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Ten Reasons Why The Assange Trial Threatens Freedom Of Speech—The Grayzone, Oct. 14,2020

By Fidel Navaez and Ben Norton, The Grayzone.

Translated by Ben Norton.
Puedes leer este artículo en español aquí.

Editor’s note: Fidel Narváez served as Ecuador’s consul in the UK from 2010 until July 2018. He helped get Julian Assange political asylum, and regularly communicated with the WikiLeaks publisher when he was trapped in the London embassy. In a previous article for The Grayzone, Narváez debunked 40 media lies and distortions about Assange. In this piece, he summarizes the key points from the British extradition hearings against Assange in September 2020.

At the end of the hearings that seek to extradite journalist Julian Assange to the United States, on October 1, his defense team should have felt triumphant. Because with more than 30 witnesses and testimonies, throughout the whole month of September, they gave a beating to the prosecution representing the U.S.

If the case in London were decided solely on justice, as it should in a state based on law, this battle would have been won by Assange.

However, this “trial of the century” is, above all, a political trial, and there remains the feeling that the ruling was made beforehand, regardless of the law.

The court kicked off on September 7 with hundreds of protesters outside, in contrast with the restrictions that the court imposed inside — in what is the most important case against the freedom of expression in an entire generation.

It only permitted the entry of five people on the list of “family members,” and five people from the public, who were put in an adjacent room, where they were barely able to follow the video transmission.

The judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is overseeing the case, without a convincing reason cut the access to the video stream that had previously been authorized to nearly 40 human rights organizations and international observers, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and PEN International.

Each day, starting at 5 am, selfless activists stood in line so that observers like Reporters Without Borders, for example, could enter and take one of the five available seats. Thanks to them, and to family members of Assange, I was able to be in court to attend the majority of the hearings.

Julian himself was also woken up, every day, at 5 am and, naked and handcuffed, subjected to humiliating inspections and x-ray scans, before being put into a police car and crossing through London traffic for more than an hour and a half.

At 10 am, when court was finally in session, Julian had already endured five hours of insult, before being put in a glass cage for the rest of the day.

To communicate with his lawyers, Julian had to get on his knees to talk to them through a slit in the cage, just a few meters away from the ears of the prosecution’s attorneys — something that clearly violates due process.

The defense began by requesting deferment of the hearings, in light of the fact that the U.S. had filed a new extradition request at the last minute, with new accusations that not Assange himself was able to look over.

In the previous six months, Julian had practically no access to his lawyers. The judge, however, rejected any deferment.

The defense had based its strategy on proving that the legal process was being abused in many interrelated ways. In this extensive summary, allow me to explain 10 reasons that I identified as important factors against the extradition.

For this exercise I have relied, furthermore, on the reporting of American journalist Kevin Gosztola and that of the former British diplomat Craig Murray, next to whom I shared a seat in the court.

1) The accusation is for a “political crime,” which is not subject to extradition. Publishing classified, and truthful, information is not a crime.

Julian Assange would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of the United States for a political “crime,” which is excluded from the extradition agreements between the United Kingdom and U.S.

The U.S. attorney general’s office has furthermore said that Assange, as a foreigner, would not be able to exercise the right of the First Amendment. That is to say, punishments apply to foreigners in the U.S., but not legal protections.

The director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Trevor Timm, told the court that the extradition of Assange would be the “end of national security journalism” because it would criminalize all reporters who receive secret documents.

He criticized the accusation that having a SecureDrop is a crime, as The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, and more than 80 other news organization, including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, also currently use SecureDrop.

Timm said the Department of Justice has a political orientation, that the prosecution cannot decide who is a journalist and who is not, and that the charges against Assange “would radically rewrite” the First Amendment.

This was also affirmed in the written testimony by the director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Jameel Jaffer, who insisted that the accusation against Assange is meant to discourage journalism that is essential for democracy, and represents a grave threat to the freedom of the press.

The professor of journalism and former investigative reporter Mark Feldstein testified that leaks are a “vital element” of journalism, that the collection of classified information is a “standard operating procedure” for journalists, and that WikiLeaks’ publications are constitutionally protected.

The US lawyer Eric Lewis, a former law professor at Georgetown University, noted that the Obama administration had finally decided not to try Assange Assange because of what is known as “the New York Times problem” — that is to say, there was not a way to prosecute him for publishing classified information without the same principle applying to many other journalists.

Lewis testified that the Trump administration had put pressure on prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia, and cited a New York Times article that referenced Matthew Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman under Obama, who warned the case could establish a precedent that threatens all journalists.

