Thu 27 January 2022

Long time campaigner for whistleblowers and hacktivists, Naomi Colvin, argues that the fight against extradition of Assange to Trump’s America is the real cause

That Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, would be convicted in the UK for violating his bail conditions in 2012 was a foregone conclusion – the case was adjudicated in his absence at Westminster Magistrates’ Court last year. He will be sentenced for this in on 2 May in the crown court, where he will likely receive something approaching the maximum sentence of one year.

Nobody around him has been in any doubt for quite some time that he would be looking at at least six months in a UK jail.

When the extradition case finally comes to court, it could be longer than the maximum one year sentence Assange faces on the bail violation: at least a couple of years for domestic appeals, and that long again if the European Court of Human Rights decides to get involved.

Last year, I was involved in the successful campaign to stop British-Finnish computer scientist Lauri Love being extradited to the US, where he faced charges in three separate judicial districts and a potential hundred years in federal prison. Given Lauri’s personal situation and health conditions, extradition would have represented a virtual death sentence and at appeal the high court essentially agreed with this assessment.

Extradition is as much a political institution as it is a legal one

The first point to make is that the process of extradition starts some time before anything comes to court.  I think this should be obvious to most people, but let me say it anyway – that extradition is as much a political institution as it is a legal one. A UK government has agreed to entertain an extradition request from Donald Trump’s DOJ against a publisher, for publishing materials displeasing to a foreign power.

Trump Changes Everything

The indictment unsealed last week seeks to charge alleged communications with Chelsea Manning in 2010 as conspiracy to commit unauthorised access of a protected computer. The substance of the alleged conspiracy is a verbal agreement to try and crack part of a password, conveyed on an instant messaging app. Civil liberties groups in the United States have not been slow in pointing out the dangers of criminalising journalist-source communications.


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The Obama administration was not exactly shy in pursuing whistleblowers to the full extent of the law and innovating with court orders against journalists.  But after years of contemplating a prosecution of Julian Assange – on exactly the same lines as the indictment unsealed yesterday – Obama’s DOJ declined to proceed on the basis that it could find no possible charge that would differentiate WikiLeaks from the New York Times. On this matter, in house counsel for the NYT  past and present agree.

What is happening today is exactly what we were worried about in 2010.

The difference today is that, with the advent of Trump, we have a US administration, which is unafraid of showing overt hostility to press freedoms and unconcerned about how their legal adventurism might be replicated by similarly minded governments elsewhere.

Last year, more than 300 press organisations across the United States coordinated editorials in protest at the American President’s characterisation of journalists as “enemies of the people.” As Director of the CIA, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heralded the US government’s renewed attempt to prosecute Julian Assange as an operation against a “non-state hostile intelligence agency.”

We made Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment an international cause celebre in less time. We can do this for Assange.

Are we to take it that Donald Trump’s most virulent anti-press rhetoric accurately reflects the position of the UK government? Would Westminster be sanguine about the prospect of other governments following this example and starting to pursue journalists outside their borders?

In a fortuitously timed move, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has recently launched a campaign for journalists to be able to operate safely, in collaboration with the Canadian government. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has acted for Assange in the past, has just been appointed to a high profile advisory role. How any of this can plausibly coexist with acquiescence to Donald Trump’s crusade against basic press freedoms is anyone’s guess. The point should be made, volubly and repeatedly.

Humanitarian Considerations in the Battle Ahead

We made Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment an international cause célèbre in less time. We can do this for Assange.

An extradition case will give plenty of airtime to many messy issues. Long-standing public concerns about the legitimacy of the 2002 US/UK extradition treaty, which the successful resolution of Lauri Love’s case challenged, would come back into full focus. Lauri Love’s appeal showed the High Court becoming more sceptical about assurances that conditions in the US federal prison system are adequate.

There are other humanitarian considerations that would apply to this case in particular. It is appalling that, in April 2019, Chelsea Manning has just had to endure a second spell in solitary confinement. The treatment Manning received during the nine months of solitary she was forced to endure eight years ago was found by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to constitute “inhuman and degrading treatment.” Even the judge at Manning’s court martial agreed that what she experienced in custody fell below acceptable minimum standards.

Civil liberties groups in the US have not been slow in pointing out the dangers of criminalising journalist-source communications.

It is not unreasonable that the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is now taking a close interest in the case.

So what is happening today is exactly what we were worried about in 2010. Ending the embassy stage has been clarifying and it has been heartening over the past 24 hours to see journalists, human rights organisations and elected politicians making their opposition to extradition known. It’s actually more than I expected, and for that I feel profoundly grateful.

While we do not yet know what will finally be charged, what has emerged so far only confirms what I have always felt: leaving the Embassy was inevitable. But Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States is not a done deal. We can fight it and we can win. 

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