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Assange, guilty for defending press freedom

For an innocent person to plead guilty is not a capitulation. It is an act of courage and wisdom. The fact that Julian Assange has pleaded guilty to practising journalism, to following the activities that the profession demands, guarantees his freedom but allows his persecutors to play perversely with the freedom of the press and, in the future, to find legal ways to bury the truth.

 

Julian Assange. Photo Secretaria de Educacion / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin*

 

The hours from the morning of Monday 24 June, when Julian Assange was released on bail from Belmarsh, one of the UK’s high-security prisons, until 7.40 pm on Wednesday 26 June, when the plane he was on touched down on Australian soil and he was a free man, were deeply emotional, swinging between euphoria, scepticism, joy and tears.

They were as emotional as the years he spent in Belmarsh were heartbreaking, or as endless and suffocating as the years he spent as an asylum seeker in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or as uncertain as the thirteen months he spent in the country house of his friend Vaughan Smith, who offered him refuge after he was granted provisional release by a British court in 2010.

In those three days of that week in which facts, words and statements were dissected by the media and captured in their headlines, the founder of Wikileaks finally found freedom and perhaps the end of one of the most unacceptable stories of injustice that has taken place in recent decades, where the only crime was to expose the truth, exercise journalism and defend freedom of expression.

The story – or part of it – ended on the coast of Saipan (in the Northern Mariana Islands), in a wood-panelled room in an area on the edge of the natural lushness of the region. There, in federal court, Chief Judge Ramona V Manglona accepted the terms of the agreement Julian Assange and his lawyers had reached with the US government.

The place was packed and Julian had had to wait three hours.

He was nervous. After leaving Belmarsh on Monday, he had boarded a private plane, VJT199, chartered by the Australian government, which would take him through US space to appear before the judge. The most important thing was not having to pay the cost of that flight (US$ 520,000 ) but having to plead guilty to violating US Espionage Act (it was the only way to achieve his freedom after it had been mutilated for more than a decade). Millions of eyes around the world were able to follow the trajectory of VJT199, as it was made public on the Wikileaks social media and that of lawyer Stella Assange, his wife. On social media, they asked to follow the journey. “We need all eyes on his flight in case something goes wrong”.

The plane, court location and guilty plea were all part of a deal reached after intense negotiations between the US Department of Justice and Assange’s legal team.

Towards Belmarsh Prison

Five years ago, on the morning of Thursday 11 April, the Metropolitan Police arrived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange, who had been residing there since 19 June 2012, the day he knocked on its doors asking for political asylum.

HM Prison Belmarsh and Woolwich. Photo by Anders Samdberg / Flickr.  Creative Commons License.

The asylum was granted by the then Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who later also granted him Ecuadorian citizenship.

But the arrest was made possible because the police had been “invited to the embassy by the ambassador, following the Ecuadorian government’s withdrawal of asylum”.

That year, 2019, the president of Ecuador was Lenin Moreno, a fierce enemy of Correa, who decided not only to revoke Assange’s citizenship but also to end his political asylum. (Moreno’s reasons turned out to be unconvincing and everything seems to indicate that it was a political vendetta, but also other interests were involved. In fact, a secret operation called ‘Pelican’, was carried out by the Metropolitan Police to remove Assange from his asylum). On the same day as the brutal arrest, in the House of Commons, the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “This morning after nearly seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy Mr Assange was arrested for failing to surrender in relation to his extradition proceedings. He was later also served with a warrant for provisional arrest pending receipt of a request for extradition to stand trial in the United States on charges relating to computer offences.”

The reality was different, as then Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott put it: “Julian Assange is not being pursued to protect US national security. He is being pursued because he has exposed wrong doing by US administrations and their military forces.”

In addition, UK Foreign Office documents revealed that the UK government had paid £8,330 in November 2018 to fund Ecuador’s defence minister Oswaldo Jarrín’s trip to Britain.  According to the British publication which had access to this information, “the week-long visit came after Prime Minister Theresa May had been told to ‘butter up’ Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, in order to get Assange expelled from the embassy.”

The nightmare begins

The arrest was the gateway to Belmarsh. And there seemed to be no impediment, because in August 2018 the Swedish prosecutor’s office had issued an arrest warrant for Assange on two separate allegations of sexual assault, which Assange always claimed were false. Months later, on 18 November, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant as a Swedish court approved the request to detain him.

