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British High Court Grants WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange the Right to Appeal U.S. Extradition

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Monday won the right to appeal his extradition to the United States. Assange’s lawyers argued before the British High Court that the U.S. government provided “blatantly inadequate” assurances that Assange would have the same free speech protections as an American citizen if extradited from Britain. Assange has spent more than a decade facing the threat of extradition to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a victory for Julian Assange in that he lives on to fight another day, his case lives on to fight another day. But he’s not out of Belmarsh [Prison] yet, and he’s not in the clear yet,” says Chip Gibbons, policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent. “This could still end in him being sent to the U.S. And the person who can stop this is Joe Biden and Merrick Garland.”

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StoryJun 17, 2022Punished for Exposing War Crimes? U.K. Approves Assange Extradition to U.S., Faces 175 Years in Prison
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A High Court in London has granted permission to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to appeal his extradition to the United States. The decision came after a critical hearing in London that Assange did not attend for health reasons. Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Prison for nearly five years awaiting possible extradition to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison for publishing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, he spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been granted political asylum.

In March, the court said if Julian Assange, who’s an Australian citizen, could not rely on the First Amendment, then it was arguable his extradition would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protections. In April, the Biden administration provided assurances to the court that Assange would not face the death penalty and that his First Amendment rights would be protected if he were to be extradited from Britain.

For more, we go to London, just outside the British High court, where we’re joined by Chip Gibbons, policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent, covering the extradition hearing for Jacobin magazine. His recent piece for The Nation is headlined “End the Persecution of Julian Assange.”

Chip, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain what just took place in this last hour in Britain’s High Court?

CHIP GIBBONS: Sure. So, in February, the Assange defense applied to appeal on nine different grounds. In the U.K. legal system, you have to be granted permission to appeal. The High Court said they could potentially appeal on three of those grounds, unless the U.S. made satisfactory assurances. The one ground was about the death penalty, and the defense agreed today that the death penalty assurance was satisfactory. The remaining two grounds, which they’ve now been granted leave to appeal on, meaning the U.S.'s assurances were not satisfactory, stem from a comment that Gordon Kromberg — Kromberg is a prosecutor in the Assange case. He also prosecuted Daniel Hale. He was involved in the Sami Al-Arian prosecution. He's a notorious figure for his abuses of civil rights and civil liberties, said that the U.S. could argue that Julian Assange does not have First Amendment rights because he is a foreign national. This raised two grounds for appeal, first that Assange would be prejudiced, either at trial or sentencing, due to his nationality, and that if he could not rely on the First Amendment, that violated his right to free expression under the European Convention.

I will note that in that ruling, the U.K. High Court ruling in March did not find that prosecuting Julian Assange for exposing war crimes would violate his free expression rights. And while they raised the death penalty issue, they also have asked the defense no longer to bring up the CIA plot to kill him, because if Assange is extradited to the U.S., then the CIA loses the reason to assassinate him.

So, Assange’s defense basically had both their hands tied behind their backs and were given only the most narrowest of narrow grounds of appeal in what is the press freedom trial of the century. And against all odds, they have prevailed today, saying the U.S. assurances on the First Amendment, on nationality are not sufficient. They accepted that the death penalty assurance was sufficient. There will not be an appeal on the death penalty.

But what happened was, the U.S. put forward this assurance that said Assange would not be limited in his defenses because of his nationality, and he could seek to rely on the First Amendment, but that was ultimately up for a court to decide. They also did not say that Gordon Kromberg, or whoever else in the executive, would refrain from bringing the argument that Assange had no First Amendment rights based on his Australian nationality. So, the defense pointed out both that Kromberg is not refusing to bring this claim and that a court could independently bring it, and that if a court independently brings it, that could be a free expression — the court could, independent of Kromberg, rule that Assange has no First Amendment rights — that could be a violation of his free expression rights, and that the assurance that he could seek to rely on the First Amendment is not an assurance that he could rely on the First Amendment.

Now, the court today made no ruling about whether or not Assange can be extradited or whether or not this should block his extradition. They only ruled that there are grounds for an appeal based on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does this mean, Chip, exactly? What is the timeline here? Julian Assange has been in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison for more than five years now. And before that, for years he holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Though he had been granted political asylum in Ecuador, in order to get there, he would have had to go through Britain, which means — you know, to fly to Ecuador, which means he would have been arrested. How much longer does this go on?

CHIP GIBBONS: And I would note, Amy, that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Assange’s time in the embassy constituted arbitrary detention. And as we speak, a member of the — members of U.K. Parliament, led by John McDonnell, based on the journalism of Stefania Maurizi, are seeking to find out why the Crown Prosecution Service intervened in that Swedish extradition request in order to prolong it, the inference being they were setting him up to be extradited to the U.S.

It’s not clear to me how much longer this goes on. Assange will have another appeal about whether or not his free expression rights will be violated and whether or not his nationality — he will be discriminated against on the basis of his nationality. It’s clear the judges were not very impressed with the arguments the U.S. and the U.K. put forward today. I don’t quite know the timeline for that appeal yet. It’s unclear. The defense and the prosecution have to work together to come up with some documents. And then, I mean, this could keep going on for a lot longer. And it’s worth remembering that even if the U.K. courts eventually rule against him, which a lot of us felt like they were going to, given that they were basically telegraphing to the U.S. what they needed to say in these assurances — and the U.S. couldn’t even do that — there’s still the chance of going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

So, Assange remains confined in Belmarsh, one of the harshest prisons. We know his health is deteriorating. That’s why he was not allowed in court today. We also know they have forbidden remote access to journalists who are not based in England and Wales, because they can’t be prosecuted for taking a screenshot of the hearing. That’s why I’m in London and not in my house in D.C. watching this. I suspect the reason why they won’t grant these transmissions is they’re afraid, if Julian Assange does show up, someone will take a screenshot of him, because we know they don’t want people filming or taking pictures of Julian Assange, revealing the terrible shape that he’s in. So, this is a victory for Julian Assange in that he lives on to fight another day, his case lives to fight another day, but he’s not out of Belmarsh yet, and he’s not in the clear yet. This could still end in him being sent to the U.S.

And the person who can stop this is Joe Biden and Merrick Garland. They could drop these charges today. They keep claiming, “Oh, this is the Justice Department. We don’t want to politicize the Justice Department.” But this is a political prosecution. The choice to bring charges against a journalist for exposing U.S. war crimes is the choice to bring a political prosecution. It was a political decision when Barack Obama refused to bring the case, and it was a political decision when Trump and Sessions and Barr chose to bring it. And, you know, Biden can sit there and say he’s not like Trump, he believes in democracy, journalism is not a crime, all of those sorts of things, but those words are extremely hollow so long as Biden continues to make the political decision to continue this Trump-era persecution of a journalist whose only crime is exposing war crimes, abuses of power and state criminality.

AMY GOODMAN: Chip Gibbons, I want to thank you for being with us, policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent, in London to cover the Julian Assange extradition hearing for Jacobin. We’ll link your piece in The Nation headlined “End the Persecution of Julian Assange.”

When we come back, we speak with two Morehouse professors. President Biden gave a commencement address at the historically Black college yesterday. One of those professors put her fist in the air and turned her back on President Biden, protesting Gaza policy. The other held up a flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo behind the president as he spoke. Back in 30 seconds.

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