Only through our courage to truly confront injustice and act in solidarity with truthtellers, can we end this illegal prosecution of free press and reclaim our own democracy.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing is set to start on Monday, September 7 at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of London and could last three or four weeks. Assange has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of conspiring with a source to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for his reporting on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the torture at Guantanamo Bay.
These charges against Assange are a part of a war on journalism. This is the first time that the Espionage Act of 1917 has been used to prosecute a journalist, in this case an Australian citizen publishing material from outside of the US.
The gruesome attack on the First Amendment became naked during the February phase of the UK hearing of the US request for Assange’s extradition. On the first day of what unfolded as a grotesque show trial, Assange was subjected to strip searches twice, handcuffed 11 times, and his legal material was confiscated by prison officers. In the courtroom he was held behind a glass pane in the presence of private security officers, away from his lawyers, contrary to the accepted international standard.
Abuse of process
The prosecution of Assange has always been politically motivated. Nils Meltzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, recognized the coordinated abuse of power by Western governments involved in this case. After visiting Assange in prison with his medical team in May 2019, he reported that the WikiLeaks founder showed clear symptoms of prolonged psychological torture.
From his house arrest and arbitrary detention inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to his incarceration in Belmarsh Prison, Assange has been treated with extreme cruelty at the hands of the state and his basic rights have been severely violated.
For years, while he was inside the embassy, Assange was deprived of medical care, denied access to fresh air and sunlight by the UK government’s refusal to honor his right of asylum—in violation of the rulings of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. His activities were under constant surveillance by a Spanish security contractor, secretly working on behalf of the CIA. Evidence from Assange’s own extradition case even revealed a CIA-linked plot to poison him.
From several serious conflicts of interest related to the judge overseeing his case to a documented destruction of evidence by the prosecuting agency, combined with Assange’s prolonged lack of access to his lawyers, his case has involved a significant level of abuse of process.
As this latest episode of ‘journalism on trial’ approaches, the political nature of the case becomes more apparent. On June 24, 2020, half-way into Assange’s extradition case, the US prosecutors introduced a second superseding indictment, changing the nature of the extradition request by expanding the scope of the charges (without changing the charges themselves). At the 27 July administrative hearing, Assange’s lawyers posited that this last minute change by the Trump administration was an attempt to postpone the hearing until the US presidential election is over, and that the US attorney general was thereby further manipulating this case for political ends.
To make matters worse, the UK court process has been rife with administrative chaos and mishandling of technical issues. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has regularly attempted to remotely monitor administrative hearings in this case, but reports extreme difficulty due to constant barriers to access to the proceedings. Journalists have been left on hold so they could not listen to the teleconference at all, and even when they gained access the proceedings have often been inaudible. At one point, even the lawyers were shut out of the teleconference system. Assange himself has complained of not being able to hear all of the proceedings. Even worse, on several occasions, the prison simply ‘forgot’ to deliver him to the video call room in time for scheduled hearings.
Crisis of Western liberal democracy
Assange’s US extradition case is a testimony to the deepening crisis of Western liberal democracy. What has been revealed is a widespread breakdown of systems of accountability and a dangerous trend toward authoritarianism. The sources behind WikiLeaks publications have often sacrificed their freedom (and potentially their lives) to alert the public to these precise issues.
The former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning released classified US military video depicting the Apache helicopter gunship killing innocent civilians in the suburb of Iraq. WikiLeaks publication of the Collateral Murder video, along with release of the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Log became a major catharsis for many Americans, causing them to begin questioning the legitimacy of war and the actions of their own government.
Their release of documents from Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor), the private Texas-based global intelligence company (allegedly provided to WikiLeaks by computer programmer and political activist Jeremy Hammond) exposed the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state, in part perpetrated by contracting agencies. The publication of the Global Intelligence Files—over five million emails from Stratfor—revealed the company’s spying activities on human rights activists around the globe. Emails included discussions on Assange’s arrest, and a plot to go after “every person linked to Wiki[Leaks]”.
Disclosure of confidential documents [“Vault 7”] that came from the CIA’s top-secret security network (allegedly released by the former CIA engineer Joshua Schulte) exposed CIA cyber-weaponry, including their own version of NSA cyber-spying with an ability to hack any Android or iPhone, as well as Samsung TVs and even the electronic controls of cars. The excessive power of the agency has been demonstrated via drone attacks, and their engagement in espionage during the French presidential election.
Duty of an informed public
Those young American whistleblowers acted courageously to expose the government’s secrets, believing that people have the right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors. They were inside these institutions, who saw what they believed to be dangerous and unconstitutional activity, and wanted change. They incurred great risk to initiate that change with faith in the ability of an informed public to hold the powerful to account.
At a pretrial hearing during her prosecution for releasing the largest leak of classified documents in history, Manning read out a personal statement describing the motivation behind her actions:
I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information . . . this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.
She took an enormous personal risk to leak this information—believing that the public had a right to know and hoping that her disclosures would be a positive step to end these abuses . . . I had to ask myself if Chelsea Manning fell into the abysmal nightmare of prison fighting for the truth, could I in good conscience do any less, if I was able? I thought the best way to demonstrate solidarity was to continue the work of exposing and confronting corruption.
WikiLeaks, in dropping a bombshell on the US Central Intelligence Agency, indicated that the alleged source behind the publication of Vault 7 is said to have released the material in an effort to instigate a public debate about the CIA’s cyberweapons (Joshua Schulte has been indicted—twice—in relation to the Vault 7 leaks).
Through their brave acts of whistleblowing, these admitted or alleged WikiLeaks sources performed the duty of citizens providing a check on abuses of power. Instead of just wishing and hoping for change, they actively strove to become that change. When faced with fraud, abuse, and wrongdoing, they refused to remain silent and spoke out. They reminded us of the vital role of an informed and engaged public in a functioning democracy.
Prosecution of conscience
Assange, through his work with WikiLeaks provided means for his sources to defend the public’s right to know and to engage people in a democratic process of restoring justice. WikiLeaks, with numerous prestigious journalism awards, has shown how its unique model of “scientific journalism”—inspired by the conscience of ordinary people, and fueled by authenticated, pristine documents—can harness a force powerful enough to challenge oppression, even from a superpower.
From the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya which affected the outcome of the national election, to the exposing of the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s largest bank in 2009, WikiLeaks publications have sparked global revolutionary uprisings, and empowered people around the world. US cable leaks shared through social networking sites in 2010 toppled the corrupt Tunisian dictator Ben Ali.
The US government reacted strongly to those waves of whistleblowers, aggressively prosecuting those who acted out of conscience. For providing evidence of US war crimes, Manning was put into a cage in Kuwait, the Quantico Marine Brig, and was detained way beyond the legal time limit in conditions that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said amounted to torture. She was eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison, serving seven years before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence just before leaving office in 2017.
In 2019, Manning was once again sent back to jail for refusing to answer questions at a grand jury related to the WikiLeaks 2010 disclosures. The enormity of the government’s efforts to break her down pushed her to the point where she attempted to commit suicide while incarcerated.
For exposing the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state, Hammond was charged with electronic infiltration and was sentenced to the maximum of 10 years. He spent significant time in solitary confinement and his communication rights were restricted. In 2019, he was also called to serve on a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks publications. Like Manning, he too refused to cooperate in the secretive procedure, and was found in contempt. He remains in jail, quietly suffering.
Following a partial mistrial, alleged CIA whistleblower Joshua Schulte was recently indicted again in his WikiLeaks-related case. He is still held in custody in New York, silenced by a form of legal limbo.
Now, with the prosecution of Assange, the US Empire tries to crush conscience once and for all, destroying the last vestiges of democracy. Assange has been held inside London’s maximum-security prison for over 500 days, alongside murderers and terrorists, for exposing the war crimes and human rights abuses of the US government (and their allies). He now faces the risk of extradition to the US, where he could receive no fair trial.
If convicted, Assange would be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison and be subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), known to be the Darkest Corner of the U.S. federal prison system. These harsh conditions not only gag a prisoner but also their lawyers. He would be placed into complete isolation, cut off from the outside world. Possibly for a lifetime.
Recognizing the dire threat to media freedom everywhere, Human Rights organizations like Amnesty International have come out strongly to oppose this political prosecution of Assange. Journalists around the world have come together in defense of Assange’s freedom. They have criticized the US government’s dangerous move toward criminalizing basic journalistic activity.
Over 200 doctors have spoken out against ongoing torture and medical neglect of the Australian journalist and called on the UK Government to end extradition proceedings against Assange. An array of lawyers and legal academics have expressed their concerns about the many violations of Assange’s fundamental human, civil and political rights, demanding his immediate release.
As the extradition proceedings resume this month, the mockery of justice will continue. In this final moment before the light of transparency goes out, as our society rapidly degenerates into despotism, our shared future calls for an informed public to step up and do their duty to hold power to account. The conscience of ordinary people is our best hope in this darkness. Only through our courage to truly confront injustice and act in solidarity with truthtellers, can we end this illegal prosecution of free press and reclaim our own democracy.