A Glimmer of Hope on the Horizon

WikiLeaks Julian Assange has won a small victory in the fight against his extradition to the US – is anyone taking notice?
Supporters of Julian Assange won't let go, despite years of U.S. disinformation campaign
Supporters of Julian Assange won't let go, despite years of U.S. disinformation campaign

Foto: Vuk Valcic/Sopa Images/Getty Images

It's been almost three years. Since April 2019, Julian Assange has been in de facto solitary confinement in the "British Guantanamo" in Belmarsh, London. The WikiLeaks founder was jailed for breaching the conditions of his bail. Normally, nobody would have to go to jail for this. He was sentenced to six months in prison. When they were up, he was simply kept inside. And there is no end in sight.

One year ago in the first instance, a district court prohibited Assange's extradition to the US due to the risk of suicide. This was overturned at the end of 2021 in the High Court, at which time his lawyers lodged an appeal, specifically: they had to apply for permission to lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court at all as well as do so with the same judges who had lifted the ban on his extradition.

The judges gave the green light for this on Monday. Assange's lawyers have 14 days to lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court. Failing this, the US extradition request will go directly to the British Foreign Secretary Priti Patel. So the worst has been averted for now. Stella Moris, Assange's fiancée, called the decision a "victory".

Plans to assassinate Assange

It's important to bear in mind that Assange, whom the US prosecutor has dubbed a "fake", suffered a stroke during the final High Court hearing. Assange, who he assessed as absolutely fit for extradition both physically and mentally, was guaranteed a "fair" trial in the US. It was stated that Assange would be treated well in US custody, for which the prosecutor offered "diplomatic assurances". And he was successful: the judges overturned the district court's decision not to extradite him to the US. More than 30 former US Secret Service employees have revealed that plans to assassinate Assange in the US were hatched by the then Director of the CIA and later Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The subject of the hearing is thus whether Assange will be extradited to a country which planned his assassination.

Observers have frequently called the hearing in London a Kafkaesque show trial. This is doing the British a disservice. In contrast to Kafka's absurd brutality, their approach is discreetly sophisticated: they have managed to avoid offending the US while feigning a minimum degree of rule of law as well as simultaneously undermining fundamental human rights without this playing a major role publicly.

Even the decision in the first instance was a blow to freedom of the press: Judge Vanessa Baraitser was in agreement with the US on all points, even accepting the accusation of espionage for journalism. The only reason Assange could not be extradited was the risk of suicide. Baraitser thus elegantly prevented discussion of the charges and any political content during the second instance. It was only about the state of Assange's health. Freedom of the press suddenly hung on the risk of his suicide. The decision was a poisoned chalice. US prosecutors had no trouble making "diplomatic assurances" that Assange would be safe from suicide. This week's "victory" is similarly double-edged, as demonstrated by looking at its details.

Double-edged "victory"

The judges acknowledged the legitimacy of having the time at which "diplomatic assurances" were given reviewed. Can they be presented during the appeal phase if they were not presented at the primary hearing? Reviewing this would be in the "general public interest". The judges dismissed the other complaints filed by Assange's defence team.

One of these rejected points above all should raise eyebrows: the US "assurances" that Assange will be spared from certain "illegal practices" in so-called US supermax prisons have been made dependent on his future behaviour. So, does something illegal such as torture become legal if a prisoner makes a mistake in the UK? The fact that such a question is thought not to be in the general public interest is astounding. The pattern seems to be the same: relevant issues are not even discussed in the hearing; the focus is shifted to sideshows such as the technical question of when the diplomatic assurances will be given. What's interesting in this context is that, in the decision which authorised the extradition, Judge Baraitser, who prohibited it, was accused of failing to ask the US for diplomatic assurances earlier. She could have made a suggestion to the US prosecutors!

Shifting the blame to Baraitser here is a smart move: the Supreme Court will not hear crucial issues such as whether the assurances are binding or how frequently the US has failed to honour assurances with other countries. The focus would then quickly come to sensitive diplomatic issues such as the US' preference for "enhanced interrogation methods" and arbitrary detention conditions in US prisons.

A razor-thin chance for Assange

Precisely this squaring of the circle is thus likely intended to avoid both offending the US and portraying it as a villain, but also to allow a decision in favour of Julian Assange under certain circumstances based on the formality of a missed deadline. This means a razor-thin chance for Assange, a very small glimmer of hope on the horizon.

