April 11 – Four years ago today, six men dragged Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London into a van, where he was carted off to Belmarsh Prison, where he remains, fighting extradition to the U.S. On April 11, 2019, after seven years holed up in the embassy, Ecuador rescinded Assange’s citizenship and turned him over to British authorities. The final extrication from the embassy followed years of CIA plotting against Assange, going so far as to draw up “options” for how to assassinate him and contracting with the security company charged with surveilling the Ecuadorian embassy.
The date marks nearly eleven years of persecution of Assange. Despite consensus among press freedom groups, letters from major newspapers, and international condemnation, the US continues its war of attrition against Assange. International parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have repeatedly condemned Assange’s prosecution, but Congress has stayed largely silent – until now. This week, led by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, seven members of Congress are finally taking a stand against Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the US.
This letter is a long time coming. Standing up for Julian Assange demands political courage, which is too often in short supply in Washington DC. Defending Rights & Dissent relentlessly pushed members of Congress to lead the letter. Thanks in part to our efforts, seven members of Congress – Reps. Tlaib, Omar, Bowman, Bush, Casar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley – have at long last joined the scores of international parliamentarians and foreign leaders calling for Assange’s release.
The US letter notes the broader ramifications of the Assange prosecution for US press freedom:
The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well. In the future the New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information. Or, just as dangerous for democracy, they may refrain from publishing such stories for fear of prosecution.
Political leaders across the globe amplified the Tlaib letter’s call for an end to the prosecution. Politicians in the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico sent companion letters. In the UK letter, parliamentarians write:
This [the Assange prosecution] would clearly have a chilling impact on journalism and would set a dangerous precedent for other journalists and media organisations. It would also undermine the US’ reputation on freedom of expression and the rule of law.
The congressional letter has been sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland. The attorney general exercises a great deal of discretion in determining which cases to pursue. The decision to charge Assange was a political one; after the Obama administration declined to prosecute Assange, the Trump administration plowed ahead irrespective of the press freedom concerns involved. Add that to the overbroad nature of the Espionage Act, and the case represents an extraordinary overreach of state power into constitutional press freedoms. The political nature of the prosecution means it makes sense to pursue political pressure as a tactic.
The weight of civil society backs this letter. In previous civil society letters, scores of press freedom, civil liberties, and human rights organizations voiced their opposition to the Assange prosecution. Last November, the five major media partners of WikiLeaks – the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel – released a letter condemning the prosecution and warning of the dangerous precedent set, writing:
Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.
Quoted in Rep. Tlaib’s press release, Defending Rights & Dissent Policy Director Chip Gibbons had this to say:
Defending Rights & Dissent applauds Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s courageous defense of the First Amendment. Defending the Bill Of Rights is the responsibility of every branch of government and we are proud to stand with those members of Congress who are joining with nearly every press freedom group and newspapers such as The New York Times, in calling on the Department of Justice to end its prosecution of Julian Assange. When the Trump Administration brought unprecedented Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange for doing what journalists do everyday, they put the First Amendment in peril. To turn the page, the Biden Administration must heed the call of nearly every major human rights and press freedom group, and halt this press freedom endangering prosecution.
It’s high time the Biden administration heeded the calls of press freedom organizations, major news outlets, and, now, Congress. Defending press freedom requires it.