Press Freedom at Stake as U.S. Appeals Assange U.K. Extradition Denial

Interview with Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of the news website, conducted by Scott Harris

In early January, the U.S. government’s attempt to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from a British prison to face espionage charges in the U.S. was rejected by district Judge Vanessa Baraitser of England’s central criminal court. While Judge Baraitser ruled against the U.S., saying Assange would be at extreme risk of suicide if held in a U.S. prison, she accepted the U.S. authorities’ assertion that his alleged activities fell outside of the realm of journalism.

In 2010, Assange published secret U.S. documents on U.S. conduct in the Iraq and Afghan wars as well as State Department, cables sent to him by Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning). He then took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and continued working and living there for seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges that were later dropped. Assange was evicted from Ecuador’s embassy in April 2019 and then arrested by British authorities.

Now Britain’s High Court has granted the U.S. government permission to appeal the earlier lower court ruling. The judicial office announced on July 7 that the American appeal had been granted and the case would be scheduled for a high court hearing, with no date yet being set. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of the news website about the issues at stake in the U.S. appeal, and the ongoing threat to press freedom.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: It needs to be emphasized how extraordinary it is that someone accused of a non-violent crime is kept in a prison, even though they win their case. Essentially, the judge didn’t allow him out on bail and again, it’s still pandemic conditions for prisons as well. And he wasn’t allowed out of prison, even though he won the case because it was basically a favor to the U.S. government to keep him in prison while they appeal and to not change the calculus for keeping him in the jail before the extradition trial back in September. So, the U.S. appealed and the high court of justice in the U.K. granted the appeal on limited grounds. The grounds that they are able to appeal on are basically: They can challenge the tests that the judge applied to determine that it’s oppressive for health reasons to extradite Julian Assange to the United States.

They can contest some of the prison and jail evidence that was put on the record. What they’re also going to try to do is claim that they were willing to offer assurances. We can get into that. It’s a major issue, but, basically they are saying that, you know, they should have had an opportunity to reassure the judge about how he would be treated and to say things like what they’re saying now, which is he won’t be put in a Supermax prison in Colorado, or he’s not going to be put under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) which is what’s authorized by the attorney general to basically impose restrictions on national security prisoners. People who are accused of terrorism offenses can be placed under the SAMs.

And also, they’re saying there’s a treaty that we have and it covers Australia. So, if he’s convicted at trial, we are willing to send him to Australia to serve out his prison sentence. But, none of this came up at all during the extradition trial. And it seems like a way to salvage a case that is falling apart.

Another thing is, they lost and were denied the ability to challenge expert evidence that they wanted to discredit before the appeals court. They wanted to challenge a defense psychologist who treated Julian Assange and discredit him. They also thought it was wrong how the judge weighs some of the medical testimony. They wanted to challenge the evidence that he’s at risk of suicide. And the high court of justice basically told them that they cannot contest that evidence.

SCOTT HARRIS: I’m just trying to count the years that Julian Assange has been effectively in prison. He sought refuge or asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and was there for, I believe seven years, right? Was expelled in April, 2019. And now since has been in prison in Britain. That’s a total of nine years of his life behind bars, lack of any freedom.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: His legal team says that he’s been in over a decade of arbitrary detention. That’s how the United Nations would recognize it just because of the circumstances. For a lot of this case, people who monitor it have believed that the point wasn’t necessarily to indict or charge, but it was to tie him up in this legal limbo so that it was disruptive and made it difficult for WikiLeaks to be effective and publish the kinds of documents and have the kind of impact that they had in 2010 with the documents from Chelsea Manning.

SCOTT HARRIS: Not only is this directed solely at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, it’s a warning for anyone out there who might leak classified documents that would embarrass the United States, right?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: It is. But it also, we could see a kind of, I guess you would call it a leak prosecution arms race, so to speak where, you know, countries that have power can assert themselves regionally. Obviously, China comes to mind as the next one after the U.S. that could do this, but I can imagine Israel. I could imagine Turkey. I can imagine Russia. These countries could decide that they want to extradite people who are not their own citizens and bring them to their countries from other countries that they have extradition treaties with and put those journalists who, again, are not citizens of those countries, put them on trial and charge them with publishing their state secrets and claiming that they didn’t have any right to do so. Even if that jeopardizes press freedom, they could point to the United States and the Julian Assange case. And they could say, “Look, this is what we’re doing. The U.S. said that they could assert control over their state secrets and put journalists on trial. And so that’s what we’re going to do.”

So I think it makes people who are global correspondents, who work in other countries — it really exposes them to a kind of retaliation that may not have existed before this case.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary