In a depressing but predictable ruling in the High Court in London Friday, two judges have overturned a lower court ruling preventing the extradition to the US of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, accepting US assurances that he will not be held in conditions that, as a result of his fragile mental state, would result in him committing suicide. The previous ruling, made in January this year by Judge Vanessa Baraitser, prevented his extradition because of the perceived suicide risk.
I happen to agree with his lawyers that the US assurances are fundamentally untrustworthy, as I explained in an article in October, Like a Wheedling Abuser, the US Makes Groundless Promises in Julian Assange’s Extradition Appeal, but what is particularly dispiriting about today’s ruling is how it wasn’t allowed to focus on the key reason why Assange shouldn’t be extradited, which had already been dismissed by Judge Baraitser; namely, that prosecuting a publisher for publishing confidential government documents (in this case leaked by Chelsea Manning) that highlight government wrongdoing — and even involvement in war crimes — is a necessary prerequisite for press freedom.
It is also worth noting, of course, that if Assange is to be prosecuted for publishing the material leaked by Chelsea Manning, then so too should the New York Times, the Washington Post, McClatchy, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and numerous other newspapers that worked with Assange on the publication of these documents.
It is to be hoped that an appeal by Assange’s lawyers to the UK Supreme Court will be accepted, but in the meantime those concerned with press freedom, and the very notion of freedom of speech, supposedly protected in the US via its precious First Amendment rights, will continue to put pressure on the US government to drop this extradition request (as I have been calling for since before Joe Biden inherited this poisonous chalice from Donald Trump), and to allow Assange to be reunited with his partner and their two young boys, and, in all likelihood, to return to Australia, where he is a citizen.
The Biden administration needs to recognize, as Obama did, that prosecuting Assange crosses a line that cannot be crossed in countries that claim to respect press freedoms and the freedom of speech, and would, if successful, have chilling ramifications for the mainstream media; in effect, stifling press freedom in ways that bear all the hallmarks of dictatorships rather than liberal democracies.
Throughout this year, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has repeatedly spoken out in support of journalists and press freedom worldwide while refusing to acknowledge the US’s hypocrisy in the case of Julian Assange, and has repeatedly been criticized for doing so. He — and President Biden — need to take this criticism on board, and drop this pernicious extradition request immediately.
You can sign an Amnesty International petition calling on the US government to drop all charges against Julian Assange here. As Amnesty explain, “Authorities in the USA must drop the espionage and all other charges against Julian Assange that relate to his publishing activities as part of his work with Wikileaks. The US government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange for having published disclosed documents that included possible war crimes committed by the US military is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression.”