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What’s at stake if Julian Assange is convicted?

Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, says extradition of the Wikileaks founder to the US would be a death sentence for him and press freedom worldwide.

What's at stake if Julian Assange is convicted?

On June 7, the UK High Court granted the US government limited permission to appeal a decision that denied the extradition of WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange.

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No date for a hearing has been set, as yet.

A lower court judge in January blocked the extradition of Assange to the US to face espionage charges over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret military documents. Judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the request on health grounds, saying Assange was likely to kill himself if held under punitive US prison conditions.

Assange faces a sentence of up to 175 years in prison if extradited.

“[Wednesday’s] decision by the High Court simply gives permission for the US government to attempt to challenge the ruling, but it does not reflect the merits of the US arguments,” the Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign told TRT World in a statement.

Assange’s fiancé Stella Moris, who has two young sons with Assange, gave a statement outside the High Court in London after Wednesday’s decision and called on the Biden Administration to free her husband.

“He won his case in January. Why is he even in prison?” she said.

“I’m appealing to the Biden administration to do the right thing. This appeal was taken two days before the Trump administration left office, and if the Biden administration is serious about respecting the rule of law, the First Amendment and defending global press freedom, the only thing it can do is drop this case.”

Julian Assange's partner, Stella Moris speaks to the media outside the High Court in London, Wednesday July 7, 2021. The UK High Court has granted the US government permission to appeal a decision that WikiLeaks founder cannot be sent to the US to face espionage charges.
Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Moris speaks to the media outside the High Court in London, Wednesday July 7, 2021. The UK High Court has granted the US government permission to appeal a decision that WikiLeaks founder cannot be sent to the US to face espionage charges. (Stefan Rousseau / PA via AP)

The 50-year-old Assange has been in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, after seven years at the UK Ecuadorian embassy, where he sought refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape and sexual assault, which were dropped in 2019.

What’s the current US appeal about?

In its current appeal, the US government has proposed a number of assurances to British authorities, including that Assange would not be subject to “special administrative measures” (what could effectively amount to torture) pre-trial or post-conviction, and that he wouldn’t be held under supermax prison conditions.

However, these proposals were subject to change if Assange were to “do something” subsequently that met the test for imposition of high-security measures.

If convicted, the UK was also assured he would be permitted to serve jail time in his native Australia. The caveat is prisoner transfer eligibility can only be considered after all appeals to reach the US Supreme Court are exhausted, which could easily take a decade or longer.

Speaking to TRT World from his home in Sydney, Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton pointed out the US government’s track record on delivering such assurances hardly inspires any trust.

“They routinely break their promises when it comes to guarantees made on prison conditions,” he said.

Moris took to Twitter to debunk the appeal’s claims, which she described as a formula to keep her husband in prison for the rest of his life.

“On any given day 80,000 prisoners in US prisons are held in solitary confinement. Only a handful are in ADX/under special administrative measures,” she wrote.

“The US government also says it may change its mind if the head of the CIA advises it to do so once Julian Assange is held in US custody.”

More scathingly, Moris said the case against Assange was “built on lies”, following an incriminating report last week that revealed a lead witness for the US government was guilty of lying.

An Icelandic man Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson, a convicted paedophile, fraudster, embezzler and diagnosed sociopath, admitted to fabricating allegations against Assange in exchange for immunity from the US Justice Department.

Those now discredited allegations, which claimed that Assange had directed Thordarson to hack into both public and private Icelandic entities, had formed the basis of the second indictment to shore up the hacking conspiracy charge against Assange.

What is Assange being charged with?

In 2019, US prosecutors indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic disclosures. Ten of the counts are specifically related to publishing and disseminating unauthorised information.

Prosecutors claim Assange illegally aided former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later printed.

In conjunction with major news media outlets in 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks published a number of documents and videos exposing US military war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as corruption on a global scale.

Assange’s lawyers argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment freedom of speech protections for publishing content in the public interest.

While the Obama Administration considered prosecuting Assange, they were not able to find a way to without implicating other news publishers.

