Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: Will he be extradited?


Tuesday, 20 February 2024 (18:25 IST)
A grand total of 1,776 days: That's how long Julian Assange will have been detained in Britain's maximum-security Belmarsh Prison by Tuesday, when he faces what could be the final hearing in the tug-of-war over his extradition to the US.
Before that, the 52-year-old founder of the whistleblowing platform Wikileaks had spent seven years under diplomatic asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. And if US prosecutors have their way, he will soon be facing another 175 years in prison.
The hearing before the High Court in London will take up the question: Has Assange already exhausted all legal options for preventing his impending extradition to the US? Or can he continue to fight it in the British courts?
If the High Court clears the way for extradition, Assange could be charged and sentenced in the US under the Espionage Act. The law was passed over 100 years ago to convict traitors and spies during World War I. Never before has it been used against a journalist.
The charge: stealing and publishing classified information about US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with the help of whistleblower Chelsea Manning. According to US authorities, Assange and Manning's actions also endangered the lives of US informants. In 2010, former Vice President and current US President Joe Biden even referred to Assange as a "high-tech terrorist."
It was not Julian Assange's fault, however, that the documents were published in their entirety and without redactions. In 2010, Wikileaks collaborated with leading media organizations — The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais — to prepare the leaked information for publication. The password to the protected dataset was published in a book by one of the journalists. Wikileaks published the information only once it had already been made available. Furthermore, the US government has yet to provide any evidence that anyone has actually been harmed by the disclosures.
The US government is attempting to disqualify Assange as a journalist. They say he publishes volumes of data without context and that he is a hacker.
In fact, Assange has won numerous media awards for his journalistic work. This is, nevertheless, immaterial to the US prosecution: The Espionage Act does not differentiate between journalists and other persons.
Unvarnished truth
What is true, however, is that the Wikileaks publications were very embarrassing for the US government. Hundreds of thousands of secret documents showed the world a different, unvarnished, bloody side to the activities of the US military. A side where war crimes are being committed — and covered up — and where the number of civilian casualties is significantly higher than the Pentagon's glossed-over figures.
But, in the opinion of all the leading human rights, civil liberties and journalism organizations — from Amnesty International to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders — a thriving democracy must be able to withstand such disclosures. In a recent joint statement,the two umbrella organizations International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) warned: "The ongoing prosecution of Julian Assange jeopardizes media freedom everywhere in the world." 
EFJ President Maja Sever is quoted as saying: "Journalists and their unions have recognized since the outset that Julian Assange is being targeted for carrying out tasks that are the daily work of many journalists — seeking out a whistleblower and exposing criminality."
Worldwide support for Assange
A growing number of voices around the world are speaking out against the US persecution of Assange and calling for his release.
In the week before the court hearing, for example, the Australian Parliament, with the support of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, passed a resolution calling for the release of Assange, an Australian citizen.
"The Julian Assange case is about basic questions of freedom of the press and human rights," said Christian Mihr, deputy secretary general of Amnesty International Germany. "Julian Assange is not guilty of any crimes, Wikileaks exposed human rights violations, and that is not a crime."
Critical voices in German politics
The persecution of Julian Assange is also attracting widespread criticism from German politicians.
In an interview with DW, the Green Party parliamentarian Max Lucks spoke of Julian Assange as a political prisoner. Lucks had strong words for the fact that the Wikileaks founder has been held under strict conditions in the maximum security Belmarsh Prison for almost five years while facing the prospect of possible extradition to the US.
"What is happening there is torture. There is no rational reason for detaining Mr. Assange in this way. It is politically motivated," Lucks said.
This assessment is shared by other prominent politicians and experts, such as the former UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, and former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
Peter Heidt is the human rights spokesman for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), like the Greens a member of Germany's three-way coalition. Whenever he criticizes the lack of human rights protection abroad, he says, he is repeatedly confronted by questions over the persecution of the Wikileaks founder, coupled with accusations of double standards on the part of Germany and the West. "That's what you hear everywhere; you can speak to whoever you want," the parliamentarian reiterated in an interview with DW.
Heidt has ended his speeches in the Bundestag with the same sentence for years now,: "By the way, I am of the opinion that Julian Assange should be released immediately."
Two years ago, 80 members of the German parliament wrote an open letter to the British Parliament calling for Assange's release.
"Journalists must not be persecuted or punished for their work anywhere in the world," began the letter. The undersigned said that they were "very concerned about the deterrent effect that Assange's extradition and conviction could have on press freedom and investigative journalism around the world."
They have never received a reply.
Berlin government remains tepid
Although parliamentarians Peter Heidt and Max Lucks are both from governing coalition parties, the government itself has said little about Assange.
Last year, in response to a parliamentary inquiry from the Left Party, the government merely acknowledged that it was "closely" and "continuously" following the extradition proceedings against Julian Assange and public debate on the case.
A government spokesperson went on to refer to the ongoing legal proceedings and the fact that the European Court of Human Rights could also be called upon. A comforting possibility for Assange, albeit a small one, as he would have to remain in British custody for the years of legal proceedings that would follow. Twelve years more, and still he wouldn't be free.
German investigative journalist Günter Wallraff has delivered a chilling judgment on the actions of prosecutors.
"They are running out the clock. They want him to die in installments," he said.

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