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Julian Assange Lawyer: What’s at Stake in Extradition Case Is Freedom of the Press

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British Judge Vanessa Baraitser has suspended the extradition hearing for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange until mid-May. This comes after four days of intense deliberations last week between Assange’s legal team and attorneys representing the United States government. Assange faces 18 charges of attempted hacking and breaches of the Espionage Act for his role in publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh prison since last April, when he was removed from the embassy by British police. We speak with Jennifer Robinson, a human rights attorney who has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the extradition hearing for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which a British judge has suspended after four days of intense deliberations last week between Assange’s lawyers and attorneys representing the U.S. government. Assange faces 18 charges of attempted hacking and breaches of the Espionage Act for his role in publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. Judge Vanessa Baraitser ordered the legal teams to reconvene in the middle of May for the remainder of the extradition hearing, where witnesses will be cross-examined. This is Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, outside Woolwich Crown Court last week.

JOHN SHIPTON: The oppression of journalism; the ceaseless malice directed against Julian Assange by the authorities; the 10-year-long arbitrary detention of Julian, as witnessed by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the torture of Julian, as witnessed by Nils Melzer, the United Nations rapporteur on torture — all of those reports are available. That is what will happen to journalists, publishers and publications, if this extradition, this political extradition, of Julian Assange is successful.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton. Julian Assange has been incarcerated in London’s Belmarsh prison since last April. Since 2012, he had taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations, which he denied and which the Swedish government ultimately dropped. Assange even then wasn’t as concerned about being extradited to Sweden, but that Sweden would then send him to the United States. During his time in political exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange was reportedly spied on by a Spanish security firm. Julian Assange says the CIA was behind the illegal 24/7 surveillance.

For more, we’re joined by, well, one of the people who was spied on, Jennifer Robinson, the human rights attorney who’s been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010.

Jen Robinson, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us from London. Can you describe the four days of hearings, just physically in the courtroom in London, and what Julian Assange faces?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Obviously, we’ve just had a week of hearings. Julian Assange faces, as you said, 175 years in prison for publications back in 2010 that were released to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning. And I think it’s important to remember what this case is really about and the publications for which he’s being prosecuted and sought for extradition. That includes Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diaries, showing civilian casualties and abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, war crimes, human rights abuse. The same with Cablegate — war crimes, human rights abuse, corruption the world over.

So, for four days last week, there was a packed-out courtroom filled with — the public gallery was packed, the journalist section was packed — to finally hear, after 10 years of the U.S. preparing this case against WikiLeaks, a grand jury investigation that was opened under the Obama administration and an indictment pursued now by the Trump administration. We finally heard the U.S. case. And, of course, we heard nothing new, nothing new since Chelsea Manning’s prosecution back in 2012.

What is important, though, is that what the court finally heard is the defense case. And a number of arguments were put forward by our team, including the Espionage Act. This is an unprecedented use of the Espionage Act against a publisher, which is, of course, a political offense and ought to be barred from — under the terms of the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty. There should be — extradition should be barred on that basis.

We also heard evidence about the grave threat that this poses to press freedom, not just for journalists inside the United States, but for journalists everywhere around the world, because of the precedent this case sets, that the United States could seek to extradite and prosecute journalists and publishers from around the world for publishing truthful information about the United States.

We also heard evidence about how the United States’ indictment has misrepresented the facts, including making the false allegation that Julian Assange had recklessly and deliberately put lives at risk. And we heard evidence in the court this week about the technological security measures that WikiLeaks imposed upon their media partners and the redaction processes that were undertaken to protect anyone at risk in those publications.

It was a long week of hearings. And I think it’s important that people start to see the true facts of this. Of course, Chelsea Manning remains in prison in the United States right now, but we heard evidence from her prosecution, in these proceedings, demonstrating that Chelsea Manning had in fact provided this information to WikiLeaks based on her own conscience, having seen war crimes, the murder of civilians, the murder of journalists by United States forces, which is what drove her to release the material to WikiLeaks. So, it was a long week of hearings, an important one for Julian.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jennifer Robinson, can you describe the courtroom where — Julian Assange was held at the back of the courtroom, as is the custom? Was he in a cage? Was he able to hear the proceedings, consult? Were you in the front with the other lawyers? You’re his legal adviser.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: That’s correct. So, throughout the hearings, Julian was sat at the back of the courtroom, which is behind where we sit as his legal counsel, in, effectively, a glass box, in the dock. Now, this creates significant amount of difficulties for us as his legal team in communicating with him during the course of the proceedings, which was raised as a concern on the final day of the hearing. He sits behind us, which means while we’re paying attention to the judge and submissions in front, we can’t see when he’s raising concern or seeking clarification or offering information to us about what he’s hearing in court. The entire courtroom, including the public gallery and journalists, were alerted to the fact whenever he wants to raise a question with us. And, of course, if he’s whispering to us or trying to get our attention in the court, the U.S. prosecutors sitting right next to us in court can hear everything. So we made an application at the end of the week in order to allow him to leave the dock. And, of course, for your U.S. viewers, it would seem strange that a defendant who does not pose any security risk would not be permitted to sit next to their defense counsel, which is standard practice in the United States. But the judge refused our application.

