17 January 2021
WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange has won an important, though temporary and limited, legal victory in his decade-long battle against persecution by American imperialism. On 4 January, the British magistrate presiding over the extradition hearings, Vanessa Baraitser, ruled that Assange would not be shipped to the US, where he faces up to 175 years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 over baseless claims of spying and hacking government computers.
In what essentially amounts to a legal technicality, Baraitser argued that due to Assange’s fragile mental state (a product of his de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy and later in British jails) and the prospect of prolonged solitary confinement in a US prison, American authorities could not prevent Assange from committing suicide if extradited. Feigning concern for his safety while in US custody, she stated: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future. I find that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America” (Guardian, 4 January 2021).
While ruling against extradition, Baraitser nonetheless upheld all other aspects of the US government’s case against the journalist. She asserted that Assange’s actions (i.e., publishing diplomatic cables and military files) fell “outside the realm of journalism” and “would not be protected by his right to freedom of speech.” The UK judge cynically rejected claims that the persecution of Assange has been “politically motivated” and disingenuously expressed confidence that “the usual constitutional and procedural protections” (i.e., a fair trial) would apply during any legal proceedings he might face in the United States (Ibid.).
Two days later, Baraitser denied Assange’s request for bail. Despite his willingness to wear an ankle bracelet and remain at home in Britain, she claimed Assange “still has an incentive to abscond from these, as yet unresolved, proceedings” and that “as a matter of fairness, the US must be allowed to challenge my decision.” Assange was then remanded to the high-security Belmarsh prison where, Baraitser absurdly claimed, “his mental health was being managed” (Guardian, 6 January 2021).
Sending Assange to disappear in a prison hell-hole in the US would certainly be “oppressive,” and his life would no doubt be in jeopardy. The courageous Chelsea Manning, who spent years in an American prison for providing classifed documents to Assange and WikiLeaks, herself twice tried to commit suicide while in US custody. Yet, Baraitser’s ruling attempts to conceal the “torture and medical neglect” already inflicted upon Assange by his British captors. Hundreds of high-profile doctors from around the world have condemned the imprisonment of Assange, fearing he will perish under British incarceration due to health conditions such as chest infections and osteoporosis. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who also fears for Assange’s life, has laid the blame squarely on the British authorities:
“Mr Assange’s health has entered a downward spiral of progressively severe anxiety, stress and helplessness typical for persons exposed to prolonged isolation and constant arbitrariness.…
“However, what we have seen from the UK Government is outright contempt for Mr Assange’s rights and integrity.…
“Despite the medical urgency of my appeal, and the seriousness of the alleged violations, the UK has not undertaken any measures of investigation, prevention and redress required under international law.
—ABC, 2 November 2019
Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice responded to Baraitser’s ruling with “gratification” and promised to continue pursuing extradition:
“While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised. In particular, the court rejected all of Mr Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offense, fair trial, and freedom of speech. We will continue to seek Mr Assange’s extradition to the United States.”
—Reuters, 4 January 2021
Assange now faces a lengthy appeals process while he continues to rot in nightmarish Belmarsh prison. Indeed, American and British imperialism may be hoping that Belmarsh, which has experienced a number of outbreaks and deaths due to Covid-19, will finish off Assange, thereby allowing them to avoid a messy and potentially damaging legal battle.
The IBT condemns the long drawn-out process by which American and British authorities are slowly killing Assange. While supporting every possible legal path to winning his freedom, we have no faith in the imperialist “justice” systems that have vilified and attempted to silence him. At bottom, he is being persecuted for the “crime” of shedding light on the inner workings of ruling-class diplomacy and exposing imperialist atrocities. Free Assange now!
For background on Assange’s case, see:
WikiLeaks & Whistleblowers in the Age of Imperialism (1917 No.42)