Assange Extradition: Political Persecution for Journalism?

March 2, 2020

Julian Assange's extradition hearings have finally begun in London, and his defense has the burden of showing that the US case is an act of political persecution.

Julian Assange's extradition hearings have finally begun in London, and his defense has the burden of showing that the US case is an act of political persecution.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Julian Assange’s long-awaited extradition hearing is finally underway in Belmarsh Prison outside of London. The hearing will determine whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the United States, to face 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents. If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in prison. Assange’s US lawyer, Barry Pollack, said the following to the press at the start of the hearing last Monday.

BARRY POLLACK: Today, the United States took the remarkable position that any journalist anywhere in the world can be subject to extradition to the United States for publishing truthful information. This is extraordinary, it is unprecedented. It is the exact position the Obama administration decided could not be taken consistent with the First Amendment, and I’m confident that at the end of the day, this court will not accept that proposition.

GREG WILPERT: A few days into the hearings, Assange’s lawyers filed complaints that he is being treated as if he were a terrorist sitting behind a glass barrier, where he can hardly hear the proceedings and cannot communicate with his lawyers during the hearing.

Joining me now to discuss the Assange extradition hearing is Kevin Gosztola. He is a writer and publisher for Shadowproof and co-hosts a weekly podcast called Unauthorized Disclosure. Kevin joins us from London, where he has been one of the very few journalists attending the hearings. Thanks for joining us again, Kevin.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah, thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So before we get into the actual arguments, let’s start with the conditions under which Julian Assange is being held and is participating in this hearing. Nils Melzer, the UN rapporteur on torture who visited Assange in prison last year, has said that the conditions under which Assange is being held are a form of psychological torture. On top of this, his case is being conducted as, as I mentioned, as if he were a terrorist, and only 16 people are allowed to observe the trial. Talk about what you have witnessed with regard to the conditions of the hearing.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Yeah, so first of all, there were many journalists here covering the proceedings, but there were a small number, I would say from the United States. This case seems to be something that’s important to people throughout Europe, in [inaudible 00:02:26], in Australia and in other parts of the globe. People are following, but we’re still having trouble, I think communicating to the US press, how the stakes matter and why people should be here from media organizations to cover the Julian Assange proceedings. And as Nils Melzer has said, Julian Assange survived psychological torture while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and then after he was expelled from the embassy, he was moved to Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh Prison, which is in Woolwich, London, and this is an adjacent prison to the Woolwich Courthouse where the extradition proceedings took place this past week.

The courthouse is a counter-terrorism courthouse. The prison is known as a kind of British Guantanamo, so to speak. It’s known for holding prisoners who are alleged to be involved in some kind of terrorism offenses, and these are some of the people who Julian Assange is imprisoned with or detained with, while he awaits the ultimate decision on whether he’ll be extradited. And in this facility, initially he was held in extremely restrictive conditions that only added to the deteriorating health that he was experiencing, and in the midst of him needing treatment for all that had gone untaken care of while he was in the embassy, he was in isolation, again, he was being denied sunlight, which was also something that he endured while he was in the embassy.

And so, it took a solidarity effort from prisoners within Belmarsh to convince the authorities to move him into general population. It took effort from advocates to convince them that he should be in the general population. And so now, the issues with mistreatment extend to how he is treated like a terrorism suspect or like a violent criminal, while he is in the courtroom. And as you were saying, there is this glass barrier. This is what we call a secure dock. Most Americans wouldn’t know what that is. In fact, I can say that I didn’t have much of an understanding of how the secure dock functioned or why it existed in the British courtroom, until I traveled across the pond this past week. But what this is, is a very isolating area set up in the back of the courtroom. Some courtrooms have it off to the side. This courtroom has it way in the back. Julian Assange just walked out and he sits in the back of the room, and the legal team for him cannot see him, so if he wants to communicate with them, he cannot be seen.

Usually, it takes the judge stopping proceedings to inform the attorneys that he is trying to say something, or he’ll stand up and disrupt the proceedings, which doesn’t make the judge that happy, and he’s not able to participate in the proceedings. He’s isolated, and this has an impact on fair trial rights. I think it goes to your right to have a presumption of innocence when you are being accused of a crime, when you are being put through these kinds of proceedings. And there’s nothing like this in the United States, because enshrined in our law, leaving aside the many issues that are fundamental to our mass incarceration system or our criminal justice system, we’ve always had it that the defendant gets to sit with their attorneys during a criminal proceeding.

