Like a Wheedling Abuser, the US Makes Groundless Promises in Julian Assange’s Extradition Appeal

Campaigners in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the High Court in London on October 28, 2021, the second day of the US government’s appeal against a ruling by a judge in January, preventing Assange’s extradition on mental health grounds (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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In January this year, when a British judge refused to allow Julian Assange’s extradition to the US, to face espionage charges — and a potential 175-year sentence — for the work of WikiLeaks in helping to expose US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the groundless basis of most of the US’s supposed reasons for holding men indefinitely without charge or trial at Guantánamo, the US government should have backed down and allowed him to be freed to be reunited with his family.

Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s ruling, sadly, avoided the heart of the case — whether publishing damaging material in the public interest is a crime (which it isn’t, and mustn’t be allowed to be, if freedom of the press is to mean anything) — but homed in unerringly on the considered opinion of a psychiatrist that, if transferred to a maximum-security prison in the US, awaiting trial, Assange, because of his mental health issues, would take his own life.

The ruling was a valid condemnation both of the brutality of the US prison system in general, and of its particular unsuitability for those with mental health issues, and it was a vivid reminder that, back in October 2012, Theresa May, when she was home secretary, had refused to allow the extradition to the US of Gary McKinnon, a hacker with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, on the very same basis, and that the extradition of Lauri Love, another hacker with Asperger’s, had been refused by two High Court judges in February 2018.

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A Call to Free Julian Assange on the 10th Anniversary of WikiLeaks’ Release of the Guantánamo Files

A composite image of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, in British custody, and the logo for “The Guantánamo Files,” released ten years ago today.

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Ten years ago today, I was working with WikiLeaks as a media partner — working with the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, Aftonbladet, La Repubblica and L’Espresso — on the release of “The Guantánamo Files,” classified military documents from Guantánamo that were the last of the major leaks of classified US government documents by Chelsea Manning, following the releases in 2010 of the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and the Cablegate releases.

All the journalists and publishers involved are at liberty to continue their work — and even Chelsea Manning, given a 35-year sentence after a trial in 2013, was freed after President Obama commuted her sentence just before leaving office — and yet Julian Assange remains imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison in south east London, even though, in January, Judge Vanessa Baraitser, the British judge presiding over hearings regarding his proposed extradition to the US, prevented his extradition on the basis that, given the state of his mental health, and the oppressive brutality of US supermax prisons, the US would be unable to prevent him committing suicide if he were to be extradited.

That ought to have been the end of the story, but instead of being freed to be reunited with his partner Stella Moris, and his two young sons, Judge Baraitser refused to grant him bail, and the US refused to drop their extradition request, announcing that they would appeal, and continuing to do so despite Joe Biden being inaugurated as president. This is a black mark against Biden, whose administration should have concluded, as the Obama administration did (when he was Vice President), that it was impossible to prosecute Assange without fatally undermining press freedom. As Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation stated in April 2019, “Despite Barack Obama’s extremely disappointing record on press freedom, his justice department ultimately ended up making the right call when they decided that it was too dangerous to prosecute WikiLeaks without putting news organizations such as the New York Times and the Guardian at risk.”

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Video: I Talk to Kevin Gosztola About Guantánamo on the 19th Anniversary of Its Opening — and Julian Assange

A screenshot of Andy Worthington’s interview with Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof on Jan. 11, 2021, the 19th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo.

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Yesterday, on the 19th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, I was delighted when Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof got in touch to request an interview to be livestreamed on his YouTube channel.

We spoke for just over half an hour, covering Guantánamo for the first 24 minutes, in which I had the opportunity to explain in detail where we are, 19 long and shameful years since the prison opened, and four depressing years since Donald Trump promised there would be no releases from Guantánamo, and, with one exception, was true to his word.

For the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, it is impossible for their situation to be worse under Joe Biden than it was under Trump, and Kevin and I discussed what progress there might be under Biden after he takes office in a week’s time — releasing the six men already approved for release, and, with his control of both the Senate and the House, being able to reverse Republican prohibitions on bringing anyone to the US mainland for any reason — whether for urgent medical treatment that is unavailable at Guantánamo, or to face trials, in the federal court system, as opposed to the broken military commissions at Guantánamo.

