By Ali Bahaijoub
LONDON - Immediately after Julian Assange’s arrest in April, US authorities made a request for his extradition in a case relating to WikiLeaks’ release of sensitive military and diplomatic documents. He faces allegations in the US that he conspired with a former intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, to download classified databases. The charge against him carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
However, the US Justice Department has lodged 17 new charges against him under the Espionage Act which could lead to a sentence of 175 years or even the death penalty.
“My most urgent concern is that, in the United States, Mr. Assange would be exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” said Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, in a statement.
“This may well result in a life sentence without parole, or possibly even the death penalty, if further charges were to be added in the future,” said the Special Rapporteur, who was also following up on earlier concerns for Mr. Assange’s health.
“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law,” Mr. Melzer asserted.
Julian Assange is facing extradition to the United States after he was forcibly dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, bringing an extraordinary seven-year diplomatic stalemate to an end.
According to media reports, he was too ill to appear via video-link from a British prison in a hearing over an extradition request from the US.
Assange, an Australian citizen, will receive consular assistance but will not be given any “special treatment”, the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said. Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said officials had been advised that Britain would not agree to extradition if an individual would face the death penalty. “Australia is completely opposed to the death penalty and that is a bipartisan position,” she said. “The matter for the extradition itself is one between the United States and the United Kingdom.”
After 2,487 days in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the 47-year-old was arrested after Ecuador revoked his political asylum and invited Metropolitan police officers inside their Knightsbridge premises, where he has stayed since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations which Assange has always denied.
Assange was initially arrested for failing to surrender to the court after losing an appeal against extradition to Sweden, where he faced two separate 2010 sexual assault allegations.
WikiLeaks said the reopening of the Swedish investigation would give Assange a chance to clear his name.
“Since Julian Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019 there has been considerable political pressure on Sweden to reopen their investigation, but there has always been political pressure surrounding this case,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, said in a statement. “Its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name.”
Hrafnsson criticised the Swedish handling of the case. He said: “This case has been mishandled throughout. After the Swedish prosecutor refused to question Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy for years, it was only when forced by Swedish courts that she travelled to London to finally question Assange.
“Then Sweden wanted to drop its arrest warrant for Assange as early as 2013. It was the British government that insisted that the case against him continue. Since the investigation was closed in 2017, we have received reports of the destruction of records and correspondence on behalf of UK and Swedish authorities, surely an impediment to a thorough investigation.
“Assange was always willing to answer any questions from the Swedish authorities and repeatedly offered to do so, over six years. The widespread media assertion that Assange ‘evaded’ Swedish questioning is false. This investigation has been dropped before and its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name.”
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for one of the two women accusers, said they would seek to get the Swedish police investigation re-opened “so that Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted for rape”. One of the women told the Guardian she would be “very surprised and sad” if Assange was extradited to the US. “For me this was never about anything else than his misconduct against me and other women,” she said.
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, told the Swedish broadcaster SVT that he was “very surprised” by the decision to reopen the case, saying it was “embarrassing” for Sweden.
“I request the district court to detain Assange in his absence, on probable cause suspected for rape,” the deputy chief prosecutor, Eva-Marie Persson, said in a statement on Monday.
She said she would issue a European arrest warrant for Assange to be surrendered to Sweden if the court decided to detain him.
Sweden’s decision to reopen the rape investigation casts doubt on where Assange may eventually end up, with US authorities already seeking his extradition over conspiracy charges relating to one of the biggest leaks of classified information.
Sweden reopened the rape investigation last May. It was begun in 2010 but dropped in 2017 after Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Assange was arrested in London at the request of the US seeking his extradition over allegations he conspired with former US military analyst Chelsea Manning to download classified databases in what the US justice department called “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.
Manning downloaded four databases from US departments and agencies between January and May 2010, the indictment said, with the information provided to WikiLeaks. Some selected and edited material from WikiLeaks was published by the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, El País and Der Speigel.
His arrest provoked a fierce debate over Assange’s future and possible extradition. While the British government defended the arrest over breaching bail as evidence that “no-one is above the law”, the opposition Labour party and civil liberties groups condemned the US extradition request.
The Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted “the extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government.”
Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, told the BBC her client’s arrest set a “dangerous precedent” that should concern free speech advocates.
Although Mr. Assange is not being held in solitary confinement, Mr. Melzer said he was gravely concerned over the limited frequency and duration of lawyers’ visits and lack of access to case files, which make it impossible to prepare and adequate defense.
“Since 2010, when Wikileaks started publishing evidence of war crimes and torture committed by US forces, we have seen a sustained and concerted effort by several States towards getting Mr. Assange extradited to the United States for prosecution, raising serious concern over the criminalization of investigative journalism in violation of both the US Constitution and international human rights law,” the expert spelled out.
