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On World Press Freedom Day, It’s Time to Free Julian Assange—John Rees, May 3, 2021

In Steven Spielberg’s movie The Terminal Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks, finds himself declared stateless as a result of a civil war in his home country. Not allowed into the US, unable to return home, he is trapped in the airport terminal where he has landed. The movie generated huge sympathy for refugees, at least within the impeccably liberal parameters for which Spielberg and Hanks are famous.

How much more sympathy then should be accorded to Julian Assange, trapped not in the relatively salubrious surroundings of an airport terminal but in the hell-hole which is Belmarsh High Security prison?

Hanks’ character certainly had his freedom denied, but he did not stand under any threat to his life. In ruling that Julian Assange should not be extradited because the US prison system is ‘oppressive’ the Westminster Magistrates Court accepted last January that Julian Assange’s life is in danger. Nor did Hank’s character suffer psychological torture in his confinement, but the UN Special Rapporteur has ruled that Assange has indeed suffered in this way.

Yet despite the court ruling in his favour, Assange remains detained. He has racked up over two years in Belmarsh despite never having been convicted of anything with which the US is charging him. The judge at Westminster Magistrates Court refused him bail, despite the knowledge that it would be many months before the appeal by the US lawyers would be heard.

The judge refused an offer by Assange’s lawyers that the bail conditions could include confinement to his home and the use of an ankle bracelet to track his movements. Although, in reality, such precautions would be entirely unnecessary since the victory against extradition in a UK court means that this country is the only jurisdiction in which Assange would be safe. If he were ever to go anywhere else the US could restart new extradition proceedings in that state.

These are just the most recent outrages in the Assange case. The whole process has now assumed such through-the-looking-glass dimensions that only a full public inquiry could unravel the monstrosities we’ve seen. Such an inquiry would need to propose reforms that would remedy at least these glaring shortcomings in the justice system:

  1. Julian Assange has never come before a jury of his peers. If he is extradited it will be on the say so of appointed judges and the word of Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Now, it is one thing if motoring offences are decided by a no-jury Magistrates Court and a no-jury Appeal Court – but no life or death case, no first rank freedom of expression case, should be decided without a jury. The legal process needs reform.
  2. No jury, for instance, would have accepted that an admitted CIA operation which spied on Assange and his lawyers would have no influence on the outcome of the trial because the CIA would never tell the US Justice Department what it had found out. This alone would be grounds for chucking out the prosecution case in most trials. Yet the judge accepted this assurance from the US in this case.
  3. It cannot remain acceptable that prisoners are held without charge or trial for years on end. Justice delayed is justice denied. The spirit, if not the letter, of Habeas Corpus is being breached. Again, the law needs reform.
  4. It cannot be right that the US can apply its laws in another state’s jurisdiction without also extending it First Amendment protections. Yet that is what is happening here. Assange is being accused of breaking US law even though he is not a US citizen and was not operating in the US. But the US is refusing to allow the protection of journalists which the First Amendment of its constitution provides.
  5. The US-UK Extradition Treaty allows that no one should be extradited for a political offence. Yet this part of the Treaty wasn’t written into British law when the legislation was hurried through the Commons when Tony Blair was cranking up the War on Terror. So the Treaty and the legislation are in conflict. Parliamentarians need to sort this out, and ensure that the full Treaty is reflected in UK law. A public inquiry could find that MPs should act.
  6. This is a politically motivated prosecution both on the part of the Trump administration that initiated it and on the part of the UK government which has facilitated it. The recently released diaries of sometime minister Alan Duncan retell in embarrassing detail the planned and persistent pursuit of Assange by UK ministers – right down to Duncan posing for a self-congratulatory trophy picture in the control room of the police operation that ousted Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy. A public inquiry would need to find ways to exclude political interference in the judicial process.

But for now, shorter term goals must concern us. The Court of Appeal currently has defence and prosecution arguments before it and is due to rule within the month on whether an appeal can go ahead. This would in the first instance be an appeal by the US government to overturn the Magistrates Court decision to halt the extradition on the grounds that Assange’s life would be at risk in the US prison system. That clearly needs to be fought throughout the time between now and when the appeal might be heard, possibly as early as July.

In tandem the case needs to be made that the most effective and easiest way out of this quagmire of a case is for the Biden administration to drop the charges. When Biden was Obama’s vice-president when the administration decided not to pursue Assange because of the threat to wider press freedoms. Biden needs to remember that policy and discard the prosecution started by his disgraced Republican predecessor.

The Assange case is the great freedom of the press trial of the 21st century. For it to be lost would be the signal for every regime threatened by freedom of speech to clamp down with impunity. Some of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, including most recently Putin’s Russia, are now readily using this reply to challenges to their human rights record: ‘Well, look what you are doing to Assange’. The stain of US and UK hypocrisy is spreading. It is providing a global excuse for threats to press freedom. The prosecution of Assange must stop before more serious damage is done.

About the Author

John Rees is a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition and a visiting research fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London.