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Julian Assange celebrates 50th birthday behind bars

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Protesters assembled outside Belmarsh Prison in a show of solidarity for the imprisoned Assange (Screenshot via YouTube)

Journalist Julian Assange spent his 50th birthday in prison with the news that the U.S. Government was allowed to appeal his extradition denial, writes Dr John Jiggens.

THE FIRST WEEK of July brought a number of significant developments for Julian Assange. On 3 July, supporters worldwide celebrated Assange’s 50th birthday. Outside his London prison, Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame) and a crowd of supporters sang Happy Birthday.

While his supporters protested vocally outside, Assange celebrated his 50th birthday behind bars in a maximum-security prison, locked down 23 hours a day due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the gaol, isolated and silenced as he has been for a decade.

And the birthday present he most desperately wished for never arrived. Instead, on Wednesday 7 July, against the hopes of his supporters, the UK High Court notified both parties to Assange’s extradition hearing that the United States appeal against the judge’s decision to deny the U.S. extradition request would be allowed to proceed.

The consequences of this decision in the context of the case were outlined by Jennifer Robinson from Assange’s legal team:

Just to reflect on where we are. As you all know, we won the extradition hearing. So on 4 January this year, the judge in the proceedings chose to discharge Julian, so he should be released and with his family. We won the hearing. It’s only because the U.S. appealed that decision and opposed our bail application, which was then refused by the judge, that he remains in prison.

 

I think it is important to acknowledge that at any stage now, the U.S. can choose to end its appeal and Julian can be released to his family. That’s how straightforward and easy is the decision in this case.

 

But, of course, the U.S. has now appealed that decision. This is what makes it so oppressive and difficult for Julian: remaining in Belmarsh Prison, a high-security prison where he has limited access to visitors because of the COVID pandemic and the ongoing waiting game about when he will find out what’s happening next.

 

What could be next in the legal process? There will be a further extradition hearing at which we will have to cross-appeal against some of the positions taken in the Magistrate’s Court judgement. But this process could drag out for a long time. In the meantime, Julian has to remain in prison, where he is in danger of catching COVID. What we have to remember is that in most extradition hearings, people aren’t held in prison, pending extradition.

The consequence for journalism

As Assange’s 50th birthday approached, individual journalists and the peak bodies representing journalists around the world spoke out against the outrageous attempt of the U.S. Government to criminalise reporting of their war crimes and urged Assange’s immediate release.

In Australia, former SBS news anchor Mary Kostakidas condemned the actions of the U.S. as slow-motion murder:

“For the first time, the mightiest government in the world – the U.S. – is seeking to prosecute a journalist, editor and publisher under the Espionage Act. It is astonishing that a journalist has been held in arbitrary detention for 11 years in what the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture has termed a slow-motion murder for publishing the truth about war crimes and harming no one.”

Internationally, Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, denounced the politically motivated and prolonged detention’, stating that:

‘Convicting Assange would set a precedent that would seriously undermine freedom of speech and the right to information.’

He called on the UK courts to immediately release Julian Assange and block his extradition to the U.S., where his life would be at serious risk.

Speaking on behalf of the UK’s National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, Tim Dawson, an Executive Member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists, condemned this attack on journalism and called for Assange’s release:

Julian Assange should be freed now and the British Government must make it clear that never again will we allow a foreign government to extradite someone from our country for revealing facts we all had a right to know. Because if Julian Assange is allowed to be extradited to the U.S. and imprisoned for the rest of his life, then any journalist could suffer a similar fate.

 

That is why the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists have taken every opportunity to explain why those of us for whom the media is our livelihood should join the call to free Julian Assange.

Tim Dawson attended Julian Assange’s extradition hearing at the Old Bailey and was shocked by what he learned, both as a journalist and a citizen:

I learned that if Julian Assange were extradited and convicted, he would be incarcerated in a supermax prison in Colorado for the rest of his life. Prisoners there are kept in a cell the size of a parking space and are never allowed to see other prisoners and rarely leave their cells. Visits by lawyers are almost impossible and phone calls to family are limited to 15 minutes per month.

 

I heard a great deal of medical evidence about Julian Assange’s mental health. He is on the autism spectrum. He’s made multiple suicide attempts since his teens and during a recent stretch in solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison, he was clearly so low that he again made preparations to end his life.

 

Fortunately, Judge Baraitser heard these submissions, too, and agreed that, whatever you think about Julian Assange, it would be inhuman to send someone so vulnerable into such a monstrous penal regime. That is why she turned down the extradition request. Having heard the details of Assange’s suffering picked over, surely the only response is to free him now.

 

Of course, the U.S. can appeal Baraitser’s judgement, but what benefit can there be in keeping him locked up a moment longer? Freeing Julian Assange will be a sign that our government pays more than lip service to free speech and media freedom.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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