial therefore threatens the act of journalism itself, the treatment of Assange in the years leading up to the hearing has also been widely condemned. UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer has stated that Assange has been subjected to “psychological torture”. Assange has also had inadequate access to his legal team.
Over the past three weeks, magistrate court judge Vanessa Baraitser has heard that Assange should not be extradited on numerous grounds, including:
- The political nature of the prosecution
The court heard that WikiLeaks had “disclosed U.S. involvement in criminal activity”, which was later relied on in court. It was therefore suggested that “the prosecution against Assange is retaliation for bringing increased scrutiny to U.S. actions throughout the world”.
On 18 September, Khaled El Masri, a victim of CIA rendition and torture, took to the stand to demonstrate that the “exposure of… state secrets” by WikiLeaks had revealed major abuses in the public interest.
The court also heard that US president Donald Trump’s “war on journalism” is indicative of a political motive against Assange. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPP), explained how Trump has “attempted to stifle press freedom at all levels” including “negative remarks, insults, or threats to the press” via Twitter since 2016.
The defence, therefore, believes that Assange would not be subject to a fair trial in the US.
- The risk of cruel and inhuman treatment in a US supermax prison
The defence believes that Assange would be detained in abusive conditions should he be extradited to the US, including conditions which amount to solitary confinement. These conditions, claim the defence, would likely violate Article 3 of the Human Rights Act in the UK.
Additionally, the defence is concerned that cruel or inhuman treatment could be used against Assange to coerce a guilty plea. This situation would be aggravated if Assange were faced with a 175-year sentence.
The prosecution, however, cited a 2012 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which sided with the US.
- Misrepresentation of facts
Daniel Ellsberg, known for the leak of the Pentagon Papers, suggested that the US state department refused to help Assange redact key documents in order to “preserve the possibility of charging Mr Assange with precisely the charges” that he now faces. Ellsberg further contested the narrative that Assange was irresponsible with sensitive documents.
The court also heard from Patrick Eller, a computer forensic expert, that the “conspiracy to commit a computer intrusion” indictment is based on a false premise. Assange, he claimed, would not have needed to help Chelsea Manning access sensitive documents, since “Manning already had legitimate access to all of the databases from which she downloaded data”.
As The Canary reported, Eller:
explained to the court that Manning had already downloaded and leaked hundreds of thousands of files before her chats with [Nathaniel] Frank. [The prosecution suspects Frank was Assange’s codename, though this has never been proven]. These files included the Iraq war logs, the Afghan war logs, the infamous “Collateral murder” video, information about Guantanamo detainees, and other files
- Damaging precedent
Should Assange be extradited, this would set a damaging precedent for any journalist who releases classified information.
As attorney Carey Shenkman told the court as a witness for the defence:
What is now concluded, by journalists and publishers generally, is that any journalist in any country on earth—in fact any person—who conveys secrets that do not conform to the policy positions of the U.S. administration can be shown now to be liable to being charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.
- Concerns over Assange’s health
The court also heard that Assange’s mental and physical health has deteriorated. The defence argued that extradition could trigger a suicide attempt by Assange, who already suffers from depression.
Assange has been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. In past cases, the US government was blocked from extradition because the UK recognised that the human rights of those with Asperger’s syndrome would be violated in US prisons. Assange’s defence made similar representations to the court.
The hearing will likely conclude on Thursday 1 October. It is not yet clear when a verdict will be delivered.
Featured image via screengrab/60 minutes
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