Tuesday 26 March 2024

The Stakes Could Hardly Be Higher

As a Commonwealth citizen who is not serving a term of imprisonment in the United Kingdom or in the Republic of Ireland, Julian Assange is eligible to contest the Blackpool South by-election. He should do so, supported at the very least by the Alba Party and by the Workers Party of Britain, led as those are by two of his staunchest supporters, as well as by another such, the Independent MP for Islington North.

Fraser Myers writes:

Julian Assange has been handed a temporary lifeline against his extradition to the US.

Today, the UK’s High Court announced that it would give the US government three weeks to provide ‘satisfactory assurances’ that the Wikileaks co-founder would face a fair trial and not receive the death penalty, among other things. If those assurances are not given in time, then Assange will be granted a full appeal hearing on 20 May.

Were it not for today’s judgement, then Assange could have been sent to the US within the next few days, where he faces 17 charges of espionage and one of computer misuse. If found guilty of all of these, he could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Not just for Assange personally, but also for press freedom itself. Because the ‘crime’ the authorities really want to punish him for is journalism – that is, for publishing things that are true.

Indeed, we know that Assange is in the dock for journalism because the US Department of Justice has essentially admitted as much. Wikileaks began to make a name for itself in 2010, when it published classified videos and files from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In December 2010, it leaked the contents of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from US embassies, in collaboration with the Guardian. Around this time, the Obama administration looked into the possibility of prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act 1917, a law passed during the First World War intended for prosecuting spying and treason. But, as Obama’s DoJ was forced to concede, prosecuting Assange would also mean prosecuting ‘the New York Times and other news organisations and writers who published classified material, including the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper’. Indeed, the stories that emerged via Wikileaks were printed and broadcast in just about every major media outlet on Earth.

What the Obama administration begrudgingly recognised was the crucial distinction between leaking or stealing classified information and publishing that information. To criminalise Assange and the activity of Wikileaks would open the door to criminalising all manner of investigative journalism. The chilling effect this would have on free speech and press freedom would be unprecedented.

Any hesitation about going after Assange disappeared in 2017, with Wikileaks’ publication of over 8,000 CIA documents. The ‘Vault7’ files revealed the techniques agents used to hack into smartphones and turn them into listening devices. This infuriated Mike Pompeo, the then head of the CIA. He publicly declared all-out war on Assange and branded Wikileaks a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’. He said the US must not allow its ‘free-speech values’ to undermine the national interest. Two years later, Pompeo, who by then had been promoted to Donald Trump’s secretary of state, issued the 18 indictments against Assange that he is currently awaiting extradition for.

Given this train of events, there are elements of today’s High Court judgement that seem truly baffling. The judges, while granting Assange three weeks of reprieve, ruled that the US’s extradition request is not ‘political’. This is significant because extraditions for political reasons are unlawful under the UK’s Extradition Act 2003. But the indictments did have a clear political motivation; Pompeo’s personal hatred of Assange was a matter of public record at the time the indictments were issued. What’s more, the CIA and the Trump administration held high-level discussions about potentially kidnapping and even assassinating Assange while he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Yes, there is a new president in the White House, but the Biden administration has just as much reason to loathe Assange. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Wikileaks published thousands of emails belonging to John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many Democrats hold this leak as partly responsible for Trump’s shock victory. In other words, Democrats, Republicans and the US security state more broadly have been badly bruised by Wikileaks’ publishing. It is not hard to see a political motivation behind their persecution of Assange.

The High Court’s partial reprieve for Assange is, of course, preferable to his immediate extradition. But some of the reasoning behind the judgement is far from reassuring. Press freedom still hangs in the balance.

And Gavin Haynes writes:

Lord Palmerston apparently said of the 19th century diplomatic tangle, the Schleswig-Holstein Question, that only three people had ever understood it — one was dead, another had gone mad, and the third, Palmerston himself, had forgotten it.

So it seems with Julian Assange, who today won his request for an appeal hearing in his US extradition case. Peer dimly back into the mists of time, to 2010, and it is possible to discern a sexual assault allegation in Sweden that was later withdrawn, but which formed sufficient grounds to have him put under house arrest in England.

After time spent in the Ecuadorian embassy and then HMP Belmarsh, there have been years of appeals and counters-appeals, all hinging on whether, finally, Assange will end up in a US court. There he could be charged with spying under the 1917 Espionage Act, for an act that was performed in Britain by an Australian citizen.

Today concerned part of a different counter-appeal by Assange’s legal team. They had set out nine grounds as to why he should stay in Britain and three of these have now been upheld, if only temporarily. A new court date has been set for 20 May, when US authorities will have to provide evidence as to why those three reasons don’t apply. Firstly, that he will be able to use a First Amendment free speech defence; secondly, that there is no chance he will be put to death; and lastly, that he will not be placed in a particularly tough prison environment.

Given that all three seem eminently doable, the way will once again be cleared for Assange to meet his fate in a US courtroom, which could amount to as much as 175 years in prison. American authorities maintain it would be closer to six. Yet, 15 years since he first sparked the State Department’s ire, the question of what justice means, and what Assange even did, seems increasingly lost not only on the public but on the authorities themselves. There is a kind of muscle memory in the system, the locked jaws of a deep state that just will not let go, forever doubling down on the losses it took.

Assange embarrassed the Pentagon and put his head so far above the parapet that he began a blood feud with the CIA. The questions that WikiLeaks threw up relate back to the White House of George W. Bush and the early Obama years. Few can remember many of the specifics, and the world has turned. But in terms of ending this infinite saga, there is no choreography being suggested that would allow for the authorities to save face.

Without that, the show must go on. And the longer it goes on, the more the public gets the sense that the system has its targets. That justice might be blind in the courtroom, sure, but outside of it the US security apparatus is behaving as capriciously as Assange always suggested it did.

Our touchingly Nineties faith in the decency of our legal system is being tested. There have been other dots along the road that have given credence to this mood. The January 6 riots, for instance, illustrated quite how much book there is to throw at people if desired: 22-year sentences for someone who wasn’t even at the Capitol.

See also: the many legal troubles of Donald Trump. In New York, the former president is charged with exaggerating his asset base when taking out a loan that he long since paid back without issue. As with Britain’s novel hate speech codes, what gets to court — and how intent the authorities are to follow through — is what counts.

In hindsight, Assange was an early case in this modern phenomenon. At the time, he was a crowd-splitter. But the longer this has dragged on, the more the anti-Assange types have melted away.

Increasingly, his case is a cause célèbre that isn’t even about “free speech” or “journalistic integrity”, as his supporters loftily claim. It’s about sticking sand in the gears of a power system whose slip is showing. The question becomes not the Schleswig-Holstein version: “Does anyone remember what he did?” These days, it’s resolving into a crisper, more emotive thing: “Why are they so obsessed with him?”