Free the messenger: On the Julian Assange case  

The U.S. should drop charges against Assange and hold up free speech 

April 13, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 11:19 am IST

President Joseph Biden’s comments, made off the cuff at the White House this week, that his administration is “considering” a request by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to drop charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has sent a ripple of hope for his family and supporters. Mr. Assange, an Australian citizen, is in the U.K.’s Belmarsh Prison, and is awaiting a British court decision on whether he can appeal a 2022 extradition order that would send him to the U.S. to face serious charges for the publication of U.S. government and diplomatic cables in 2010. The court’s order is due on May 20, and it has asked the U.S. for assurances that he will not face the death penalty. However, Mr. Albanese’s appeal to Mr. Biden may make that decision redundant. Mr. Assange, 52, has been punished quite a lot already, while seeking asylum and under arrest, and, according to his family, is too ill and anxious about being extradited. Mr. Assange has faced a Swedish warrant for rape and assault, charges he denied, and the case was dropped. In the U.S. he faces 18 charges that could total 175 years in prison. The charges, 17 of which are under the U.S.’s century-old Espionage Act, pertain to the publication by WikiLeaks of thousands of classified U.S. documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many of which showed the U.S. army’s methods in a bad light, and revealed U.S. government strategy.

To be sure, Mr. Assange’s decision to publish the trove of documents without check, and the revelation of names of specific U.S. officials, employees, soldiers and civilians, put many lives at risk. Governments are entitled to have their national security secrets, and confidentiality is respected for a reason. It is also true that, in several instances, WikiLeaks did partner with media organisations to do the scrutiny required when confronted with secret documents, to ensure that only those in public interest were revealed. But there was also some element of “data dumping” bypassing any careful journalistic effort that may have earned it more protections. However, it is hard for the U.S. to explain why it has thrown the book at Mr. Assange as the publisher, but not his source, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The Biden administration has made the protection of democracy worldwide a policy priority, and to continue to prosecute a transparency activist, while castigating governments worldwide for hounding whistle-blowers, free speech activists and public accountability NGOs, seems contradictory. More than ever, the U.S. can show by example, in the Assange case, that it believes in democratic freedoms, and not in “shooting the messenger” for shining a spotlight on the way its government works.

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