S&C reporter Paul Valentine takes a look at the case of Julian Assange, and asks what the strange circumstances of his ongoing extradition hearing means for our democracy, and future freedom of the press.
The one thing that you can be absolutely sure of in the saga of Julian Assange is that the mighty and powerful either side of the Atlantic Ocean have been in several deep and secret discussions about how to deal with it. There is, of course no doubt that the affair itself represents a ‘litmus’ of the effect of power over justice and if Assange is indeed extradited, then it is my contention that we now live in a pseudo-fascist state.
Let’s remind ourselves of the timeline.
The central element occurred when Chelsea Manning, acting as a source, sent a number of digital files to the organisation Wikileaks – an international non-profit organisation that publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources, headed by Julian Assange. Its website claimed in 2015 to have released online 10 million documents in its first 10 years.
Manning was a 22-year-old sergeant in Iraq, working as an intelligence analyst, when she sent Wikileaks war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, to ‘show the true cost’ of the conflicts. She was arrested in May 2010 and tried in the United States, where she was sentenced to 35 years in prison before her sentence was commuted by Barack Obama in 2017. She was returned to prison in 2019 ‘after she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.’
One of the files leaked by Manning was a video, which the Guardian describes as:
‘…showing a US helicopter crew laughing as they launched an air strike killing a dozen people in Baghdad in July 2007, including a photographer and driver working for the Reuters news agency. The footage was recorded on one of two Apache helicopters which were hunting for suspected insurgents. They encounter a group of men on the ground, who do not immediately appear armed, and there is no sign of gunshots. But one helicopter crew opens fire, with shouts of “Hahaha. I hit ‘em,” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”. As the wounded are helped, one of the helicopters opens fire again, with armour-piercing shells.
‘The next tranche of revelations came in July 2010, from documents dating from 2004 to 2009 raising concerns of US support for the Taliban during the Afghan war.’
An international arrest warrant for Julian Assange was issued in November 2010 in order to question him on suspicions of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. This led to Assange eventually seeking protection in the Ecuadorian embassy, and he told journalists he feared extradition to the US. These charges and the investigation into them have since been dropped, and Assange was arrested in April 2019 after his diplomatic status was revoked. You can find a full timeline of the Julian Assange case at the Guardian.
In early September, Assange began a 4 week legal hearing to extradite him to the United States to answer an 18 count American indictment, including plotting to hack computers and conspiring to obtain and disclose national defence information with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Judgement will take place in early January 2021.
Assange’s barrister, Mark Summers QC said of the hearing, and of new allegations against Assange that were recently added: ‘What is happening is abnormal, unfair and liable to create injustice if allowed to continue.’ Assange’s father, John Shipton has referred to the hearings as an ‘abuse trial’. UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Metzer, has said Assange’s extradition to the US ‘shouldn’t be allowed.’
It is not difficult to see why.
Firstly, questions have been raised over the selection of district judge Vanessa Baraitser to rule on the hearings. According to a report from Declassified UK based on FOI requests, Baraitser has ‘ordered extradition in 96% of the cases she has presided over for which information is publicly available’, and her appointment ‘to preside over the Assange case remains controversial and the decision untransparent’.
Secondly, given that Assange knew absolutely nothing about the leaks until passed the information by Chelsea Manning, why is he being charged as though he personally carried out the original ‘hack’?
The refusal of a judge to give provision to Amnesty International’s expert fair trial monitors is also concerning, particularly alongside numerous technical difficulties of sound and video quality, and the decision that evidence would be presented via witness statements, as opposed to witness testimony.
As James Doleman reports for Byline Times recently: ‘This led to the odd situation whereby a witness was only heard from if the US Government wanted to challenge the evidence being presented. Perhaps accidentally, in this way, it led to the American side having an effective veto over what the court heard. The prosecution could simply state that it did not wish to challenge a piece of testimony, while not accepting it was true, and then a summary of it, the ‘gist’, was just read out and we all moved on.’
Taken together, it appears to suggest that something more than ‘gremlins’ appear to be being utilised.
Journalists are now under attack globally for just doing their jobs – a result of a global shift to the right that includes Trump’s hatred for what he calls ‘fake news’. There is a war on journalism and at the centre of it is Julian Assange. If he is extradited, then what has happened to Julian Assange could happen to any journalist, which in and of itself would be a terrible threat to democracy.
Amnesty International say that: ‘It is ironic that no one responsible for possible war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan has been prosecuted, let alone punished. And yet the publisher who exposed their crimes is the one in the dock facing a lifetime in jail.’ This could create a scenario where the individual who leaked the material faces a lighter sentence than the individual who published it.
It seems clear to me that UK justice is working under the illusion that it is now subservient to US justice. If Assange is extradited, justice will not have been served; particularly given that Assange will be tried not for publishing the facts about wars, but for espionage. We really need to re-assess the issues that we take for granted regarding Western veracity and integrity; it seems to be following a path taken by some during the 1930s.
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