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Julian Assange case could be deadly for journalism

Following the extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a ruling is due in January – Tim Dawson observed the proceedings

12 November, 2020 — By Tim Dawson

Tim Dawson, left, and Julian Assange. Credit Cancillería del Ecuador

WATCHING Julian Assange in the dock at the Old Bailey throughout September was to witness a man close to breaking.

A decade ago, as the WikiLeaks disruptor, he was Rolling Stone’s cover story “a platinum villain… rockstar of the year”.

Today the 49-year-old is several stone lighter and his hair a shock of white. Occasionally lifting his protective mask to brief lawyers, he revealed a face etched by 10 years of fear, paranoia and depression.

Little wonder.

Several doctors and psychiatrists who have examined Assange took the stand. Sharing intimate medical records, they detailed his depression, autism, and suicide attempts.

His distress is unsurprising.

If convicted, the WikiLeaks founder faces a sentence of 175 years in a cell the size of a parking space, separated from other prisoners, entitled to scant communication with lawyers, and allowed one 15-minute phone call to family each month.

The means by which the US government seeks his scalp is no less shocking.

Carey Shenkman, a New York-based constitutional lawyer, told the court that the “Espionage Act” under which Assange is charged is a vague and repressive statute, passed in haste during the First World War.

Far more often it has been used against trades unionists and working-class leaders than it has foreign spies.

Jameel Jaffer, professor of Law and Journalism at Columbia University, told the court how deadly this unprecedented case could be for journalism. “The indictment (statement of what Assange is alleged to have done) is mainly a description of Mr Assange engaging in core journalistic activities.”

His conviction would make an offence of cultivating sources to reveal information that exposes incompetence, corruption and illegality, Jaffer said.

This is one reason the National Union of Journalists has campaigned against his extradition.

Among the many troubling aspects of Assange’s case is the violation of basic protections that are the hallmarks of justice.

Human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce told the court: “bugging devices (were placed) inside the Ecuadorian embassy without consent”.

The vast bulk of evidence before the court was fiercely contested by United States government lawyers. Not so the bugging allegations.

Undisputed testimony also revealed that the bugs targeted Assange’s meetings with lawyers. The resulting recordings were dispatched to the CIA.

Many believe that WikiLeaks revelations of military misconduct entitles Assange to our support regardless. The court heard plenty to affirm that view.

German shop worker Khaled El-Masri, for example, told how, on the basis of mistaken identity, he was kidnapped and handed to the CIA.

Its agents flew him to Afghanistan and for four months tortured him. Realising their mistake, they simply dumped their victim on an Albanian roadside.

El-Masri offered Assange heartfelt thanks. “Those (diplomatic) cables, made public in September 2011, made it clear why over the intervening years my suffering had been denied and ignored”.

The European Court of Human Rights has subsequently affirmed the truth of El-Masri’s story.

Unmentioned at the Old Bailey were the Swedish allegations of sexual assault. The possibility of extradition to face these preceded the Australian Assange’s flight to the Ecuadoran embassy.

Perhaps it would have been better that these were put before a court for consideration? By the time Assange was ejected from the embassy, however, Swedish prosecutors had abandoned the case.

What that leaves, however you view Assange, is an American administration attempting to impose its will on a foreigner living outside the US. If successful it would create a precedent potentially criminalising any future critic of US policy.

That should be reason enough to prompt action from anyone who cares for fairness and liberty, be that by raising Assange’s case with colleagues or elected representatives, or attending a protest.

Leave arbitrary tyranny unchecked and you will soon enough find yourself in the firing line. It’s an old truism, for sure, but better to act now than test its veracity.

• Tim Dawson observed the hearings on behalf of the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. He is a past president of the NUJ and a member of its national executive.

A protest is due to be held outside the Old Bailey on January 4 as the verdict is announced – 9am start.

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