On Monday, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange’s one-week extradition hearing began at Woolwich Crown Court in SouthEast London. The judge heard the opening arguments for the prosecution and defense. The prosecution began, accusing the journalist who exposed the US government’s war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan of espionage charges that could carry 175 years in jail.
The US-based investigative journalist Kevin Gosztola, who was at the media annex during the proceeding, reported that U.S. Government barrister, James Lewis QC, said that prosecutors “are not criminalizing the publication of classified materials but rather the publication of names of informants or dissidents who help the US and allies in military operations.”
Gosztola noted that James Lewis QC “listed off specific documents that Assange is accused of releasing which allegedly contained names of ‘human sources’ that were endangered.” When asked by the judge if the offense of publishing would extend to a newspaper, the Prosecution replied, “1989 Official Secrets Act would cover [that]” and “If a journalist or newspaper publishes secret information likely to cause harm in the categories, it commits an offense.”
Updating the media on the hearing, the WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson reminded the crowd that this is “journalism on trial” and stated that the US argument is repeating the same old line they used 10 years ago, while dismissing the importance of the harm the US was doing, as revealed WikiLeaks by in their 2010-2011 publications. Hrafnsson rejected the US government’s claims that WikiLeaks publications put lives at risk, stating that during the 2013 Manning Trial the US government could not prove any harm and ultimately had to admit that no physical harm had occurred to a single individual due to WikiLeaks revelations.
Assange’s defense lawyer Edward Fitzgerald QC argued that this prosecution is politically motivated and so the UK can’t extradite Assange, since their treaty with the US strictly forbids extradition for a political offense.
The defense for Assange provided a background that led to this prosecution of his client. He noted that “President Trump came into power with a new approach to freedom of speech…. Effectively declaring war on investigative journalists.” He said that “President Trump met with FBI Director James Comey and agreed that they should be ‘putting a head on a pike’ as a message to journalists over leaks, and ‘putting journalists in jail.’”
Edward Fitzgerald QC indicated Assange has become a target of Trump’s “war on leakers and journalists.” He stated that his client was “the obvious symbol of all that Trump condemned. He had brought American war crimes to the attention of the world.”
Then, examples of egregious government “abuse of power” and the “abuse of the rule of law” were presented to the court as key defenses. These include the breach of client and attorney confidentiality. Assange’s conversations with lawyers were spied on by a Spanish security firm hired by the US while he was living under political asylum inside the London Ecuadorian Embassy. His grant of asylum was explicitly to protect him from the risk of extradition to the US; a risk related to his publishing activities with WikiLeaks.
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A further breach of legal privilege occurred after the Ecuadorian government illegally breached his asylum and evicted Assange, having the UK police arrest him within the embassy. The US authorities were then permitted, by the embassy, to seize his legally privileged materials.
On the first day of the hearing, the unprecedented scale of the assault on the journalist was revealed. Extreme measures employed in the targeting Assange, his lawyers stated, included plans to try to kidnap or poison Assange while he was in the embassy.
As another example of abuse of process, Fitzgerald QC brought up Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s alleged pardon offer, made to Mr Assange in August 2017. The opening summary of defense case states:
“Mr Rohrabacher visited Julian Assange and discussed a preemptive pardon in exchange for personal assistance to President Trump in the enquiry then ongoing concerning Russian involvement in the hacking and leaking of the Democratic National Committee emails… ” [3.7]
Fitzgerald QC continued: “We say that this whole pardon incident shows that, just as the prosecution was initiated in December 2017 for political purposes, so too the Trump administration had been prepared to use the threat of prosecution as a means of extortion to obtain personal political advantage from Mr Assange.” [3.9]
From the US government spying on the embassy, to the alleged extortion, Julian Assange’s lawyer argued, this extradition case “is not about criminal justice, it’s about the manipulation of the system to ensure the United States could make an example of Assange.”
As the extradition hearing began, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the courthouse, chanting for freedom of the WikiLeaks founder. Major human rights organizations and press freedom groups, including Amnesty International and The Committee to Protect Journalists, have now come out strongly against Assange’s extradition to the US.
After the first day of monitoring the hearing, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) UK bureau director Rebecca Vincent noted, “Nothing we heard today was surprising, and has reinforced our position. We believe he has been targeted for his contributions to public interest reporting.”