The extradition of Assange will deter journalists from speaking truth to power, says Shadia Edwards-Dashti
At a time when our government, the Prime Minister, the American President, and others are doing their utmost to avoid scrutiny, honest journalism has never been so crucial. We can’t always rely on mainstream journalism to hold those in power to account, recent events have taught us that. And, at a time, when shining a spotlight on the world’s decision-makers has never mattered more, they are doing everything they can to hide in the shadows, suffocate journalists and silence whistleblowers.
Which is why Julian Assange’s case- the first of its kind - affects us all. And we should all be very concerned at the way things are going.
Ahead of the extradition hearing, I interviewed Julian Assange’s loyal friend, campaigner, and musician, Roger Waters. He said
There is zero chance of a fair trial in the US and the UK is breaking the law getting him there. It’s not a legal proceeding here at all, it’s a joke.
Just a few days into the hearing it’s clear to see already there is no fair trial. And Waters is right, the whole thing, even on this side of the pond is a joke.
As we know, Julian Assange is wanted in the U.S. for 18 charges, one of conspiracy to hack a government computer, and 17 indictments under the Espionage Act. If found guilty he faces up to 175 years behind bars. A death sentence for him, the future of journalism and a blow to anyone trying to hold governments to account for their illegal actions.
From the very get-go, the proceedings have been farcical with little semblance of judicial credibility. Abuse of the proceedings is highlighted in Julian’s two main lines of defence. Firstly, that there are ‘ulterior political motives’ and secondly, ‘there are
fundamental misrepresentations of facts’ as laid out by Edward Fitzgerald QC acting for Assange.
The case is, of course, inherently political, as is the motivation for prosecution.
Fitzgerald stated on Day 1, in his opening remarks, that
Julian Assange has been targeted because of the political position imputed to him by the Trump administration –as an enemy of America who must be brought down.
The nature of Wikileaks’ revelations made Julian an obvious enemy of the U.S. government, and Donald Trump seems willing to stop at nothing to bring him down. We may never come to know the full breadth of atrocities committed during the invasion of Iraq (2003-2011), but thanks to Wikileaks the world is aware of the array of war crimes carried out. The true number of civilian deaths, the video showing soldiers intentionally shooting unarmed civilians, as well as the torture of detainees in Iraq. The occupation in Iraq was illegal and contravened International law, and exposing the breaches was a necessary political act.
In 2013, President Barack Obama made the decision NOT to indict Assange but Trump’s administration decided to reverse this last year. In expert testimony submitted to the court, Professor Noam Chomsky said “the hostility it has provoked from the Trump administration is equally undeniable,” which is further evidence Assange’s case has been politicised.
Given the case is unequivocally and unambiguously political, Fitzgerald reminds the court (Day 3) that political offences are specifically excluded under Article 4.1 of the Anglo-US Extradition treaty where ‘extradition shall not be granted if relating to a political offence – as it is regarded as a fundamental protection.’ Therefore, the courts are abusing the extradition process which in itself involves the violation of International law.
The second line of defence is inextricably linked to the first but independent of it, in that there are fundamental misrepresentations of facts in the prosecution, specifically in the allegations of the ‘reckless disclosure of the names of particular individuals’ in the revelations.
The court was told Wikileaks collaborated with media outlets including the Guardian and The New York Times to make redactions to hundreds of thousands of leaked secret cables in 2010 and publish them. The court was also told that Assange had called the White House to warn the documents were about to be dumped online by third parties who had gained access. But, he was told to phone back later. Yet still, James Lewis QC responding for the US government says it is Assange that endangered lives by dumping troves of sensitive information in the public domain.
To quote Edward Fitzgerald again in his opening remarks (Day 1) - “Those actions inevitably bring him into conflict with powerful states including the current US administration, for political reasons. Which explains why he has been denounced as a terrorist.”
As a journalist, at the beginning of my career, the treatment of Julian Assange is particularly scary. The U.S administration and now the UK judicial system are hands down making an example of Assange to ensure that no journalist makes the ‘mistake’ of doing their job too well by challenging the status quo and reporting or publishing anything that goes against the government line. This is a war on investigative journalism. And in this war, as Fitzgerald says,
Assange has been denounced as a terrorist.
Firstly, it’s being conducted at Woolwich Crown Court, which hosts Belmarsh Magistrates Court designed as a high-security courtroom and the preferred venue for terrorism trials. This is NOT where extradition hearings are supposed to be held. This is where high-profile terrorist cases are brought before the court. Extradition hearings are always held at Westminster Magistrates Court.
So not only has Julian been described by the likes of Mike Pompeo as a “non-state hostile intelligence agency” he is already being treated as such, further proof that Assange is being used for political grandstanding. As a result, Assange is forced to be confined at the back of the court behind a bulletproof glass screen, like a serial killer or terrorist. He made the point numerous times during the hearings that this makes it near impossible for him to see and hear the proceedings.
According to Julian’s lawyers after the first day of the hearing he had his case files, which he was reading in court on Monday, confiscated by guards when he returned to prison later that night obviously interfering in his ability to prepare and to be able to participate properly. On Day 3 he told the Judge, “I have very little contact with my lawyers.”
On Day 2, he was handcuffed 11 times, stripped naked twice and held in 5 different prison cells. Again, his treatment will no doubt have a significant impact on the hearing. Such violence and dehumanising treatment is enough to deter any journalists and whistleblowers from following in Assange’s footsteps, which is undoubtedly their intention. Wikileaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson says “Julian is suffering, and, if it is imminent he will be extradited there is certainly a very high risk of suicide.” Edward Fitzgerald backs that saying that extradition to an American prison would be the “height of inhumanity.”
What’s at stake here is press freedom, and the right to truth and justice, whoever you might be. And the UK government is doing everything it can to ensure nobody can repeat the actions of Wikileaks without severe repercussions. They’ve invoked the 1911/ 1989 Official Secrets Act, generally only used against spies. The legislation was passed to target foreign informants and traitors that were obtaining and publishing any secret government classified information. It was never intended to be used against a journalist.
The US says he is not a journalist, but if publishing articles and winning world-renowned awards for them, as well as being a member of the NUJ and other journalistic groups, plus writing books and a being published in various outlets doesn’t constitute as being a journalist, then really what does?
The real fear though, is that the government plans to revamp legislation to make it easier to prosecute journalists reporting on national security issues. This means there will be no freedom of the press. Journalists will soon have to sign on the dotted line and become an arm of the state. If this is where journalism is headed, good journalists will cease to exist. And then, who will hold the government to account?
So never mind worrying about a fair trial in the U.S. which there will never be, Assange has not been given a fair trial here in the UK. Britain yet again then has proven how it bows down to the U.S regardless of the violation of legal principles and international jurisprudence.
As Roger Waters told me, “It’s a way of exerting their authority so that nobody will report on anything inconvenient to power. The UK government has decided to feed Assange to the wolves.”
The hearing continues.