Ahead of appeals hearing, rights groups reiterate demand for Assange’s release

During the appeals hearing, the US will challenge the decision of a lower court to deny the extradition of Julian Assange. Rights groups have called the prosecution of Assange an attack on press freedom

October 26, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
A March for Assange rally held in London, United Kingdom, on October 23, demanding the release of Wikileaks founder. Photo: Richard Burgon MP/Twitter

As a British court is scheduled to begin an appeals hearing for the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, movements around the world have reiterated the demand for his release. The hearing is to be held at the High Court of Justice in London on October 27 and 28 over the appeals filed by the United States against a lower court’s decision to reject an extradition request for Assange.

In January this year, Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrate’s Court had rejected the extradition request from the US, finding Assange to be suffering from mental health issues that make him a suicide risk if extradited. The judgment also raised concerns about the impact that harsh prison conditions in the US would have on Assange’s mental health. Despite rejecting the extradition request, Baraitser ordered that Assange be detained in the high-security prison in Belmarsh pending the appeals process.

If the High Court accepts the appellate petition against the Baraitser judgment, Assange will face another round of extradition trial while being imprisoned. The extradition process, initiated under the administration of former US president Donald Trump and continued under the current Joe Biden administration, is seen by many press freedom advocates and supporters of Assange as an attempt to punish him for his work as a publisher and a journalist.

Assange is being indicted by a grand jury in the US on 18 federal criminal charges that together carry a maximum term of 175 years in prison. 17 of these charges are under the infamous Espionage Act, and are related to WikiLeaks publishing documents that exposed the US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, its extensive snooping network in other nations, and other similar violations of international law.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, rights groups worldwide have emphasized the political nature of the ongoing prosecution. In a statement released on Monday, October 25, Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, called the prosecution a punitive measure. She also argued that the implications of the case “go far beyond the fate of one man and put media freedom and freedom of expression in peril.”

“Journalists and publishers are of vital importance in scrutinizing governments, exposing their misdeeds and holding perpetrators of human rights violations to account. This disingenuous appeal should be denied, the charges should be dropped, and Julian Assange should be released,” added Callamard.

A massive March for Assange in London, held on October 23, was also organized by family, friends, and supporters. Prominent public figures, politicians, and artists took part.

Assange was targeted before the indictment

Earlier this month, 25 civil society groups, including Amnesty, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), among others, wrote a joint letter to the US attorney general Merrick Garland demanding that all proceedings against Assange be dropped.

The letter came in light of recent revelations by Yahoo News, which reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under Trump-era director Mike Pompeo had discussed means to either kidnap or assassinate Assange.

The revelations were made over the course of interviews with 30 CIA former security agents and intelligence officers. Pompeo later admitted that “pieces of it are true.”

The rights groups wrote, “In light of the shocking new reporting on the government’s conduct in this case, we respectfully urge you to drop the ongoing appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange.”

The report comes just three months after the prime witness in the ongoing indictment, convicted Icelandic hacker Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson, admitted to lying about his association with Assange. Thordarson’s testimony, acquired under the administration of Barack Obama, became the basis for the expanded indictment against Assange in August last year, in which he was accused of having conspired with US intelligence officer Chelsea Manning to leak classified documents.

Neither the expose on the CIA’s plans for Assange nor the Thordarson admission have been taken into account in any substantial form in the British courts.

In the March for Assange rally, Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, highlighted how the revelations show that the US plans for Assange were no different from what happened with Jamaal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey.

“We are talking about a country plotting to kill a journalist because he was doing his job – it’s inconceivable these courts would ever extradite Julian,” said Moris. She had also repeatedly highlighted threats and intimidation received by her and other family members over the past few years.

Are there grounds for appeal?

The High Court will consider the recently expanded grounds for appeal by the US. Some of the grounds are: a) questions on the validity of expert testimony by a psychiatrist; b) application of provisions that prevent extradition in case of imminent physical harm; c) judge Baraitser not seeking assurances from the US before passing the verdict; d) the assurances the US has given to British authorities since the January verdict, and e) the judge’s supposed error when considering suicide risk.

In the appeals process, the US prosecutors have strongly argued that the judge did not seek assurances about its prison conditions and the incarceration plans for Assange. The prosecution is also likely to use conditional assurances made to the British government after the Baraitser verdict.

These assurances include not putting him under special administrative measures (SAMs or effective isolation in prison), not holding him in ADX Florence — a notorious supermax prison — and allowing for Assange to apply to transfer his US prison sentence to Australia.

Kevin Gosztola, writing for The Dissenter, pointed out that these assurances contain loopholes that could easily lead Assange to be put through exactly what he and his lawyers have raised concerns about. He also argued that the option to be transferred to Australia for a prison sentence is an attempt by the US to easily wash off responsibility for possible human rights violations inside its prisons.

The other issue that the prosecution has been trying to raise is that judge Baraitser made an error by not disqualifying a psychiatric expert’s testimony, Michael Kopelman, for supposedly withholding information about Assange’s family. They have also argued that the judge erred by overestimating the risk of suicide, arguing that US prison systems have measures to prevent it under custody.

Assange’s defense team had objected to raising such grounds, arguing that Baraitser was still made aware of the relationship with Stella Moris that Kopelman had initially withheld, much before medical evidence of Assange’s mental health issues were presented to the court.

Baraitser, in her ruling, also stated that Kopelman “explained that (Moris’) relationship with Mr. Assange was not yet in the public domain and that she was very concerned about her privacy. After their relationship became public, he had disclosed it in his August 2020 report. In fact, the court had become aware of the true position in April 2020, before it had read the medical evidence or heard evidence on this issue.”

The attempt to disqualify Kopelman, whose assessments were crucial in the outcome of the Baraitser verdict, is also an attempt by prosecutors to understate the seriousness of Assange’s mental issues in the case and the likelihood of suicide, which also brings down the basis of rejecting the extradition request.