Mr Biden told his so-called Summit for Democracy that ‘global freedom’ has been in retreat for 15 years. He appears determined to make it 16 years out of pure spite.
Supporters of Julian Assange gather outside the high court in London on Friday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
10 December 2021 | Editorial | The Guardian
The attempt to extradite the WikiLeaks founder is an assault on the press freedom that the Biden administration promises to promote
Opening his Summit for Democracy this week, Joe Biden urged his guests to “stand up for the values that unite us”, including a free press. The US president boasted of his new initiative for democratic renewal, including measures to support an unfettered and independent media: “It’s the bedrock of democracy. It’s how the public stay informed and how governments are held accountable. And around the world, press freedom is under threat.”
Yet the US government itself is endangering the ability of the media to bring to light uncomfortable truths and expose official crimes and cover-ups.
On Friday, the high court ruled that Julian Assange can be extradited to the US, where he could face up to 175 years in prison. The decision is not only a blow for his family and friends, who fear he would not survive imprisonment in the US. It is also a blow for all those who wish to protect the freedom of the press.
The judgment overturns January’s decision by a district court that the WikiLeaks founder could not be extradited because of the substantial risk that he would kill himself, given his mental health and the conditions he would face.
The US subsequently put forward a package of reassurances in its attempt to overturn that ruling, which the high court judges accepted. But the US has reserved the right to put him in a maximum security facility or to subject him to special administrative measures – which can include prolonged solitary confinement – based on his conduct. His team will appeal, and the legal process is likely to drag on for years.
The focus has shifted to the heart of the matter. Regardless of Mr Assange’s wellbeing, the US should not be demanding his extradition, and the UK should not be granting it. He is charged under the Espionage Act, including with publishing classified material.
The case against the 49-year-old relates to hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as diplomatic cables, which were made public by WikiLeaks working with the Guardian and other media organisations. They revealed horrifying abuses by the US and other governments which would not otherwise have come to light.
As Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, has noted: “Virtually no one responsible for alleged US war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed such crimes is potentially facing a lifetime in jail.”
No public interest defence is permissible under the Espionage Act. Campaigners in the US have warned that its use is a direct assault on the first amendment. And publishers outside it are equally at risk if Mr Assange is extradited; the charges relate to acts which took place when he was not in the country.
The US has this week proclaimed itself the beacon of democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world. If Mr Biden is serious about protecting the ability of the media to hold governments accountable, he should begin by dropping the charges brought against Mr Assange.
Australian parliamentarians have demanded the prime minister, Scott Morrison, intervene in the case of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, after the United States won a crucial appeal in its fight to extradite the WikiLeaks founder on espionage charges.
“The prime minister must get Assange home,” the Australian Greens leader, Adam Bandt, told Guardian Australia on Saturday.
“An Australian citizen is being prosecuted for publishing details of war crimes, yet our government sits on its hands and does nothing.”
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie called on Morrison to “end this lunacy” and demand the US and UK release Assange.
Assange, 50, is wanted in the US over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose classified information following WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
In January a UK court ruled Assange should not be sent to the US, citing a real and “oppressive” risk of suicide, but, after a two-day appeal hearing, the high court on Friday sided with the US.
The senior judges concluded the risk of suicide was mitigated by assurances from American authorities that Assange would not being held in highly restrictive prison conditions if extradited.
Assange’s lawyers have said they intend to challenge the ruling with another appeal, this time in the UK’s supreme court.
Bandt described the ruling as a “critical moment in the fight against suppression of press freedom”.
“Assange’s persecution and our government’s inaction are chilling, and should worry everyone who cares about a free press or thinks that governments should protect their citizens,” he said.
Wilkie said Assange should be looking forward to spending Christmas with his sons and fiancee.
“But instead he’s facing a 175-year jail sentence and the very real possibility of living out his final days behind bars,” the independent MP said. “Journalism is not a crime.
“Again the United Kingdom proves it’s a lackey of the United States and that Australia is delighted to go along for the ride.”
Greens senator Janet Rice also criticised the decision and said: “Foreign Minister Marise Payne must urgently speak to the US and tell them to drop these absurd charges and end Assange’s torture.”
Morrison previously made disparaging comments about the actor and Assange supporter Pamela Anderson when she appeared appeared on 60 Minutes Australia in 2018 to urge Morrison to “defend your friend, get Julian his passport back and take him back to Australia and be proud of him, and throw him a parade when he gets home”.
The ruling that Assange can be extradited to the US has also drawn ire from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, who sharply criticised the verdict.
“This is a shortcoming for the British judiciary,” Melzer told the DPA news agency on Friday.
“You can think what you want about Assange but he is not in a condition to be extradited,” he said, referring to a “politically motivated verdict”.
Assange has been held in the UK’s Belmarsh prison since 2019 after he was carried out of the Ecuadorian embassy by police and arrested for breaching his bail conditions.
He had entered the building in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and which were eventually dropped.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, said: “We respect the UK court’s decision and note this will not signal the end of this legal fight with the matter to be referred back to the lower court, and whatever the result there the matter [is] likely to go to the supreme court.
“However, Labor believes this has now dragged on for too long and has pressed the Morrison government to do what it can encourage the US government to bring this matter to a close.
“Labor expects the Australian government to provide appropriate consular support to Mr Assange, as is his right as an Australian citizen.”