EDITORIAL, Fri 18 Dec 2020
The US should never have brought the case against the WikiLeaks founder. This attack on press freedom must be rejected
On 4 January, a British judge is set to rule on whether Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States, where he could face a 175-year sentence in a high-security “supermax” prison. He should not. The charges against him in the US undermine the foundations of democracy and press freedom in both countries.
The secret military and diplomatic files provided by Chelsea Manning, and made public by WikiLeaks working with the Guardian and other media organisations, revealed horrifying abuses by the US and other governments. Giving evidence in Mr Assange’s defence, Daniel Ellsberg, the lauded whistleblower whose leak of the Pentagon Papers shed grim light on the US government’s actions in the Vietnam war, observed: “The American public needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure.”
No one has been brought to book for the crimes exposed by WikiLeaks. Instead, the Trump administration has launched a full-scale assault on the international criminal court for daring to investigate these and other offences, and is pursuing the man who brought them to light. It has taken the unprecedented step of prosecuting him under the Espionage Act for publishing confidential information. (Mike Pompeo, secretary of state and former CIA director, has previously described Wikileaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence agency”). In doing so, it chose to attack one of the very bases of journalism: its ability to share vital information that the government would rather suppress.
No public interest defence is permissible under the act. No publisher covering national security in any serious way could consider itself safe were this extradition attempt to succeed – wherever it was based; the acts of which Mr Assange is accused (which also include one count of conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network) took place when he was outside the US. The decision to belatedly broaden the indictment looks more like an attempt to dilute criticisms from the media than to address the concerns. The real motivation for this case is clear. His lawyers argue not only that the prosecution misrepresents the facts, but that he is being pursued for a political offence, for which extradition is expressly barred in the US-UK treaty.
Previous cases relating to Mr Assange should not be used to confuse the issue. Sweden has dropped the investigation into an accusation of rape, which he denied. He has served his 50-week sentence for skipping bail in relation to those allegations, imposed after British police dragged him from the Ecuadorian embassy. Yet while the extradition process continues, he remains in Belmarsh prison, where a Covid-19 outbreak has led to his solitary confinement. Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, has argued that his treatment is “neither necessary nor proportionate and clearly lacks any legal basis”. He previously warned that Mr Assange is showing all the symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to psychological torture and should not be extradited to the US. His lawyers say he would be at high risk of suicide.
Such considerations have played a part in halting previous extraditions, such as that of Lauri Love, who denied US allegations that he had hacked into government websites. But whatever the outcome in January, the losing side is likely to appeal; legal proceedings will probably drag on for years.
A political solution is required. Stella Moris, Mr Assange’s partner and mother of his two young children, is among those who have urged Donald Trump to pardon him. But Joe Biden may be more willing to listen. The incoming president could let Mr Assange walk free. He should do so.