Assange completes four years in UK jail, struggle against US extradition continues

The Wikileaks founder has spent four years in a high-security prison without a conviction or a charge, fighting a prolonged extradition process. Meanwhile, his supporters have shown no signs of easing the struggle for his release

April 11, 2023 by Anish R M
Once extradited, Assange will face an indictment for charges that carry a total maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

April 11 marks four years since Julian Assange was forcibly dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2019 and put under arrest. Ever since his imprisonment, the Wikileaks founder has spent much of his time in the high-security prison in Belmarsh under judicial remand, without any charges or conviction, fighting a prolonged extradition process.

The extradition request from the United States began under the administration of former president Donald Trump, and continues under the present Joe Biden administration. From recent revelations, it is understood that the US attempt to prosecute Assange has been going on since at least the Barack Obama administration.

Read More: Julian Assange case: 4 things that the media doesn’t tell you

Once extradited, Assange will face an indictment for charges that carry a total maximum prison sentence of 175 years. He faces 18 charges, 17 of them under the infamous Espionage Act, and is the first publisher or journalist to be indicted under the controversial law. The charges pertain to the release and publication of leaked classified documents that exposed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with several other violations of international law, by the US.

Last week, on April 3, in a statement to Poynter, the US Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman said, “I can confirm we are continuing our efforts to seek the extradition of Julian Assange.” This indicates that the Biden administration has no intention of letting Assange free, overlooking calls from civil society groups, press freedom advocates, major media houses, UN rights experts, and even political leaders from the US and different parts of the world.

Currently, Assange is pursuing the final appeals process against the UK Home Secretary’s decision to authorize the court-sanctioned extradition to the US, with dim prospects. Despite the ongoing US-led persecution and slow judicial process in the UK, deemed as judicial kidnapping and a punishment through process, Assange’s supporters are continuing the fight for his release.

Read More: The judicial kidnapping of Julian Assange

Ongoing actions to fight for release

On Tuesday, activists and concerned citizens in the US are set to participate in the “Assange Lobby Day”. Participants will assemble at the Rayburn House in Washington DC, which houses offices of the members of the US Congress, and lobby with various legislators to co-sign congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s letter to the US attorney general Merrick Garland.

Tlaib’s letter, released in March, criticizes the charges as posing “a grave and unprecedented threat to everyday, constitutionally protected journalistic activity.”

“The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well,” the letter pointed out. “In the future the New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information. Or, just as dangerous for democracy, they may refrain from publishing such stories for fear of prosecution.”

In another letter, Tlaib had also earlier called on her colleagues in the Congress to set aside differences and support her letter to Garland. “I know many of us have very strong feelings about Mr. Assange, but what we think of him and his actions is really besides the point here,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that the in which Mr. Assange is being prosecuted under the notoriously undemocratic Espionage Act seriously undermines freedom of the press and the First Amendment.”

The letter is a rare Congressional effort calling for Assange’s release and has gained only a very limited support from within the Congress. Nevertheless, it has generated a great deal of interest among activists, who see it as an opportunity to turn up pressure on elected representatives.

The organization Defending Rights & Dissent has also released a call to action in support of the petition, calling Tlaib’s letter “a breath of fresh air” and underscoring the need for legislators to take a stand, especially those from Biden’s Democratic Party.

The International Peoples’ Assembly which has a permanent campaign to free Julian Assange, has called on supporters to send letters to US President Joe Biden to drop the charges against the Wikileaks co-founder.

The group’s policy director Chip Gibbons, a longtime advocate for Assange’s release, pointed out the importance of Tlaib’s letter considering Congressional inaction. “In spite of the rhetoric about opposing authoritarianism and defending democracy and press freedom, we really haven’t seen a comparable outcry from Congress — until now,” said Gibbons.

Supporters have called a rally outside of the Department of Justice on the evening of April 11. “What’s happening to Julian Assange is happening to all of us,” stated the rally announcement. “It’s the criminalization of truth. The world is watching and the tide is turning. Journalism is not a crime.”

In the meantime, Assange’s father and brother, John and Gabriel Shipton, are on a tour across North America, attending independent screenings of the film “Ithaka”, documenting John Shipton’s ongoing struggle, and interacting with activists and average people talking about the family’s efforts trying to secure Assange’s release.

Is Australia finally intervening?

Assange is an Australian citizen, but his home country has for a better part of the entire judicial process distanced itself from his case. After several calls from activists and even legislators, and a change of government, Australia is finally showing signs of intervening.

On Tuesday, 48 federal legislators across party lines in Australia signed a letter addressed to Garland, demanding that the US drop all charges against Assange and end his imprisonment. The letter argued that Assange “has been effectively incarcerated for well over a decade in one form or another” noting his confinement to the Ecuadorian embassy between 2012 and 2019.

“If the extradition request is approved, Australians will witness the deportation of one of our citizens from one Aukus partner to another – our closest strategic ally – with Mr. Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison,” the letter said.

“This would set a dangerous precedent for all global citizens, journalists, publishers, media organizations and the freedom of the press. It would also be needlessly damaging for the US as a world leader on freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

The letter released on the four-year anniversary of Assange’s imprisonment also comes a week after Australia’s new high commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, visited Assange in Belmarsh on April 4, and also stated that he expected to conduct more visits in the future.

After coming to power in May of last year, the Labour government under Anthony Albanese had indicated attempts to lobby for Assange’s release, but made very little progress. Last month, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong’s statement that “there are limits to what that diplomacy can achieve” on Assange case, dampened expectations of an Australian intervention.

Nevertheless, the letter from lawmakers as well as the high commissioner’s visit has renewed hopes for greater political intervention from the country.