Julian Assange’s Trial Begins as the U.S. Adds Charges

By Marcelo Justo, on September 6, 2020

In the midst of a political and legal offensive by the Trump Administration, the trial for the extradition to the United States of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange begins this Monday in London. The United States accuses him of violating its Espionage Law by publishing secret documents in 2010 about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense asks for the release and annulment of Assange’s trial due to the violation of human and civil rights enshrined by the UN, the European Convention on Human Rights and English customary law.

The tortuous Assange case began in 2010 with the release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents revealing war crimes, corruption and prevarication in U.S. war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first shocking turn of events, worthy of a thriller, was the indictment of the charismatic founder of WikiLeaks in Sweden some two months later for alleged rape and sexual abuse of two women. Sweden requested the extradition of Assange who was arrested by British police and released on bail while the extradition trial was taking place in the UK. When in 2012 the British Supreme Court ruled in favor of his extradition to Sweden, Assange applied for political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Since then it has been at the mercy of political and diplomatic winds: the judicial swings in Sweden, the changing airs and graces of Ecuador, the pressure of the United States and the United Kingdom. Sweden’s decision to drop the charges against Assange was more than compensated for by the departure of Rafael Correa, the accelerated right turn of his successor, Lenín Moreno, and the deterioration of Ecuador’s economic and social situation. In exchange for the approval of the United States for a loan with the IMF for 4 billion dollars, the government of Lenín Moreno abandoned Assange to his fate. In April of last year, British police entered the Ecuadorian embassy and arrested him for not turning himself in when he was free on bail in 2012. Since then he has remained in the maximum-security prison of Belmarsh, in southeast London.

Assange’s long extradition

This second extradition process was to begin in April: it was delayed by the pandemic. The United States took advantage of this delay to add new charges to the 18 crimes with which it is charged. These charges extend beyond Assange himself. Two of his WikiLeaks partners and an employee of the organization are charged as accomplices in the conspiracy against U.S. security. The State Department’s message is a warning to any “whistleblower” tempted to reveal the government’s dirty laundry: The United States will follow them to the ends of the earth.

The U.S. argument is that the publication of these classified documents endangers people’s lives or state security. The Secretary-General of the Association of American Lawyers, Luis Carlos Moro, refuted this argument, a classic of states whether democratic or dictatorial. “An extradition of Assange will set a dangerous precedent for the entire democratic world because far from representing the rule of law it will mean a victory for political persecution,” Moro said.

According to the defense, a long list of irregularities and violations of fundamental rights should prevent extradition. The legal arguments are strong and were advanced in an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in August signed by more than 150 prominent lawyers and legal organizations from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. Among the points cited are some of almost undeniable force:

Article 4 of the bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom prohibits extradition for political reasons.

It also prohibits it in cases where there is “a risk of being subjected to an unfair trial,” that is, without the minimum guarantees of fairness of a rule of law.

The risk of torture cited by the UN Rapporteur on Torture in the Assange extradition case.

And the violation of freedom of the press and expression: extradition would make it a crime to disclose government information.

Trump, Brexit and George Orwell

The biased judicial environment is compounded by incomprehensible restrictions on the press for coverage of a trial followed around the world: only 10 journalists will be allowed to enter the sessions. In addition to compromising the transparency of the process, this restriction is a way of making Assange’s state of health invisible: he was last seen at the Ecuadorian embassy when he was arrested. The information from the few people who have had access to Assange in all these months – his current partner, his lawyers – is that his state of health is precarious.

The extradition process begins at a politically charged moment: November 3 is the election in the United States, January 1 is the final departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In the heat of the gigantic polarization of Brexit, the Conservatives, with Boris Johnson at their head, and the powerful press that supports the charge, have launched an offensive against the judiciary in the last two years, with headlines that described the judges as “enemies of the people,” with the names and photos of the judges who ruled against the legal route that the government was seeking to take on the British exit from the European Union. Johnson’s Rasputin-brain, Dominic Cummings, wants to reform the judicial system, especially its more progressive features, “tools of leftist campaigning,” according to the ultra-conservative Daily Mail.

This offensive, which could make one think of a sort of British-style “lawfare”, has institutional and collective limits that will weigh on the Assange case. In a famous essay in the midst of the Second World War, the 1984 author, George Orwell, rescued respect for justice as an English trait that transcended classes and ideologies. “Everyone believes that the law is an incorruptible thing that is above the state and the individual and that it must be imparted impartially. It may be said to be an illusion, but it is a very powerful illusion that colors social behavior and collective life,” Orwell writes.

This collective vision is an ideal cultivated since childhood (the favorite complaint of very modest English children is “it is not fair”: it is not fair). It is also a source of hypocrisy as in the famous “fair play”. At best it works as a safeguard against judicial farce and rigged trials. In the other major extradition case of the last 30 years, that of Augusto Pinochet, British justice was on the way to granting his extradition to Spain when political power intervened. The process was charged with irony. A supposed refuge of privilege such as the House of Lords -the Supreme Court in those years- ruled twice in favor of extradition. A Labor government, supposedly of the center-left, ended up inventing a physical and mental health alibi – senility – for the former dictator to return to Chile.

The hearings in the Assange case will be extended until September 25. The decision of this first instance may be appealed. The case will certainly follow a similar trajectory to the Pinochet case: the High Court of London and the Supreme Court. It is a little premature for the forecasts, but we should not rule out a scenario similar to that of the Pinochet case: justice moving on one side, political power on the other. Much will depend on whether Orwell’s words continue to describe the British Brexit society and the fake news some 84 years later.

Source: Pagina 12, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau