Civil and Digital Rights Organizations Renew Call to Drop Case Against Assange

Civil and digital rights organizations have once again called on the US government to drop their case against Julian Assange.

The case against Wikileaks co-founder, Julian Assange, is continuing to drag on. The case against Assange was sparked after a trove of diplomatic cables and war logs were dumped online. The successive trove of documents revealed US meddling in the affairs of other countries, corruption, potential crimes, and more. The revelations embarrassed the US government and shined a light on the dark underbelly of the world of US diplomacy.

Ever since, the US has been trying to strike back against this exposure by, among other things, demonizing those that revealed the information, put their supporters under surveillance, intimidation, promoting conspiracy theories, and punish those who blew the whistle in the first place. The idea is to make the price of embarrassing the US government extremely high and discourage others from exposing any further corruption. Examples, of course, include Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

The US government, for its part, pushed theories that the documents that were published put lives in danger. Actual evidence of this never surfaced. Still, the idea is to gradually convince the public that people who blow the whistle on government wrongdoing is the bad guys in these stories. To some degree, the campaign to demonize Julian Assange proved somewhat successful with some people growing less sympathetic of the human rights violations Assange has faced.

After being holed up in an Ecuadorian embassy for years, Assange was relinquished to US custody. This came courtesy of a regime change and a series of new loans to the new government in exchange. Assange was then dragged out of the embassy without resistance and whisked away in a van. Famously, Assange made the peace symbol as he was carted away. He then was locked away in solitary confinement in a notorious maximum security prison. With Assange in British custody, the women that alleged that Assange raped them (at least one recanted on these allegations) were brushed aside. Their use had run its course as the US had, by extension, got their man.

Since then, the US dropped all pretense and filed 17 charges of espionage. The move shocked the digital rights and journalism world because it marked the moment the US broke the years old tradition of not charging journalists with espionage for the crimes of doing their job. At the same time, Assange’s health deteriorated while in custody. Reporters Without Borders demanded that Assange be released in response.

Things grew bleak as many widely expected the judge to simply rubber stamp the US’s demands. This especially after civil rights organizations were barred from watching the proceedings. After the hearing concluded, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) blasted the trial as selective prosecution. Surprisingly, the verdict came in and the judge chose to block the extradition of Assange to the US.

This moment represented a minor opportunity for civil and digital rights organizations. 22 of them signed an open letter demanding that the US drop its case against Assange. The Biden administration rejected those calls and vowed to continue the prosecution of Assange. The Biden administration appealed the case, ensuring that this case is going to continue.

Press freedom groups, civil rights organizations, and digital rights organizations have now renewed their calls for the US to drop their case. The EFF says that this is in response to reports indicating that the US government was actively considering assassinating Assange. From the EFF:

The renewed request comes after a Yahoo News report that the CIA discussed kidnapping or killing Assange in 2017, before charges against Assange were filed. The agency also reportedly planned extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates.

Assange has been charged under the Espionage Act. The charges have been widely condemned by journalists and press freedom organizations, including by outlets that have been critical of Assange. Leaks of information that the government would prefer to keep secret, and the publication of those leaks by journalists, are vital to our democracy. Regardless of what one thinks about other criminal charges against Assange, his indictment on charges that mostly reflect basic journalistic practices will have a chilling effect on critical national security journalism.

In January, a British judge denied the Trump Administration’s extradition request, on the basis that the conditions of confinement in the U.S. would be overly harsh. The U.S. chose to appeal that decision. A hearing on the case is scheduled to be heard next week. Human rights and press freedom groups, including EFF, first asked in February for the Biden Administration to drop the extradition effort.

In addition to EFF, the letter to DOJ has been signed by the ACLU, Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders, and many other groups.

The open letter was signed by a huge list of organizations. This includes Access Now, American Civil Liberties Organization, Amnesty International USA, Committee to Protect Journalists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, and Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts. From the letter (PDF):

We, the undersigned press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights advocacy organizations, write again to share our profound concern about
the ongoing criminal and extradition proceedings relating to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

In February, members of this coalition wrote to the Acting Attorney General, urging that the criminal charges against Mr. Assange be dropped. We now renew that request with even greater urgency, in light of a recent story in Yahoo News describing alarming discussions within the CIA and Trump administration before the indictment against Assange was filed. The Yahoo News story only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution, and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.

As we noted in our earlier correspondence, the signatories to this letter have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization. We are united, however, in our view that the criminal case against him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We were disappointed that the Department of Justice appealed the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. Especially in light of the recent news report, we urge you to drop that appeal and dismiss the underlying indictment.

As we explained in our earlier letter, journalists routinely engage in much of the conduct described in the indictment: speaking with sources, asking for clarification or more documentation, and receiving and publishing official secrets. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance. We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy. In our view, a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.

Given that this is the second time these respectable organizations called on the Biden administration to drop the case, it’s hard to imagine that the Biden administration is willing to listen to reason this time as well.

Still, this whole story should worry anyone who are like us and engage in acts of journalism. The thing with real journalism is that it doesn’t necessarily take a political side. All it cares about is the facts. If the facts make the government look good, it makes the government look good. If the facts make the government look bad, then it makes the government look bad. It encourages government accountability regardless of political stripe. Sadly, this has become an increasingly rare thing to see with organizations simply taking a political side and doing everything possible to make their political side look good while making the other side of the aisle look bad.

So, if you happen to uncover something big that makes a government look bad in general, you’d have to wonder: if you do the right thing and publish, are you going to get Assanged? After all, Assange came across something big and hit the publish button. As a result, he basically got imprisoned in the worst possible conditions with the constant threat of getting killed for his actions. It’s an ugly precedence, but one that the US government seems bent on making. Embarrass the US government and you will pay the price. The appeal process is still ongoing.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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