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Assange Extradition Battle Begins as UK Signs Extradition Request

Ricardo Patiño, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Migration of Ecuador, meets with Julian Assange in 2013. (Photo: Cancillería Ecuador)
Ricardo Patiño, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Migration of Ecuador, meets with Julian Assange in 2013. (Photo: Cancillería Ecuador)

Washington’s aggressive prosecution of Assange is a pivotal case for journalism that could have a vast and severe impact on journalists and whistleblowers for decades to come.

The U.K. signed a controversial order last Wednesday to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S. where he faces 18 charges under the U.S. Espionage Act.

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC that the final decision on Assange’s extradition will be left to the court.

“It is a decision ultimately for the courts, but there is a very important part of it for the home secretary, and I want to see justice done at all times, and we’ve got a legitimate extradition request, so I’ve signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts,” Javid said as quoted by The Guardian.

Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson told ABC that the signing of the extradition request is a common part of the process and the extradition challenge has only just begun.

Assange will face his first hearing on whether he should be deported to the U.S. in February 2020, a judge in London said on Friday.

Assange gained worldwide notoriety in 2010 after leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents disclosing U.S. military brutality in the Iraq and Afghanistan War.

The Australian is serving a 50-week sentence in the U.K. for violating bail conditions. He was arrested at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London after spending seven years living in the embassy building to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces rape charges. Assange had previously said he would travel to Sweden to face the rape allegations as long as he was guaranteed he would not be extradited to the U.S.

As Reuters reported on Saturday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said its side would provide consular assistant to Assange and has asked for a guarantee that the whistleblower would receive the fair treatment under British law. But the Australian government said it would not intervene in other countries’ legal processes.

“Any extradition request is a matter for the U.K. authorities. The Australian government cannot interfere in another nation’s legal proceedings,” a DFAT spokesperson told Reuters via email.

A Broad Interpretation of the Espionage Act

At the end of last May, Washington slapped 17 additional charges on Assange, including charges of violating the Espionage Act and conspiring to leak state secrets to the public. The charges mean he could spend 175 years in prison if he is extradited and convicted.

Assange was accused of conspiring with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to access the Pentagon’s computer network.

Law professor Steve Vladeck claimed Assange’s indictment under the Espionage Act is vague and the charges against him spark a debate on First Amendment rights and whether his role in publishing U.S. classified documents is included as a protected journalism activity.

The issue isn’t whether Assange is a “journalist”; this will be a major test case because the text of the _Espionage Act_ doesn’t distinguish between what Assange allegedly did and what mainstream outlets sometimes do, even if the underlying facts/motives are radically different,” Vladeck tweeted.

Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent, echoed Vladeck’s statement, saying that the Espionage Act can be too broadly interpreted and it does not distinguish between who passively receives information and who actively disseminates the information and under what circumstances.

“So I think the issue would be, does it have a chilling effect, is what you’re asking, and it might. And I think that the answer is that the law ought to be updated. I think rather than placing the blame on the Justice Department, the question is, why hasn’t Congress updated this law, particularly in the information age when incredibly damaging information can be put out there by bad actors like Julian Assange?” Rangappa told NPR in an interview.

Rangappa cited one of the differences between Assange and other journalists is that Assange snubbed government warnings not to disclose the names of sources.

“One thing I will say is that this indictment goes to some lengths to make clear that Assange was not a passive recipient of classified information the way that a journalist who is receiving, you know, an anonymous leak might be, that he was actively participating in the solicitation encouragement of – in the process of getting this information illegally and also that he disregarded warnings from government officials that not redacting the names of sources, which were not relevant to the newsworthiness of what he was actually reporting about the government, that he disregarded that and exposed those people anyway. So I do think this distinguishes it from most journalists,” she added.

Assange’s Trial and the Future of Journalism

Washington’s aggressive prosecution of Assange is a pivotal case for journalism that could have a vast and severe impact on journalists and whistleblowers for decades to come.

Activists, fellow whistleblowers and civil rights groups see the expanded indictment as a violation of the First Amendment that stipulates protection for freedom of speech and protections for the press. A conviction of Assange, activists worry, could lead to greater restriction of press freedom.

Former government contractor, whistleblower and employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Edward Snowden, condemned the latest charge against Assange, adding that the fate of journalism is at stake.

“The Department of Justice just declared war—€ not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media,” Snowden tweeted.

Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told CBS: “Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist.”

The U.S. Justice Department claims that Assange is not a journalist and thus is not violating any protections for the press.

“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It is not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist,” said John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, to reporters on Thursday. Demers also argued that no “responsible” journalist would publish the information Assange had.

While the U.S. has charged persons under the Espionage Act before, typically the U.S. charges government officials (like Chelsea Manning) or the leakers of confidential information and not the journalists or organizations that publish the information.

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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