Assange Supporters Bring Battle to Halt Extradition to Geneva

Assange Supporters Bring Battle to Halt Extradition to Geneva

Julian Assange, the jailed controversial founder of WikiLeaks who is fighting extradition to the United States to face espionage charges, may have his “final” hearing in a British court next week after 13 years of “political persecution,” campaigners said in Geneva this week.

Supporters argued that Assange is a defender of press freedoms who should not be extradited to America, where he could face 175 years in prison if convicted on all 18 counts in the US indictment. 

But the current head of WikiLeaks was pessimistic about the prospects of London’s High Court, which convenes February 20-21, overturning a court decision in June 2023 which refused Assange permission to appeal. “It is the last stand, the pivotal point in our case to fight for Julian Assange’s freedom,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks since 2018, told a news conference at the Swiss Press Club on Wednesday.

The eleventh-hour campaign to halt extradition had left Assange’s lawyer wife Stella, the mother of his two younger sons, “exhausted and ill” and unable to attend the Geneva event, according to Hrafnsson, who last visited Assange two months ago.

“I am not too optimistic about the outcome that these two judges will disagree [with] and overturn [the previous decision]. I think it very unlikely we see that scenario,” Hrafnsson said. “One possibility after the two-day hearing is that the two judges come back and say there is no case to be had, there is an airplane waiting, he will be flown over [to America]. That is a scenario that [could realistically happen],” he said. 

But Hrafnsson and Denis Masmejan, Secretary General of the Swiss section of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said that if Assange loses in Britain’s High Court, a last-minute appeal to stay the extradition would be filed at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

 “Kicking the Hornets’ Nest”

 To his fans, Assange is a journalist whose “political persecution” should serve as a warning about shrinking freedom of the press. “Once you kick the hornets’ nest they will attack you. Julian said they will hunt me to the end of the earth, and they have, and they are still at,” said Hrafnsson. 

Critics say Assange may have endangered lives through releasing confidential documents, although Hrafnsson told The Geneva Observer that “there is no example” of anyone having been compromised or losing their life, and that Assange had taken great care to redact or withhold sensitive documents.

Controversy still surrounds the 2016 leaks of emails during the US presidential election campaign which, critics say, played a role in Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump. Assange has repeatedly denied the emails came from Russia, but Clinton’s campaign accused him of being Moscow’s “propaganda arm”.

Under the Espionage Act of 1917, the US Department of Justice is seeking Assange’s extradition for having published thousands of classified documents relating to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including US forces’ killing of civilians.  The Australian publisher and activist, now 52, denies any wrongdoing, and has spent more than a dozen years evading justice.

Assange first took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London in 2012, a fugitive breaching hefty bail provided by supporters to avoid charges of sexual assault filed by two women in Sweden. Ecuador granted him asylum, but revoked it after seven years, allowing British police to arrest him.

Assange was taken to Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison outside London, nearly 5 years ago. Nils Melzer, the then UN torture investigator who visited him at Belmarsh in May 2019 along with two medical experts, said he was suffering “psychological torture,” including extreme stress and anxiety.

Melzer’s successor in the independent post, Alice Jill Edwards, last week called on the British government to halt the possible “imminent extradition,” saying that Assange would be at risk of US prison conditions tantamount to torture and of suicide given his “longstanding and recurrent depressive disorder.” 

As early as 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that depriving Assange of his liberty was unlawful. Amnesty International has taken up his case, warning this week that he faces “serious human rights violations” if extradited, which could have a “profound chilling effect on global media freedom.”

War Crimes 

Assange came to the world’s attention in 2010 when a classified US military video showing a July 2007 attack by Apache helicopters that killed a dozen people in Baghdad—including a Reuters photographer and his assistant—was released by WikiLeaks. The leaked video, dubbed “Collateral Murder,” obtained from a US military whistleblower in Iraq later identified as Chelsea Manning, revealed that there had been no firefight with insurgents, as claimed by US officials, sparking global outrage.

“There is this famous video showing a US helicopter machine-gunning down civilians, it is unbearable and it is [a] flagrant war crime. Here in Geneva, the birthplace of the Geneva Conventions, we can only be scandalized,” Secretary General Masmejan said. “The reasons we are defending [Assange] are the very important contribution[s] he has made to very important journalistic work. Julian helped reveal facts to the public, he served public interest, he served the public right to know what must be known,” he stated. 

Manning’s 35-year sentence was commuted by former US President Barack Obama after she had served 7 years in a maximum-security prison.

“The release of helicopter video on April 5, 2010, turned a page, it put Julian in the limelight, showed the assassination of innocent people on the streets of Baghdad in July 2007, showed the assassination of one [of the] most brilliant photojournalists working for Reuters, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his assistant,” Hrafnsson said.

In 2010, WikiLeaks and media partners released a quarter of a million diplomatic cables sent by US embassies, revealing corruption and other misdeeds and fueling investigations. “It exposed the underbelly of the empire in diplomatic terms,” said Hrafnsson, an award-winning investigative journalist from Iceland. 

Not all have jumped on the Assange bandwagon, however. In an open letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, a former senior staff member, Christophe Peschoux, criticized the office for its silence, writing: “All human rights and press freedom groups consider Mr Assange’s indictment to be the most serious threat worldwide to press freedom in the United States and elsewhere. Our office, however, has remained conspicuously silent. How is it that sucessive high commissioners have carefully ignored him and have not dared to say a word in his defence?” 

“Denouncing the truth must not become a crime,” concluded Peschoux, who recently retired.

In a written response to our request for comment, the UN Human Rights Office told The G|O: "we continue to follow Julian Assange’s case closely and are of course aware of the upcoming hearing. As you might recall, former High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in August 2022 met Mr. Assange’s wife and legal team, at which time she expressed continuing concerns for his physical and mental well-being in detention. She noted that his potential extradition and prosecution raised concerns relating to media freedom and a possible chilling effect on investigative journalism and on the activities of whistle-blowers. She emphasised the importance of ensuring respect of Mr. Assange’s human rights, in particular the right to a fair trial and due process guarantees."