In December, following an extradition hearing in London, he was remanded in custody, a situation that was short-lived as the High Court granted him bail. It was then that his friend Smith invited him to stay at his home in Ellingham Hall, Norfolk.

There, despite wearing an electronic bracelet, Assange turned his energies to appeal against the international arrest warrant, to carry out his programme “The world tomorrow” and to continue his work with Wikileaks.

But in early 2011, a British judge accepted Sweden’s extradition request, on the grounds that it would not violate Assange’s human rights. The Wikileaks founder promised to fight the sentence.

However, things did not go well: in November of the same year he lost an appeal to the High Court, and on 14 June 2012 the UK Supreme Court rejected his final appeal.

It was then that Assange made his decision, as he knew that if he was taken to Sweden he would risk extradition to the United States, which had had its eyes on him for years after his successive publications on Wikileaks. Assange knew, like many, that traps were being laid around him to bring him to the United States and put him on trial.

Therefore, on 19 June, he broke his bail and requested asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. Doing this was grounds enough for the conviction he received years later, when his political asylum came to an abrupt end: on 1 May 2019, Judge Deborah Taylor sentenced him to 50 weeks in prison.

Incidentally, days later, the Swedish prosecutor’s office announced it would reopen the rape investigation (closed in May 2017) and US prosecutors charged him with conspiring with Chelsea Manning (an army intelligence analyst) to hack into US Department of Defence computers in March 2010. He was subsequently charged “with 17 new crimes related to his work in obtaining top-secret US national security information”.

A month later, on 11 June 2019, the Department of Justice formally asked Britain to extradite Assange to the US to face charges of hacking into the US government and violating the Espionage Act.

Judicial and legal struggle

By then Assange had already been in Belmarsh for several weeks and his health, already broken in the Ecuadorian embassy (he could not access a proper medical care as he could not go out due to the risk of being arrested by the British police who guarded the diplomatic headquarters 24 hours a day), began to deteriorate further.

So too did his strength and hopes of regaining his freedom and avoiding extradition, because if found guilty, as the US government was determined would happen, he would be sentenced to 175 years in prison. His conditions of detention prevented any improvement: for 23 hours a day he was isolated in a small cell, with no internet access, no communication with his family and sometimes not even with his lawyers. He began to age prematurely and his psychological and physical state became a source of deep concern to his legal team, family, friends and supporters.

This was compounded by the violation of his fundamental rights, both in the cell and at the time of his trial. He was a victim, as confirmed by Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and medical experts who visited Assange in 2019, of “psychological torture, a form of torture aimed at destroying an individual’s personality”. A totally innocent individual, whom the governments of Britain and the United States have sought to discredit, punish, imprison, stigmatise, stigmatise, render invisible and even, according to allegations, kidnap and murder.

There were fears for his life and the anger and frustration mounted among those who demanded the release of the man who, by founding Wikileaks in 2006, opened the door to fact-based whistleblowing, exposing those in power and other perpetrators of war and other crimes. That man who passionately and repeatedly stood up for truth and freedom of expression.

His legal team redoubled its efforts to prevent his extradition. Meanwhile, outside Belmarsh, the expressions of support for Assange that had arisen while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy, gradually and decisively grew to such dimensions that they created a movement of millions of people in various geographies who not only supported Assange but also freedom of expression and the safeguarding of journalism.

So it was not only lawyers who demanded that the Espionage Act charges be dropped and Assange’s immediate release. It was also ordinary individuals, politicians, singers, writers, journalists, presidents, human rights defenders, public figures and organisations.

However, during the 5 years Assange spent in Belmarsh, the US Department of Justice remained silent to these requests, as its purpose was to bring him to trial.  In fact, on 24 June 2020, it updated its 18-count indictment on Assange’s alleged role as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history”.

However, on 4 January 2021, Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that he could not be extradited because the risk of him taking his own life while in a US prison was high. The United States appealed that decision and on 17 June 2022 the British government granted extradition, the order for which was signed by the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Assange was given 14 days to appeal the decision, but the High Court judge in London ruled in June 2023 that the WikiLeaks founder had no legal grounds to do so.

A year earlier, in March, Stella and Julian had married in the sa

me prison, which in some way strengthened their morale and their fight… and everyone’s fight.  And so, in February this year, Assange launched his latest attempt to avoid extradition.

