Wed 27 January 2021

There are many reasons to be concerned about the founder of WikiLeaks being extradited to the US – but publishing the truth isn’t one of them.

In the wake of his loss of asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy and arrest by British police, both Julian Assange’s lawyer and the Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott have claimed that US authorities want to prosecute him for “publishing the truth” about US “war crimes”.

This is not the case.

As the federal indictment makes clear, the charges are for an alleged conspiracy to hack US defence computers, not for the publication of sensitive material.

Cast your mind back to the phone hacking scandal that closed down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, one of the oldest and most widely read English language newspapers in the world. The dozen or so journalists convicted of a conspiracy to intercept voicemails also ‘published the truth’, but obtained the material through illegal means.

In all the furore, let’s not forget the rights of this young woman.

Of course, the public interest in the publication of US diplomatic cables which led to the ‘WikiLeaks spring’ in 2011 is much more arguable than the salacious kiss-and-tell personal intrusion of phone hacking. As an early collaborator with WikiLeaks, Birgitta Jonsdottir, argues on the pages of Byline Times, much wider issues of press freedom are potentially at stake. But these have to be argued out properly in court. The extradition hearing is not the place to do that.

The rules governing the extradition request from the US are laid out in section 73 of the Extradition Act. It makes for dull reading. Suffice to say that, despite people’s natural instinct to argue whether or not Assange is guilty of the charges he faces in the US, that will not really form part of his legal argument against extradition from the UK.

Moreover, the US extradition request doesn’t help on two other important matters. It obscures the allegations of rape and sexual assault made against him in Sweden, and feeds the ‘paranoid libertarian’ position about the ‘deep state‘.

In 2017, Sweden effectively put the rape investigation on hold – knowing that it could not follow due process. But Sweden’s prosecutors this week said that, in the aftermath of Assange’s arrest in the UK, they are reviewing whether to re-activate the rape investigation.

It makes Assange a martyr against the ‘deep state’ while he probably worked alongside the deep state of a hostile power – Russia.

Assange remains innocent until proven guilty. But many people – including millions of women around the world – will be watching events closely to see whether the key European democracies now prioritise the demands of the US over what amounts to an alleged “hacking” case over an alleged rape.

In all the furore, let’s not forget the rights of this young woman.

Moreover, all these charges and allegations are nearly a decade old.

In the meantime, WikiLeaks has been associated with false allegations against Seth Rich (a democratic staffer murdered during the 2016 US Presidential election), possible political interference in that election and collusion with Russian military hackers, and the Vault 7 leak of cyber spying tools. All this has less to do with journalism and more with misinformation and hybrid warfare.

For many years, Assange has avoided British courts on the basis he would be rapidly extradited to the US and prosecuted for whistle-blowing. The US indictment (though only sealed two years ago) now proves his paranoia justified.

But, it makes Assange a martyr against the ‘deep state’ while he probably worked alongside the deep state of a hostile power – Russia. It creates another binary struggle in a world which is already too divided into black and white battles in which truth, the more nuanced truth about complex figures like Assange, is the first casualty.

And this does nothing for truth and transparency.

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