By Alec Smart
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who returned to Court in London on Monday this week, is losing ground in his struggle to avoid extradition to the United States from Britain, where he is currently in detention.
If Assange is extradited to the USA after his February 2020 British court hearing, he faces multiple decades in prison for obtaining and disclosing thousands of secret political and military documents – including video evidence of US war crimes – deemed as offences under the US Espionage Act.
Human Rights violations
Among the WikiLeaks’ releases is the infamous ‘Collatoral Murder’ film footage from 12 July 2007, showing helicopter gunsight footage of laughing, joking helicopter crews engaged in a ‘turkey-shoot’ of fleeing civilians in Baghdad.
Two US military Apache helicopters conducted three airstrikes during a 39-minute shooting spree, killing eight Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters’ photojournalists, and injuring two young boys. The Guardian newspaper described the second strike as a “plainly unjustified killing of a group of unarmed men carrying away an unarmed, seriously wounded man to safety.”
Also released were details of the May 2009 Granai Airstrike Massacre, in which a US Air Force B1 bomber killed over 140 civilians in Southern Afghanistan, over 90 of which were children, and the Iraq War Logs, revealing that of the estimated 150,000 deaths in Iraq between 2004-9 attributable to the US Military, around 80% were civilians.
Massimo Moratti, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe, said: “The British authorities must acknowledge the real risks of serious human rights violations Julian Assange would face if sent to the USA, and reject the extradition request. The UK must abide by its obligations under international human rights law that forbids the transfer of individuals to another country where they would face serious human rights violations.
“Were Julian Assange to be extradited or subjected to any other transfer to the USA, Britain would be in breach of these obligations.”
The Australian journalist and former founder of Wikileaks – an international non-profit organization that publishes classified documents and anonymous news leaks – appeared in Westminster Magistrates Court in London on October 21 for a case management hearing. Among his supporters in the packed public gallery were award-winning Australian filmmaker John Pilger and former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.
The London Economic reported that Assange “struggled to say his own name” and “mumbled, paused and stuttered as he gave his name and date of birth.” His decline in health follows seven years of severely restricted mobility, most of that in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he was unable to leave, and the latter six months in prison.
In May 2019 Assange was jailed for 50 weeks for breaching the Bail Act as a result of going into hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in August 2012, where he was granted political asylum by Ecuador’s then-president, Raffael Correa.
He was sent to Belmarsh Prison as a ‘Category A’ prisoner, regarded “highly dangerous to the public or national security”. As Assange’s health declined and he was unable to attend another court hearing, WikiLeaks released a statement: “During the seven weeks in Belmarsh his health has continued to deteriorate and he has dramatically lost weight. The decision of the prison authorities to move him into the health ward speaks for itself.”
On May 9, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, visited Assange at Belmarsh Prison, accompanied by two medical experts who specialize in the examination of victims of torture.
Melzer declared Assange has been “deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” which he described as “psychological torture.”
Furthermore, Assange had been to subjected to a “relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation,” during which time no government, beyond President Correa of Ecuador, intervened to protect him.
“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”
Assange was due for release on 22 September, however, on 13 September, a magistrate ruled that when his prison term ended his status would be re-categorised from a serving prisoner to a person facing extradition. He would remain in custody pending the outcome of the extradition trial because there were “substantial grounds” to believe he was a ‘flight risk’ and might abscond.
Assange has many supporters, some from unexpected quarters.
Former Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson announced on 11 October that she would use her visit to Australia in November to “petition Prime Minister Morrison” to intervene on behalf of Assange, insisting he had “suffered inhumanely for disseminating factual information we all should know about.”
On 14 October a cross-party collaboration of Australian MPs, including former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, and former Labor Party Foreign Minister Bob Carr, announced their concerns over the joint American and British efforts to punish the 48-year-old Australian.
“I, in no way shape or form, give a character recommendation about Mr Assange, that’s not the issue,” Joyce told reporters in Canberra. “Sovereignty is not just for people that you like or people that you have a philosophical relationship to, it might be for someone you detest, it might be for someone that you find completely obnoxious.
“Nonetheless,” he continued, “if they’re a citizen of this nation, they should be afforded the rights of a citizen. Whether you like a person or not, they should be afforded the proper rights and protections and the process of justice, as determined by an Australian Parliament, not another nation’s parliament.”
Mr Carr, while conceding many people had reservations about releasing the whistleblower due to his alleged (and vociferously denied) links to Russian interests, added: “We have an absolute right to know about American war crimes in a conflict that the Australian government of the day strongly supported – we wouldn’t know about them except for Assange.”
Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie revealed there is a group of parliamentarians who plan to cooperate further to fight for Assange’s return to Australia, including members of the ruling cabinet.
“The only party I’m having to work extra hard on getting members of the group is Labor,” he told reporters.
This doesn’t surprise City Hub, recalling our own May 2019 face-to-face interview with Tanya Plibersek, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who asserted it was Labor’s position that Assange basically deserved whatever he got.
In June 2018 the new Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, met with USA Vice President Mike Pence and discussed the then-stalemate over Assange. Moreno, wheelchair-bound after a shooting injury during a 1998 robbery attempt, was previously Vice President under Raffael Correa, but after a very narrow victory following a run-off in the April 2017 elections, distanced himself from his former progressive policies, provoking widespread social dissent
He subsequently realigned his country’s previously estranged relationship with the North American superpower, buying weapons, radars and helicopters and agreeing further military cooperation.
On 28 March 2019 Moreno ordered his London embassy cut Assange’s internet connection “to prevent any potential harm”, blaming it on Assange’s denouncement of Ecuador’s arrest of a Catalonian separatist leader.
When WikiLeaks’ then published a report on a corruption investigation against Moreno by Ecuador’s legislature, the President, who referred to Assange as a “spoilt brat” and a “miserable hacker”, revoked the Australian’s asylum status.
Moreno then reached an agreement with British police (according to an anonymous Ecuadorian Government source) to facilitate the arrest of Assange upon his eviction from the embassy.
On 11 April 2019, Assange’s six years and nine months’ exile within the Embassy of Ecuador in London ended and he was arrested by Metropolitan Police when his Ecuadorian citizenship was annulled by President Moreno.
Shortly afterward, the International Monetary Fund approved a $4.2bn loan for Ecuador followed by World Bank approval for a Social Safety Net Project of investments and cash transfers. Moreno then granted the US Air Force use of an airbase on the Galapágos Islands.
After Assange’s arrest, USA authorities immediately released their indictment against him, revealing he was charged with the relatively minor crime of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion (hacking into a government computer), punishable with a maximum 5-year sentence if convicted.
However, on 23 May, Assange was indicted on 17 new charges relating to the Espionage Act of 1917, which carry a maximum sentence of 170 years in prison if found guilty, including allegations he worked with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Most of the previous cases brought under the Espionage Act have been against government employees who accessed sensitive information and leaked it to the media or foreign intelligence services. A prosecution related to media organisations receiving and publishing classified information has not previously been tested in a US court. If successful it would set a new precedent in US Law allowing prosecution of whistleblowing journalists, which many insist undermines the democratic integrity of the USA.
Chelsea Manning, the former United States Army soldier and intelligence analyst responsible for disclosing nearly 750,000 sensitive, military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, published between April 2010 and April 2011, prompting the international witch-hunt against Assange, was arrested in May 2010 and charged with 22 offenses, including Aiding the Enemy, which carries the death sentence.
She was acquitted of the latter but convicted of the 21 other charges (three of them amended), and sentenced to 35 years at a maximum-security prison.
In January, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence to confinement dating from her arrest to his involvement, making her eligible for immediate release.
However, On March 8, 2019, Manning was held in contempt of court by a United States District Court judge for refusing to testify against Julian Assange to a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
She was held in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day in Alexandria City Jail until May 9, then subpoenaed to reappear in Court on 16 May, whereupon she was again incarcerated for her refusal to testify against Assange. She was returned to jail for the 18-month term of the grand jury and additionally fined $500 for each day she spends in jail over 30 days and $1,000 for each day she spends in jail over 60 days if she continues to refuse to testify, which will effectively bankrupt her for life.
In September 2019, during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the White House, President Trump was asked by journalists if the USA still intended to prosecute Assange. Trump replied: “That’s a question I haven’t heard in a long time. I’ll leave that for you to determine.”
On October 14, the Morrison government was widely mocked for its accidental release of 18 pages of approved talking points to the Australian media, suggesting how MPs should respond to journalists. It revealed the ruling coalition’s lacklustre stance on Assange:
“The Australian government cannot interfere in the United Kingdom’s legal processes, just as another country cannot interfere in ours. We appreciate that some members of the public feel very strongly about Mr Assange’s situation but it is important to remember that Australia cannot intervene in the legal processes of another country..”
On Monday October 14, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC News: “He ultimately will face the justice for what he’s been alleged to have done, but that is a legal process that will run its course.”