Just a day after a coalition of press freedom groups urged President Joe Biden to drop his predecessor's effort to prosecute Julian Assange, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said Tuesday that the new administration intends to challenge a British judge's rejection last month of the U.S. attempt to extradite the WikiLeaks publisher.
"We continue to seek his extradition," Marc Raimondi, a spokesperson for the DOJ's National Security Division, told Reuters just days before the Friday deadline to appeal Judge Vanessa Baraitser's ruling, which denied the U.S. extradition request on the grounds that America's brutal prison system would pose a threat to Assange's life.
"I join all defenders of freedom of the press in demanding that the Biden administration drop the unconstitutional indictment of Julian Assange and accept—not appeal—the decision of the British judge not to extradite him."
Charged by the Trump Justice Department in 2019 with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents that exposed U.S. war crimes overseas, Assange would likely face up to 175 years in a maximum-security prison if the extradition effort is successful.
Press freedom advocates raised alarm at Raimondi's comment and ramped up their demands that the Biden administration reverse course, warning that prosecution of Assange for journalistic activity would endanger press freedoms everywhere.
"None of this is inevitable," said Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders. "At every step of the way, individuals with agency are actively choosing to continue the political case against Julian Assange that will have alarming consequences for journalism around the world. It's time to free Assange."
The Courage Foundation, an organization founded to support whistleblowers and journalists, stressed in a series of tweets Tuesday that while "the U.S. may submit its Assange appeal filing by Friday to meet its deadline... one would expect a serious policy decision to be made by the new Attorney General [Merrick Garland] who, once confirmed, can review the incredibly weak case against Assange in full before making a determination."
"The incoming DOJ," the group added, "can drop the charges against Assange at any time, including after this Friday's appeal deadline."
Biden’s nominee to lead the new DOJ, Merrick Garland, has taken strong positions in defense of the First Amendment as a federal judge. When confirmed, he should end the prosecution of Julian Assange. https://t.co/vLjykAwbct
— Courage Foundation (@couragefound) February 9, 2021
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Kevin Gosztola of Shadow Proof noted Tuesday that Raimondi's statement on Assange—who remains detained at the notorious high-security Belmarsh prison in London— "represents a departure from President Barack Obama's administration, which declined to prosecute Assange. Justice Department officials were reportedly concerned about the threat it would pose to press freedom."
"While Attorney General Eric Holder empaneled a grand jury to investigate WikiLeaks in 2010," Gosztola explained, "by the summer of 2013, Holder was reluctant to indict Assange and charges were never brought by the Obama administration."
In a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson on Monday, a coalition of two dozen press freedom groups including the ACLU, Pen America, and the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that prosecution of Assange for publishing classified documents "could effectively criminalize... common journalistic practices" and called on the Biden administration to drop the charges.
It is unfortunately the case that press freedom is under threat globally," the groups wrote. "Now more than ever, it is crucial that we protect a robust and adversarial press—what Judge Murray Gurfein in the Pentagon Papers case memorably called a 'cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press'—in the United States and abroad. With this end in mind, we respectfully urge you to forgo the appeal of Judge Baraitser's ruling, and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange."
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, echoed the coalition's message in a tweet on Tuesday.
"I join all defenders of freedom of the press in demanding that the Biden administration drop the unconstitutional indictment of Julian Assange and accept—not appeal—the decision of the British judge not to extradite him," Ellsberg wrote.