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Extradition Trial of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange Begins in London


Extradition Trial of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange Begins in London.

By Jennifer Robinson

As the long-awaited extradition hearing for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gets underway in London, his legal adviser, Jennifer Robinson, says the case could set a chilling precedent for press freedoms around the world. “He faces 175 years in prison for doing his job as a journalist and a publisher. That’s why this case is so dangerous,” says Robinson. Assange faces numerous charges, including under the U.S. Espionage Act, related to the release of diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks that revealed war crimes committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He faces a possible life sentence if he is extradited to the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn right now to London. This week, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is appearing in court for the first time in six months, after his extradition hearing was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Assange has been held in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison since he was arrested in April 2019 at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, where he had taken refuge for almost seven years. As Assange arrived at the courthouse Monday, he was arrested on 18 new charges from a U.S. indictment filed in June. Assange is wanted in the United States for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He faces 175 years for espionage and hacking charges.

On Tuesday, the proceedings were briefly adjourned after Assange shouted, quote, “Nonsense!” as James Lewis, a lawyer acting for the U.S. government, told a witness that Assange was facing extradition proceedings over the publication of the names of informants, and not for handling leaked documents. The comment was a response to witness Clive Stafford Smith testifying that documents published by WikiLeaks had exposed, quote, “grave violations of law,” such as targeted U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The judge warned Assange he would be removed from the courtroom if he yelled again.

Protests in defense of Assange and press freedom have taken place in London and in cities around the world. This is Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, speaking Monday as he left the London courthouse.

JOHN SHIPTON: I think the case is a fraud against the court. That’s what I think: fraud against the court applied by the American Department of Justice. Julian is an Australian citizen. The publications are in the United Kingdom. And yet he is kidnapped and judicially abducted to the United States to spend 175 years in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to London for an update from Jennifer Robinson, the human rights attorney who’s been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. She’s joining us during the court’s lunch break right outside the courthouse.

Jen Robinson, welcome back to Democracy Now! You are seeing Julian Assange for the first time in six months. He’s been at the high-security Belmarsh prison for a year and a half, and then under lockdown because of COVID. Can you describe, well, what it’s like to see him now for the first time and what these charges are against him, including the new ones that were just brought?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Good morning, Amy.

So, we saw Julian for the first time in six months as a result of the COVID shutdown. He hasn’t had any social or legal visits since the pandemic broke out, which has left him incredibly isolated in prison. And it was surprising to us to see that he has lost a lot of weight. And we, of course, have continuing concerns about his health, given the long-term impacts of being both inside the embassy and now in a high-security prison in these circumstances.

Of course, you mentioned in your opening that we now have had not one, but two superseding indictments. He was arrested on a second superseding indictment on Monday that the Department of Justice issued in June. We were first told that it made no substantive difference, and we’re now told that those new allegations, which include allegations related to Edward Snowden, providing assistance to the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, now are part of the case and could form part of separate criminal allegations if he is returned to the United States.

This is part of what we say the U.S. government is trying to shift the goalposts, as it were. We heard from our defense counsel in court on Monday that, of course, this is perhaps in response to the strength of our case that the U.S. government is now shifting and changing its case, almost 18 months after they started and after the closing and submission of evidence from both parties. It is a very unusual and highly irregular process in any kind of extradition case, and certainly one as unprecedented as this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jennifer Robinson, what about these new hacking allegations, bringing them so late in the process here as the hearing has started?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I think adding these additional, quote, “hacking” allegations, which are general and questionable and, of course, are denied by Mr. Assange, I think is the Department of Justice’s attempt to try and shift the case away from the Manning disclosures and, of course, the evidence that we’ve heard this week and seen in the publications around the world, evidence of war crimes, human rights abuse, corruption the world over. It is a clear press freedom case. And the attempts by the Department of Justice to somehow create this as a hacking case, when there is absolutely no evidence of any hacking by Mr. Assange, I think, demonstrates their desire to move away from the important issues on press freedom.

We’ve heard already in the evidence this case — in the evidence this week from Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, about the importance of WikiLeaks’ disclosures about U.S. extraordinary rendition, torture, and, importantly, drone strikes and extrajudicial killings in Pakistan, and how those disclosures have been essential in his work, both in terms of holding the U.S. government accountable for those actions in Pakistan, but also with respect to his Guantánamo litigation in the United States.

