With the extradition hearing surrounding Julian Assange now complete at the Old Bailey in London, let’s take a balanced look at the facts behind the Wikileaks founder and news arising from the court case?
Assange, editor in chief of Wikileaks until September 2018, an organisation that leaks news and materials from a wide range of worldwide sources has been targeted for extradition from the UK by the USA under the Espionage Act, which forbids interference with foreign relations and commerce of the United States. The extradition request relates to the release by Wikileaks of thousands of military and diplomatic cables, known as ‘cablegate,’ containing an array of US government files in late 2010.
If you are not familiar with this case, then you may be asking yourself why it has taken the USA 10 years to take action against Assange. What effect does this case have on freedom of the press in journalists reporting to the public about government wrongdoings? And why are other publishers, such as the New York Times, who also reported at the time not targeted?
Chelsea Manning, the US Army whistle-blower who was the source of the leak to Wikileaks and other publications was arrested in May 2010 and subsequently pleaded guilty and sentenced to a 35-year prison term. Before President Obama left office in January 2017, despite his term in office being heavily affected by the information from the Manning leaks, commuted Manning’s sentence to the 7 years served and she was released on clemency. However, Manning was returned to jail for a year for contempt of court from March 2019 to 2020 when she refused to testify before the Grand Jury investigation into Assange.
While the Manning case was underway in the USA, the situation for Assange became further complicated when he was accused of two separate sexual assault allegations in Sweden, both of which he denied. Lawyers for Assange stated that if he were to be extradited to Sweden, he might later be extradited to the US and have to face trial for ‘cablegate’. To alleviate this possibility, Assange jumped bail on the Sweden charges and sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where quite extraordinarily he stayed for 7 years, until a change in the Ecuadorian Government led to his asylum being revoked. When Assange was released from the embassy in April 2019, he was immediately arrested by the UK Police for skipping bail 7 years earlier on the Swedish charges, which had by now been dropped and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison.
One month after leaving the embassy in May 2019, the USA put forward extradition charges against Assange under the Espionage Act for ‘cablegate’, which takes us to the recent trial at the Old Bailey. Assange’s legal defence team have argued that the extradition request is ‘politically motivated’ by the Trump administration and that Assange did not conspire with Manning to hack the documents. They argue that he is entitled to freedom of press, which is crucial in a democratic society.
Evidence from the hearing highlight that Assange was spied upon by the US intelligence and security service throughout his time at the Ecuadorian Embassy, which included a live feed to the CIA. Meanwhile, Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s long-term legal counsel, testified that she and Assange met with US congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Trump associate Charles Johnson in August 2017, where a potential “pardon” might be on offer from Trump. The “pardon” was conditional on Assange revealing the source of the hacking from the Democratic National Committee e-mails, which was a major news story prior to the 2016 Presidential election.
Whilst Assange remains in Belmarsh Prison, the world’s media wait until January 2021 when the case resumes in court and Judge Baraitser delivers a ruling. One question remains to be answered, what impact will this case have on the future of freedom of the press?