Press freedom advocates condemned a U.K. court ruling that would allow WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be extradited, while his fiancée vowed that his legal team would appeal the decision.
The High Court’s decision on Dec. 10 to overturn an earlier ruling not to extradite Assange, bringing him a step closer facing espionage charges in the U.S., will “prove historic for all the wrong reasons,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a statement.
“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,” Deloire said.
Authorities in the U.S. accuse Assange of 18 charges related to WikiLeaks publishing thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents, primarily in 2009 and 2010. If convicted, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“The U.S. Justice Department’s dogged pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder has set a harmful legal precedent for prosecuting reporters simply for interacting with their sources,” said CPJ deputy executive director Robert Mahoney in a statement. “The Biden administration pledged at its Summit for Democracy this week to support journalism. It could start by removing the threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act now hanging over the heads of investigative journalists everywhere.”
The U.S. government’s High Court appeal challenged an initial ruling made Jan. 4 by a London district judge, declining to extradite Assange to the U.S. to face those charges, largely due to the risk he would take his own life in a maximum security prison.
One of the High Court judges, Lord Justice Holroyde, said on Friday that the court would allow Assange’s extradition on the basis that the U.S. had offered a package of assurances concerning his proposed treatment in custody.
These included an agreement to send Assange to his home country of Australia to serve the prison sentence and not to incarcerate him in super-maximum security prison ADX Florence. They also included an agreement not to subject him to a highly restrictive form of solitary confinement, provided he did not commit another offense.
The High Court judges said they were satisfied by the promises made by the U.S. to reduce the risk of suicide. Holroyde said Friday that the district judge “ought to have notified the U.S. of her provisional view, to afford it the opportunity to offer assurances to the court.”
In an October hearing, Assange’s lawyers criticized the U.S. government’s assurances, calling them “conditional” and “aspirational”. Representing Assange, Edward Fitzgerald QC said that Australia had not yet agreed to take Assange in if he was convicted, and he predicted his client would be put in solitary confinement “as soon as he arrives in America.”
In September, Yahoo News published a report that the CIA had plotted to poison, abduct or assassinate Assange in 2017. “Given the revelations of surveillance in the embassy and plots to kill him,” Fitzgerald argued during the October hearing, “there are great grounds for fearing what will be done to him” if he is extradited to the U.S.
The British High Court court rejected those concerns on Friday, on the basis that the U.S. government’s assurances sufficiently protected Assange from harm.
Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, said in a statement: “We will appeal this decision at the earliest possible moment,” Reuters reported.
In the previous proceedings in January, lawyers for the U.S. government argued that Assange’s psychiatrist had failed to disclose Assange’s relationship with Moris, a lawyer originally on his legal team, and the couple’s two children, who were conceived during Assange’s stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The U.S. lawyers argued that having the responsibility of children lowered the likelihood Assange would take his own life.
The High Court judges said in their ruling that there were “substantial reasons” for the lower court judge to “question the impartiality and reliability” of the psychiatrist’s opinion. They added that they would have expected to see a “fuller analysis” of that judge’s reasons for accepting it as evidence, “not least because it was central to the success of Mr Assange on the single ground which led to his discharge.”
Prior to High Court ruling, a coalition of 25 press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights organizations signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the U.S. to drop its appeal in Assange’s extradition case, saying that he acted in the public interest.
“We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy,” the letter said. “In our view, a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.”
The coalition said that the reports of a CIA plot to assassinate Assange “only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution, and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.”
Following the ruling, RSF director of international campaigns Rebecca Vincent said in a statement: “This ruling marks a bleak moment for journalists and journalism around the world, on the very day when we should be celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists and urging states to uphold the commitments to media freedom they have just reaffirmed at the US-led Summit for Democracy.”
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients, the journalists Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, were presented with their awards in Oslo earlier on Dec. 10.
“We call on the US government to truly lead by example and close this case now before further damage is done,” Vincent said.
The U.K. and U.S. are ranked 33rd and 44th respectively out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
Assange will remain in custody in the high-security Belmarsh Prison. The judge ordered the case to be sent to British Home Secretary Priti Patel to decide whether the extradition should go ahead.
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