Press freedom on trial: Chronicles from the Julian Assange extradition hearing

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The first phase of Julian Assange's extradition hearing is over (Screenshot via YouTube)

Sara Chessa reports from Julian Assange's extradition hearing in the UK, where he may be extradited to the U.S. to face life in prison for publishing information in the public interest.

JULIAN ASSANGE has just faced the first phase of the extradition hearing, with monitors coming from European parliaments to observe the procedures, concerned about the global consequences on freedom of information that possible extradition to the U.S. would have.

The first stage of the Julian Assange extradition hearing ended yesterday, with strong doubts being expressed regarding the possibility for him to receive a fair trial. Currently, the WikiLeaks founder faces strong difficulties in having real, confidential communications with his legal team. During the hearing, he was kept in a sealed, glass-fronted dock at the back of the court which made it “impossible to speak confidentially” with his lawyers, given the presence of guards, microphones and representatives of the U.S. Government just a few feet away.

This led to a harsh confrontation between the United States and the defence, with Assange standing up during the third day and telling the court:

“I have very little contact with my lawyers, I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am at Wimbledon”.

Assange then added: “There has been enough spying on my lawyers in this case already,” referring to the surveillance he has been subjected to at the Ecuadorian Embassy, especially during his meetings with the legal team, as reported in leading Spanish newspaper El Paìs.

When the judge, Vanessa Baraitser, reminded him he cannot directly speak to the Court, leading defence barrister Edward Fitzgerald QC told the court: “He is a gentle man with an intellectual inclination, he is no threat sitting with us, no threat to anyone.”

However, there was no way to obtain this and all the four days of hearing actually saw the proceedings vitiated by lack of communication between the first publisher in the history charged under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act and a legal team who, according to a huge number of authoritative commentators, is defending freedom of information and freedom of expression for everyone, not just an individual.

Among the organisations supporting Assange are Amnesty International, who says that his prosecution for having published evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. is “a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression”.

On Monday, with hundreds of activists chanting “free Assange” outside the building, the United States Government opening arguments were heard by the Court. Barrister James Lewis QC told the court that extradition was being requested for “conspiracy to steal and hack into a Department of Defence computer system”.

According to the U.S. prosecutor, “this is a crime, reporting is not an excuse for criminality”.

Lewis continued by arguing that the release by WikiLeaks of unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables had put at-risk people who had provided U.S. intelligence with information during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In ten years, no cases of anyone being harmed have ever been proven. Despite this, Mr Lewis told the Court: “It is not for the U.S. Government to show there was any actual harm,” to confidential sources.

Lewis also argued that despite the WikiLeaks founder not being a U.S. citizen, he can be prosecuted under American security laws for “aiding and abetting” U.S. army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning in the release of the information.

Edward Fitzgerald QC from the WikiLeaks founder's legal team replied that the extradition offence is not valid as journalistic activity is protected under Article 10 of the European Human Rights Act.

The prosecutor’s answer leveraged the UK 1989 Official Secrets Act, which was passed after a civil servant, Clive Ponting, was acquitted of an offence after arguing the public had a right to know about the sinking of the General Belgrano Argentinian warship in 1981. Lewis pointed out that new act passed in 1989 eliminated any “public interest” defence in revealing intelligence matters. The European Human Rights Act “does not apply,” he stated, also saying that “otherwise you could just publish what you wanted”.

The U.S. opening arguments were followed by the defence ones.

They told the Court that the charges against Assange were not related to criminal justice, but were rather “due to underlying political motives of the U.S. Government”.

The defence also announced that they will produce evidence of the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump had a meeting with FBI Director James Comey and told him he wanted a head on a pike to discourage other whistleblowers and leakers. Apparently, the chosen one is Assange and according to his lawyers, this is the real reason for the prosecution. All this was defined by Assange’s lawyers as political extortion based on threats of years of prison.

The court also heard that witnesses will be called to testify that U.S. intelligence was spying on Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy, including secretly recording meetings with his legal team. Fitzgerald also said that a witness would be testifying that “more extreme measures” to deal with Assange were put on the table, including “kidnapping and poisoning”.

This evidence is expected to be heard in the second part of the hearing, set to take place from 18 May to 5 June.

During this first phase, one of the most important arguments for the defence was the “treaty question”, because the UK/U.S. extradition hearing bars extradition for political offences.

The prosecution claims this is irrelevant as the UK Government passed an Extradition Act of Parliament in 2003 that does not contain political crime defence. However, according to the defence barrister, the actual treaty between the UK and the USA passed in 2007 includes that reference and it should be considered as a “key part of international law”.

When judge Vanessa Baraitser pointed out that the court’s job is to implement English domestic law and not international law, Fitzgerald stated that the court must consider both international law and the European Convention on Human Rights, otherwise, it would be an “abuse of process”.

The good news for those seeing the Assange prosecution as a trial against the freedom of the press is the presence at the hearings of international observers coming from different national parliaments and from the European one, worried about the human rights violations that this case recorded. The court was told that on just one day of this proceeding, Assange was handcuffed 11 times, strip-searched twice and his cell searched by Belmarsh Prison’s guards just on the eve of the starting day. Among the monitors were Sevim Dağdelen and Heike Hänsel from German Bundestag, Markéta Gregorová from the European Parliament and Gianni Marilotti from the Italian Senate.

Senator Marilotti said:

Monitoring the facts is a duty that comes directly from the democratic mandate we received by our citizens. A possible extradition could put the United States above the human rights obligations or above the national and international regulation of the freedom of the press, which is crucial in the democratic states.

Senator Gianni Marilotti at the hearing (Image supplied)

Marilotti also recalled the fact that the Council of Europe and its Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović joined the appeal of U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who several months ago had asked to block the extradition. The use of the Espionage Act against a publisher only accused of revealing real facts is the reason for this interest in the case by European institutions, since it raises real concerns about the protection of journalists who publish classified information in the public interest.

A crucial moment in the hearings came when defence barrister Fitzgerald described Assange as such:

“He is anti-war, anti-imperialist, for free speech and an open society. Those beliefs inevitably bring him into conflict with powerful States, and have led to him being called a terrorist.”

Just after that, he reminded the Court that no evidence exists of anyone damaged because of the WikiLeaks releases.

And he concluded:

“Julian Assange faces life in prison for publishing true information that was in the public interest; if truth becomes treason we are all in trouble.”

Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.

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