End the punishment: On Julian Assange

Assange should be set free, and not extradited to the U.S. 

Updated - May 22, 2024 11:54 am IST

Published - May 22, 2024 12:10 am IST

Julian Assange, founder of whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, has won a legal reprieve in the U.K., with permission to appeal against an extradition order that would see him transferred to the U.S. to face trial for allegedly leaking military secrets. The ruling came after the High Court ruled in March that the U.S. government would be given three weeks to assure that Mr. Assange – an Australian national – would, during trial, be allowed to rely on the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution that protects freedom of speech; that he would not be “prejudiced at trial” for being a foreign national in a U.S. court; and that the death penalty would not be applied in his case. Although his legal team did not contest the assurance provided by Washington that it was an “unambiguous executive promise” that the death penalty would be avoided in his case, the U.K. judges appeared to accept their argument of prejudice towards his nationality in the context of his right to free speech, especially after “a U.S. prosecutor had said the first amendment may not apply to foreigners when it came to national security issues”. Mr. Assange will now have a few months to prepare his appeal.

Several facts stand out in the case of Mr. Assange, which entered the global spotlight since April 2010, when WikiLeaks published leaked videos from a U.S. helicopter in Baghdad showing an airstrike that killed civilians. The organisation then published secret military documents on the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and confidential cables of U.S. diplomatic missions. The key consideration regarding U.S. charges against Mr. Assange for allegedly violating the Espionage Act, brought against him in 2019 by the administration of former President Donald Trump, is that Mr. Assange has spent seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy and then a further five years in the U.K.’s Belmarsh Prison — a lengthy incarceration considering that Chelsea Manning, the erstwhile U.S. military analyst and whistle-blower who transmitted the confidential information from U.S. government servers to WikiLeaks, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, and then that sentence was commuted by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2017. While Mr. Assange’s critics, including notably the U.S. government, point out that he did not redact names in his mega-scale exposé, thus allowing Washington to argue that the revelations placed individuals at “risk of serious harm, torture or even death”, the publication of the documents raised serious questions regarding human rights violations, for example in the targeting of civilians during war. In this sense Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks performed a public service akin to what journalism of conscience does. And considering that he has been punished enough already, he should be allowed to fly home.

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