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“Political Prosecution”: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange Faces Final U.K. Appeal to Avoid U.S. Extradition

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The final day of a critical appeal for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is underway today at the British High Court of Justice, in what could be Assange’s last chance to stop his extradition to the United States. Assange faces a 175-year prison sentence for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the WikiLeaks founder’s health is reportedly deteriorating rapidly, his lawyers are arguing the case is politically motivated to target Assange for exposing “state-level crimes.” Meanwhile, U.S. lawyers are attempting to portray Assange as a hacker rather than a journalist. “It’s clear to everyone that Assange is a journalist. He revealed more criminality by the world’s most powerful country than anyone’s ever done in history,” says Matt Kennard, head of investigations at Declassified UK, who lays out the proceedings so far, what to expect from the British justice system and the precedent an Assange extradition would set for global journalism. “It will be a huge nail in the coffin for investigative journalism, for any kind of publishing of information that state powers don’t like, and it will be used by repressive regimes all around the world.”

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StoryFeb 16, 2024Australian Parliament Calls for U.S. to Drop Case Against WikiLeaks’ Assange Ahead of U.K. Court Hearing
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The second and final day of a critical appeal for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is underway today at the British High Court of Justice, in what could be Assange’s last chance to stop his extradition to the United States. Julian Assange has been charged under the U.S. Espionage Act and faces a 175-year prison sentence for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange was again unable to attend today’s hearing due to serious poor health and is not even able to follow the proceedings via video, according to his lawyers.

Julian Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Prison since 2019. Prior to that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Ecuador had granted him political asylum.

On Tuesday, Assange’s lawyers told the court that the case was politically motivated, arguing Assange was targeted for his exposure of, quote, “state-level crimes.” Meanwhile, lawyers representing the U.S government argued today that Assange’s prosecution, quote, “might be unprecedented, but what he did was unprecedented,” they said.

For more, we’re going outside the British High Court, where we’re joined by Matt Kennard, who’s been closely following the hearings. He’s head of investigations at the journalism website Declassified UK. His new book, The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs the American Empire, is out in June.

Matt, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us. This is the lunch break of the High Court. Yesterday, the lawyers for Julian Assange made their case. Today, the lawyers for the U.S. government argued he should be extradited to the United States. Can you talk about what the judges who are hearing this case have been most interested in, and your assessment of the presentations so far?

MATT KENNARD: Well, firstly, I should just say that this case, this hearing today and yesterday, is merely about whether Julian Assange has a right to appeal the extradition to the United States. That decision was made a couple years ago, and he wants to appeal it on the substantive issues.

And yesterday, his lawyers went through the main issue, which is that this is a political prosecution, which is prohibited in the U.S.-U.K. Extradition Treaty of 2003. You can’t send someone to the United States for political offenses. They argued they’ve even taken at its highest — the U.S. indictment is indicting him under the Espionage Act, effectively as a spy, and that is a political offense. So that was how it started. They also argued that it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 7 is about foreseeability. In 2010, when he began releasing the U.S. cables, he had no way of knowing that what he was doing was a criminal offense, because it’s never been prosecuted by the U.S. government before, even revealing the names of human informants. And then they went on to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is about freedom of speech and free expression and press freedom — again, a huge violation of that, of course, if Assange goes to the United States.

And today, the U.S. lawyer, effectively, her case was about trying to differentiate Assange from journalists. They were saying he’s not a journalist, he’s a hacker, he’s a computer scientist — when, of course, it’s clear to everyone that Assange is a journalist. He revealed more criminality by the world’s most powerful country than anyone’s ever done in history.

So, for me, watching the case, the arguments being given by both lawyers today, it’s clear that Assange should be allowed an appeal on the substantive issues, because the original ruling in 2021, January 2021, by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States, but on very narrow grounds. She agreed with every dot and comma, effectively, of the U.S. indictment, but said that he was a suicide risk, and the extradition should be blocked on those grounds. The U.S. then appealed, won that appeal and said that “We won’t treat him in the ways that the district judge assumed. We won’t put him under SAMs,” which is extremely onerous prison conditions. But that was then against — and that judge favored the U.S. But Assange was never allowed to appeal that original ruling on the substantive issues.

