On 21 October, the unwell Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was told in a London court that he would face an extradition hearing in February 2020. This effectively denied his last chance to postpone his extradition trial to the United States on charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, an unusual charge for a non-U.S. citizen.
Since being forcibly removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy in April, after his asylum status was revoked, Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment in the United Kingdom for breaking bail conditions in 2012. Appearing in court to argue for the stalling of his extradition hearing, Assange informed the judge of his poor health and obstructed legal situation. Confirming what others have previously reported about his condition in the prior months, he told the judge he did “not really” understand what was going on in court and that he “can’t think properly” about his circumstance while in prison. His lawyer, Mr. Summers, argued “that the American state has been actively engaged on intruding on privileged discussions between Mr. Assange and his lawyers.” According to Summers, Assange cannot contact his lawyers in the United States or have access to computers while at Belmarsh Prison, a high security prison. The judge, while giving Summers more time to prepare his case, announced the trial would go ahead next year despite Assange’s worsening situation. To accurately describe his predicament, Nils Melzer, a United Nations Special Rapporteur, commented back in May after visiting Assange that his condition is that of “psychological torture over an extended period of time.”
While Assange’s favourability has changed over time with Wikileaks and his own legal troubles, his current situation as a publisher should be a wake-up call to journalists around the world. If not for its own dark history, the insidious use of the United States Espionage Act of 1917 to charge a foreigner, for what American journalists could also have published, is horrible for what impact it can potentially have. In this case, Assange has been forced, through the pain of life imprisonment or the threat of the death penalty from an extradition process, to be holed up in diplomatic limbo for many years, inside a building away from his family, friends, and native Australia, over trumped-up charges. All of this psychological torture for a third party despite the evidence that the Wikileaks publications, provided by Chelsea Manning in 2010, did not result in actual damages to the United States’ national security nor its allies. The implication of a successful extradition and verdict against Assange then is that journalists, let alone honest whistle-blowers, will no longer be able to safely expose aspects of the American government that the institutions would rather people did not know about. Effectively, this would set a precedent for the harassment of a free press, practically anywhere in relation to United States government secrets, and the undoing of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Even if there is merit to investigating and having a trial for Assange, the whole process has made a mockery of the concept of justice and all the countries involved in this affair. It says a lot when the country whose pledge includes “liberty and justice for all” believes that any price, even ruining a foreigner’s life, is worth it if it will prevent people from exposing illegal and immoral acts done in its name. Hopefully Assange will be given more support in this difficult time and there will be pushback against the cruel treatment he and other journalists are facing in holding institutions of power to account.
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