The Saga of Julian Assange
In the latest instalment of a seemingly never-ending cat-and-mouse game, a court at the Old Bailey in London decided on Monday that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange would not be extradited to the US to face charges carrying a maximum sentence of 175 years in jail. Assange has been running from the US' grasp for a decade as a result of his leading role in leaking numerous confidential government documents in 2010 and 2011. The decision reached on Monday signals a continuation of this complex issue with international implications.
On the 4th January, district judge Vanessa Baraitser held that Assange would not be extradited to the US due to concerns that their prisons did not have necessary procedures in place to prevent him from taking his own life. Baraitser was also careful to reject claims that Assange would not receive a fair trial in the US. He remains in London's Belmarsh prison as he was denied bail the week prior to the extradition decision, due to concerns that he poses a 'flight risk'.
The case was primarily focused on the implications extradition would have for Assange's health, but did not address matters of free speech or freedom of press, which are central issues for Assange's supporters and any trial that would take place in the US. Among other rights groups, Amnesty International has called on the US to drop all charges against Assange, labelling them as a 'nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression'. Furthermore, legal commentators have argued that any attempt to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917 (which prohibits the use of security or defence information to the detriment of the US) would be contrary to the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression as protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The decision reached last week does very little to settle these contentions.
Assange founded the whistle-blowing organisation, Wikileaks, in 2006. In 2010, Wikileaks released video footage of American troops shooting from a helicopter in Iraq, killing over a dozen civilians and two Reuters' journalists. It also released military logs from American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, revealing significant numbers of civilian casualties. This exposure sparked widespread outrage and provoked questions into the role of the US within the Middle East. Later on that year, it leaked 250,000 US diplomatic cables, which detailed opinions of US diplomats on host countries, tensions with allies, and US foreign policy strategy. This event is now commonly referred to as 'cablegate'.
This sensitive information was leaked to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning, an American ex-military personnel who had become disillusioned with the US' presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning was convicted for, among other charges, violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was released in 2017 due to mental health concerns.
In August 2010, an arrest warrant was issued for Assange in Sweden for sexual assault allegations. He was arrested in Stockholm but denied all allegations. On his return to London, he expressed fears that these charges could be used as an excuse to extradite him from Sweden to the US. Despite this, a UK court ruled in 2012 that Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face investigation. In response, he sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which was quickly granted. He remained there until 2019, when various disputes with Ecuadorian authorities led to them released him to the London Metropolitan Police. The charges in Sweden were eventually dropped in November 2019 due to lack of evidence, but Assange is still wanted for trial by the US.
Whilst many supporters of Assange, such as his Wikileaks colleagues, have celebrated the prevention of extradition, it effectively kicks the can down the road, as US prosecutors have already indicated their intention to appeal it. The decision did very little to settle key debates surrounding freedom of the press and freedom of expression and only acts to continue the restriction of his individual liberty. It is certain that this issue will see more trials, complex international politics, and widespread controversy.