This same concern was expressed before the court by the lawyer Thomas A. Durkin, a former assistant United States attorney and professor of law, who warned that “the Trump administration ordering the reopening of the case was clearly a political decision.”

Both Durkin and Lewis affirmed that Assange would be condemned for life, given that the sentences for spying in the U.S. are generally life in prison, and the most lenient are from 20 to 30 years.

The lawyer Carey Shenkman, who wrote a book about the history and use of the Espionage Act, testified that the law is “extraordinarily broad” and one of the most divisive laws of the United States. “Never, in the history of the Espionage Act, has there been an accusation against an American editor … and neither has there been an extraterritorial accusation against a non-American editor.”

The prosecution, for its part, in what was one of the most terrifying admissions heard in the court, recognized that, while the Espionage Act had never been used against a journalist, its extensive scope would allow them to use it in this occasion.

The lawyer Jennifer Robinson, a member of Assange’s legal team, submitted to the court a written testimony detailing an offer of a pardon by President Trump, in exchange for Assange identifying the source of the leaks that WikiLeaks published from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016.

The offer was made through the US Representative Dana Rohrabacher during a visit to the embassy of Ecuador. The congressman had explained that the information from Assange about the source of the leaks would be “interest, value, and assistance” for the president, and would “resolve the ongoing speculation about Russian involvement.”

The offer from the White House demonstrated the politicized nature of the case, given that the charges were made after Assange refused to provide any information.

The award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, who has written for The Independent for more than 30 years, submitted written testimony in which he said that Assange is being persecuted because he “exposed the way the US, as the world’s sole superpower, really conducted its wars – something that the military and political establishments saw as a blow to their credibility and legitimacy.”

For his part, the journalist Ian Cobain, who worked for The Guardian during the publication of WikiLeaks materials in 2010, said in written testimony that Assange is being persecuted because, “There is always the understanding – one that is so clear that it needs not be spoken – that anyone who has knowledge of state crimes, and who comes forward to corroborate allegations about those crimes, may face prosecution.”

The renowned professor Noam Chomsky told the court in written testimony that Assange “has performed an enormous service to all the people in the world who treasure the values of freedom and democracy and who therefore demand the right to know what their elected representatives are doing. His actions in turn have led him to be pursued in a cruel and intolerable manner.”

Yet, if there remain doubts about the political nature of the case, there was also the Judge Baraitser herself, who in the court said her original intention was to have the verdict before the U.S. presidential elections, and who asked the defense and the prosecution what implications a ruling would have had after said elections.

Why is a British judge, who is supposed to impart justice solely based on facts and evidence, waiting for a purely political event in another country to reveal her verdict?

2) There was never a reckless disclosure of names. No one has been hurt due to WikiLeaks publications.

The legendary leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, told that court that he “totally disagrees with the ‘good Ellsberg / bad Assange’ theory.” He said Julian did “everything possible” to redact and withhold damaging information, working with media outlets in the redaction process.

The Pentagon Papers were top secret, but WikiLeaks’ documents were not classified as restricted and hence, by definition, there should be nothing that is truly sensitive.

Ellsberg said that Assange withheld 15,000 files from the Afghan War Diary to protect names, and also requested help from the State Department and Defense Department to redact names, but the U.S. government refused to help, despite the fact that it is standard journalistic practice to consult with officials to minimize damage.

In the court-martial of Chelsea Manning, Ellsberg noted, the Defense Department admitted that it could not identify a single death caused by WikiLeaks publications.

The co-founder of the organization Iraq Body Count (IBC), John Sloboda, whose work has been recognized by the United Nations and European Union, testified that he worked with WikiLeaks and media outlets to prepare the Iraq War Logs before their publication. Sloboda recounted that Assange demanded and directed a “very strict redaction process” to prevent possible harm.

WikiLeaks used a software that was able to edit thousands of documents, identifying each word that was not in the English-language dictionary and automatically removing it, such as Arab names for example. Then, the files were scanned again to remove occupations, such as “doctor” or “driver,” in order to better protect identities.

This editing took “weeks” and was a “meticulous process,” Sloboda recounted. “There was considerable pressure on WikiLeaks because other media outlets wanted to push it to publish more quickly,” but “the position of Assange and WikiLeaks was to be excessively cautious.”

John Goetz, the current director of investigations for German public television NDR, confirmed that when he worked with Assange in 2010, representing Der Spiegel, WikiLeaks had a “rigorous redaction process,” and that Assange was obsessed with keeping classified documents secure and preventing harmful disclosures.

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