Incarceration Nation

The Prosecution and Persecution of Julian Assange

By Cliff Conner

On January 4th of this year a British court headed by Judge Vanessa Baraitser was scheduled to rule on a U.S. request that Julian Assange be extradited to the United States to stand trial on espionage charges. The previous day, January 3rd, civil liberties activists held a rally at the British Consulate in New York City to demand that Britain deny the extradition request. My speech at that rally, reprinted below, expressed and elaborated on that demand.

Judge Baraitser was widely expected to approve the extradition request, but surprisingly, she did not. Her decision, however, explicitly upheld the U.S. charges against Assange, but blocked his extradition on humanitarian grounds—that the harsh prison conditions Assange would face in the United States would undermine his mental health and put him at risk of suicide. Assange’s lawyers and supporters applauded the decision as a victory for Assange, but one that nonetheless continued to imperil freedom of speech and investigative journalism.

On January 19th, the day before Trump was forced out of office, his Department of Justice filed an appeal to Judge Baraitser’s decision. The Brits were not concerned with what lame duck Trump wanted; they wanted to know what the President-elect wanted. Biden was thus faced with a decision. He could ignore the last-minute Trump administration action, putting an end to the affair, or he could order the Department Of Justice to refile the appeal and continue to pursue Assange’s extradition. The deadline for refiling the appeal was Friday, February 12th.

On the first day of the deadline week—Monday, February 8th—a coalition of twenty-four leading civil liberties organizations issued a powerful call to the new administration to drop the Assange prosecution altogether. The ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Press Freedom Defense Fund, Reporters Without Borders, and the Knight First Amendment Institute were among the signatories. As a spokesman for the Press Freedom Defense Fund explained:

“Former President Obama came into office promising the ‘most transparent administration in history,’ but its use of the Espionage Act against journalistic sources left a dark stain on its press freedom legacy. Biden has come into office with similarly lofty rhetoric about the importance of press freedom and the role of journalists. The continuing Assange prosecution is perhaps the first major test of those ideals, and his Department of Justice should act accordingly.”

But the following day—February 9th—a spokesman for the Biden administration unofficially announced that the Department of Justice intended to continue seeking Assange’s extradition. That they hadn’t yet officially filed the appeal gave a little room for Assange’s lawyers and supporters to hope that they might not actually do so. Wednesday came and went, and the DOJ remained silent. On Thursday, still not a peep from the DOJ. But on Friday, the other shoe finally dropped. Like their Trumpist predecessors, they waited until the last possible day to do their nefarious deed.

Tomorrow a judge at the Old Bailey in London is expected to rule on whether Julian Assange will be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges that carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

I’m here now to join with others—those here today and defenders of human rights around the world—the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and many others—to demand that the British government refuse to extradite Julian Assange, and to set him free immediately and unconditionally. We also call on the American government to drop all of the false and malicious charges they’ve brought against him, and cease all threats of prosecution in the United States.

We call for the release of Julian Assange first and foremost on the grounds that his imprisonment is an egregious injustice. We secondarily call for his release on humanitarian grounds, because the abuse and mistreatment he has already suffered in Belmarsh Prison constitutes an ongoing crime against humanity.

To those who are hoping that the incoming Biden administration may be inclined toward looking favorably on Assange’s case, I cite a reminder recently published in The Intercept:

“. . . the Obama-Biden administration was one of the most hostile toward whistleblowers and journalists that we’ve ever seen—and far more effective at suppressing dissent than Donald Trump’s buffoonery. There’s no reason to think that President Biden will be any different.”1

It was the Obama-Biden administration, after all, that originally charged Assange with espionage in 2010. On the other hand, it withdrew those charges in 2013, when it realized that it simply didn’t have a case against Assange and WikiLeaks that couldn’t also be made against the New York Times and many other mainstream media outlets in the United States.

That is the precedent Biden should follow. On January 20th, one of his first official acts as President should be to withdraw the application to extradite Julian Assange from Britain to the United States. And if Biden doesn’t do that, we have to make sure he’s held accountable.

We make the demands to free and to cease the mistreatment of Julian Assange not only because we oppose the violation of a single individual’s human rights, but because we also recognize the truth of the fundamental principle of labor solidarity—that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” As long as Julian Assange is unfree, our fundamental democratic rights are under assault, and to the extent we are denied our democratic rights, we are also unfree.

As for “espionage,” if Assange revealed American diplomatic or military secrets, or secrets of any kind—that was not espionage—it was journalism. The information he published was vital to the public interest, as hundreds of investigative journalists, legal experts, and human rights advocates have declared.

What Julian Assange and WikiLeaks published allowed citizens of countries all over the world to be aware of their governments’ activities. That has long been recognized as the legitimate and necessary function of a free press. The attacks against Assange are attacks on our democratic and Constitutional right to freedom of the press. And that’s why we’re here demanding his freedom.

Finally, I say to those of you here today: We can hope that tomorrow the British government will rule against Julian Assange’s extradition. On the other hand, if their order goes the other way, he is unlikely to be extradited any time soon, because his lawyers will be able to appeal the ruling. That would result in his continued incarceration and mistreatment in Belmarsh Prison.

So, whichever way the ruling goes, we have to be prepared to intensify our efforts. A primary focus will have to be to continue to counter the widespread campaign of slander and vilification that has poisoned the American national conversation and prejudiced many of our compatriots against Assange. That’s the task we’re faced with, and it’s going to be an uphill battle. But the stakes are enormous, both for Julian Assange, and for ourselves.

No Extradition!

End all prosecution and persecution!

Free Julian Assange!

Cliff Conner is author of A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanics and The Tragedy of American Science From Truman to Trump, among other books and writings.

1 Quote from a fundraising plea sent out by The Intercept on December 24, 2020.