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Lift Assange Out Of Legal Limbo

A whistle-blower living in exile in Russia. A publisher seeking the asylum he has already been granted while his sources are imprisoned. This isn’t the cast of a summer blockbuster. It’s a perfect storm of real-life cases that make it clear that constitutional guarantees of a free press and government accountability are rhetorical devices, not political realities.

The whistle-blower is Edward Snowden. This month marks the first anniversary of his disclosures of massive National Security Agency surveillance. The publisher is Julian Assange. Thursday marks two years since he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Meanwhile, two of Assange’s sources, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) and Jeremy Hammond, remain in prison for providing WikiLeaks with confidential documents. Manning, who exposed atrocities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including evidence of U.S. war crimes, was sentenced to 35 years. Hammond is serving a 10-year sentence for hacking into the e-mails of a private intelligence company.

Harassment, targeting and prosecution of whistle-blowers, journalists and publishers have become a dangerous new normal — one we should refuse to accept, especially in a time when governments are becoming more powerful and less accountable. It’s time to end this assault, starting with granting Snowden amnesty and withdrawing the threat of U.S. criminal prosecution of Assange.

Stuck in embassy

In the two years Assange has spent cloistered in the Ecuadorian Embassy, the British extradition law under which he was ordered to Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct has changed. With this change, the allegations that originally secured Assange’s extradition order to Sweden would no longer suffice. Now, a decision to charge Assange with a crime is necessary for extradition, but Sweden has never made that decision.

That hasn’t kept Britain from ignoring Assange’s right to asylum by clinging to the now-invalid law. Instead, British police and security forces keep watch on the entrance, windows and surroundings of the Ecuadorian Embassy around the clock, which has cost $10 million.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to investigate Assange and might have secretly charged him without his knowledge. A grand jury empaneled in 2010 remains open, keeping Assange in legal limbo. Under such conditions, leaving the embassy would mean a stop in Sweden before Assange is given a one-way ticket to a U.S. prison to likely face inhumane treatment and a sentence similar to Manning’s, including extended solitary confinement.

Similar harsh treatment and excessive punishments haven’t applied to the people in government who perpetrated the crimes exposed by these whistle-blowers and published by WikiLeaks. In fact, people such as national intelligence director James Clapper, who lied under oath to Congress, have avoided consequences altogether.

Outdated espionage laws

It’s no wonder publishers and whistle-blowers such as Assange and Snowden live in isolation and exile abroad. The United States and other governments have created a dangerous system of outdated espionage laws and shadow governments, severely restricting options for publishing classified documents and whistle-blowing free from outsized punishment.

It isn’t a matter of “manning up,” as Secretary of State John Kerry recommended Snowden do, when a superpower that regularly uses its authority to erode any sense of privacy calls you home to face punishment for what is a public service. Damning public comments by U.S. politicians have made fair trials for Assange and Snowden impossible. Submitting to this unbalanced system constitutes an almost-guaranteed threat to their safety.

It’s astonishing that Assange is in this situation at all. He and WikiLeaks have done remarkable work, uncovering secret governments, exposing war crimes and diplomatic chicanery, and opening up a new world — one that Snowden stepped into. WikiLeaks then worked to ensure Snowden would not face imprisonment in the U.S., helping him leave Hong Kong and attempt to seek asylum.

Britain should respect Assange’s asylum and allow him to leave the embassy unmolested. Whistle-blowers such as Snowden and Manning should not face the impossible decision between living in exile and spending decades imprisoned. We deserve a justice system that holds governments accountable and considers the public service done by whistle-blowers and the people who publish their information.

Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the U.S. attorney forJulian Assange and WikiLeaks.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.

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