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Press Freedom on Trial: Julian Assange’s Lawyer on Extradition Case & Criminalizing Journalism

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At a critical hearing this week in London, lawyers for imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asked the British High Court of Justice to grant him a new appeal in what is likely his last chance to avoid extradition to the United States, where he faces a 175-year prison sentence for publishing classified documents that exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, says the judges were receptive to their arguments that Assange could face the death penalty in the U.S. and that an extradition would set a dangerous precedent for press freedom. “If Julian is extradited and goes on trial under the Espionage Act, this is a case which is going to set precedent which criminalizes journalistic activity and will be used against the rest of the media.” A ruling in the case is not expected until next month at the earliest.

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

AMY GOODMAN: A critical hearing in the extradition case of imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrapped up at the British High Court of Justice in London Wednesday. Assange’s lawyers asked the court to grant him a new appeal in what’s likely his last chance to avoid extradition to the United States. The two judges overseeing the case reserved their decision, and a ruling is not expected until next month at the earliest.

Julian Assange has been charged under the U.S. Espionage Act and faces 175 years in prison for publishing classified documents almost 15 years ago that exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the judges rule against Assange, he can ask the European High Court of Human Rights to block his extradition. However, the British government already signed an extradition order in June of 2022.

As the two-day hearing was underway this week in London, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the court in support of Assange. Julian Assange did not attend the two-day hearing himself, nor did he watch remotely, because he is in poor health, according to his lawyers. He’s 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.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Jennifer Robinson, human rights attorney who’s Julian Assange’s lawyer.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jennifer Robinson. If you can talk about the significance of this two-day hearing held by Britain’s High Court and what you think came of it? We’re very sorry. We can’t hear Jennifer Robinson, so we’re going to go to break and fix the — ah, I’ve just been told that we can go to her. Jen, if you can start off by talking about the significance of the High Court hearing this week?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: This is potentially Julian’s final appeal in the United Kingdom. We’ve sought permission to appeal. It was refused at the end of last year. And if we’re unsuccessful this week, he has no further appeals in the United Kingdom. But I think the court was receptive to the arguments.

So, we heard arguments this week about how his extradition should be barred because he’s revealed evidence of U.S. state criminality. So we heard a long exposition from our counsel about the impact of the revelations from WikiLeaks about torture, about war crimes, about human rights abuse in the context of the U.S. “war on terror,” and that this — that he’s being prosecuted and punished for having revealed evidence of U.S. state criminality, which should prevent his extradition. The judges were very engaged with that.

They were very concerned about the arguments around the death penalty. So, one of our arguments has been about if Julian is extradited to the United States, he could potentially, on the facts charged in the indictment, face charges which would attract the death penalty, and the U.S. has offered no assurance that that won’t happen if he’s extradited. The judges were very troubled by that.

They were also very troubled by the free speech arguments. So, we heard a long exposition in court about what the European Court of Human Rights would do if confronted with dealing with Chelsea Manning’s case, the military official who is alleged to have leaked materials to WikiLeaks, and how the court would treat Julian as a publisher. And the ruling that they — as they set out, it would be protected activity under European jurisprudence. And on that basis, he shouldn’t be extradited.

So I think the judges were very troubled by the case, but it remains to be seen how they’ll decide.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what surprised you on the issues that the judges focused most on?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I think what was interesting, we saw the U.S. government roll out the same old, tired arguments. They really didn’t — they weren’t able to grapple with the important free speech questions in the case. And, in fact, one of the judges asked U.S. counsel, when they making their submissions, “Well, what would happen in this jurisdiction if a journalist received information from the intelligence services of wrongdoing by the intelligence services and published it in the newspapers here? Are you saying that there would be no free speech protections?” And the U.S. government case, they couldn’t answer the question. So it shows to me that the judges in this jurisdiction are concerned about the precedent that this case is setting. It’s a point that we’ve been making for many years, that this precedent, if Julian is extradited, is basically saying that any journalist or publisher in this jurisdiction could be prosecuted and extradited to the United States. The judges are clearly troubled by those free speech questions in the case.

And also troubled — the U.S. government’s case was, “Well, it’s not likely he’ll be subjected to the death penalty.” And the judge asked the question, “Well, is it possible he could be?” And they said, “Yes.” And then said, “Well, what protection is there against it? Why is there no assurance?” And they said, “Well, there is no assurance.” So there’s actually — I think there’s quite a lot of grounds for the judges to go on here. So, I was quite surprised that the U.S. government was unable and had not prepared, was not prepared to answer some of these questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen, I wanted to ask you about their focus on new information that your team presented to the High Court, and I wanted to go to a clip of Democracy Now! back in 2021, speaking with investigative reporter Michael Isikoff with Yahoo News about his piece, “Kidnapping, assassination and a London shoot-out: Inside the CIA’s secret war plans against WikiLeaks,” where Isikoff details how the CIA considered abducting and murdering Assange while he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden. This is what Michael said.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: As is well known, WikiLeaks had been on the radar screen of U.S. intelligence for years, going back to its publications in 2010 of the State Department cables, the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs that had been provided by Chelsea Manning, and, of course, Assange’s role in publishing the Russian-purloined DNC emails and Podesta emails during the 2016 election. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Michael Isikoff laying out their findings. Jennifer Robinson, can you talk about what the abduction and assassination plan was and what your team told the two judges in the High Court?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, you just heard about the Yahoo News revelations about the CIA plot to kidnap and kill Mr. Assange. We also had witness evidence from a protected witness who provided evidence that inside the embassy there had been plans to attempt to poison Julian, that they had made plans to potentially leave a door open so someone could come in and kidnap and kill him.

