Above Photo: Cancillería del Ecuador.
UK home office minister Priti Patel is expected to rule any day on whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the US to face espionage related charges. But legal sources now say that surveillance of Assange’s lawyers may see the extradition case thrown out.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK government illegally spied on one of Assange’s lawyers.
Extradition Case In Doubt
The Canary has previously listed a number of defence concerns that could be raised in court. These include Spain-based firm UC Global’s surveillance of Assange’s lawyers in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
The Canary reported that meetings between Assange and some of his lawyers – including Melinda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson, and Baltasar Garzón – were monitored. Surveillance also included the logging of visitors such as Gareth Peirce – another of Assange’s lawyers – as well as a seven-hour session between Assange and his legal team on 19 June 2016.
This video includes examples of surveillance undertaken:
Robinson subsequently commented that the surveillance was “a huge and a serious breach of [Assange’s] right to a defence and a serious breach of [Assange’s] fair trial rights”. Indeed, client-lawyer confidentiality remains a cornerstone of the English legal system.
In this respect, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson commented:
The case should be thrown out immediately. Not only is it illegal on the face of the [extradition] treaty, the U.S. has conducted illegal operations against Assange and his lawyers, which are the subject of a major investigation in Spain.
Evidence was presented in a Spanish court at the trial of David Morales, UC Global CEO, that surveillance which UC Global gathered was allegedly provided to a contact with links to US intelligence.
The Canary also reported that during the extradition proceedings in London, the defence referred to “Witness #2”, a whistleblower who worked for UC Global. And according to Shadowproof, Witness #2 revealed that:
data was collected and uploaded daily to a remote server. That information was accessed by U.S. intelligence. Original recordings, including sound, were collected from several microphones every 14 days.
The Council of Bar and Law Societies of Europe, representing over one million lawyers, has issued a letter to UK home secretary Priti Patel. The Council points out that the surveillance on Assange and his visitors equated to a serious breach of client-lawyer confidentiality, as well as other concerns:
Indeed, the law in England on client-lawyer confidentiality is clear, as indicated by this 2018 judgement in the Court of Appeal.
Now legal sources have told El Pais that the surveillance UC Global undertook may lead to the extradition against Assange being annulled. The newspaper reports that:
Proving that US intelligence services learned about Assange’s defense strategy by spying on his lawyers could annul the extradition by questioning the illegal methods used by the US to get Assange tried there, according to legal sources.
El Pais adds:
It could be argued that the [extradition] process was flawed because the right of defense was violated by the country requesting the extradition.
The Spanish judge requested in 2020 the opportunity to interview Assange via video conference, but UK authorities haven’t cooperated. Indeed, it’s claimed that those authorities have actively blocked this request.
Meanwhile, the UK government has admitted liability for illegal surveillance conducted on Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson:
The European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in Robinson’s case could provide further argument that the extradition case against Assange be annulled.
Security Organization Backs Assange
On 7 June, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published a press release regarding Assange. It quoted OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro, saying:
I call on the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel not to extradite Julian Assange. The public interest of several of the publications by WikiLeaks should be taken into account, as it contributed to important investigative reports and news reporting. It is essential to consider the impact on freedom of expression and media freedom if he is extradited and convicted. The fact that someone who disclosed material of public interest might face a long prison sentence could have a grave and lasting stifling impact on investigative journalism.
The OSCE includes 57 participating states, covering North America, Europe, and Asia.
Back in May, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatović requested Patel not to proceed with Assange’s extradition. In a letter to Patel, Mijatović stated:
it is my view that the indictment by the United States against Mr Assange raises important questions about the protection of those that publish classified information in the public interest, including information that exposes human rights violations.
A bill introduced by Patel, if enacted, has the potential to criminalize the kind of activities Mijatović referred to in her letter. That bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a WikiLeaks type organization to publish documents considered by UK authorities to ‘benefit’ foreign powers.
Pressure Increases In Australia
Meanwhile in Australia, pressure is increasing on newly-elected Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese to act on earlier statements that Assange should be freed. For example, in December 2021 Albanese stated:
I’ve said for some time that enough is enough … He has paid a big price for the publication of that information already and I do not see what purpose is served by the ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange.
In an interview on Australia’s 60 Minutes program, Federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie make it clear why he supports Assange:
this is about an Australian journalist publicizing hard evidence of US war crimes’ of the US being deeply embarrassed and wanting to get even, and the Australian government happy to go along with the ride because they believe their relationship with Washington is more important than the welfare of Australian citizens and the fundamental right of Australian citizens to justice.
Julian Hill, an Australian Federal Labor MP, made his position clear too:
Barrister Greg Barns SC, adviser to the Australian Assange campaign, told The Canary:
The continued prosecution of Mr Assange is an affront to the vast majority of Australians. Australians clearly want a government that will stand up for journalistic freedom, for whistleblowers, and the human rights of all Australians such as Mr Assange. The former government’s claim that Australia is not a party to his extradition is no longer an acceptable excuse for inaction. We are confident that the new government understands all the concerns we are raising. Whether it be the legal precedent set by extradition, or the extreme time Julian has spent in maximum security without conviction, we are hopeful of swift action soon.
According to Assange Defense, Assange’s lawyers have submitted an application to:
appeal the extradition order to the High Court again, this time on the other substantive issues from the original Magistrates’ ruling that were not discussed at the previous appeal. These issues include a politicized prosecution, the threat the charges pose to the First Amendment, and the likelihood Assange would face a fair trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.
With interventions from Ribeiro and Mijatović, and the Council of Bar and Law Societies of Europe, the pressure on Patel to release Assange is growing. And in Australia, prime minister Albanese should now prove his integrity and add his intervention too. And if all else fails, Assange’s lawyers can always consider taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile even if Patel recommends that extradition proceeds, rulings in the extradition case could be annulled based on the latest evidence from the Spanish courts.