As U.S. Pursues Julian Assange Extradition, Press Freedom Groups Demand DOJ Drop Charges

Interview with Chip Gibbons, policy director with Defending Rights and Dissent, conducted by Scott Harris

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, who is battling extradition from Britain to the United States where he is wanted on criminal charges, has submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Assange has been charged by U.S. authorities for WikiLeak’s publication of hundreds of thousands of classified Pentagon documents and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011, exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and embarrassing diplomatic abuses.

In June 2012, Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy and remained there for seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden to face an investigation over sexual assault allegations that were later dropped. After Assange was evicted from Ecuador’s embassy in April 2019, he was arrested by British authorities and remains at Belmarsh Prison in London.

On Dec. 8, more than 20 press freedom, civil liberties and international human rights groups sent an open letter to the U.S. Justice Department, calling for the charges against Assange to be dropped out of concern that the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder under the Espionage Act “would set a harmful legal precedent and deliver a damaging blow to press freedom.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chip Gibbons, policy director with Defending Rights and Dissent, one of the groups signing the letter, who explains why he believes the prosecution of Julian Assange poses a grave threat to investigative journalism and freedom of the press.

CHIP GIBBONS: So the United States is currently trying to extradite Julian Assange to the United States for an 18-count indictment. Seventeen of the counts are brought under the Espionage Act. This marks the first time a publisher of truthful information has ever been indicted under the Espionage Act. All 17 of those charges stem from information that was released between 2010 and 2011 that Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks and that WikiLeaks worked in conjunction, oftentimes with mainstream news sources like The New York Times and The Guardian, sometimes also with more independent ones like The Nation magazine to publish stories based off of the release.

WikiLeaks has seen a lot of releases over the years, but the charges all stem from these Chelsea Manning ones. They are the Iraq war logs, the rules of engagement, the State Department cables, and one-third of the charges are the detainee assessment briefs about Guantanamo Bay detainees. So this is all information that was in the public interest. The 18th charge is a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion charge and it’s shifted over time throughout the prosecution what they’re actually alleging.

But it’s worth pointing out that the United States government is not alleging Assange successfully had government documents. They allege he was in some sort of conspiracy. Some of the evidence of the conspiracy at this point is things like helping Edward Snowden apply for asylum. The theory being that by doing this, he would incite other people to go out and leak classified documents.

It’s very troubling as well, but it’s not as troubling precedent-wise as the Espionage Act indictment. Originally, a district judge, which is called a DJ in the United Kingdom, which always throws me off, ruled against Julian Assange’s press freedom arguments, but ruled that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the U.S. because of the condition of U.S. prisons.

This was overturned by a higher court and the U.K. Supreme Court refused to take the case. That opened up the opportunity for Assange’s defense to file what’s called a cross appeal. That means they’re now appealing the part of the judge’s decision that denied the press freedom grounds. They’ve also filed an appeal before the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights is one of the most successful international human rights bodies in the world, in part because its decisions are binding. I cannot think of any other sort of similar international court system that has binding decisions. It’s not part of the EU, it’s part of the Council of Europe. So even with Brexit, the U.K. is still part of it.

Obviously, the European Court of Human Rights has been a sort of bete noire for the Tories in the U.K. for for decades. And there’s always discussions of leaving it or nullifying it or whatever. But for the time being, they have the option community to file a binding ruling liberating Julian Assange. And it’s also worth pointing out that the Human Rights Council or adviser or whatever it’s called, for the Council of Europe has publicly opposed the extradition of Julian Assange as an affront to human rights.

SCOTT HARRIS: Chip, Australia’s Labor Party Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who just took office in May, has been reported to have staked out a position in Australia calling for an end to the U.S. prosecution of Julian Assange, who is an Australian citizen. I’m wondering if you think the Biden administration may be looking for an off-ramp of this prosecution given its controversy and a lot of the attention it’ll bring to U.S. double standards on freedom of the press?

CHIP GIBBONS: Yeah, I mean, if I was the Biden administration, I’d be looking for an off-ramp. But they did have an off-ramp already, right? Trump brought this prosecution during the Trump White House. A British court rejected Assange’s extradition not on press freedom grounds, but on actually that it would be oppressive grounds. And the Biden administration chose to appeal that decision in the U.K. courts.

So I don’t really know what they’re doing. They should be looking for an off-ramp. They certainly give them one. The Australian prime minister joins a number of international leaders including the president of Mexico, the president of Brazil, the parliament of Germany, in calling for the U.S. to end this prosecution. I mean, there’s a lot of opposition throughout not just Australia, but Western Europe and Latin America, where this is viewed as the U.S., you know, extra-territorially pursuing one of its critics.

Imagine if Russia was doing this to an Australian citizen who had published bad things about Putin and was detained in Belarus.

Learn more about the U.S. prosecution of Julian Assange and threat to press freedom by visiting Defending Rights and Defense at rightsanddissent.org.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Chip Gibbons (14:17) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this interview referred to Julian Assange facing extradition to Sweden over sexual assault charges. Assange was facing extradition for an investigation over sexual assault allegations.

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