Weakened International Pushback Enables Extradition of Assange

Julian Assange, from Australia, founded and managed Wikileaks, the international organization that famously has collected and passed on secret political documents. The campaign to prevent Assange from being extradited to the United States from Britain has intensified recently just as legal remedies for him to avoid extradition are fast disappearing.

The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel on November 28 issued a joint letter stating that the U.S. indictment against Assange “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.” A recent statement from the International Federation of Journalists points out that, “None of WikiLeaks’ media partners have been charged … because of their collaboration with Assange.”

High officials have weighed in. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on November 30 assured legislators he was “clear to the US administration—that it is time that this matter be brought to a close.” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet indicated that Assange’s “potential extradition and prosecution of Assange raises concerns relating to media freedom.”

Supporters on October 8 created a human chain outside Parliament in London. Assange’s allies claim he is a journalist and that criminalization of reporting violates the democratic right of press freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union long ago opined that, “Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange would be unprecedented and unconstitutional.”

Among the many U.S. charges against Assange are accusations that he disseminated government secrets and thereby violated the Espionage Act of 1917. Conviction on those charges could send him to prison for up to 175 years.

The suggestion here is that aspects of the campaign to prevent Assange’s extradition to the United States has fallen short of expectations and that the failings may have been inevitable. It seems, further, that political defense for Assange in the international arena, to have been added to his legal defense, has been moribund and for that reason popular support for his cause is weak. A reminder as to how his case has played out may be useful in gaining insight as to Assange’s prospects.

Through his Wikileaks apparatus, Assange collected, and was supplied with, cables and documents, both classified and unclassified, relating to U.S. intelligence, military, and diplomatic operations. Beginning in 2010, Wikileaks distributed material to big and small international news outlets, furiously at first and intermittently later on.

Revealing and often embarrassing information emerged in regard to U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; interventions in Iran, Yemen, and Turkey; U.S. prisoners held in Guantanamo; and U.S. involvement in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. U.S. authorities allege that Assange endangered U.S. interests and personnel.

Sexual assault charges against Assange emerged in Sweden in 2010. Authorities in the U.K., where he was living, first imprisoned him in preparation for extradition to Sweden and then released him on bail. Assange sought judicial protection from being extradited, mainly to avoid extradition from there to the United States.

Court rulings and appeals continued until 2012, when Britain’s Supreme Court authorized Assange’s extradition to Sweden. He took refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in London.

A new rightwing Ecuadorian government in 2019 ended that sanctuary and British authorities, invited into the Embassy, transferred Assange to Belmarsh prison on bail-violation charges, the sexual assault charge having already been dropped. The U.S. government in June 2019 requested Assange’s extradition and also released a previously secret indictment created the year before.

Reports have circulated that Assange has suffered from neurological and psychological illnesses while in prison. Beginning in 2020, British courts at various levels were ruling on Assange’s extradition until mid-2021, when the Supreme Court approved a British government order to extradite him.

An appeal of that decision is in the works; a hearing is scheduled for early 2023. Assange’s lawyers have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Whether or not the British government would honor that court’s rejection of Assange’s extradition is uncertain.

Assange is, therefore, on the verge being imprisoned in the United States. The headline of John Nichols’s article in The Nation says, “A United Front Is Needed to Fight the Threat to Journalism Posed by the Assange Prosecution.”

In fact, a united front of sorts is already in place. As noted above, political officials and journalists have spoken out in opposition to Assange’s extradition. In that vein, Wikileaks top editor Kristinn Hrafnsson and an associate conferred with Latin American heads of state in early December. Colombian president Gustavo Petro, his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernández and Brazilian president-elect Lula da Silva have signaled their support for Assange.

The suggestion of mounting a united front to bolster Assange’s defense is a serendipitous gift to this inquiry. A united front is useful, or not, depending on its composition. Moreover, a united front does have the potential for raising up popular support for a victim, to be added to her or her legal defense.

A precedent does exist for intervention by a united front of defenders that actually did lead to political prisoners going free and that did secure worldwide backing from masses of regular people. That situation differed markedly from that of Assange, so much so as to highlight the inherent limitations that would attend even the most full-throated appeal on his behalf.

A court in Alabama in 1931 convicted nine African-descended boys and young men of having raped two white women; eight of them were going to be executed. They were innocent. On behalf of the so-called “Scottsboro Boys, the national group International Labor Defense (ILD) not only provided lawyers but also orchestrated publicity and protests that extended worldwide and contributed hugely to the prisoners’ eventual liberation.

Initiated by the Communist Party, the ILD recruited activists from all quarters of the American left in order to defend “victims of class warfare.” The Communist party was pursuing a united-front strategy, of which ILD was one manifestation. In fact, Communist parties of the world were doing likewise as part of their preparations for world war thought to be inevitable. They were allying with other political parties of the working class.

Tapping into the grief of oppressed peoples’ daily existence, ILD was offering relief for one aspect of that grief, persecution by local civil authorities. The ILD was providing grounds for hope, and, that way, encouraged people to seek justice and think of freedom for prisoners.

Maybe the role of press freedom in Julian Assange’s case represents a tragic flaw. Press freedom is crucially important to the preservation of democracy but relates only indirectly to people’s basic needs at the grassroots. It’s an abstraction and doesn’t fit as an issue likely to provoke the short-term mass mobilization that Assange needs. In any case, a united front of experts, journalists, politicians, human rights organizations, and international agencies won’t do the trick.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.