We also heard evidence of the mistreatment that Julian suffered, not just the difficulties he has in court in communicating with us in a secure and confidential manner, but also the treatment that he’s been receiving from prison authorities. Just on the first day of the hearing, we heard that he was handcuffed 11 times, strip-searched twice and had his legal papers interfered with and taken away from him. This is indicative of the kinds of treatment that he’s been suffering, and is, of course, the most recent in a long history of difficulties that we’ve been having in preparing his case, with difficulties of access to him in the prison, difficulties in getting him — getting sufficient time with him to review and take his instructions of the very complex evidence that needs to be presented in the court. And it goes to show, I think, the obstacles and the challenges that we face and that he faces in properly defending himself in these proceedings.

AMY GOODMAN: He said Wednesday, “I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am watching Wimbledon,” again, complaining that he could not communicate with you, with the lawyers overall. Now, the U.S. attorneys argue that his case is not political. Explain what you think are the most significant war crimes that he provided evidence of and what it means if he came to this country. How is it possible he, an Australian citizen, faces 175 years for treason in the United States?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Of course this case is inherently political, whether you look at the terms — the offenses for which he’s been charged, including numerous offenses under the Espionage Act, which encapsulate and capture traditional journalistic activities. The Espionage Act itself as an offense is a political offense in substance. But we also need to look at the political context in which this prosecution and extradition request comes. This is, of course, in the context of the Trump administration, a president who calls the media the enemy of the people. We have learnt, since Julian was arrested and this extradition request and superceding indictment came through, that the Obama administration had taken a decision not to prosecute under the Espionage Act because of what — the so-called New York Times problem — that is, that you cannot distinguish between the actions of WikiLeaks and The New York Times in receiving and publishing this information.

We also say that beyond the political nature of the offense and the political context in which he would be charged, the U.S. prosecution seemed to — tried to argue this week, this past week, that what WikiLeaks did and Julian did in publishing this information was not a political act. And, of course, we heard evidence in the court about Julian’s very well-known political views, that we heard with respect to WikiLeaks and the aims and why WikiLeaks was created by him. We heard, with respect to the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks — Julian saying, with the release, “If lies can start a war, then the truth can stop them.” And we heard evidence about how the publication of evidence of war crimes, in the context of the Iraq War, both with respect to, for example, “Collateral Murder,” which was evidence of a war crime and U.S. troops killing journalists and civilians, but also, more broadly, about torture of detainees — how evidence of that in fact led to the Iraqi government withdrawing the immunity for U.S. troops and the ultimate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. So, of course, what we’re seeing is that WikiLeaks not only published information of important human rights abuse — it was certainly in the public interest, and for which they’ve won journalism awards the world over — but that in fact resulted in a change in U.S. policy. And we say that that makes it a political offense.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jen Robinson, how is Julian Assange’s health?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: We remain very concerned about his health. Of course, he had more than seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy without access to healthcare, because the U.K. government refused to recognize his asylum, an asylum that was granted to him by Ecuador, not to hide from Sweden, as your introduction suggested, but to protect him from U.S. extradition, the very outcome that he’s facing right now.

Inside prison, he is in difficult conditions. This is a high-security prison. He’s been in effective isolation for much of the time he’s been inside the prison. And you heard me earlier explain the treatment he’s been suffering between the prison and the court each time for his hearing, including being handcuffed numerous times, strip searches and the like. This is, of course, compounding our existing concerns about his health. And we heard in court, too, psychiatric evidence that’s being put before the court about concerns about his ability to withstand the sorts of treatment he will suffer in U.S. prisons under special administrative measures if he was returned to the United States. So it is a very serious situation and one that is under constant monitoring at our end.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Robinson, I want to thank you for being with us, human rights attorney. She is legal adviser for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010.

When we come back, tomorrow is Super Tuesday. We go to Texas to speak with a candidate who’s running in a primary race. That’s Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration lawyer who’s challenging Congressmember Henry Cuellar. Stay with us.

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