However, his physical and mental health is so fragile as a result of his prolonged incarceration that he should be released immediately based on the most fundamental human rights.

But this requires enormous, concerted public pressure. Including from Germany. Anyone who hoped that the new federal government made up of the SPD, Greens and FDP would break the iron silence of the Merkel years and show courage has thus far been disappointed. Each week, FDP leader and Federal Minister of Finance Christian Lindner calls for freedom for Alexei Navalny via Twitter. This is just as respectable as the rhetorical pledge to human rights and freedom of the press which rolls so easily off the tongues of so many Western politicians. When it comes to Assange's treatment, however, considering his years of arbitrary imprisonment, other standards seem to apply. Lindner and other politicians in Germany need hardly fear cutting journalistic questions about Julian Assange. Vehement demands from human rights organisations for Assange's immediate release fall on deaf ears.

The Robin Hood of whistleblowing

Anyone who wants to know why this is must look at the beginnings of his persecution. The roots of the indifference towards the tragedy of Julian Assange run deep and lie with the serious failure of the press ten years ago.

The majority of journalists followed the US narrative, dutifully jumping through the hoops held out before them: Assange was not a journalist who acted in the public interest, but a narcissist, egomaniac and rapist. According to the US, he was also someone who put others at risk through his work. This judgement continues to have an impact today and is the reason why Assange no longer finds strong public support. Very few people will remember that, after the Chelsea Manning revelations, Assange was worshipped like a rock star, he was the Robin Hood of whistleblowing. Had he been imprisoned back then, there would have been outcry around the globe.

The WikiLeaks founder's journey from hero to pariah is due to the two main allegations with which those opposing him operated: the rape allegation from Sweden and the claim that he put innocents at risk with unedited publications.

Rape and treason

Witnesses have emphatically refuted the latter in court. This certainly did not resonate in the press to the same extent as the original accusation. It has, at least, led journalist Dean Yates to a belated mea culpa: "What I Got Wrong About Julian Assange" is the title of his article penned at the start of this year on the portal consortiumnews.com where Yates, head of the Reuters office in Baghdad between January 2007 and October 2008, writes: "The problem was I also wrote that Assange dumped the Iraq and Afghan war logs on the internet without redacting names. I was wrong and lazy in repeating that slur which appeared whenever you Googled Assange’s name. That must make it true, right?"

Urged by Assange supporters to revise this, he finally did his research and wrote that he had recently done "what I should have done at the time: read the submissions Assange’s legal team made at his extradition hearings and transcripts of witness testimony. I soon realized how mistaken I was."

This is particularly explosive for the following reason: when a US Apache attack helicopter killed twelve people in Baghdad on 12 July 2007, two of Yates' Reuters colleagues were among them: the photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and the driver Saeed Chmagh. The US military blocked Reuters' attempt to obtain cockpit video of the attack from 12 July 2007 until WikiLeaks published it as "Collateral Murder". So if Yates himself was sloppy in doing his research, how should we assess the "work" of journalists who were less directly affected? To his credit, Yates has now made his mistake public.

But nothing has ruined Assange's reputation so thoroughly and so permanently as the rape allegation in Sweden. And none of the world's most powerful media companies, from Spiegel to the New York Times, attempted to carry out detailed research into what really happened in Sweden.

Where were the investigative reporters in 2010?

The police transcripts of the testimonies from the two women and Assange were available online. I know because I used them in a play about Assange in 2012. A quick look at the words of the two women would have sufficed to immediately refute at least the monstrous accusation of "double rape". Why didn't this happen? Where were the keen-eyed investigative reporters in 2010 when they were truly needed?

The only one who thoroughly grappled with the matter ten years later was the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer – with the help of the Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi and the Swiss journalist Daniel Ryser. They embarrassed the entire press landscape and at minimum forced a change of direction in the reporting on Assange. The press has been attempting to limit the damage on this issue ever since.

But that alone is not enough to build up sufficient public pressure. A concerted initiative is needed by the world's most powerful media companies, all those who once benefited from Assange so greatly, at his side, with the New York Times, Spiegel, Le Monde and The Guardian leading the way.

The fact that something like this can work can be seen in the example of Pussy Riot in Russia and Deniz Yücels in Turkey, whom the European Court of Human Rights has now even awarded the right to claim damages for inappropriate pre-trial detention.

It takes a great deal of courage to stand behind Julian Assange. It is still not too late.

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