Author: Elia Duran-Smith
The founder of Wikileaks, an international media organisation that publishes government leaks and classified material it receives from whistleblowers, Julian Assange helped publish its most famous collection of leaks in 2010. This was done in association with leading international media outlets like the Guardian, the New York Times and der Spiegel (Vancauwenberghe, 2020; ‘What is Wikileaks’, 2015). This consisted of hundreds of thousands of US government documents, including diplomatic cables, which exposed war crimes, corruption and torture carried out by the US and other Western governments in connection with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (‘Collateral Murder’, 2010; ‘The Guardian view’, 2021; Vancauwenberghe, 2020; ‘WarDiaries’, 2010). He now faces 18 charges by the US government – 17 for espionage and one for hacking (Vancauwenberghe, 2020).
The High Court Decision
On December 10th, senior UK High Court judges ruled that Julian Assange could be extradited to the US, potentially facing a prison sentence of up to 175 years. This decision was made after the US Government appealed the High Court’s verdict delivered in January that Assange should not be extradited as there was a significant “oppressive” risk Assange would commit suicide because of the stress he has already suffered and the conditions he is likely to face in the US (Sainty & AAP, 2021; ‘The Guardian view’, 2021). The American government subsequently issued reassurances that Assange would not face “repressive conditions” (Sainty & AAP, 2021). However, the US still reserves the right to detain him in a maximum security facility and use “special administrative measures” against him based on his behaviour – which could mean prolonged solitary confinement. It is likely that Assange’s lawyers will appeal this decision in the British Supreme Court and this process may carry on for several more years (Sainty & AAP, 2021; ‘The Guardian view’, 2021).
Response in Australia
This decision has sparked international outrage over Assange’s detention in the UK and his potential extradition to the US. In his native Australia, Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald calling for Assange’s release. He noted that Assange did not steal any US files, only published them, he did not break any laws in Australia, and was not in the US when the files were published. Joyce asked “If we are content that this process of extraditing one Australian to the US for breaking its laws even when he was not in that country is fair, are we prepared to therefore accept it as precedent for applying to any other laws of any other nation to any of our citizens?” (Joyce, 2021). This fear of setting a precedent for governments to have greater powers to silence journalists was also shared by the Guardian, which said publishers across the world may be at risk of facing trial and detention in countries where they did not commit any crimes (‘The Guardian view’, 2021). Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems not to have changed his mind since he was quoted in 2019 as simply saying Assange should “face the music”. The Australian government has made no attempt to intervene in the US’ plans for Assange’s extradition, despite a public Australian petition for Assange’s release reaching 200,000 signatures and the backing of the Labor and Green parties (Peachey, 2021).
The Torture of Assange
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer, also condemned the UK High Court’s decision to allow Assange’s extradition, calling it “a shortcoming for the British judiciary” and a “politically motivated verdict”, while adding that Assange “is not in a condition to be extradited” (Sainty & AAP, 2021).
In a striking interview with Exberliner in 2020, Melzer recalled his visit to Belmarsh prison in 2019 to investigate the conditions in which Assange was being detained. He said Assange showed textbook signs of psychological torture after being examined by two medical experts, one forensic and the other a psychiatrist, specialised in this field. He displayed signs of the type of extreme traumatic stress and anxiety that disturbs the nervous system and cognitive capabilities “in a manner that is physically measurable”. This was likely caused by prolonged isolation and “constant exposure to a threatening and arbitrary environment where the rules are being changed all the time and nobody can be trusted.” Melzer noted that “it aims at destabilizing then destroying the personality and innermost self.” He also stated the intention behind this torture was probably intimidation and to make example of him to others who wish to leak government secrets. In other words, “a show of absolute and arbitrary power”. Additionally, he said underlying this psychological torture was “the constant threat to be extradited into a country where he will with certainty be exposed to a politicized show trial, deprived of his human dignity and due process rights, and then imprisoned in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions for the rest of his life” (Vancauwenberghe, 2020). It is clear that this extreme anxiety Assange faces is currently having a severe impact on his health as his fiancée, Stella Morris, revealed that on October 27th 2021 – the first day of his appeal hearing – Assange suffered a stroke (Sabin, 2021).
International collusion to silence Assange
Melzer also explained the illegality of Assange’s detention in the UK, the charges he faces in the US, as well as his extradition. In 2012, Assange was going to be extradited to Sweden by the British government for violating bail conditions relating to a Swedish proceeding on sexual offences – regarded by some as politically motivated – that was later terminated due to lack of evidence (Sainty & AAP, 2021; Vancauwenberghe, 2020). Assange was granted diplomatic asylum from political persecution in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and had legal justification for failing to fulfill these bail conditions. In 2019, Assange’s right to asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy was revoked after the US levied “very blunt economic pressure” on Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno and Assange was immediately arrested by British police. At this time, Melzer had asked for access to investigate the conditions under which Assange was living in the embassy. He notes that Assange’s prompt expulsion without due process three days after he issued this request was rather telling – “I knew from experience that states acting in good faith wouldn’t normally behave like that”. Melzer suspects that “the US, Ecuador and the UK all wanted to rush Assange out of the Embassy and into British custody before the UN Rapporteur on torture started digging up a lot of dirt and complicate things for them” (Sainty & AAP, 2021; Vancauwenberghe, 2020).
