Assange Leaks Publishes WikiLeaks Internal Communications
There was one piece of happy news on a doleful Easter day in Britain: Julian Assange had managed to father two children whilst locked up in the Ecuadorian embassy. This proves that love will find a way, even if your self-isolation is being enforced by the British police and the CIA.
It drew attention to the plight of this Australian publisher, who faces charges in America carrying a maximum of 175 years’ imprisonment, all for revealing, back in 2010, truthful facts of considerable public interest.
He now languishes, probably for several years, in Belmarsh, Britain’s toughest (and mainly for terrorist suspects) prison while he fights the US attempt to extradite him for trial in Maryland. If convicted there, on essentially the same espionage act charges which brought his source, Chelsea Manning, a 35-year sentence, he can expect a somewhat heavier term – 50 years, perhaps – time enough for him to die in an American ‘Supermax’ jail. Manning was pardoned by US president Barack Obama, but there is little prospect that Assange would receive clemency from a second-term President Trump.
His defence is, principally, that the extradition proceedings are brought for political purposes, to deter other publishers from revealing what US forces do, even illegally – and what US diplomats know (but the media does not) about human rights abuses. This argument will be developed later in the year at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
Now he is revealed as the father of two children born in Britain with a woman he will shortly marry, he can add the right to family life (an aspect of the right to privacy) to the objection to his forceful removal. He already has evidence that the CIA secretly live-streamed his meetings with his lawyers, in breach of the rules of legal confidentiality and of European privacy laws, and his fiancee avers that one of the embassy guards confessed to her (because he found it so disgusting) that he had been tasked to steal her baby’s nappies so the poo could be analysed to check whether Assange was the father.
Julian Assange fathered two children with a lawyer who was representing him while he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London fighting extradition.
Another objection is the way in which the US is breaching its own much-touted right to free speech and is discriminating against Assange because he is Australian and not American. It is inhibited by the First Amendment to the US constitution from prosecuting US publishers (like The New York Times, which disseminated the Wikileaks revelations) but the Trump lawyers now argue that this clause only protects publishers who are American citizens.
That makes all Australian investigative journalists, and those from other countries, whether or not they work for US media, vulnerable to extradition if they publish military or diplomatic secrets. We actually have an illustrious tradition of journalists who have exposed military misbehaviour – beginning, let us remember, with Keith Murdoch during World War I. One of our finest, the late Phil Knightly (author of Truth – The First Casualty) stood bail for Assange. When it was ordered to be forfeited, he said it was money well spent.
The most immediate danger to Assange, with his chronic lung condition, is coronavirus. Prisons are hotbeds and have already had eight deaths so thousands of non-violent offenders are being released on parole to avoid their exposure. But parole is not on offer for Assange. His 50-week sentence for breaching it by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy is now over and last month he made an application, offering to put himself under house arrest (well, mansion house arrest) in the country, with ankle restraints and electronic monitors and an array of restrictions that would have made it impossible for him to flee anywhere. His application was brusquely rejected.
The case concerns extradition arrangements with the UK which favour the US. When the boot is on the other foot, however, they refuse to play fair – or to play at all. The UK recently sent them an extradition request for the wife of a CIA operative at an airbase in England who had killed a young man named Harry Dunn by driving on the wrong side of the road. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had already arranged to fly her out of the UK, described this request as “abusive” and refused to accept it. It strikes many as abusive that the US operates such double standards – expecting cooperation from allies but refusing their requests to deliver up Americans for trial for serious crimes.
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If Assange fails in his court challenges, it will be the British government that has the final say on whether to extradite him. Had Jeremy Corbyn won the last election his extradition would have been refused. Now British PM Boris Johnson will be the final decision-maker – in 2023 or thereabouts. Like Assange, he was himself a publisher (editor of The Spectator) and a prolific journalist. Although he did not expose secrets – he is best remembered in the profession for making them up – it remains to be seen whether he has any residual sympathy for a fellow troublemaker.
Geoffrey Robertson AO QC is the author of Rather His Own Man – Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Penguin/Random House 2018).