Julian Assange: Extradition to the United States? What's at stake in London on Monday

Press Freedom Extradition to the US or another opportunity to fight his persecution through the courts? Wikileaks founder Julian Assange fights for his freedom in London
Mural of Julian Assange in downtown Melbourne, Australia
Mural of Julian Assange in downtown Melbourne, Australia

Foto: William West/AFP/Getty Images

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Starting in a few hours at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, two High Court judges will begin hearing arguments regarding the extradition of WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange to the United States of America.

This hearing will focus on whether or not the new so-called diplomatic assurances offered by the U.S. prosecution will quash any of the remaining three grounds for appeal. In March, Mr. Assange had been granted provisional approval to appeal based on concerns about insufficient First Amendment protection, discrimination based on nationality, and the risk of a death penalty sentence if convicted. If the U.S. attempts at assurances – which we reported on last month – have not satisfactorily addressed one or more of those concerns in the opinion of the judicial panel, then Mr. Assange could make a limited appeal at some later date.

If the judges determine that the assurances are all satisfactory, then Mr. Assange can make no further appeals within the U.K. court system, and he would soon be processed for extradition to the United States. That process can only be stopped if either the Biden administration drops the case against him, or the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issues an interim order that Mr. Assange is to remain in the U.K. while his case is heard and deliberated on before the ECHR.

Last Tuesday, an Icelandic rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Sunna Ævarsdóttir, reported that she had conducted “a two-day fact-finding visit to the United Kingdom, during which she met Julian Assange in Belmarsh Prison.”

Ms. Ævarsdóttir shared: “Considering that Julian Assange cannot speak for himself while in detention, he asked me to convey the following message: ‘I welcome the work of Ms Ævarsdóttir on her report regarding my detention and its chilling effects on human rights in Europe. The Council of Europe is the most important guardian of human rights in Europe and has a long-standing track record of protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which is a core element of human liberty in a democratic society.’” As Der Freitag reported in March, an assessment on press freedom produced for the Council of Europe recognized his ongoing detention as a journalist in the United Kingdom.

“Every day since the 7th of December 2010, he has been in one form of detention or another. The 7th of December 2010 is seven days after WikiLeaks started publishing the diplomatic cables.” During a press briefing at the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in London last Wednesday, Mrs. Stella Assange, who had just come from visiting her husband in Belmarsh, said that they considered a same-day decision to be “pretty likely,” and “in other national security cases of extradition to the United States, the person has been extradited within twenty-four hours of a decision.”

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Mrs. Assange said that Mr. Assange was “hoping” to attend court in person this time. Defense lawyer Ms. Jennifer Robinson noted that appealing to the ECHR “is an exceptional measure, it's not a guaranteed right of appeal.” Mr. Kristinn Hrafnsson, acting Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, pointed to the growing political support for Mr. Assange, including “progressive leaders of Latin America,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Mr. Hrafnsson told the press pool that “I hope you will put the focus on the judges on Monday, because they need scrutiny.”

Court access has not improved since the two-day hearing in February. The High Court maintains, with few exceptions, “that it would not be in the interests of justice to permit remote observation from outside England and Wales.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) international human rights campaign director Rebecca Vincent, who has been repeatedly denied visitations to Mr. Assange, tweeted on Thursday: “I’m hearing of a number of journalists being asked to pay £300 to get accreditation to attend the 20 May High Court hearing in the Assange extradition appeal. At the same time, journalists outside England & Wales were again denied remote access. Not a good look for open justice.” Earlier this month, Amnesty International similarly expressed that they were “deeply frustrated by the significant hurdles that its staff and other observers have faced in their attempts to monitor the hearings.” While their legal advisor Simon Crowther is expected to attend, the organisation has criticised the court for subjecting them to “a series of U-turns” during the process.

In response to a question from a correspondent of the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) about German Foreign Affairs Minister Ms. Annalena Baerbock’s comments on the case, Mrs. Assange said that she found the brief and diplomatic language of Frau Baerbock’s office since she was elected to be “very curious,” especially given Bundeskanzler Scholz’s recent support. The Auswärtige Amt had confirmed, through spokesperson Kathrin Deschauer, that they had observed the hearing in February. During their press conference, Frau Deschauer referred to a public statement by Human Rights Comissioner Ms. Luise Amtsberg, who said that “we have a different understanding of the law than the USA when it comes to the meaning of press freedom in this specific case.”

Meanwhile, a cross-party group of four members of the British Parliament has opened an inquiry “into the role of the British authorities at the Crown Prosecution Service in the Julian Assange case.” Their seven-page letter to Sir Robert Neill, chair of the Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, outlines the multi-year discrepancies in how the CPS handled the extradition cases against Mr. Assange over the last fourteen years. “The evidence that has come to light opens the CPS to allegations that it misjudged, or possibly overstepped, its role when advising the Swedish authorities on the extradition of Mr Assange to Sweden. This leads to questions about the motive behind such actions, including whether the CPS was influenced by another extradition request, [o]r aimed to facilitate Mr Assange’s subsequent extradition to the US,” they wrote in the letter, dated May 7th 2024. The ‘evidence’ is based on the reports by former U.N. Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer, and the ongoing investigations of award-winning Italian journalist Ms. Stefania Maurizi, who authored the book “Secret Power: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies”. Ms. Maurizi commented that “after so many attempts to unearth the truth, an inquiry by the Justice Select Committee might be the only way to do it.”

“It is crucial that his rights under the European Convention are respected, that the UK respects its obligations under the European Convention, and that he is able to pursue an appeal in Strasburg and to not be extradited during that time,” urged Ms. Vincent during the Wednesday press briefing. “The entire world will be watching the behavior of this government.” Furthermore, “we don't know how the U.S. elections will play into this case… We don't know what will happen in the event, for example, of a return of Trump, whose [Department of Justice] brought this case in the first place. President Biden has the chance still to be the president who put an end to this.”

Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s ‘Writers in Prison’ Commitee, echoed that sentiment in a press statement. “It is high time for the US to drop the charges and for the UK to set Assange free.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once remarked that “publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Around the world, members of the public and civil society have been told that the doors to open justice for this case are closed to them on the basis of their national origin and present location, a taste of the discrimination that Mr. Assange fears he will face in U.S. courts as well. Those who have been permitted to walk through the very narrow doors of open justice this morning would do well to shine as much sunlight on the proceedings as they are able.

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