Fight to free Assange goes on
By Clare Bailey
At a brief session on the morning of January 4th, Judge Baraitser surprised everyone by ruling against the extradition of Julian Assange to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act. (1)
Outside the Old Bailey there were spontaneous celebrations of what looked at first sight like a victory.
The hearings on the extradition were held in September 2020, when Assange’s legal team mounted an impressive defence, calling on world experts in a wide range of fields who powerfully challenged the prosecution case – refuting, for example, the claim that names had been carelessly revealed and lives endangered and lost as a result of WikiLeaks’s publications. It was perhaps for this reason that the hearings were cut short in the end and that the judge delayed giving her verdict until January 2021.
In announcing her decision on January 4th, Baraitser dismissed all arguments made by the defence on the right to free speech and on the political nature of the case, and ruled they had not established that the principle of the right to truth had any legal status in local or international law. She stated that ‘Mr. Assange’s alleged acts were unlawful and he does not become immune from criminal liability merely because he claims he was acting as a journalist’, going on to affirm in detail and very precisely her acceptance of every single argument presented by the US prosection. Her decision to rule against extradition was made solely on the grounds of the fragility of Assange’s mental health and the consequent risk of his suicide in the American prison system.
The implications of this decision for investigative journalists and whistleblowers worldwide are profound. As Richard Norton-Taylor writing for Declassified UK on January 8th puts it, any journalist ‘seeking information that governments do not want to disclose for reasons that have little to do with “national security” could be indicted and prosecuted under the criminal law.’ As he also points out, this does not just mean the US – other governments could well be encouraged to seek the extradition of journalists working in other countries to expose their human rights abuses and military exploits. Assange, it should be remembered, is not an American citizen.
Assange was returned to Belmarsh Prison pending the bail hearing on January 6th. Hopes were initially high that, given the refusal to extradite, he would be released to join his family. But bail was refused. In explanation, Baraitser said Assange had a wide network of support ready to assist him in absconding and that his previous violation of bail conditions was evidence enough of the risk he would do so again.
In fact Assange broke his bail conditions in 2012, taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, precisely in order to avoid extradition to the US from Sweden, which he feared was the intention. Subsequent events were to prove him right.
The refined cruelty of the British judiciary professing concern for Assange’s survival as they return him to solitary confinement in a freezing cell (the heating system in Assange’s block at Belmarsh is not functioning) and when his current fragile state is the direct result of the British state’s treatment of him for more than a decade, is breathtaking.
As to what happens next, there are some who hope the Biden administration will show leniency and pardon Assange; others think this is highly unlikely. Whatever the US has in mind, the decision of the British court cannot have been taken without some form of consultation with the US government-in-waiting and it appears the US intention for the time being is to press on and appeal. Given the grounds for the Baraitser decision, US lawyers do not now have to re-visit any of the substantive arguments on the extradition; they have only to address the question of Assange’s safety within the US prison system.
TORTURE GOES ON
Meanwhile, Assange remains in prison in Britain – without charge, and with no end in sight to his incarceration. This may, of course, be the plan. One of the emails leaked by WikiLeaks in 2012 – dated 2010 and quoted in an earlier article on the Assange case in this journal (2) – records a conversation internal to Stratfor, a private intelligence agency providing information to American defence corporations; it refers directly to Assange’s arrest in the UK:
‘Pile on. Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next twenty five years. But seize everything he and his family own, to include every person linked to Wiki…’
Ten of those 25 years have already passed, and it seems increasingly likely that Assange may die in Belmarsh. He is not well and Covid is rife. It many respects it would not be a bad outcome to the case for the British and American governments. On the other hand, the continued punishment of Assange without charge or trial in conditions that amount to torture also poses a growing problem that could be exacerbated rather than solved by his death in custody – the case is more widely publicised and understood now than it was even a year ago and the questions it raises are very disturbing.
As Home Secretary, Priti Patel will decide on the appeal, Baraitser’s judgment having provided temporary cover for the British government by suggesting some independence from US interests. Patel will make the decision in the context of the government’s stated intention to update the British Official Secrets Act, making it much easier to convict journalists and whistleblowers for revealing national defence information and no longer possible for defence lawyers to argue they were acting in the public interest. Sentences will also be increased.
The baseline is the determination that material of the kind contained in the Collateral Murder dossier should never again enter the public domain, such now is the fear of the repressive state of an informed population, or of what an informed population might do. Just as the Labour Party must never again be in a position to elect a rational social democrat with a progressive foreign policy that would have challenged some of their worst depredations.
(1) Baraitser’s ruling can be read in full here:
(2) The case of Julian Assange by Clare Bailey, The Socialist Correspondent, Issue 37, Summer 2020
Meanwhile, Assange remains in prison in Britain - without charge, and with no end in sight to his incarceration. This may of course