High Court of Justice, London. Photo: Bjørn Erik Pedersen

Julian Assange is awaiting the High Court decision on his extradition to the US following a two-day hearing at the Hight Court last week. At stake is not just the life and freedom of one man but our right to a free press. His persecution is part of the government’s ongoing attacks on civil liberties.

If extradition is granted Assange faces 17 charges under the Espionage Act; if convicted up to 175 years in prison. His extradition is tantamount to a death sentence. His crime: exposing US war crimes.

Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is being tried for revealing crimes committed by the United States in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The most significant of which was his publishing in 2010 the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. The video contained shocking footage of US military personnel killing innocent Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters’ journalists.

Last week’s hearing was Assange’s final chance to challenge the extradition. The hearing was held in a packed courtroom and watched by representatives from the world’s media, human rights NGOs, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, MEPs and MPs from around the world.

Outside the court thousands of supporters took part in of two days of demonstrations, culminating in a march to Downing Street after the court had risen on the second day.

The two High Court justices presiding over the case, Dame Victoria Sharp and Justice Johnson, failed to give a verdict. Instead, Assange and his family are left in limbo and it is likely to be weeks before a decision is announced.

The judges have two options. They could grant the extradition. If so, Assange would have no further right to appeal and could be on a plane to America within hours.

The court may, however, grant him the right to a full appeal. An appeal that would finally allow his case to be heard in a high court. To date the only court to have heard his case in full is Westminster Magistrates court – a court where parking offences and petty criminals get tried.

The court heard that if extradited Assange would not be entitled to First Amendment protection as he is not a US citizen, even though he is being prosecuted for normal journalistic practice. It also heard that once in the US the American government would be at liberty to bring further charges, which could result in the death penalty.

It is clear that Assange’s safety could not be guaranteed in the US, not least because of the revelations about a CIA plot to kidnap, drug and assassinate Assange while he sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy.

For these reasons alone the extradition should be halted. Who could possibly believe Assange would face a fair trial in the country that discussed his murder at the very highest level?

Assange has been in Belmarsh high security prison for the past five years, before that he was holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy. In 2019 UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, reported that Assange’s life was at risk from ‘prolonged exposure to psychological torture’. Since then, his condition has only deteriorated.

In 2021 when his case was put before Westminster Magistrates Court, he was deemed too high a suicide risk to be extradited. Yet Assange has remained in Belmarsh, locked in his cell for most of the day and every day since then. Last week for the first time since 2021, he was granted leave to attend his hearing, but was too sick to attend, or even follow by video link.

This case is undeniably political. As such it should fall beyond the reach of the UK/US Extradition Treaty. It is an assault on freedom of the press and goes hand in hand with the government’s attacks on political protest, anti-union legislation and limitations on free speech.

For Assange it is punishment by process. If extradited, Assange’s lawyers and family believe he will die. The extradition would also set a precedent that should send shivers down the back of every journalist around the world.

26 Feb 2024 by Terina Hine

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