We’ve also heard evidence from professor Mark Feldstein about the unprecedented nature of the attack on First Amendment that this case represents and the history of the Espionage Act being threatened against journalists by various presidents, including Roosevelt and Nixon, and now, in this case, by President Trump himself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Specifically, you mentioned Mark Feldstein’s testimony and the evidence he presented. One of the interesting things, as I’ve reviewed that statement of his, was not only his historical look at how the press in America for many — really, for a couple of hundred years was a highly partisan press, but he also talks about how the First Amendment doesn’t protect the press as an industry, but as a technology. Could you — for our viewers and listeners who are not aware of professor Feldstein’s testimony, could you elaborate on that portion of his evidence?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, Professor Feldstein explained at some length the importance of the First Amendment and how it protects every American citizen and any person within U.S. jurisdiction, their ability to — their free speech. And, of course, it protects the media’s ability to communicate with sources, receive information and publish it in the public interest.

What we’re seeing — what he pointed out about the danger of this particular case is the breakdown of the distinction between sources and journalists. So, we’ve often seen that sources who make unlawful or unauthorized disclosures are prosecuted and can face criminal prosecution as a result of their disclosures. But historically, that has never been directed at the media. The First Amendment is understood to protect the media in receiving and publishing that information in the public interest, which is exactly what WikiLeaks did. And in this case, what the Trump administration is alleging is that Julian Assange, by virtue of having communications with Chelsea Manning, receiving information from Chelsea Manning and publishing that information, is somehow conspiring and is conspiring in the underlying criminal act.

And we’ve seen this same prosecution strategy now rolled out in Brazil by President Bolsonaro against Glenn Greenwald. That’s why this is so dangerous, because this is the kind of activity that journalists engage in all day, every day, across the United States and elsewhere around the world, which is why The New York Times and The Washington Post have both, in their editorials, said that this is criminalizing public interest journalism and news gathering practices that have been used for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to explain to people that Jen Robinson is standing outside the courtroom at the lunch break, and there are many protesters who are there, as there have been protesters in cities around the world, as Julian Assange is in the midst of a month-long extradition hearing, whether he will be extradited to the United States. We wanted to turn to Julian in his own words. We haven’t been able to speak to him in Belmarsh prison, but I went to London and interviewed him when he had political exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2015.

JULIAN ASSANGE: The U.S. government, in terms of its attack on WikiLeaks, has tried to construct a theory which, if permitted, will be the end of national security journalism, not just in the United States, but also about the United States. That claim is that journalists can’t solicit information from sources and to solicit information is to be involved in a conspiracy. And —

AMY GOODMAN: An accomplice to the conspiracy.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. And the United States, in terms of the charge types that it’s trying to charge me with — those include conspiracy and conspiracy to commit espionage — this is rubbish. We cannot tolerate this at the political level or the media level.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Julian Assange inside the Ecuadoran Embassy before he was taken a year and half ago by British police and he was put in the Belmarsh prison. This is Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, who visited Julian last year in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.

NILS MELZER: I spoke with him for an hour just to get a good first impression. Then we had a physical examination for an hour by our forensic expert, and then we had the two-hour psychiatric examination. And all three of us had the same impression — and, well, I had certainly an impression, and the medical doctors had a diagnosis, that they — we all came to the conclusion that he showed all the symptoms that are typical for a person that has been exposed to psychological torture over an extended period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, who visited Assange at Belmarsh. Jen Robinson, for people who aren’t familiar with Julian Assange’s case, if you can talk about what he is — the underlying charges here, where Britain will decide whether to extradite him to the United States, where he faces 175 years? What was it that WikiLeaks released, the millions of documents around Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.? And what was Chelsea Manning’s role in this, and the significance of what she did?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, Julian has been charged under the Espionage Act, the first time in the history of the United States, for receiving, publishing — receiving and publishing classified U.S. information. That includes the “Collateral Murder” publication, the Iraq rules of engagement, which demonstrates war crimes in Iraq. It includes the Iraq and Afghan war logs, which demonstrated that the United States government was not sharing the truth about what was actually happening in those conflicts, including the killing of more than 15,000 civilians in the context of the Iraq War. And he’s also being prosecuted in relation to the State Department cables and the publication of those cables, which revealed human rights abuse and corruption the world over.

These are incredibly important publications, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sydney Peace Prize, won the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism. And he faces 175 years in prison for doing his job as a journalist and as a publisher. That’s why this case is so dangerous.

And as you’ll be hearing, the evidence that will be heard over the next four weeks is from journalists, from NGOs, such as Reprieve — is what we heard from yesterday — talking about the importance of these leaks, how they’ve been used in terms of political movements, in terms of human rights litigation, in terms of holding governments to account for their wrongdoing, and more evidence also about the prison conditions that Julian will face if he is in fact returned to the United States to face prosecution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jen Robinson, could you talk about the fact that it was President Trump, when he was running for president, as a candidate, actually said in public statements that he loved WikiLeaks, and he urged them, if they had information on the Hillary Clinton emails, the supposed disappeared emails, to release them, that now it is the Trump administration that is seeking to prosecute him and extradite him back to the United States?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: That’s right. There’s certainly been a change in approach from President Trump, from prior to being elected and now in his role as president. What we saw was a change in position from the Trump administration. We now know that there was no indictment under the Obama administration. Of course, that whole process was secret because of the grand jury process. But the indictment was not issued until well into the Trump administration.

