Following the Magistrates' Court's ruling, a mass campaign defending a free press can be pivotal in the next stage of the battle, writes John Rees
Priti Patel, the uber-conservative Home Secretary, is about to make a life-or-death decision: whether or not to send Julian Assange to the United States to face charges of espionage. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to a maximum of 175 years in jail. It is not an exaggeration to say that, even if he served a small fraction of that time, he would likely die in prison.
The fact that there is currently no ongoing court case means that Patel has a purely political decision to make. Should she sanction an application for extradition when the charges being brought equate investigative journalism with spying? Should she allow that the US 1917 Espionage Act, under which the charges are being made, can for the very first time be used against a journalist? Should the US be allowed to extend the reach of its archaic spying laws to other countries and to a journalist who is not a US citizen?
These are far from the only fundamental questions that Patel should consider. She might want to consider the irregularities of the trial. These include the fact that the lead prosecution witness has admitted that he lied in court, the discovery that that the CIA spied on the defendant and his lawyers, and that the CIA also discussed kidnapping and assassinating Assange in London. She might also want to consider whether an Extradition Treaty that has allowed 200 individuals to be taken from the UK to the US but only allowed eleven to pass the other way is fit for purpose.
In any normal case any, let alone all, of these issues might be enough for a Home Secretary to declare the extradition request void. But this is no ordinary case and no ordinary Home Secretary, even by the House of Horror standards of previous Tory Home Secretaries.
This case is above all a political revenge attack on Julian Assange for revealing material which the US government found embarrassing about the Afghan and Iraq wars, about Guantanamo Bay prison, and about US diplomatic manoeuvres.
And this is the crux of the matter: should journalists only be allowed to report government press hand-outs and corporate PR statements, the news the rich and powerful want to be heard, or should they have the freedom to report matters which are otherwise hidden from the public gaze?
No harm was suffered by any individual as a result of WikiLeaks publications. That much was admitted in court by the US lawyers. No foreign state supplied or was given privileged access to material published by WikiLeaks. The sole beneficiaries were the public who learned facts of the gravest importance which they would otherwise not have known.
It is for that public service that Julian Assange is spending his fourth year in Belmarsh High Security Prison and now faces extradition to the US.
Priti Patel is an ultra-hawk and a devotional worshipper of US power. She is currently engaged in attempting to send desperate refugees seeking asylum to Rwanda, and is highly unlikely to do anything but sign the extradition order.
Mass lobbying of Patel now can have the same effect and prepare the ground for the next stage in the legal battle. This is essential because Patel does not yet have the final say. Even if she signs the extradition order Julian Assange’s lawyers have one more chance to reverse the extradition in the UK courts. They can and will appeal the elements of the original Magistrates Court ruling which turned down their original case against extradition.
That Magistrates Court decision at the start of 2021 came in two parts. One part blocked the extradition on the grounds that Julian Assange would be a suicide risk if committed to the US prison system. The other part of the Magistrates Court ruling dismissed Assange’s arguments that extradition should be blocked on freedom of the press grounds and because the Extradition Treaty makes it illegal to extradite political cases.
The US lawyers successfully overturned the decision not to extradite by taking the case to the appeal court, which is why it is now on the desk of Priti Patel. But Assange’s lawyers now have the same right to take the elements on which they lost in the Magistrates Court to the Court of Appeal.
It is to affect the political environment in which that appeal takes place that the campaign around Priti Patel’s decision should be seen.
The more difficult it is for Patel to ignore the arguments for a free press now, the more they will echo around the court room in the next stage of this epic battle to defend a free press.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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