WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his team received notice on April 2nd that the Westminster Magistrate’s Court will issue his extradition order to the United States on April 20th. “The order will then go to [U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel] for approval,” the official Wikileaks Twitter said. “Assange’s defence will make submissions to Patel (deadline 18 May).” Assange has been held on remand at Belmarsh maximum-security prison awaiting his extradition hearings in London since 2020.
The United States is seeking extradition, which the British Supreme Court granted in March, to make Assange face over a dozen espionage charges for publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents. The documents, which exposed atrocities American troops committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, were leaked to Assange by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst.
Almost every major human rights and free speech organization has opposed this attempt to silence Assange. Amnesty International has urged the U.S. to drop the charges. “By charging someone with espionage who has no non-disclosure obligation, is not a US citizen and is not in America, the US government is behaving as if they have jurisdiction all over the world to pursue any person who receives and publishes information of government wrongdoing,” the organization says.
Many journalists have also voiced concerns about Assange’s case. “Julian did not commit a crime … the people who did commit the crimes which he exposed have never been charged,” said Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. (Hedges, who was forced out of American journalism for expressing dissident anti-war views in the early 2000’s and began a program called On Contact with Russian state-supported television network R.T., just had six years of his show’s episodes removed from YouTube.)
The United States, meanwhile, has argued that Assange put American assets at an increased security risk. Mr. Assange is “no journalist,” John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said following the Trump administration’s expanded indictment in 2019. The Justice Department accuses Assange of conspiring with Chelsea Manning. “No responsible actor,” Demers said, “journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers.”
Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, creating a secure website for whistleblowers to drop classified or sensitive material. On April 5th, 2010, WikiLeaks released video footage from an American helicopter called Collateral Murder, showing an airstrike in Baghdad which killed 18 civilians, including two Reuters journalists. Later that year, in July, the site released over 75,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, most of which were secret military reports. Nearly 400,000 classified military documents chronicling the Iraq war would follow in October.
On November 18th, 2010, a Swedish court ordered Assange’s arrest over allegations of rape, which Assange’s lawyer said were baseless and made as part of a smear campaign against his client. Assange was arrested in London but freed on bail. After appealing, the U.K. Supreme Court rejected Assange’s final appeal and ordered extradition in June 2012, at which time Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, seeking diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum under the U.N. declaration of human rights. This asylum was revoked after Sweden discontinued its investigation, allowing Britain to arrest Assange for skipping bail. After Assange finished serving that sentence, Britain kept him jailed pending extradition hearings following a request by the U.S. Justice Department on June 6th, 2019 request by the U.S. Justice Department to make him face espionage charges. On March 14th, 2022, the U.K. refused Assange’s permission to appeal extradition, with the Supreme Court tweeting that Assange’s case “does not raise an arguable point of law.”
This continued crusade against Julian Assange is the biggest assault on press freedom in the 21st century. The charges Assange faces under the 1917 Espionage Act will punish him for carrying out everyday journalistic practices. Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who obtained and published leaked material from abroad. Investigative reporting, which relies heavily on leaked documents, is essential for exposing military atrocities by purportedly moral actors and allowing citizens to hold their governments to account. Whether or not you believe the American government’s claim that Assange put “assets” at risk, the assertion that it is allowed to prosecute anyone in the world for unearthing government wrongdoing is chilling. This politically-motivated trial sets a dangerous precedent for anyone handling national security issues.
I am joining the plethora of other human rights and free speech advocates condemning the United States’ attempt to silence Julian Assange. This attack on press freedom serves no purpose other than to silence a critic exposing grave human rights abuses carried out with willful neglect of international law. While the United States is denouncing Russia for silencing the voices of its opposition, America itself is prosecuting its most famous whistleblower. America must hold itself accountable to the democratic principles it claims to embody.
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