Since then, he said that there has been a “relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation” against the defendant – not only in the US, but also in the UK, Sweden and more recently, Ecuador – that includes humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and online as well as by senior political figures and magistrates involved in proceedings.
“In the course of the past nine years, Mr. Assange has been exposed to persistent, progressively severe abuse ranging from systematic judicial persecution and arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, to his oppressive isolation, harassment and surveillance inside the embassy, and from deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination”, the UN expert asserted.
On 9 May 2019, the Special Rapporteur visited Mr. Assange with two medical experts who specialize in examining victims of ill-treatment. The team spoke to the prisoner and conducted a thorough medical assessment.
“It was obvious that Mr. Assange’s health has been seriously affected by the extremely hostile and arbitrary environment he has been exposed to for many years,” the expert said. “Most importantly, in addition to physical ailments, Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”
Calling the evidence “overwhelming and clear,” Mr. Melzer said that Mr. Assange “has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture”.
The Special Rapporteur condemned “in the strongest terms” the “deliberate, concerted and sustained nature of the abuse inflicted” on the prisoner.
“By displaying an attitude of complacency at best, and of complicity at worst, these governments have created an atmosphere of impunity encouraging Mr. Assange’s uninhibited vilification and abuse”, the UN expert argued.
In official letters, Mr. Melzer urged the four involved governments to cease all activities prejudicial to Mr. Assange’s human rights and to provide him with redress and rehabilitation for past harm.
He appealed to the UK not to extradite the prisoner to the US or any other State that would not provide guarantees against his onward transfer to the US; and reminded Britain of its obligation to ensure Assange’s unimpeded access to legal counsel and adequate preparation for his proceedings.
“The collective persecution of Julian Assange must end here and now”, concluded the UN expert.
Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honourary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
An attempt to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden has suffered a setback after a court in Uppsala, Sweden, said he did not need to be detained. The ruling by the district court prevents Swedish prosecutors from applying immediately for an extradition warrant for Assange to face an allegation of rape dating back to 2010. Assange denies the accusation. Swedish prosecutors dropped their rape investigation in 2017 but reopened it after Ecuador rescinded its grant of asylum to Assange in April this year and allowed British police to arrest him.
Assange will stay in prison in Britain after the custody period on his current jail term ends because of his “history of absconding”. The British home secretary, Sajid Javid, signed an order in June allowing Assange’s extradition to the US over hacking allegations. A 50-week jail term was imposed in the UK after he had jumped previous bail by going into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Another administrative hearing will take place on 11 October and a case management hearing on 21 October, the court heard. The final extradition hearing is expected in February.
The British courts will have to rule on the Swedish and US extradition requests and the UK home secretary will have the final say on which takes precedence.
Ben Brandon, representing the US, formally opened the case, a day after an extradition request was signed off by the British home secretary, ran through a summary of the accusations against Assange, including that he had cracked a US defence network password. Assange, appearing by video link, protested: “I didn’t break any password whatsoever.” He defended his website against hacking claims, saying: “WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher.” His lawyer, Mark Summers QC, described the case as “an outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights”.
However, freedom of speech advocates including US whistleblower Edward Snowden said that an extradition over the leaks constituted a risk to press freedom. Meanwhile, as others argued that the US charges should be considered separately to the Swedish allegations, prosecutors in Stockholm said that his arrest was “news to us”.
Nonetheless, there was condemnation of the arrest from many quarters. Amnesty International UK said that if Sweden pursues extradition over sexual assault allegations, then assurances should be made over not sending Assange to the US. “There is a very real risk that he could face human rights violations” due to his work with WikiLeaks, a spokesperson said.
Ecuador’s former president, Rafael Correa, accused his successor of being the “greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history”.
Snowden, the former US government contractor wanted for leaking details of US surveillance programmes, called the arrest a “dark moment for press freedom”. Meanwhile, actor Pamela Anderson, one of a diverse range of public figures and celebrities to have visited Assange, tweeted that she was “in shock”, and accused the UK of being “America’s bitch” and of seeking a diversion “from your idiotic Brexit bullshit”.
Outside the court, his supporters protested against the UK’s treatment of him. A crowd held banners, with some chanting “Justice for Julian Assange” and “Defend freedom and democracy.”
The whole saga remains a challenge between the British Judiciary, which is very independent and second to none, and a government that is subservient and would not do anything to upset its American ally.
The question is whether Assange’s arrest is a violation against investigative journalism or merely a political challenge to freedom of expression.