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Julian Assange’s Wife Urges Joe Biden to Drop Pursuit of Husband as he Wins Right to Appeal US Extradition

The Australian Prime Minister has urged Biden to let the WikiLeaks founder return home, as he waits in London’s Belmarsh prison for his next court hearing

Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London in May 2017. Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in May 2017 before his arrest in 2019. Photo: PA/Alamy

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Julian Assange on Monday won the right to appeal against extradition to the US, where he faces charges under the Espionage Act, but he today remains behind bars at London’s Belmarsh prison where he is expected to spend several months waiting for his next court date.

The WikiLeaks founder was granted leave to appeal the UK’s decision in 2021 to approve his extradition to the United States, where he faces charges for publishing classified military files and diplomatic cables revealing alleged war crimes perpetrated by American military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

A decision was deferred in March with judges ruling that Assange could bring an appeal if the US could not offer a range of human rights-based assurances.

If Assange’s next appeal fails, the 52-year-old could take his fight to the UK Supreme Court or seek an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

He will remain detained at the Category A men’s prison, alongside some of the UK’s worst offenders – including Wayne Couzens and Michael Adebolajo – while he awaits an appeal hearing. He has been held at the prison, without trial, for more than five years and is permitted limited contact with his wife, Stella Assange, and their two children. 

Stella Assange addresses her husband’s supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, in February. Photo: Ron Fassbender/Alamy

Kristinn Hrafnsson, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, said after the ruling this week that there was “finally a glimmer of hope” for Assange, the Guardian reported, noting that his lawyers would now decide if they also wanted to press for him to be released on bail. Assange has previously been denied bail on the grounds that he is a flight risk.

Stella Assange called on US President Joe Biden to “do the right thing” and drop the legal pursuit of her husband – something that he might not be able to do after November 2024 if Donald Trump is re-elected.

The human rights lawyer branded the case against her partner “offensive” and, while she was relieved at Monday’s decision, questioned “how long can this go on for?”

“Julian needs to be freed,” she said – sharing that their children’s memories of their father are all “in the visiting hall of Belmarsh prison”.

The Australian was arrested in April 2019 at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he had been staying since 2012, having sought asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden on a rape allegation – announced in August 2010 – that was later dropped. He has been fighting for his freedom ever since.

EXCLUSIVE

‘Julian Assange Is Not Superhuman – What Is Being Done to Him Is Unworthy of Any Democracy’

Stella Assange speaks to Byline Times about her fears for her husband if his extradition to the US is allowed following a forthcoming hearing in London

Simon Crowther, a legal advisor at Amnesty International, said the High Court’s decision was a “rare piece of positive news” for Assange and defenders of press freedom, adding that the court had “rightly concluded that, if extradited to the USA, Assange will be at risk of serious abuse, including prolonged solitary confinement, which would violate the prohibition on torture or other ill-treatment”.

The assurances earlier sought were that, if Assange was extradited, the US would not impose the death penalty; that it would allow him to rely on the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects free speech; and that he would not be prejudiced at trial or sentencing because of his nationality.


The Problem With Diplomatic Assurances

The use of diplomatic assurances in extradition cases has long been criticised by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as there is no guarantee they will be honoured.

A Human Rights Watch report on the issue concludes: “The growing weight of evidence and international expert opinion indicates that diplomatic assurances cannot protect people at risk of torture from such treatment.”  

Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, said: Even if these assurances are respected in practice – and again, there’s no guarantee that they will be – we have serious concerns about the very charges against Julian Assange…noting that the Espionage Act itself lacks a public interest defence so even if these assurances are met, we don’t believe that Julian Assange or anyone accused in this way could have a fair trial.”

Heroes & Villains: Witnessing the Assange Hearing

James Doleman reflects on the Old Bailey hearing into the Wikileaks co-founder’s contested extradition to the US for the publication of classified documents

Edward Fitzgerald KC, representing Assange at the High Court on Monday, accepted the US’ assurance that he would not face the death penalty if extradited. However, he raised serious concerns about what his client’s wife referred to as the US non-assurance’ regarding Assange’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression

The US legal team has said that Assange can “raise and seek to rely on” the First Amendment, but has offered no guarantee that he will receive protections under it. US prosecutors have previously claimed that Assange is not protected by the First Amendment as he is not a US citizen.

Fitzgerald argued that “this is plainly an inadequate assurance”, and pointed to previous cases in which US prosecutors have provided clear and unequivocal assurances on similar issues.

This uncertainly regarding Assange’s First Amendment rights underlines the risk that he may face prejudice due to his nationality.


Can the UN and Human Rights Groups Assist Assange? 

In 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Assange had been unlawfully detained in the Ecuadorian Embassy, by the UK and Sweden, and recommended that he be freed and compensated. A number of UN special rapporteurs have also raised the alarm about his case and called for his release. 

In 2019, Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on Torture, found that Assange’s treatment by the UK Government amounted to torture and could put his life at risk.

In a later book on the Assange case, Melzer wrote: “The Assange case is the story of a man who is being persecuted and abused for exposing the dirty secrets of the powerful, including war crimes, torture and corruption. It is a story of deliberate judicial arbitrariness in Western democracies that are otherwise keen to present themselves as exemplary in the area of human rights.”

Melzer’s successor, Alice Jill Edwards, also called on the UK to halt Assange’s extradition to the US. Edwards highlighted the risk of solitary confinement and the harm to Assange’s mental health, in addition to the threat of a 175-year prison sentence. Edwards also raised concerns about the lack of protection for whistleblowers under the US Espionage Act. 

These same concerns were echoed by Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who said: “Gathering, reporting and disseminating information, including national security information when it is in the public interest, is a legitimate exercise of journalism and should not be treated as a crime.”

Khan also noted that, if extradited, Assange would be the first publisher to be prosecuted in the US under the Espionage Act.

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Several respected human rights organisations have also campaigned on Assange’s behalf. Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists led a coalition of civil society groups urging the US Department of Justice to drop the charges against Assange, and reminding the US Government of the ‘New York Times problem’ that prevented the Obama administration from pressing charges, i.e. the risk that prosecuting Assange could leave journalists across the world at risk of prosecution for carrying out their duties in the public interest. 

Due to state sovereignty, both the UK and the US would likely face widespread public criticism and condemnation, but no domestic legal consequences, if they proceed to extradite Assange.


A Last-Minute Lifeline?

President Biden has said he is considering a request from Australia to drop the 14 year-long US pursuit of Assange and allow him to return to his home country, but he may only have months left to do that.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called Biden’s acknowledgement of his request “encouraging”, and according to Sky News, said on 11 April: “I believe this must be brought to a conclusion and that Mr Assange has already paid a significant price and enough is enough.

“There’s nothing to be gained by Mr Assange’s continued incarceration, in my very strong view, and I’ve put that as the view of the Australian Government.”


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