Moreover, on April 11th 2019, the very day he was arrested, Assange was convicted of violating his bail conditions and sentenced to 50 weeks’ imprisonment in the UK’s highest security prison which houses convicted murderers and terrorists (Dixon, Sald-Moorhouse, Rebaza & Picheta, 2019). As he displayed good behaviour, Assange’s sentence was reduced to 25 weeks. And yet Assange still remains in Belmarsh prison, essentially to stop him from fleeing the American authorities. Additionally, Assange’s procedural rights have been “so severely and consistently violated that, by now, this extradition proceeding has become irreparably arbitrary” as he has been denied adequate access to his legal team, to see his friends and family and to practice his profession. For Melzer, this all points towards his conclusion that Julian Assange is a political prisoner, as espionage is a political offence, facing arbitrary detention. Melzer stated this is a message to journalists from the UK and the US, that “if you do what Julian Assange did we will stop you and we will silence you and we will destroy your entire life and that of your family”. What exacerbates this violation of rights is that under the UK-US extradition treaty extradition for political offences is forbidden, making both his detention and his potential extradition illegal under this treaty. However, it appears that in this case the UK is applying the British Extradition Act, a domestic piece of legislation that does allow this kind of extradition – “In essence, the UK pick and choose whatever will enable them to extradite him” (Vauncauwenberghe, 2020).
Melzer states that the case of Assange is symptomatic of a trend among states to silence journalists, particularly those employing Wikileaks’ methodology, and they are “increasingly try[ing] to withhold compromising information from the public.” Wikileaks is seen as a threat as it opens up a model of leaking government secrets while keeping sources anonymous. With states increasingly persecuting journalists and whistleblowers, this “sets a very dangerous standard for the rule of law around the world” (Vauncauwenberghe, 2020).
The response of the media and civil society
There has been an outpouring of solidarity from journalists and media organisations, who argue that Assange’s case shows the hypocrisy of liberal states’ declarations of being bastions of press freedom. On December 9th, US President Joe Biden opened the international Summit for Democracy hailing the value of free and independent media, calling it “the bedrock of democracy. It’s how the public stay informed and how governments are held accountable.” The Guardian, which worked with Assange on publishing the findings of the 2010 leaks, issued a statement in which it said “the US government itself is endangering the ability of the media to bring to light uncomfortable truths and expose officials crimes and cover-ups” (‘The Guardian view’, 2021). However, as Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard pointed out, “virtually no one responsible for alleged US war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed such crimes is potentially facing a lifetime in jail” (‘The Guardian view’, 2021).
The story of Julian Assange highlights the threat to journalists’ freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary detention and torture, even in the world’s most liberal countries. The work of journalists uncovering government crimes and misconduct carries huge personal costs and it is likely this case will only deter journalists from exposing these crimes in the future. Wikileaks has, however, lifted the veil on the priorities and modes of operation of governments of the UK and US and ways of holding them accountable that can be anonymised, which may provide hope for some that more leaks exposing state crimes could be published in the future, even if not under Wikileaks.
Bibliography and further reading
Borger, J. (2021, September 27). CIA officials under Trump discussed assassinating Julian Assange – report. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/sep/27/senior-cia-officials-trump-discussed-assassinating-julian-assange
‘Collateral Murder’. (2010, April 5). Wikileaks.
Dixon, E., Sald-Moorhouse, L., Rebaza, C., & Picheta, R. (2019, April 11). Police arrest Julian Assange at Ecuadorian Embassy in London. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/11/uk/julian-assange-arrested-gbr-intl/index.html
Dorfman, Z., Naylor, S.D., & Isikoff, M. (2021, September 26). Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA’s secret war plans against Wikileaks. Yahoo! News.
Joyce, B. (2021, December 14). I have never met Julian Assange and I presume I would not like him, but he’s entitled to justice. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/i-have-never-met-julian-assange-and-i-presume-i-would-not-like-him-but-he-s-entitled-to-justice-20211212-p59gto.html
Peachey, S. (2021, December 4). Australia Has Sacrificed Julian Assange to the United States. Jacobin. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/12/australia-julian-assange-wikileaks-journalism-extradition-to-united-states
Sabin, L. (2021, December 13). Julian Assange ‘had stroke in prison’ due to stress over future fiancée says. The Independent.
Sainty, L. & AAP. (2021, December 11). Scott Morrison urged to end ‘lunacy’ and push UK and US for Julian Assange’s release. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/dec/11/scott-morrison-urged-to-end-lunacy-and-push-us-and-uk-to-release-julian-assange
‘The Guardian view on the US pursuit of Julian Assange: set him free’. (2021, December 10). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/10/the-guardian-view-on-the-us-pursuit-of-julian-assange-set-him-free
Vancauwenberghe, N. (2020, September 9). Un Rapporteur on torture: “Julian Assange is a polical prisoner.”. Exberliner. https://www.exberliner.com/features/julian-assange-trial-2020/nils-melzer-assange/
‘WarDiaries’. (2010, October 22). Wikileaks.
‘What is Wikileaks’. (2015, November 3). Wikileaks.