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I Reject Using My Unjust Conviction Against Julian Assange

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

In 2015 I was wrongfully convicted of, and imprisoned for, violating the U.S. Espionage Act. Now, while there is no question that I stand in solidarity with WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange in a British court as he fights extradition, little did I know that my presence is also there as fodder to support extradition. If I am going to be used in such a way, there should at least be a modicum of truth to my inclusion. I found nothing reasonable about being persecuted and sentenced to prison under the Espionage Act.

On the first day of the recent extradition proceedings in London, James Lewis QC, representing the U.S. government, attempted to counter arguments about the potential prison sentence Assange faces if convicted of violating the Espionage Act by stating that individuals such as myself serve as “benchmarks” for what Assange is facing. To Lewis and the U.S. government, my 42-month sentence or the range of 40-60 months is “reasonable.” Such use of my experience fighting the Espionage Act in order to quell concerns about Assange’s potential sentence is misleading without providing context.

As a U.S. citizen, I was ostensibly armed with certain rights going into a Virginia courtroom to fight for my freedom. I was woefully mistaken. The court in Virginia where Assange would be tried is the same court that prevented me from suing the Central Intelligence Agency for employment discrimination, on grounds that it would pose a threat to the national security of the United States. To that court and to the U.S. government, an African American fighting for his supposedly guaranteed civil rights is a threat to national security. Going to trial in 2015 as one of an ever-growing number being charged with violating the Espionage Act, I was, therefore, facing a court and judicial system that had a history of disregarding me as a living breathing citizen with any rights. The result of that one-sided CIA show-trial was my “reasonable” 42-month prison sentence. If supposed inalienable rights were not guaranteed to me as a U.S. citizen, Assange is only guaranteed to be prosecuted.

In maximum terms, Assange is facing 175 years in prison. For the charges against me, I was also facing over 100 years maximum sentence. The fact that I was sentenced to 42 months should not be any benchmark of reasonableness when the Espionage Act and the court in Virginia where the U.S. wants Assange extradited to are involved.

In a final moment of clarity after a long delay before sentencing, Judge Leonie Brinkema commented that the sentencing guidelines were “way off” and chose 42 months as my sentence. That “reasonableness” was most likely not out of any benevolence on her part. It might have been that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to the court requesting fairness, or maybe she was moved by the fact that I was convicted by a government-leaning jury on absolutely no evidence. The prosecutor was visibly livid as he obviously was hoping for a much, much longer sentence. His continual questioning, if not pleading of the judge to explain the sentence was finally silenced when the judge stated, “That’s it.”  I fear that Assange will face a less reasonable court and sentence.

And Lewis failed to mention how conditions in U.S. prisons will be a part of that benchmark. The U.S. prison system is one of deplorable living conditions, disregard for human life, and perpetual punishment. And given Assange’s health, he will be lucky to receive adequate care. While I was in a U.S. prison, it took the intervention of a U.S. Senator for me to receive the health care that quite possibly saved my life. Should not this reality be part of Lewis’ benchmark?

Given the long history of the U.S. government’s pursuit of Assange and the obvious political nature of his potential prosecution, I fear there will be nothing reasonable with regard to any sentence to be imposed. My prosecution should serve not as a benchmark for being sentenced under the Espionage Act, but rather a warning about how the perverse use of the Espionage Act started by the Obama administration and continued by the Trump administration to quell and silence dissent is a threat to free speech, not only in my country, and as the extradition proceedings demonstrate, in the entire world.

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Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent, is the author of “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower.” He was in prison for two and a half years after a 2015 trial convicted him of violating the Espionage Act, making him another victim of the U.S. government’s crackdown on alleged leakers and whistleblowers. Sterling is currently the coordinator of The Project for Accountability, sponsored by the RootsAction Education Fund. 

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