The pursuit of Assange: On U.S. efforts to WikiLeaks founder

The U.S. must take a more benign view of WikiLeaks and drop Assange’s prosecution

Updated - January 07, 2021 12:49 am IST

Published - January 07, 2021 12:02 am IST

The decision by a British district judge to block the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. on the grounds of his mental health is a temporary setback to America’s efforts to try the WikiLeaks founder under its law on spying charges. In her ruling, judge Vanessa Baraitser said “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the U.S.” While it is a small victory for his lawyers and supporters, their fight to prevent his extradition and secure his freedom is far from over. Judge Baraitser has blocked his extradition only on medical grounds because she thought his possible detention in isolation in the U.S. would likely result in a suicide attempt. She rejected the defence lawyers’ arguments that Mr. Assange’s prosecution was politically motivated and violated his rights to free expression. She also observed that his conduct “took him outside the role of investigative journalism”, agreeing with the U.S. authorities’ assertion on WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange, who is wanted in the U.S. on multiple charges of breaking espionage laws and conspiring to hack a military computer, has repeatedly defended his organisation’s operations, terming them public interest journalism. U.S. prosecutors allege that he helped former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning crack an encrypted password and download classified information, the leaking of which endangered American intelligence sources. The Justice Department also claims that he had conspired with hackers to obtain classified information.

It is ironic that the U.S., which takes pride in its freedoms and commitment to protecting human rights, is relentlessly pursuing a man who exposed some of the worst rights violations by the American military. Until WikiLeaks released the classified documents that Ms. Manning downloaded, the world believed that the July 2007 killings of a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters staffers, happened in a firefight with a U.S. aircrew. But video footage by WikiLeaks showed the aircrew laughing after they killed 12 innocent people. WikiLeaks files also exposed the killings of hundreds of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces. These were incidents the U.S. had swept under the carpet, and WikiLeaks had undoubtedly done public service, allowing the questioning of the conduct of war by the world’s supreme military power. Instead of accepting its military’s mistakes, the U.S. went after the messenger. In the U.S., sensitive or leaked information published by the news media is protected under the First Amendment, a reason why the Obama administration decided against prosecuting WikiLeaks. But the Trump administration reversed tack. The new Biden-led government must rethink its predecessor’s approach. It is unfortunate that a fresh bail application filed by Mr. Assange’s lawyers was rejected by a British judge on Wednesday. The British legal system should take a benign view of his condition and cause.

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