Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates' Court in London.
I’ve been one of the most strident critics of Julian Assange since journalist James Ball confirmed that Assange was passing highly sensitive US Embassy Cables onto the dictatorship of Belarus that could have been used to prosecute brave opposition activists.
My concerns over Assange rose after two seperate women accused Assange of rape and sexual assault.
The response by some of the left – to trash the reputations of the women – was, and still is, nothing short of scandalous. Assange’s attempt to subvert the judicial process and place himself above the rule of law is why many people, myself included, refused to support Assange in his hold-out in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
But now the siege of Knightsbridge is over. Assange was carried out and faces the real possibility of being extradited to the US to face espionage charges.
If we get this wrong, and Assange is jailed as a whistleblower in the USA, the chill on free speech globally would be immense. Wikileaks was once an important whistleblowing website, that deserves freedom of speech protections.
It’s worth remembering the crime that Assange did commit: he broke his bail conditions. Nearly nine years ago, in August 2010, two women entered a police station in Stockholm accusing Assange of rape and sexual assault, charges that he has always denied. Instead of staying in Sweden, a country with a long track record of protecting human rights as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, Assange fled to the UK. By fleeing, Assange denied these women justice. The sexual assault charge has now expired and the rape charge investigation was dropped in 2017.
The real story of how Julian Assange ended up in a self-imposed prison in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge is he refused to cooperate with the police in Sweden, then skipped bail and sought “political asylum” after the Supreme Court ruled he should be extradited back to the Scandinavian country.
The line from Wikileaks’ supporters that Assange returning to Sweden would put him at risk of being deported to the US was always nonsense.
Any assurance the Swedish could offer on non-extradition was always as strong as any the British government could give as both countries are (still) EU member states and members of the Council of Europe.
It never stood up to scrutiny that Sweden would be more likely to deport Assange to the US than the UK, America’s closest ally.
Assange must now face justice for these specific charges. Yet, here is where it gets complicated. Assange is now wanted on separate charges filed by the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern State of Virginia for his involvement in a “computer hacking conspiracy” with Chelsea Manning. Right now, Chelsea Manning is in prison for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury looking into the Iraq War Logs, the disclosure of which Manning has already served seven years in jail for.
The prosecution of Chelsea Manning was the prosecution of a public interest whistleblower, whose exposure of American military wrongdoing in Iraq made public 15,000 civilian deaths never previously admitted by the US government as well as the US authorities’ failure to investigate thousands of cases of torture (an internationally indictable crime), abuse, rape and even murder by their allies in the Iraqi police and soldiers. Manning was sentenced to a 35-year jail sentence.
She was only released because President Obama gave her a presidential pardon at the end of his second term.
Assange may now face a similar sentence. While no charges have yet been filed under the Espionage Act, they haven’t been ruled out. It would be hard to argue that Assange should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing US government secrets without also prosecuting publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post for committing precisely the same crime.
This would set a dreadful free speech precedent and critically undermine any future whistleblowers from leaking allegations about US government activity.
There could be an impact on free speech in the UK too. It wasn’t so long along that Conservative MP Michael Ellis tried to implicate then editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger of the crime of treachery under Section 58(a) of the Terrorism Act.
The hacking charge carries a sentence of up to five years, after which Assange could face further charges. If Assange is extradited to the US, on charges that potentially breach his right to free speech, how can other activist asylum seekers in the UK have faith that their rights will be protected?
The picture is complex. Assange should face jail for breaching bail, and he should face justice for the rape allegations. He shouldn’t be extradited to the US. Here is where is gets more complex still.
While Assange shouldn’t be jailed for hacking, we must also not forget that he is a politicised whistleblower.
His whistleblowing and journalism is no longer credible. His leak of highly damaging information about US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seriously damaged her campaign and may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump, a president whose view of the rule of law is not convincingly different from autocrats. There is credible evidence to suggest that the information Assange leaked was hacked by Russian state operatives.
As I wrote in The Independent at the time, after elements of the left defended Assange against allegations of rape and helping the dictator of Belarus, will they continue to defend him if he gets Trump elected? The answer, unfortunately, was yes.
There is a reason why there is no world famous Russian or Chinese whistleblower – it is because (mostly) America has upheld the First Amendment and the rule of law and whistleblowers in dictatorships would be rotting in jail or dead.
America has produced Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, two patriotic whistleblowers. They stand as a credit to American democracy. If the UK wants to show it too can stand up for democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights it must prosecute Assange for his breach of bail conditions.
But under no circumstances must Assange face extradition to the US. It would set a very dangerous global precedent.
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