WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has emerged as one of the most controversial whistleblowers in recent times, hailed by his supporters as a fearless campaign for press freedom and condemned by his opponents as ruthless, self-destructive and even dangerous. But on Monday, Assange could be extradited from Britain to the United States for espionage crimes and for leaking classified documents related to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a trial that critics say is a test case for press freedom.
After making headlines for several years for releasing secret military and government documents, 49-year-old Julian Assange awaited a verdict on extradition charges against the United States on Monday.
A London district court was due to announce its verdict Monday morning on charges against Assange by US prosecutors, including 17 backbone espionage and one for computer abuse. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years.
Assange’s legal team has accused the United States of “extraordinary, unsurpassed and politicized” prosecution that constitutes “a clear denial of his right to freedom of expression and poses a fundamental threat to freedom of the press worldwide.”
Years of legal battle ahead
If the allegations are confirmed, Assange’s lawyers are expected to initiate an appeal that could lead to years of legal drama.
The human rights groups and those who advocate freedom of the press closely follow the goal.
The UK National Journal of Union had called on the British government to declare that Assange’s prosecution would “seriously harm media freedom”, said FRANCE 24’s London correspondent Bénédicte Paviot. The union acknowledged that their numbers were not enough to defeat Assange’s government.
Rebecca Vincent, head of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, also issued a statement criticizing the US accusations, saying: “This case is outrageous and clearly politically motivated. The trial aims to set an example for Assange and the future of press freedom is at stake. ”
Assange first appeared on April 5, 2010, when the website WikiLeaks, which he founded in 2006, leaked a video showing an airstrike by a US helicopter that killed civilians, including two journalists, in Baghdad.
In July, the website released 91,000 documents, mostly secret US military reports on the Afghanistan war.
In October 2010, WikiLeaks leaked another 400,000 classified military files on the Iraq war and followed it up in November by releasing thousands of US diplomatic cables from foreign leaders who exchanged security information.
U.S. prosecutors have also raised ties between Assange and Russia. Results from the Robert Mueller probe on involvement in the 2016 US presidential election showed that Russia had hacked Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and then publicly helped WikiLeaks distribute some of the material.
The case is a culmination of almost ten years of legal entanglement for Assange. The Australian citizen first sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian London Embassy in 2012, after Swedish authorities tried to get him extradited due to rape allegations. He has consistently denied these allegations.
Swedish prosecutors eventually released the rape investigation in 2019 due to insufficient evidence, but Assange was thrown out of the embassy and then arrested by British police. He has been held in a London jail since April 2019.
Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has condemned the conditions at London’s maximum security in Belmarsh Prison where Assange is being held, saying that the “gradual serious suffering inflicted” on him equals torture. Melzer has called on US President Donald Trump to forgive Assange.
Assange has attracted some high-profile supporters, including dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, former US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and actress Pamela Anderson.
Daniel Ellsberg, the American whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers, also came out in support and told the court that Assange and he had “very similar political views.”
The 89-year-old, who was largely credited with helping end the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the American public “quickly needed to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was nothing there”. other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure. “
Reporters Without Borders has been the only non-governmental organization present at the London court for four weeks. Christian Mihr, head of the group’s German branch, repeated the statements from his British counterpart and told Deutsche Welle that the trial was not only “a matter of press freedom” but also “a matter of life or death for Julian Assange”.
“I have always said that this is a political process. This means that there is political pressure. And that means – as sad, as tragic as it is – I will not be surprised if the court approves extradition. “
Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, has appealed to Trump via Twitter to grant her husband pardon. If that fails, Assange’s defense team is likely to appeal to President-elect Joe Biden, who may turn out to be milder.
Either party will have the opportunity to appeal Monday’s ruling with the possibility of two higher court hearings in the UK – even before a US presidential intervention – after which extradition proceedings can continue at the European Court of Human Rights.