The Imminent Extradition of Julian Assange and the Death of Journalism
Julian Assange’s legal options have nearly run out. He could be extradited to the U.S. this week. Should he be convicted in the U.S., any reporting on the inner workings of power will become a crime.
High Court Judge Jonathan Swift — who previously worked for a variety of British government agencies as a barrister and said his favorite clients are “security and intelligence agencies” — rejected two applications by Julian Assange’s lawyers to appeal his extradition last week. The extradition order was signed last June by Home Secretary Priti Patel. Julian’s legal team have filed a final application for appeal, the last option available in the British courts. If accepted, the case could proceed to a public hearing in front of two new High Court judges. If rejected, Julian could be immediately extradited to the United States where he will stand trial for 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act, charges that could see him receive a 175-year sentence, as early as this week.
The only chance to block an extradition, if the final appeal is rejected, as I expect it will be, would come from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe, which created the ECtHR, along with their Commissioner for Human Rights, oppose Julian’s “detention, extradition and prosecution” because it represents “a dangerous precedent for journalists.” It is unclear if the British government would abide by the court’s decision — even though it is obligated to do so — if it ruled against extradition, or if the U.K. would extradite Julian before an appeal to the European court can be heard. Julian, once shipped to the U.S., would be put on trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia where most espionage cases have been won by the U.S. government.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser at Westminster Magistrates’ Court refused to authorize the U.S. government’s extradition request in Jan. 2021 because of the severity of the conditions Julian would endure in the U.S. prison system.
“Faced with the conditions of near total isolation without the protective factors which limited his risk at [Her Majesty’s Prison] Belmarsh, I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide,” said Baraitser when handing down her 132-page ruling, “and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge.”
Baraitser’s decision was overturned after an appeal by U.S. authorities. The High Court accepted the conclusions of the lower court about increased risk of suicide and inhumane prison conditions. But it also accepted four assurances in U.S. Diplomatic Note no. 74, given to the court in Feb. 2021, which promised Julian would be well treated. The U.S. government claimed that its assurances “entirely answer the concerns which caused the judge [in the lower court] to discharge Mr. Assange.” The “assurances” state that Julian will not be subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). They promise that Julian, an Australian citizen, can serve his sentence in Australia if the Australian government requests his extradition. They promise he will receive adequate clinical and psychological care. They promise that, pre-trial and post-trial, Julian will not be held in the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado. No one is held pre-trial in ADX Florence. But it sounds reassuring. ADX Florence is not the only supermax prison in the U.S. Julian can be placed in one of our other Guantanamo-like facilities in a Communications Management Unit (CMU). CMUs are highly restrictive units that replicate the near-total isolation imposed by SAMs.
None of these “assurances” are worth the paper they are written on. All come with escape clauses. None are legally binding. Should Julian do “something subsequent to the offering of these assurances that meets the tests for the imposition of SAMs or designation to ADX” he will, the court conceded, be subject to these harsher forms of control.
If Australia does not request a transfer it “cannot be a cause for criticism of the USA, or a reason for regarding the assurances as inadequate to meet the judge’s concerns,” the ruling read. And even if that were not the case, it would take Julian 10 to 15 years to appeal his sentence up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would be more than enough time to destroy him psychologically and physically.
No doubt the plane waiting to take Julian to the U.S. will be well stocked with blindfolds, sedatives, shackles, enemas, diapers and jumpsuits used to facilitate “extraordinary renditions” conducted by the CIA.
The extradition of Julian will be the next step in the slow-motion execution of the publisher and founder of WikiLeaks and one of the most important journalists of our generation. It will ensure that Julian spends the rest of his life in a U.S. prison. It will create legal precedents that will criminalize any investigation into the inner workings of power, even by citizens from another country. It will be a body blow to our anemic democracy, which is rapidly metamorphosing into corporate totalitarianism.
I am as stunned by this full frontal assault on journalism as I am by the lack of public outrage, especially by the media. The very belated call from The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País — all of whom published material provided by WikiLeaks — to drop the extradition charges is too little too late. All of the public protests I have attended in defense of Julian in the U.S. are sparsely attended. Our passivity makes us complicit in our own enslavement.
Julian’s case, from the start, has been a judicial farce.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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