By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 22 December 2021. All is not well with Julian Assange and his days in Belmarsh Prison, UK could just be getting over but not for the better. Recently the London High Court gave a judgement that the founder of WikiLeaks can be extradited to United States. Assange, who is an Australian, is wanted by U.S. for publishing thousands of classified diplomatic and military documents.
The High Court overruled the lower court’s judgement of 04 January this year, which mentioned that Assange cannot be extradited to U.S. as he might attempt suicide in the U.S. jail. Nevertheless U.S. authorities assured the court that Assange would not be kept in solitary confinement which would reduce the risk of suicide, as doctors have mentioned that he is suffering from depression. U.S. also assured that he would also be allowed to transfer to Australia near his home town, where he can complete his sentence.
Assange is wanted in U.S. under 18 charges for releasing 500,000 classified files relating to military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2010. If proved guilty he can be kept in prison up to 175 years. Although several legal luminaries claim that all charges cannot be proved and he may be kept for a much lesser period. Although it is difficult to say at this stage.
The U.S. authorities would put criminal charges against Assange under Espionage Act and The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was proclaimed in 1986 to address hacking of computers. The CFAA forbids intentionally accessing a computer without proper authorisation. The Espionage Act of 1917 prevents people from acquiring information, recording pictures, or replicating any information which is related to national defence and which can harm U.S. or can benefit any foreign country.
Few human rights and press freedom groups including Amnesty International have asked U.S. government to drop charges against Assange and also requested that USA government should not try for his extradition. They also condemned the High Court judgement. The Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that “We condemn today’s decision, which will prove historic for all the wrong reasons.” He also mentioned that “We fully believe that Julian Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism, and we defend this case because of its dangerous implications for the future of journalism and press freedom around the world.”
The Director Amnesty International Europe said, “This is a travesty of justice” and “By allowing this appeal, the High Court has chosen to accept the deeply flawed diplomatic assurances given by the US that Assange would not be held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison.”
Stella Moris partner of Assange has started collecting funds so that the extradition case of Assange can be fought in the Supreme Court of U.K.
WikiLeaks calls itself a “multi-national media organisation and associated library” and it has published thousands of classified diplomatic and military documents which were given by Chelsea Manning who was working in U.S. Army. The documents included a video of U.S. Apache helicopter which killed 12 persons including two Reuters journalists in Iraq in 2010 and several other important documents. Hence Assange is wanted by U.S. security forces since 2010. Meanwhile Manning was tried and released from the prison in 2017.
In a long interview given to Spiegel in 2015 Assange claimed that “WikiLeaks has more than 10 million documents” and it is drowning in material. He mentioned that there were personal attacks on him, his accounts were blocked and he had to fight legal battles in the court. The technical infrastructure of WikiLeaks was attacked and the staff had to work on reduced salaries.
The documents released by WikiLeaks also proved that U.S. intelligence organisations were putting surveillance on friendly countries like France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. The maximum readers of WikiLeaks were from India and U.S.
In 2010, two women charged Assange for rape and molestation and Sweden issued an extradition warrant against Assange who was in UK then. When Assange approached the UK court it ruled against him and in June 2012, he also lost appeal in U.K. Supreme Court. When he came out on bail, he took shelter in Embassy of Ecuador in London. However, in 2012 U.K. court issued a warrant of arrest as and when he came out of Ecuador embassy in London. Assange claimed that all the charges were fabricated and the U.S. security agencies want to take him out of U.K. Later the case was dropped.
In April 2019 Ecuadorian Embassy withdrew the asylum from Assange and the British police arrested him for jumping bail, from the Embassy.
Meanwhile, U.K. authorities gave permission to Assange to marry his fiancé Stella Moris in Belmarsh prison. Stella Morris is a former member of Assange legal team and they have two children.
Stella Moris, who is a lawyer, spoke to the press and stated that they will file an appeal in Supreme Court of U.K. about the extradition order of the High Court. The Supreme Court would hear the case only if it feels that the case is of “public importance”. Supreme Court may also take few weeks to decide and in case Supreme Court does not take the case, Assange has an option to approach European Court of Human Rights to stop his extradition.
Lord Chief Justice of U.K. High Court before giving the verdict of extradition of Assange stated, “That risk is in our judgment excluded by the assurances which are offered.” However, Stella Moris claimed that the assurances given by U.S. authorities were “inherently unreliable.” She also mentioned that the judgement was “dangerous and misguided.”
The supporters of Assange claim that he is an investigative journalist and got immense information about U.S. activities in foreign countries. The Assange supporters claim that his extradition and subsequent prosecution would weaken the press freedom in U.S. The Assange supporters also mention that the possibility of eliminating Assange can also not be ruled out as the previous government discussed about the kidnapping of Assange. Chelsea Elizabeth Manning a former U.S. Army soldier is an activist and whistle-blower supplied about 750,000 documents including classified documents to WikiLeaks. She was court martialled in July 2013 under Espionage Act and other criminal offences. She was released in 2017.
The anti-Assange group also claim that he is working against the interests of U.S. as he had not published anything against Russia or President Putin’s war crimes, murders, corruption, and other illegal activities. They allege that Assange is working on behest of Russians and damaging USA’s interests, hence it is not true, independent, and unbiased reporting. Russia criticised the judgement and stated that it is “shameful”. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman mentioned that the judgement is a political case against a journalist and public figure – another manifestation of the cannibalistic worldview of the Anglo-Saxon alliance.
The pro-extradition analysts claim that the above statement of Russians is an eyewash and has no value. They mention that U.S. judicial system is impartial, human rights and rights of journalists are respected in the country. Hence Assange would get a free and impartial trial in the country.
For the world it will be a wait and watch.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)