There are other ways that we might humiliate somebody who is accused of a crime, but for the most part, yes, you don’t have this where someone is removed from the process or set aside, and it impairs their ability to consult with their attorneys during the proceeding, but it also means that if they want to get information, the attorneys for Julian Assange do not know when he needs some additional information, so that he can follow the law. We’re going to, at some point, have witnesses being called forward to testify in the proceedings, and Julian Assange may want to provide some insights to his lawyers about what those witnesses are saying. This glass box that he is being kept in, that the judge ordered him to remain in this past week and not be allowed out of, is going to get in the way of his ability to put on the best defense case possible.

GREG WILPERT: I want to turn to now the main arguments that both sides are making, but let’s start with the side of the US government and also the UK government, basically. What have they presented so far? Now, according to another blogger, Craig Murray, who has also been at the hearings and writing about them, he had an interesting report about how on the first day, apparently the prosecution made the case that Assange’s extradition has nothing to do with freedom of the press, but then when the judge pressed the lawyer representing the US on the issue, he eventually had to admit that all journalists who published WikiLeaks revelations could actually be prosecuted. So how did that go over in the court with this judge who seems to be very partial to the prosecution or to the US side, and what other arguments has the prosecution made really, to justify its extradition request?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: I remember that exchange that you’re talking about, which Craig Murray, who’s a former ambassador, he was there in the public gallery posting some good dispatches from the proceedings, that particular exchange related to some evidence that was put on the record, where the prosecution claimed that there were these examples of informants, or confidential human sources that were endangered by the publication of the diplomatic cables, they were getting into examples of Iraq or Afghanistan war logs that were specifically charged against Julian Assange, that they were claiming put people who are working with the US military, their lives at risk.

And the question from the judge was whether this would extend to journalists, in addition to Julian Assange, and I think he had to admit that if those media organizations who were handling the material were also involved in this publication, then this could extend to them, because the very argument that he is making is that in managing this material, the decision to publish these documents that contained these specific details, they’re trying to get around the general issue of the First Amendment and not make it seem like they’re criminalizing publication by going a step further and identifying documents, and saying that there were individuals whose identities were revealed in these documents.

But the fact is, unless we address the context in which those people were named, we don’t really know if that material deserves to be criminalized, and we don’t know if there was maybe some kind of a defense for knowing who these people were. We’re taking the US government at its word that these individuals are who they say they were, and that they were completely innocent, that there’s no reason to doubt their motives, that everything they were involved in was respectful of human rights, was altruistic, and was involved in promoting democracy, and advancing the cause of US foreign policy, which is of course, to be the beacon of freedom to all of us in the world.

And so, I think there’s reason to be skeptical when we don’t have this information in front of us and we can’t look at it, and the prosecution is making their own bear case based on the indictment that we’ve all seen that criminalizes publication. But then they’re going beyond it. Because I think there’s a side issue here, which is they don’t have to prove their case in this courtroom. The burden is on the defense to convince the judge that Juliana Assange should not be extradited, that there may be some kinds of abuses within the extradition request that need to be taken care of, and I know we’ll get to those in just a moment, but the core thing, the most important thing that the prosecutors are trying to do, is to say that there is a United States – United Kingdom extradition treaty.

It does not contain an exception for political offenses, which is… Let me break this down very quickly. The concept of political offenses is that you are accused of a crime that involves the allegation that you conspired against the interests of a state government, or you committed a crime that only that state government would maybe consider a crime. So for example, being a dissident involved in political struggle would likely be considered a political offense. So if you’re accused of a political offense, it’s universally recognized throughout the world in many, many extradition treaties, in the UN Model Treaty, Interpol Treaty. This is the way that it has typically been handled, that you do not extradite for a political offense.

In recent years with the war on terrorism, there have been exceptions added to it, so that terrorism suspects aren’t able to argue that they’re covered by the political offense exception. And so, then what happened in 2003, is the United Kingdom adopted their own law that was called the UK Extradition Act, and it does not contain this exception in the written language, and so the prosecutors are hiding behind this technicality to say, it’s not in the domestic law. The judge only is going to make her decision based on domestic law, she should ignore the treaty, she should ignore international law, and she should approve the extradition of Julian Assange.