In what Justice Department officials termed the “New York Times problem,” if Assange was charged then media organisations like the Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian would also have to be prosecuted for publishing classified material from Chelsea Manning and NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But that would change under the Trump administration, and it launched one of the most potent attacks on journalism and the first amendment in US history by indicting Assange under Espionage Act charges.

Assange gestures as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, after he was arrested by Metropolitan Police at the Ecuadorean embassy after his asylum request was rejected, on April 11, 2019. He was taken into custody for failing to surrender to the court in 2012, and has remained imprisoned at London's Belmarsh facility since.
Assange gestures as he arrives at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London, after he was arrested by Metropolitan Police at the Ecuadorean embassy after his asylum request was rejected, on April 11, 2019. He was taken into custody for failing to surrender to the court in 2012, and has remained imprisoned at London’s Belmarsh facility since. (Victoria Jones / PA via AP)

Why Assange matters

In an attempt to raise awareness and support for Assange’s release from prison, Gabriel, along with his and Assange’s father John Shipton, recently embarked on a month-long tour across the US.

Visiting over fifteen cities and conducting twenty in-person events, they encountered thousands of people for whom Assange’s case resonated deeply.

“People understand the implications for press freedoms and freedom of speech that this case has, as well as the repercussions it’s already having throughout the US and around the world,” Gabriel said.

He credits WikiLeaks’ publishing of the Afghanistan war logs ten years ago and the impact those revelations had in raising global awareness, and highlighted Assange’s crucial role in scaling down the US occupation in Iraq and its present withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“People want to know about what their government is doing.”

The majority of media coverage during the Shipton’s tour primarily came from independent outlets. Gabriel found it perplexing why many in mainstream media have largely held back pursuing the story and defending his brother.

“It should be in their interest to stop the prosecution of a publisher,” he said.

That they have a problem reporting on it, he believes, likely comes down to legacy media’s proximity to power.

More importantly, Assange’s case has a chilling effect on journalism: if information is published that exposes war crimes, corruption or mass surveillance the US government wishes to suppress, then publishers or reporters anywhere are liable to be extradited, paving the way for their prosecution under charges of espionage.

The alarming precedent Assange’s judgement would have is why numerous human rights organisations, press freedom advocates and lawmakers have called for an end to his prosecution.

Gabriel already sees Assange’s imprisonment as having given license to various governments to carry out harsh crackdowns against journalists.

A court artist sketch of Assange in the dock reading his papers as he appears at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court for his extradition hearing, in London, February 24, 2020. If extradited to the US, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison.
A court artist sketch of Assange in the dock reading his papers as he appears at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court for his extradition hearing, in London, February 24, 2020. If extradited to the US, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison. (Elizabeth Cook / PA via AP)

Speaking on his brother’s condition, Gabriel said he last visited him at Belmarsh in October 2020, before the facility went into lockdown for eight months. Having opened up three weeks ago, his family and lawyers are able to see him again.

Being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day has exacted a toll on Assange’s physical and mental condition, proceeding the seven years he was holed up in a dimly lit room at the Ecuadorian embassy.

UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer described Assange’s treatment “collective persecution” and warned that the abuse he was being subjected to in the UK could ultimately cost him his life.

“He is strong and courageous,” Gabriel said. “But as his brother, you can see how it has all had an effect on him. He’s been crushed from the inside.”

“This psychological torture – attacks on his reputation, on his dignity through the press, making him out to be a sexual abuser, not knowing when this is going to end – it all has an impact.”

“It’s heartbreaking to watch.”

For now, what keeps Assange’s family going is the tireless campaigning to get the word out and encouraging people to stand up for their rights.

“It’s not just about Julian. It’s the first time a publisher has been prosecuted for publishing.”

So far Biden, who once called the WikiLeaks chief a “high-tech terrorist,” appears committed to pursuing the extradition efforts of his predecessor.

With enough civil society pressure, that could change. Persistently shining a media spotlight on Assange’s case can keep it nestled in the public consciousness.

As long as he remains behind bars, the US has no moral authority to preach press freedom and human rights around the world, Gabriel argues, referring to it as a “stain” – and one with a simple solution.

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