Cruel and unusual: Julian Assange’s extradition hearing begins

It’s a slippery slope and in a world of so-called ‘fake news’ could have negative consequences for journalists and whistle-blowers trying to speak truth to power far into the future.

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Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the dock reading his papers as he appears at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London for his extradition hearing.

On February 24th, opening arguments began in the U.S. government’s case for the extradition of Julian Assange, 48, who remains in the U.K.’s Belmarsh prison despite having served his 50 weeks for jumping bail in an ultimately failed attempt to receive asylum in Ecuador in 2012. The initial charges in Sweden have been dropped, but the fear expressed by Assange defenders at the time have proven true in a different jurisdiction.

The current proceeding has been split into two parts, with a preliminary hearing this week and then a break until May 18th, allowing both sides to better prepare their cases as reluctantly ordered by Judge Vanessa Baraitser in January, who Reuters U.K. reported at the time, was “clearly unhappy” with the delay.

A large and boisterous crowd were outside the courthouse on Monday to show their support for the Wikileaks publisher, an Australian citizen, who could face up to 175 years in prison if he’s sent to the United States. Their cries of support for the publisher distracted not only the proceedings inside but Assange himself, who told the court he understood that the protesters “must be disgusted,” by the attack on journalistic freedom represented by the charges he faces but that the noise was making it difficult for him to concentrate.

Assange’s father John Shipton, who viewed the proceedings in the visitors gallery through bulletproof glass, told a reporter in a phone call that he believed his son was, “a little disturbed or unwell”, later saying, “I can’t understand why he’s still in jail and not on bail – his family is here and he’s not well… The trial, I firmly believe, is a fraud upon the court.”

One of the arguments made on day one by lawyer James Lewis, who was making the opening statement for the U.S. side, is a revival of the claim that what Assange revealed by publishing Chelsea Manning’s leaks in 2010 led to the deaths of some of those who appeared in documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lewis also argued that the Wikileaks founder is not a journalist but rather, a “criminal”.

In terms of the first charge, Lewis told the Woolwich Crown Court where the hearings are taking place, “What Mr. Assange seeks to defend by free speech is not the publication of the classified materials, but he seeks to defend the publication of sources — the names of people who put themselves at risk to assist the U.S. and its allies,” continuing on to tell Judge Baraitser that some of those working with the American government in these places were “relocated” and some, “subsequently disappeared.”

If there were actually solid evidence of the latter, it seems likely that U.S. intelligence would know and make sure it was in the public record, where one would imagine it could be used to back up such a serious charge. Instead, we are expected to take the word of the U.S. government for it that foreign nationals working with the country’s government are now missing.

Assange’s defense in its opening statement made by Barrister Edward Fitzgerald rebutted this by arguing that, while sometime later unredacted versions of the documents did leak, Assange and his defenders claim that this was the result of a mistake made in a book called “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” published by the Guardian newspaper, which they say revealed a 58 character password protecting the trove.

“The gates got opened not by Mr.Assange or WikiLeaks but by another member of that [media] partnership. The notion that Mr. Assange deliberately put lives at risk by dumping an unredacted database of cables is knowingly inaccurate,” another of Assange’s lawyers, Mark Summers, explained to the court on the second day of the hearings.

He also claimed that Assange had “desperately” tried to reach the U.S. State Department and the country’s Ambassador to the U.K. to warn them about the breach but was ignored.

Another problem with the argument being made by those representing the U.S. government is the fact that they are still litigating the now decade-old leaks that helped touch off, among other historic events, the Arab Spring, which, in the end, toppled Ben Ali, the kleptocratic leader of Tunisia and, in one startling revelation, revealed the routine murder of innocent civilians at military checkpoints in Iraq and other war crimes in that country and Afghanistan.

My long-running argument has been that authorities in the U.S. and allied nations want Assange punished for embarrassing the American government and powerful actors within it, who were reportedly willing to go to great lengths to punish him for it. As Fitzgerald told the court, his defense will call a witness who will confirm that, during Assange’s time in Ecuador’s embassy, American authorities had looked at “extreme measures… Such as kidnapping or poisoning Julian Assange in the embassy.

There is also a case that can be made that many of those who haven’t been following the story, which goes mostly unreported in North America, might think the Wikileaks publisher was facing charges in relation to leaks from the DNC that corporate media and the establishment within the Democratic Party blame on the Russian government and, to some degree or other, Assange, with many insisting that they somehow cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.

Although the current president praised Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign, at one point saying he “loved it”, he has since said he doesn’t know much about either Assange or the outlet he founded. One interesting story that preceded the hearings were reports that a former Republican congressman, Dana Rohrbacher, visited Assange in the summer of 2017 and broached the idea of trying to get him a presidential pardon if he were to reveal where the DNC documents and a separate trove of emails from John Podesta came from.

Regardless of where the current occupant of the White House stands on all this, the neo-conservatives in the administration, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has said that Assange runs “a hostile intelligence service” have crossed a Rubicon the Obama administration would not, seeing that a variety of mainstream publications, including the New York Times, the previously mentioned Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegal all drew from the leaks for their own reporting.

The treatment of Assange, who it should be reiterated is being held without charges, should shame the British and their American allies. As reported by the Guardian, the publisher’s notes from the extradition hearing were confiscated by prison authorities and he was strip-searched after the first day of the hearing, moved five times that evening and night and handcuffed some eleven times.

Perhaps worst of all from an American civil liberties perspective, little reporting has been done regarding the continuing persecution of Chelsea Manning, who has been jailed twice and remains in custody without actual charges for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury presumably looking into charges against the Wikileaks founder.

Julian Assange may be just one person but he is also a test case in unraveling the protections afforded to journalists and publishers in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the U.K., in the name of protecting powerful individuals and interests. Although they have been dismissed on technical grounds, we have already seen similar charges of cybercrime as were used in the initial charges against Assange used by Brazil’s far right government to go after journalist Glenn Greenwald, so the damage being done by the ongoing case could have impacts even further afield.

It’s a slippery slope and in a world of so-called ‘fake news’ could have negative consequences for journalists and whistle-blowers trying to speak truth to power far into the future.

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