This evidence — we didn’t have the evidence of the CIA plot before the last evidential hearing, so we’ve sought permission to admit that as fresh evidence which provides support to some of the broader arguments that we’re making about the way that Julian is being punished for revealing state criminality, because, of course, there was, as you will remember, under the Obama administration, the Obama administration chose not to indict Julian Assange. There was an ongoing grand jury investigation, but there had been a decision not to prosecute.

The decision to prosecute came from the Trump administration and came only after WikiLeaks had published the CIA materials in 2017. And we started to see Mike Pompeo come out and use language like WikiLeaks is a hostile nonstate intelligence agency. Jeff Sessions soon came out, as attorney general, saying it was suddenly a priority to prosecute Assange for these historic publications.

And we say that this shows both the political nature of the prosecution and the fact that this was pursued by the Trump administration in retaliation for those publications on the CIA, as part of this broader plan, including a plan to kidnap and kill him. And we also say that this shows the danger, the extreme risk that Julian is going to face if he’s extradited to the United States.

I think it’s important to remember that we won the case a few years ago on the basis of the oppressive prison conditions Julian would face if he was placed under special administrative measures, or SAMs, together with his depressive illness and his autistic diagnosis, that the medical — accepted medical evidence before the court in this country is that he would be caused to commit suicide. The U.S. then offered a conditional assurance to say, “Well, you can extradite him. We won’t place him under those conditions, unless he does something to deserve it in the future.” And who decides whether or not he’ll be placed in prison conditions that the medical evidence shows will cause his death is the intelligence agencies. And we would have no ability to judicially review that. That is a really serious situation, and it’s why we are so concerned about him being extradited to the United States, in the context of the fact the CIA plotted to kidnap and kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Australia’s Parliament overwhelmingly approved a motion calling for the release of Julian, who’s an Australian citizen. The resolution was introduced by Australian MP Andrew Wilkie, who traveled to London this week to attend the hearing. He spoke outside the courthouse about the case and referenced the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, shot in 2007, that shows a U.S. military Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on civilians and killing 12 people, including two members of Reuters staff.

ANDREW WILKIE: Who remembers “Collateral Murder”? Who can forget that grainy black-and-white image of an American attack helicopter gunning down innocent Iraqis and Reuters journalists? Who can remember that? And we have this madness that the man who told the truth, who provided hard evidence of U.S. war crimes, he’s the one in front of the court. It should have been the pilots of that helicopter.

But some common sense has broken out. At least now the Australian Parliament has finally voted. The Australian prime minister has finally stood up and given a clear, strong signal to the Americans that enough is enough. Regardless of what you think of Julian, this matter must be brought to an end. The extradition must be dropped. The charges must be dropped. He must be busted out of Belmarsh. He must be allowed to be reunited with his family. Because Julian Assange is the hero here, not the villain.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Australian member of Parliament, MP Andrew Wilkie. Across the political spectrum in the Australian Parliament, they voted to call for the release of Julian Assange. Australia is a U.S. ally. Jennifer Robinson, you’re an Australian citizen. Can you talk about the significance of this and Andrew Wilkie flying for a day to London to be there at the High Court hearing?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, first, we were delighted that Andrew joined us in court, and he’s been one of Julian’s strongest supporters over many years. We’ve been working together in the Australian Parliament to garner this kind of support.

But what we saw in terms of the Australian Parliament passing that resolution, in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Parliament pass a resolution on an individual case of this nature, calling on foreign governments to release an Australian citizen. And that’s precisely what happened in the case of Julian Assange. So, this is a clear signal from the — we’ve already heard from the Australian government. We know that the Australian prime minister has been raising this with President Biden, saying that enough is enough and he ought to come home. We’ve now got this unprecedented showing of political support from our Parliament. And it’s time that the United States starts to listen. We are in a special relationship with the United States. You’ve now heard it is the will of the Australian government, the Australian Parliament and the Australian people that Julian Assange be brought home.

And, you know, this is not just about an Australian citizen. So, of course, the Australian government is now acting, and we’re really grateful to the prime minister for his principled leadership on this and for his support in this matter, but this is also about American press freedoms. This is about your Constitution. This is about journalism in the United States. And this case will set a — is already setting a dangerous precedent. It’s having a chilling effect on national security and public interest journalism in the United States. And if Julian is extradited and goes on trial under the Espionage Act, this is a case which is going to set precedent which criminalizes journalistic activity and will be used against the rest of the media. In the context of an election where we could well see another Trump presidency, this should be of grave concern not just for us as Australians because he’s an Australian citizen, but what it means for you and your press freedoms.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jen Robinson, why wasn’t Julian Assange in court or even watching by video? And have you spoken to him since the High Court hearing?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I have managed to speak to him over the phone, and my colleagues visited him in prison yesterday. Julian has been really unwell. We know the risk of suicide as a result of the medical evidence. This is really the sharp end of the case. This could be his final appeal. We will, of course, seek to apply to the European Court of Human Rights to protect him from extradition if we’re unsuccessful, but that’s not a guaranteed measure. So we really are at a sharp end, and and this is having a massive toll on his mental and physical health. He has already been incredibly unwell as a result of the many years he was held in the Ecuadorian Embassy, unable to go outside to exercise, now more than five years in a high-security prison where he’s effectively in isolation. So this is having a huge toll on him, that he was not even able to attend in person or online to be able to follow his own appeal hearing. It goes to show just how unwell he is.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jennifer Robinson, human rights attorney, has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. We will also link to all our interviews with Julian Assange, inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and outside, at

When we come back, we go to Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian newspaper, that worked with WikiLeaks to expose U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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“Governments Are Trying to Frighten Journalists”: Fmr. Guardian Head Alan Rusbridger on Assange Case

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