Portrait | Julian Assange must not go to jail


Portrait | Julian Assange must not go to jail

US prosecutors have been trying for almost 14 years to get the WikiLeaks founder extradited to the US so he can stand trial there. WILLEM KEMPEN explains why this should not happen.

FOR at least half of his 52 years, Julian Assange has regularly managed to get himself into deep trouble then extricate himself again.

But this time may be different: British judges are on the verge of deciding whether he should be extradited to the US at last, despite persistent pleas from newspaper editors, human rights groups and other activists that he is a champion of free speech who should be allowed to continue his work.

If extradited, he would face at least 18 federal charges which could collectively mean more than 175 years in prison. Even the death penalty cannot be ruled out.

How did he get to this point?

Assange developed an interest in hacking as a teenager in his native Australia. In 1996, he was fined for hacking several computer networks, including those of the US Department of Defense and Nasa. He avoided prison by promising not to do it again.

In 2006, he started WikiLeaks as a platform where whistleblowers and anonymous sources could disclose confidential documents without fear of retribution. In April 2010, WikiLeaks' so-called #CollateralMurder video about a US helicopter attack in Baghdad, Iraq, made headlines worldwide.

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WikiLeaks' biggest moment — and the day Assange's biggest troubles began — was on November 28, 2010, when 251,000 confidential diplomatic messages sent from US consulates, embassies and other diplomatic missions to the State Department were made public.

In an international scandal that became known as CableGate, a nest of corruption, espionage and diplomatic embarrassment was uncovered, including analyses of the personalities of several world leaders. Thousands of military logs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and hundreds of thousands of telegrams exposing the inner workings of American diplomacy were revealed.

Five of the world's oldest and most respected news publications revealed the CableGate documents  with WikiLeaks: The New York Times in the US, The Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El País in Spain.

The source for the documents was soon revealed as Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst in the US Army, after a colleague denounced her. (She stated in 2013 that she'd had a female gender identity since childhood and has since been known as Chelsea Manning.)

Three years after the WikiLeaks disclosure, a military court found Manning guilty of violations  of, among others, the Espionage Act and she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. However, she was released in 2017 after President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in the last days of his term of office.

The Americans soon realised it would be much more difficult to arrest Assange, an Australian citizen who spent most of his time in Europe.

Here is a brief timeline of what happened to Assange before and after CableGate (a more complete timeline is available here): 

Four months after the #CollateralMurder video, in August 2010, state prosecutors in Sweden issued a warrant for Assange's arrest on two charges, one of rape and one similar to sexual molestation. Assange said from the start that the allegations were “baseless" but the British police used the warrants in December 2010 — after CableGate — to arrest him in London. 

He was granted bail but in May 2012 a British court ordered that he be extradited to Sweden to be questioned about the allegations. Before this could happen, he entered Ecuador's embassy in London and asked for asylum. In August 2012, Ecuador granted his application on the grounds that his rights might be violated if he were extradited to Sweden.

In February 2016, a United Nations panel found that Assange had been “arbitrarily" prosecuted by British and Swedish authorities since 2010. 

In May 2017, Sweden's prosecutions head said the rape investigation into Assange was being dropped.

In July 2018, Britain and Ecuador's new government confirmed that they had started discussions about Assange's fate. On April 11, 2019, after Assange had spent seven years in the embassy, ​​British police entered the building “at the invitation of Ecuador" and rearrested him. He was held for breaching his 2012 bail conditions and in May 2019 he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison on the same charge. Also in May 2019, Sweden reopened the sexual assault investigation but abandoned it again in November of that year. Later that month, the US Department of Justice filed new charges against Assange alleging that he violated the Espionage Act by disclosing classified military and diplomatic documents. According to the indictment, Assange “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal it and give it to Wikileaks for disclosure".

In 2021, a British court ruled that Assange may not be extradited to the US, based on his mental health and the risk of suicide. The US appealed and the Supreme Court overturned  the decision in 2022, paving the way for Assange's extradition. The British Home Secretary confirmed the extradition order in 2022 and Assange is seeking permission to have that decision reviewed and to overturn the original court ruling. The verdict on this is expected shortly. 

Assange's lawyers argue that he is a journalist who has acted in the public interest, that he has never published anything that is not the truth, and that his extradition would violate his human rights and freedom of expression.

The US authorities, on the other hand, argue that Assange is not a journalist but a hacker who conspired with Manning to steal and publish classified information, putting lives at risk and compromising US national security. They insist he will get a fair trial and humane treatment in the US.

If he is extradited, it will be to a very different US than the one of 2010, when Obama was still president, or even the one of Donald Trump's first term. In June and July 2016, when Assange was still in Ecuador's London embassy, ​​WikiLeaks and an organisation called DCLeaks made public a series of emails from the Democrats' national management committee (the Democratic National Convention, or DNC). They showed that Hillary Clinton had the support of the DNC at the expense of her party colleague Bernie Sanders, even when the DNC was supposed to remain neutral. The CIA and special counsel Robert Mueller later said Russian hackers were responsible for the leak and that they did it to prevent Clinton from beating Trump. Assange refused to reveal WikiLeaks' source for the emails but denied it was “Russia or any other state".

His supporters, especially his wife, Stella, say his physical and mental health is rapidly deteriorating due to his long detention and isolation, and his life will be in danger if he is extradited to the US, as evidenced by claims that Mike Pompeo, then head of the CIA and later Trump's Secretary of State, inquired in 2017 about ways to have Assange killed. This was after WikiLeaks published details of the so-called “Vault 7", cyber hacking techniques with which the CIA was believed to be able to hide its own fingerprints on cyber crimes, among other things. The CIA apparently considers this leak to be the biggest data loss in its history.

He's a dangerous individual," Stella Assange said about Pompeo and the alleged murder plot. “The CIA is a rogue organisation that everyone on every level of US politics is terrified of. They are trained to assassinate, to fabricate information and place it in the media and conduct propaganda warfare and to overthrow governments."

A group of human rights organisations and other activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Columbia University's First Amendment Institute, sent a letter to the US Attorney General on December 8, 2022. This plea applies even if there is no longer a Biden administration by the time Assange might be extradited:

“It is time for the Biden administration to break from the Trump administration’s decision to indict Assange — a move that was hostile to the media and democracy itself. Correcting the course is essential to protect journalists’ ability to report freely on the United States without fear of retribution.

“We again urge you to protect democratic values and human rights norms, including freedom of the press, by abandoning this relentless pursuit of Assange."

♦ VWB ♦

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