Stella Moris: If British Court Sends Julian Assange To The United States
London – A month ago, I would wake up in the middle of the night seized by a recurring nightmare: my little boys, Max, 22 months, and Gabriel, who is three, had been orphaned. I was still here but their father was not.
Their father is Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks. Today, that terrible nightmare is all too close to becoming a reality.
Julian has been on remand in Belmarsh prison in South-East London for almost two years.
He is fighting a political extradition to the United States, where he risks being buried in the deepest, darkest corner of the US prison system for the rest of his life. Julian embarrassed Washington and this is their revenge.
The nightmares came to a sudden stop the week before Christmas, when a groundswell of support from all sides of the political spectrum called for President Trump to pardon him.
A leaked audio recording of Julian talking to the US State Department unmasked the trumped-up nature of the charges against him.
Leading figures, from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to Nobel Prize winners, such as human-rights campaigner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, have been calling for Julian’s freedom.
So far, there has been no pardon. But tomorrow, a British magistrate will decide whether to order Julian’s extradition or throw out the US government’s request.
If Julian loses, I believe that it would not only be an unthinkable travesty but that the ruling would also be politically and legally disastrous for the UK.
That is because Julian’s case is not about what some people would have you think it is about.
His role in founding the WikiLeaks website is well known and it is fair to say Julian has angered many government and establishment figures around the world. WikiLeaks has published thousands of sensitive classified documents, many from the US military.
Yet Julian has been acting in the same way as any other journalist would in attempting to hold the powerful to account.
President Obama’s administration realised this, and understood that charging Julian would require them to prosecute international media outlets.
After all, newspapers, websites and TV stations had published substantially the same revelations as WikiLeaks. That is why, at the end of his term in office, Obama freed WikiLeaks’s US Army Intelligence source, whistleblower Chelsea Manning, from jail.
With Trump, however, the mood has changed dramatically and under his administration, journalistic practices have been pursued as crimes.
WikiLeaks and Julian have been accused of ‘endangering national security’, but US prosecutors admit they have no evidence to support claims that WikiLeaks publications caused physical harm to anyone. Perhaps that explains why their tactics have become increasingly desperate.
During Julian’s extradition hearing at the Old Bailey in September, the court heard evidence that CIA contractors were plotting to kill him with poison while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Agents-turned-whistleblowers, who were granted anonymity by the court due to their fear of reprisals, also admitted targeting our then six-month-old baby to steal his DNA.
They told the court that they had installed hidden microphones to spy on Julian’s solicitors’ meetings. The offices of his lawyers were also broken into.
It might seem unthinkable that a British court would give its stamp of approval to such rampant, illegal actions by the US.
It might seem equally unthinkable that a man who was practising journalism in this country, perfectly legally according to UK law, could be tried in a foreign land and potentially jailed for life.
But that is what would happen if the UK decides to extradite Julian. It would rewrite the rules of what it is permissible to publish here. Overnight, it would chill free and open debate about abuses by our own government and by many foreign ones, too.
In effect, foreign countries could simply issue an extradition request saying that UK journalists, or Facebook users for that matter, have violated their censorship laws.
Reporters Without Borders and the National Union of Journalists have said that as long as Julian remains in prison facing extradition, the UK is not a safe place for journalists and publishers to work.
The press freedoms we cherish in Britain are meaningless if they can be criminalised and suppressed by regimes in Russia or Ankara or by prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia.
If Westminster Magistrates’ Court accepts the US arguments tomorrow, every other country can use them, too. It would place an impossible burden on you, me, everyone, not to violate foreign censorship laws.
Countries such as Azerbaijan are already lecturing the UK about press freedom because of Julian’s incarceration. It has become an easy way to score cheap political points against Britain. ‘What about Assange?’ is the perfect comeback to criticism of human-rights abuses.
The US-UK Extradition Treaty, a relic of the Blair era, is partly to blame. It grants the US privileges the UK does not have: the US can reject an extradition request, as it has done to prevent Anne Sacoolas from facing justice after being charged with causing the death by dangerous driving of 19-year-old motorcyclist Harry Dunn following a road crash outside a US military base in Northamptonshire.
There is no prima facie evidence requirement and US claims cannot even be cross-examined in court.
Still, you might say, once extradited, Julian would face a fair trial. You might assume that he would, for example, be allowed to exclude hostile jurors. You might assume that he could defend himself by arguing that it was his duty to expose war crimes, torture and state illegality, and that the public had a right to know. You might assume he would be treated equally according to the law.
But you would be wrong. I believe the verdict is a foregone conclusion.
In Alexandria, there is a special rule that jury members cannot be excluded because they work for the government. Julian’s case could have been tried elsewhere in the US but prosecutors chose to try it there, a state that houses US intelligence headquarters.
The court complex is just 15 miles from CIA headquarters. The state is populated by employees of the very sector that Julian exposed, people who have sworn oaths of allegiance to defend America against all enemies.
The legislation under which Julian is charged does not allow a public interest defence. The US does not dispute that what WikiLeaks published was of the highest public interest – it simply says it is irrelevant and Julian should go to prison regardless.
The Trump administration has argued that because Julian is not a US citizen, he would not enjoy constitutional free-speech rights.
This alone should mean that a UK judge throws out the extradition request. To allow it would expose everyone to the risk of discrimination in a foreign court on the basis of nationality.
In the US, I believe Julian would face a certain and monstrously unjust conviction.
You might think that his case is somehow special. It is not. As far as the precedent is concerned, I believe Julian might as well be a British journalist working for The Mail on Sunday.
The extradition concerns the US and Julian today, but next time it could be Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Russia demanding that we send journalists to stand trial in their courts.
The precedent would make political extraditions permissible. The accepted scope of the Official Secrets Act would radically expand to match the Trump administration’s interpretation of the 1917 Espionage Act, under which Julian has been charged on 17 counts.
Even re-reporting information that someone else has already published would be an offence.
Extraditing Julian would be so manifestly unjust that it seems impossible. But it is not. It is precisely at times like these when our rights are most easily taken away from us, while we are distracted with major global issues such as Brexit and Covid.
Tomorrow’s ruling comes just four days into Brexit. It could be regarded as a metaphor for Brexit itself: will Britain’s values assert themselves against outside interference, or will Britain and its people be pushed around by others?
No matter what happens, we will continue to fight for what we know is right.
It is a fight for our family, to give our sons the right to grow up with their father. But it is also a fight for justice and a fight for everyone’s right to live in a free society.