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As UK Judge Denies Julian Assange Bail, It’s Time for Joe Biden to Drop the US Extradition Request

A supporter of Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey in London on October 1, 2020, the last day of his extradition hearing. The balloons were part of an initiative celebrating the 14th anniversary of the founding of WikiLeaks, on October 4 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Today, at Westminster Magistrates Court, just two days after ruling that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the US, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser refused to grant him bail, consigning him to ongoing imprisonment in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in south east London.

On Monday, at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey), Judge Baraitser refused to allow the extradition to proceed, ruling that his life would be at risk in a US supermax prison. Judge Baraitser accepted expert testimony and evidence, given during his extradition hearings in September and October, that Assange has Asperger’s Syndrome and has expressed suicidal ideations, and that the US authorities would be unable to prevent him from committing suicide in a supermax prison, a decision with precedents in the cases of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, whose extradition was also prevented by British judges.

Assange must now await a possible appeal against Monday’s ruling, with Judge Baraitser recognizing the US government’s right to do so when she stated today that, “As a matter of fairness, the US must be allowed to challenge my decision.”

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Judge Refuses to Allow WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange’s Extradition to the US, Citing Suicide Risk

Longtime Julian Assange supporter Elsa Collins near the Old Bailey today, January 4, 2021, after District Judge Vanessa Baraitser unexpectedly prevented WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the US (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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In a totally unexpected ruling in the Old Bailey this morning, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser refused to allow WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the US to proceed, on the basis that, as court-watcher Kevin Gosztola described it in a tweet, she was “satisfied that procedures described by [the] US would not prevent Assange from finding a way to commit suicide in [a] US supermax prison.”

Gosztola added, powerfully, “The United States government’s mass incarceration system just lost them their case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.”

In an unjust world in which good news seems to be in ever dwindling supply, this is extraordinarily good news. The US has 14 days to appeal, but it is uncertain if they will do so, as the mental health and suicide risk argument is essentially unassailable, and has been used effectively before — in the cases of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, who both have Asperger’s Syndrome. Julian’s Asperger’s has, to my mind, rarely been adequately recognized before, until it was diagnosed by an expert witness in his extradition hearing in September, which now seems to have played a key role in preventing his extradition.

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The Ongoing and Unjustifiable Persecution of Julian Assange

A van bearing the message ‘Don’t extradite Assange’, photographed today, September 9, 2020, in Waterloo (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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A hugely important struggle for press freedom is currently taking place in the Old Bailey in London, where, on Monday, three weeks of hearings began regarding the proposed extradition to the US of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. In 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks published documents leaked by a serving member of the US military — Bradley, now Chelsea Manning — that exposed evidence of war crimes committed by the US and, in the case of my particular area of expertise, Guantánamo.

The Guantánamo revelations were contained in classified military files relating to almost all of the 779 men held at the prison by the uS military since it opened in January 2002, which, for the first time, explicitly revealed how profoundly unreliable the supposed evidence against the prisoners was, much of it having been made by prisoners who had made numerous false statements against their fellow prisoners. I worked with WikiLeaks as a media partner for the release of the Guantánamo files, and my summary of the files’ significance can be found in the article I wrote when they were first published entitled, WikiLeaks Reveals Secret Guantánamo Files, Exposes Detention Policy as a Construct of Lies.

I should add that I am one of the witnesses for the defence, and will be appearing in court sometime over the next few weeks to discuss the significance of the Guantánamo files. See this post by Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof listing those taking part, who include Professor Noam Chomsky, Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, journalists John Goetz, Jakob Augstein, Emily Dische-Becker and Sami Ben Garbia, lawyers Eric Lewis and Barry Pollack, and Dr. Sondra Crosby, a medical doctor who examined Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he lived for almost seven years after claiming asylum in 2012.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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