Political pressures and demonstrations of support around the world grew and the Australian government put up a tough fight supporting Assange.

To everyone’s relief, the extradition was halted as the court said the US had to give Assange assurances that he would not face the death penalty. A few weeks later, in April, in the midst of the election debate, President Joe Biden said the US was “considering” dropping its pursuit of Assange because the Australian government had filed a request for Assange to return to his home country.

Julian Assange. Photo by Garry Knight/ Flickr/ Le Journal des Alternatives. Creative Commons License.

A twist

On 20 May 2024, something happened that would turn everything around: the High Court of England and Wales granted Assange leave to appeal against his extradition because, as a foreign national, he could not rely on the US First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and the UK Extradition Act 2003 prohibits extradition to a country where a person’s nationality might interfere with the trial. In other words, the US government could argue that Assange, being Australian, was not protected by the First Amendment. Everything seemed to indicate that the Justice Department feared it would lose the appeal.

That is why intense negotiations began in order for Assange to be released, but under conditions in which, in the end, the US government would be victorious, even if it did not achieve victory in the media.

In this way, the US Department of Justice forced Assange to plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act, which according to the law amounts to “receiving and obtaining” secret documents and ” wilfully communicating” them to “persons who are not entitled to receive them”.

According to Barry Pollack, Assange’s US lawyer, the US government “agreed that it would not bring any additional charges against Julian for any conduct, any publication, any newsgathering, anything that occurred prior to the time of the plea”, meaning the other 17 charges would disappear. (It was also made clear that the Wikileaks revelations never put anyone’s life at risk).

The deal – which accommodated Assange’s request to avoid travel to the US mainland – also included the plane: Assange would take a private plane to and from the island, escorted by an Australian ambassador, and pay the associated costs.

An innocent man pleads guilty

So it was that the founder of Wikileaks ended up pleading guilty on Tuesday 25 June before Judge Ramona V Manglona to violating the US Espionage Act.

He claimed that in his work as a journalist, he had asked a source to provide him with classified information and at the time thought that the first amendment protected such activity. But he later discovered that it did not. The judge then asked him if he was pleading guilty, and he replied, “I am”.

As agreed, the judge told him that the penalty for the charge was five years’ imprisonment, but as he had already served it in British custody in Belmarsh, he was a free man from that point on and could return to his home country of Australia.

Assange heard the final verdict and cried. He was guilty of “committing journalism”, of doing what journalists in thousands of media outlets do every day.

He cried because he was finally a free man, because he would be reunited in a few hours with his wife Stella and his children, because from then on the seconds and hours would have the fresh smell of trees and the normal noises of a city or a town. He would start to come back to himself to recover and think and speak to an audience thirsty for his statements, including the millions who have supported him over the years, but also those others who do not forgive him for having exposed the faces of many executioners. Not to mention those colleagues who either persecuted him or kept silent or left him alone in his struggle and subsequent tragedy, or who eventually understood that those 12 years of ostracism were not a game and had gagged his freedom.

This freedom began to be threatened after WikiLeaks published a leaked video of a US helicopter showing an airstrike in which civilians were killed in Baghdad, including two members of the Reuters news agency, in early April 2010. That video, which today is known as “Collateral murder”, generated a relentless persecution against WikiLeaks, mainly against Julian Assange, especially when months later, in July 2010, the portal published more than 91,000 documents, mostly secret US military reports on the war in Afghanistan. These are just two of the stories uncovered by Wikileaks in the last 15 years.

Today Julian Assange is free because he pleaded guilty and although it was the right thing to do, a dark door for press freedom had been opened.

As Jennifer Robinson, an Australian human rights lawyer who represented Assange in the UK, explained, “The plea agreement has no impact on legal precedent. It is the prosecution itself which set the precedent that media professionals anywhere in the world can face prosecution by the U.S., under a law with no public interest defence, for the crime of journalism.”

And as Stella Assange said, “He [Julian Assange] was pleading guilty to committing journalism. This case criminalizes journalism, journalistic activity, standard journalist activity of news gathering and publishing.”

, an independent Colombian magazine.

* Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín: Director and Editor-in-Chief of The Prisma, was coordinator and organiser for Wikileaks in Colombia of the Wikileaks Latin American Tour, 2022.

**Article published in Revista Raya, an independent Colombian magazine.

(Translated by Rene Phelvin – Email: renephelvin@gmail.com) – Photos: Pixabay

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