GREG WILPERT: Now, that’s of course very strange, which, because after all, usually treaties are considered to be part of national law. But let me move on. And is Assange’s defense team saying in terms of… what kind of response have they mounted to the prosecution’s allegations? What have their main arguments been?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Their case is an abuse of process case. They’re looking at the way in which the extradition was pieced together, making arguments that there are fair and improper, and inaccurate allegations within the affidavit, as well as the indictments that have been put forward, making these arguments that it was done in bad faith, that the officials who are running the United States government, particularly in the Trump administration, have politicized this case. We heard evidence related to possible, well, I would call it unlawful influence on the case, where in effect, Trump was using the threat of prosecution by having an intermediary meet with Julian Assange back in 2017 when he was still in the Ecuador Embassy.

There was this allegation that the defense has put forward that Dana Rohrabacher, a former Republican Congressman, and Chuck Johnson, a far-right journalist activist, met with Julian Assange, and suggested if he could help Donald Trump by saying that the DNC emails that were published, that he did not get those from a Russian source, that then they could work out some kind of a win-win deal where he could leave the Ecuador Embassy and be free, and Julian Assange rejected it because that means revealing your confidential sources. It means also allowing the justice department to get away with this kind of abuse, and also, he had already said that this didn’t come from the Russians, so why does he have to participate in some kind of deal making with Donald Trump’s administration?

And this is one aspect that the defense has been pushing. There is this whole issue of this Spanish security company involved with the CIA working on the behalf of US intelligence to spy on Julian Assange while he was in the Ecuador Embassy, and to target him and his lawyers as well as journalists, and any American visitors or Russian visitors that were coming into the embassy, and the violations of privacy there form a case that’s unfolding in the Spanish courts right now, and we heard evidence related to that involving the owner who inked a contract with Sheldon Adelson, who is this Republican oligarch known bankrolling all of these people who get elected to Congress, and people… Sorry, he’s been donating massive amounts of money to Donald Trump.

And so, while he was in the United States in 2017, I believe, he inked this contract, and then he also got a contract with the US intelligence agencies about the same time, and he went back overseas, and this operation was carried out, and it got away from everyone. There are whistleblowers from the company who say they started talking about carrying out a kidnapping against Julian Assange, to snatch him and remove him from the embassy. They discussed poisoning Julian Assange in order to kill him while he was in the embassy, and this was something that they put forward.

They’re talking about these clear examples of how this has been managed, as far as the case goes. They’re making a distinction between Donald Trump’s administration and the Obama administration, which talked about this New York Times problem of not being able to prosecute Julian Assange without putting New York Times reporters at risk if they pursued the case. And essentially, they’ve gone after the whole theory of the case to show that there is no evidence to support their claims that he was reckless and endangering lives. They meticulously went through examples of how he handled the information. They looked at the motivation that he had to induce changes to government policy, which would make what he was doing public interest journalism, and this is the way that they’ve about trying to show the judge that he should not be extradited to the United States.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, it definitely seems to be that to the whole thing now hinges on whether or not this is a political case or not to end. The evidence seems, I mean, from what you’re saying, it’s pretty overwhelming that it is a highly political case on that, and then of course the question is whether the political clause of the treaty, extradition treaty applies or not. But before we conclude very briefly, what’s the next step, what’s going to happen now that this phase of the hearings seem to be over? You mentioned that there will probably be witnesses. When can we expect the whole process to be over and a decision to be made?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: The next stage of the process comes on May 18th. There’s going to be a three week hearing, although it may extend longer because the judge is keeping Julian Assange in this glass box, which is going to make the proceedings cumbersome, and she even said herself that that would be okay. This three week hearing could become a six week hearing, and so we have a three to six week hearing that we can look forward to, May into June, possibly extending further, and they’re going to be bringing witnesses forward on the defense and the prosecution side. I believe we’ll probably see more witnesses from the defense and the prosecution.

The defense again has the burden of convincing the judge not to extradite, and then when she makes her ultimate decision, there are higher levels in the court system in the UK, three or four levels. I mean, it can go all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, and this whole process could unfold over a span of two to three years, and I’ve been telling people that this is what’s going to happen, unless for some reason there’s a political shift that takes place within the justice department, and they suddenly decide that they no longer want to pursue Julian Assange’s extradition.

GREG WILPERT: Wow. Okay. Well, that gives us an idea as to what Assange has to look forward to. We’re going to leave it there for now but continue to follow the story. I was speaking to Kevin Gosztola, writer and publisher for the website Shadowproof. Thanks again, Kevin, for having joined us today.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.