So, we must, for British justice, for global justice, because, of course, this case is about global journalism, because Assange is an Australian citizen who committed these so-called crimes that the U.S. is indicting him for outside of the U.S. So, if Britain does extradite Assange to the United States, that gives the U.S. extraterritorial reach to go anywhere around the world, pluck any journalist who’s publishing information they don’t like, and bring them to the United States. It’s hugely worrying for — not just for journalists in this jurisdiction, but any jurisdiction around the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt, you mentioned that Assange is an Australian citizen. On Wednesday, Australia’s Parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion calling for his release. Is this significant at all in terms of the course of these hearings or what might follow?

MATT KENNARD: Well, I mean, I don’t think it is, unfortunately, because we know the political pressure that has been brought on the United States government. There’s been presidents all over the world, from Lula to Petro in Colombia, and they’ve all been calling for the United States to drop this case and saying it’s a huge violation of freedom of the press, but it’s not happened. And then you’ve got civil society organizations, NGOs all around the world interested in press freedom saying that this is a huge violation of press freedom, and it’s had no impact on either party, because, of course, this indictment was first brought by the Trump administration and then carried on by the Biden administration, so this is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that they want to get Assange.

But what should protect Assange in this case, when he’s being persecuted by the political system in the United States, is an independent judiciary in Britain. Of course, that’s how we’re told it works. But, unfortunately, I believe that the U.K. judiciary has been captured by the state in this case, which is one of the surest signs of authoritarianism, and not only captured by the U.K. state, but captured by the U.S. state.

That also goes for the penal system. Why is Julian Assange in Belmarsh maximum-security prison in London? This is called “Britain’s Guantánamo.” It’s full of rapists, pedophiles, terrorists. He’s never been charged and convicted of anything other than a bail violation in the U.K. And that conviction was spent in under two years. He’s still there on remand. And it’s nearly five years he’s been there.

So, the whole thing has been irregular from the start, so I don’t hold up too much hope for the British justice system. I think that what we — where there is hope is global public opinion. And as you can hear behind me, the people on the ground are really coming out to support Julian Assange in Britain. We don’t have the support in the same way from the mainstream media or even civil society as much as it should here, but that could change the game. So, hopefully, that pressure will tell. I do believe that it may look so bad for the British justice system to not allow an appeal, that they will allow this to go forward. But we don’t know. This case has been irregular from the start.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the folks outside the courtroom. Could you describe the scene out there and the level of public support for Assange in the U.K.?

MATT KENNARD: Well, it’s interesting. There’s two sides to this story in Britain, in that, on the ground, there’s a lot of people coming out to support him. You can see behind me it’s pouring with rain here, or it was, but you’ve got hundreds of people out here. Yesterday, there were thousands, probably, making a lot of noise. And these people understand the stakes that this case holds, because this isn’t just about Julian Assange. Of course, it is about saving the life of a brave journalist who revealed state criminality on an unprecedented level, but it’s also about all of us. This goes to the very core of freedom in Britain, in the United States, globally, this case, and not just in the short term. If they get Assange, then that’s not — they won’t just thank themselves and close up shop. They will use the precedent that sets to go after more and more people. The levees will break. And it will be a huge nail in the coffin for investigative journalism, for any kind of publishing of information that state powers don’t like.

And it will be used by repressive regimes all around the world as an example of what they can do if the United States is allowed to do it. If a country like Turkey, which puts hundreds of journalists in prison, is taken to task for that, they can just say, “Well, look, the United States brought Julian Assange over to the U.S. and stuck him in a prison for the rest of his life for revealing your war crimes. Why can’t we do it?” They can also then say, “Well, look, the British so-called independent judges agreed with that extradition and did it themselves, so Britain has no leg to stand on.”

So we’re talking about really, really serious, basic issues. And these are issues that need to be heard in a British court, because today we’re hearing some of these issues, but it’s only a two-day hearing. What Assange’s lawyers want is the right to have this appeal and these substantive issues aired in public for everyone over an extended period.

