EFF Blasts Julian Assange’s Trial As Selective Prosecution

As a final decision awaits in the trial against Julian Assange, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) calls it all “Selective Prosecution”.

There’s been many ways people have described the trial of Julian Assange. Some refer to it as politically motivated. Others call it a sham trial. Others still have described it as “journalism on trial”. Indeed, there’s nothing typical about the prosecution of the Wikileaks editor and chief. After all, we’ve seen a 50 week prison sentence handed down for the trivial crime of skipping bail. We also saw civil rights organizations barred from watching over the trial. This over top of the fact that defense lawyers weren’t permitted to properly prepare for the trial in question thanks to time constraints.

Despite so many questionable events occurring in the trial, it is moving ahead at breakneck speed. Last we checked in, the trial wrapped up with a verdict expected early next year. This will, at least, let the dust settle somewhat for now.

As we await the verdict from this highly questionable trial, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has weighed in once again. They described the trial as “selective prosecution”. From the EFF:

As the extradition hearing for Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange unfolds, it is increasingly clear that the prosecution of Assange fits into a pattern of governments selectively enforcing laws in order to punish those who provoke their ire. As we see in Assange’s case and in many others before this, computer crime laws are especially ripe for this form of politicization.

The key evidence in the U.S. government’s cybercrime conspiracy allegations against Assange is a brief conversation between Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning in which the possibility of cracking a password is discussed, Manning allegedly shares a snippet of that password with Assange, and Assange apparently attempts, but fails, to crack it. While breaking into computers and cracking passwords in many contexts is illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, few prosecutors would ever bother to bring a case for such an inconsequential activity as a failed attempt to reverse a hash. But the government has doggedly pursued charges against Assange for 10 years, perhaps because they fear that prosecuting Assange for publishing leaked documents is protected by the First Amendment and is a case they are likely to lose.

With this allegation, the government is attempting to dodge around the First Amendment protections by painting Assange as a malicious hacker and charge him for conspiracy to violate computer crime law. This is a pattern we’ve seen before.

Cybercrime laws are a powerful tool used by authoritarian governments to silence dissent, including going after journalists who challenge government authority. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented how a computer crime law in Nigeria was used to harass and press charges against five bloggers who criticized politicians and businessmen. Human Rights Watch has described how the Saudi Arabian government used vague language in an anti-cybercrime law to prosecute Saudi citizens who used social media to speak out against government abuses. And in Ecuador, Amnesty International has joined EFF in raising awareness about the case of Ola Bini, a Swedish open source software developer who garnered government ire and is now facing a politically-motivated prosecution for supposed computer crime violations.

Cybercrime laws can turn innocent exploration, and journalistic inquiry into sinister-sounding (and disproportionately punished) felonies, just because they take place in a digital environment that lawmakers and prosecutors do not understand. The Intercept’s Micah Lee described the computer crime charges against Assange as “incredibly flimsy.” The conspiracy charge is rooted in a chat conversation in which Manning and Assange discussed the possibility of cracking a password. Forensic evidence and expert testimony make it clear that not only did Assange not crack this password, but that Manning only ever provided Assange with a piece of a password hash – from which it would have been impossible to derive the original password.

Furthermore, recent testimony by Patrick Eller, a digital forensics examiner, raises questions about whether the alleged password cracking attempt had anything to do with leaking documents at all, especially since the conversation took place after Manning had already leaked the majority of the files she sent to Wikileaks.

The lone conspiracy to commit a computer crime allegation has become a major focus of attention in this case, and in fact a computer crime was the only charge against Assange when he was first arrested. The charge is drawing that attention because it’s the only charge that isn’t directly about receiving and publishing leaks. But as the court assesses these charges against Assange, we urge them to see this case within the context of a repeated, known pattern of governments enforcing computer crime law selectively and purposely in order to punish dissenting voices, including journalists. Journalism is not a crime, and journalism practiced with a computer is not a cyber-crime, no matter how U.S. prosecutors might wish it were

Earlier, the EFF pointed out that the indictment against Assange is an attack on journalism. Specifically, they said that the charges breaks a century old tradition of not using the Espionage Act to go after journalists. This over top of the comments that common journalistic activities should not be prosecuted.

One thing is for sure, the more you examine the facts of the case, the more questionable the prosectution of Assange becomes. Everything about this screams “politically motivated” and pointing this out is basically pointing out the glaringly obvious.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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