Press freedom defenders on Wednesday intensified demands for the release of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange as the United Kingdom’s High Court began its consideration of the U.S. government’s attempt to extradite the journalist and prosecute him under the Espionage Act. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was among the groups warning that allowing the U.S. to pursue charges against Assange—and potentially imprison him for the rest of his life—would “have severe and long-lasting implications for journalism and press freedom around the world” in addition to harming Assange’s mental and physical health.
“The U.S. government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange makes it clear that this prosecution is a punitive measure, but the case involves concerns which go far beyond the fate of one man and put media freedom and freedom of expression in peril.” “As we return to court for yet more proceedings in the U.S.’ never-ending legal battle against Julian Assange, we again emphasize our position: that Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism… and that the case should be closed and he should be immediately released,” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. The U.S. was granted the appeal at the High Court on five specific grounds, including that Magistrate Judge Vanessa Baraitser made an error when she ruled on January 4 that Assange should not be extradited due to harsh conditions in U.S. prisons and their possible impact on his fragile mental state, and that the U.S. provided assurances that Assange would not be subject to harsh “special administrative measures” to keep him from speaking publicly. Amnesty International, which has called the U.S. government’s diplomatic assurances “inherently unreliable,” said recent reports that the CIA considered kidnapping or assassinating Assange while he was confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London “cast even more doubt on the reliability of U.S. promises and further expose the political motivation behind this case.” “The U.S. government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange makes it clear that this prosecution is a punitive measure, but the case involves concerns which go far beyond the fate of one man and put media freedom and freedom of expression in peril,” said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International.
“Journalists and publishers are of vital importance in scrutinizing governments, exposing their misdeeds, and holding perpetrators of human rights violations to account,” Callamard said. “This disingenuous appeal should be denied, the charges should be dropped, and Julian Assange should be released.” If Assange is extradited and found guilty of 18 counts under the Espionage Act, he could face a sentence of up to 175 years in prison. The government is pursuing the charges due to WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of classified military documents and diplomatic cables, accusing Assange of conspiring with his source, former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, to obtain the secret documents which revealed U.S. war crimes. “It is a damning indictment that nearly 20 years on, virtually no one responsible for alleged U.S. war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed such crimes is potentially facing a lifetime in jail,” said Callamard. The actions Assange is accused of taking, wrote journalist Stefan Simanowitz at Al Jazeera on Wednesday, “is conduct that journalists and publishers engage in on a daily basis.” “Were his extradition to be allowed it would set a precedent that would effectively criminalize common journalistic practices,” Simanowitz added. If he is extradited, Assange would be the first publisher pursued under the Espionage Act.
The case will be considered by the High Court on Wednesday and Thursday, and a decision is not expected for several weeks. RSF noted that the court has harmed press freedom by placing significant barriers before organizations wishing to cover and observe the proceedings. As of Tuesday morning, the group said, journalists, NGOs, and political observers were still waiting to learn if they had approval from the court to attend the hearing either in person or remotely. Deloire was ultimately able to attend Wednesday’s proceedings, but only heard back from the court about accreditation the day prior. “We have faced more difficulties in accessing proceedings in the case of Julian Assange than we have in any other case, in any other country,” said Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns for the group, on Tuesday. “We are extremely frustrated by the barriers to access we continue to face on the eve of the most important hearing to date in this case. These proceedings are overwhelmingly in the public interest and must be open to scrutiny.” RSF, Amnesty, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and nearly two dozen other press freedom groups called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this month to drop the charges against Assange. “As the appeals process continues in Julian Assange’s extradition trial, it’s important to remember what it would mean if the WikiLeaks founder was tried in the U.S.,” said CPJ on Wednesday.
“The Biden administration’s relentless pursuit of Julian Assange should send a chill down the spine of journalists around the world,” added CPJ deputy executive director Robert Mahoney.
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