I should also mention that yesterday they mentioned in court the Yahoo News article. This is when 34 former U.S. officials went on the record to explain that senior levels of the Trump administration and the CIA had sketched plans to kill or kidnap Julian Assange in London because they didn’t like his reporting. Now, in my opinion, that should have the case thrown out immediately. How can you extradite a journalist and publisher to the country which is on record as plotting to assassinate him? Add to that, there’s other revelations that have come out that the CIA spied on his privileged conversations with his lawyers. Again, any normal case, that would just get the case thrown out completely. But this is not a normal case, and the British justice system is not applying the rule of law or due process in this case.


MATT KENNARD: In the case of Daniel Ellsberg, which U.S. listeners will know well, the Pentagon Papers case, his case was thrown out because it was revealed that the Nixon administration had burglarized his psychiatrist’s office to get dirt on him to smear him in the media.


MATT KENNARD: That’s not as bad as what we’ve heard about what they’ve done to Assange already, but nothing seems to — the British justice system seems to be impervious to the murder plot and to the spying of the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt, I wanted to go to that point you raised about Yahoo News. We spoke with the investigative reporter Michael Isikoff with Yahoo News back in 2021. His piece was headlined “Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA’s secret war plans against WikiLeaks.” He details how the CIA considered abducting and possibly murdering Assange while he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited. So, more than 30 former officials, as you said, described how then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo was apparently motivated to get even with WikiLeaks following its publication of sensitive CIA hacking tools called Vault 7, which the agency consider the largest data loss in CIA history. This is Michael Isikoff laying out the story.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: But what really set Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director, off was that Vault 7 leak. This was on his watch. This was his agency. And while Pompeo had been somewhat dismissive of the Russia allegations and Assange’s role in that, the Vault 7 leak focused his energies on getting back at WikiLeaks and Assange, at dismantling the organization.

I was in the room when Pompeo gave that speech in early April 2017 where he described for the first time WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service.” I thought and assumed, like many, it was some kind of rhetorical talking point, a grabby line that Pompeo had came up with. In fact, that designation, internally, opened the door for the CIA to launch and plan all sorts of operations that didn’t require a presidential finding and didn’t — and wasn’t going to be briefed to Capitol Hill.

These were offensive counterintelligence activities. Pompeo — there’s abduction plans to — basically, a snatch operation to take Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy. There was talk of assassination, although, we want to be clear, that never was forwarded to the White House; that was internally within the CIA. The abduction plans were, as part of a much broader, multipronged CIA attack on WikiLeaks that included stealing computers, surveillance of WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord among its members. And Trump White House lawyers raised concerns that…

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Michael Isikoff explaining on Democracy Now! this assassination attempt. We just have 30 seconds, Matt Kennard. Apparently, the lawyers for Julian Assange introduced new evidence. The judges seem to be interested in this. Can you summarize? Will there be possibly more hearings in a British court? And then what happens? If they decide to extradite him, he has like a month before he’s extradited?

MATT KENNARD: Well, so, if the appeal is granted, it goes back to the — back to court, and they can argue the substantive issues. If they reject the right to appeal, that’s the U.K. legal system exhausted. But there is the European Court of Human Rights, which can issue what is called a Rule 39, which would stay the execution — or, sorry, stay the extradition until the European Court can look at the case. But again, as I said, Britain hasn’t applied the rule of law or due process in this case, so it could be that they ship — they get him to the United States before the European Court of Human Rights can even issue that injunction to stop the extradition.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Kennard, we thank you so much for being with us, head of investigations at the journalism website Declassified UK; his new book, The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs the American Empire, out in June; previously the director at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London; speaking outside the British High Court, the two days of hearings going on right now on extradition request by the United States to send Julian Assange to the U.S., where, if convicted, he faces 175 years in prison.

Coming up, for the third time, the U.S. vetoes a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. The Biden administration’s backing of Israel has sparked widespread criticism, including in Michigan, home to one of the largest Arab American populations in the country. We’ll host a discussion with Michigan state Representative Abraham Aiyash and California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who’s headed to Michigan to meet with Muslim and Arab American leaders in the state. Stay with us.

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