And we had indications that the Trump administration was going to take a different approach, when Mike Pompeo, as head of the CIA, declared that WikiLeaks is a hostile nonstate intelligence agency and that they would be working to take WikiLeaks down and that Julian ought not benefit from First Amendment protections, followed very quickly by statements by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, saying it was a priority to prosecute WikiLeaks. And now we’ve seen the outcome of that. We see an indictment where Julian faces 175 years in prison.

This is part of, we say, the Trump administration’s attack on journalism, and war on whistleblowers and journalism. And it is a precedent that will be used against journalists not just in the United States, but journalists around the world, because the most dangerous thing about this — and a position that the United States attorney has made clear in his evidence before this court — is that not only is the U.S. government seeking to exercise jurisdiction over journalists and publishers outside of the United States for publishing information about the United States, they are also saying that they will exercise that jurisdiction, but at the same time foreign publishers and journalists will not benefit and should not benefit from First Amendment protections. And that should be very concerning for journalists everywhere around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, many of the news organizations in the United States worked with Julian Assange, like The New York Times, like The Washington Post, in exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have they come out to the extent that you would like to see, and would it make a difference? As well, if you can talk about what you expect to see over this month? Is Daniel Ellsberg testifying today, one of the most famous whistleblowers in the world?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: That’s correct. So, we will be seeing over the next four weeks evidence from a number of experts on the free speech implications of this indictment. Daniel Ellsberg will also be giving evidence about his own experience as the leaker of the Pentagon Papers. We’ll be hearing evidence from expert witnesses about the nature of the grand jury process, the nature of the U.S. prosecution process and the prison conditions inside prison.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of U.S. press, so significant because it’s the U.S. that’s seeking the extradition of Julian Assange, again, for which he would face 175 years in prison?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Historically, I think the position of the U.S. press has been disappointing. We’ve been saying since 2010 that this was a risk and that if this precedent would be sought as against WikiLeaks, it could be used against The New York Times and other media organizations and journalists. But since this indictment was issued by the Trump administration, we’ve seen unanimous responses, from The Washington Post, from The New York Times, from news organizations and free speech NGOs the world over, that this is a dangerous precedent for journalism and for freedom of the press, and that Julian ought to be released immediately. We’ve had a resolution from the Council of Europe calling on the U.K. to release Julian because of the danger of this precedent for press freedom. So, I think that it is true to say that there is, I think, a chorus of mainstream media organizations, NGOs, and indeed some governments, that say that this case is dangerous and it ought to be shut down.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jen Robinson, how is Julian Assange’s health? What’s the situation in the prison with COVID and the potential for him to be exposed?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, as I explained, we haven’t been able to visit him in prison since the pandemic broke out. All social and legal visits were canceled, which means he’s been even more isolated than he was before in this high-security prison.

Because of his long-term — having been effectively in prison long-term, his seven-and-a-half years inside the embassy and now inside the prison, he has a number of respiratory issues, along with other health concerns, which make him particularly susceptible to COVID. It has been difficult to even have videoconferencing with him, because of his doctor’s advice that he shouldn’t be moving within the prison because of the risk of contracting COVID. And there have, in fact, been a number of deaths, COVID deaths, inside the British prisons since the outbreak of the pandemic. So, we’ve been very concerned about his health from a pandemic perspective, but also seeing a decline in his health as a result of this long-term imprisonment.

And it’s very unusual. This is a publisher who is being held on remand in a high-security prison because of an indictment and an extradition request from the Trump administration. You know, it is having a serious impact on his health. And we will be hearing further evidence, psychiatric evidence, about the impact this has had on Julian, and what will happen to him and the doctor’s concerns for him, if he is returned to prison in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any discussion between your team, Julian Assange’s legal team, and the Trump administration over a pardon?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: That will be the subject of evidence in these proceedings, so you’ll have to wait to see what happens in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we, of course, will continue to follow the case of Julian Assange. He has been in captivity, either in political exile inside the Ecuadorian Embassy or at the high-security Belmarsh prison, for over eight years at this point, the last six months in almost total lockdown at the high-security prison because of the pandemic. We’ll continue to cover this case. Jennifer Robinson, human rights attorney who’s been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010, speaking to us right outside the courthouse during the lunch break of the case around Julian Assange.

When we come back, we look at how decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America has led to the ongoing migrant crisis. We’ll speak with Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato, author of the new book Unforgetting. Stay with us.

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