IBA-HRI: Julian Assange extradition would threaten freedoms of expression and media

As the landmark trial of the founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange resumes, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) states that a potential extradition of Mr Assange from the United Kingdom to the United States would:
A. be in contravention of Article 4 (1) of the Extradition Treaty between the UK and US;
B.constitute a violation of freedom of expression;

C. set a dangerous precedent in the restriction of press freedom in the UK, US and in other countries;
D. potentially subject him to an unfair trial in the US; and
E. if convicted, see him receive a sentence of up to 175 years imprisonment.

In the context of reports stating it was Wikileaks’ publication of internal US military logs of the Afghanistan War that led to the International Criminal Court initiating an investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan – which the Trump administration has opposed – the current extradition trial appears politically motivated. Extradition on political grounds is expressly prohibited by the Extradition Treaty.

IBAHRI Director, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, commented: ‘We are concerned that this case is politically charged. We can have little confidence in the extremely polarised situation in the US at present and are concerned that there is a risk to justice in the case of Julian Assange. We hope that the English Court hearing his case is true to its commitment to the rule of law, human rights and justice, and delivers a fair outcome in this extradition hearing.’

Following a brief interruption due to a suspected COVID-19 case amongst his defence lawyers, Mr Assange’s trial restarted at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales in London, UK, on Monday 14 September 2020. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is presiding over the case, refused a request made the previous week by Mr Assange’s lawyers to postpone the trial until after the US presidential election following evidence given by Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, that President Trump is pursuing Mr Assange over the publication of classified military and diplomatic cables more than a decade ago, due to his war with the press and ‘considerable personal antipathy to President Obama and what he did in his two periods in office.’ In 2010, Donald Trump suggested there should be a ‘death penalty’ for the ‘disgraceful’ actions of WikiLeaks.

President Barack Obama did not pursue the extradition of Mr Assange and, in his final days as president, commuted the 35-year military prison sentence of the US army soldier Chelsea Manning who released approximately 700,000 military files and cables on the nature of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq to WikiLeaks at the age of 22. Ms Manning walked free after nearly seven years of confinement dating from arrest on 27 May 2010.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, commented: ‘The charges against Julian Assange relate to his publication of information of alleged US war crimes, making the material of interest to the general public. If Mr Assange is extradited, it will set a dangerous precedent endangering freedom of the press and expression in two countries boasting mature democratic systems. It will have a chilling effect on free expression by whistle-blowers and journalists disclosing to the public potentially grave human rights law violations. The UK and US must remember their obligations under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteeing an individual’s right to freedom of expression. Further, the First Amendment of the US Constitution itself upholds freedom of expression and freedom of the press.’

Julian Assange was originally detained in the UK following a request by Sweden to extradite him to investigate allegations of sexual assault. These charges were dropped in November 2019. In 2012, during the request for extradition from Sweden, Mr Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy explaining his fears that the US would take the opportunity to attempt to extradite him from Sweden and prosecute him. His fears have now been realised.

Nils Melzer, the United Nations-appointed Special Rapporteur on Torture and Inhuman Treatment, published a report in 2019, arguing that the mistreatment of Mr Assange over the last decade amounted to psychological torture. In March 2020 the IBAHRI released a statement expressing concern over the reported mistreatment of Mr Assange during his remand in Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh and during hearings before the Courts.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘The negative press campaign against Mr Assange, led by US officials, is extremely damaging and puts him at risk of an unfair trial. Should he be extradited and convicted he could face a life sentence without consideration of his fundamental right to freedom of expression. The UK is obligated under Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not to extradite an individual to a country where they could face persecution, ill-treatment or other violations of their human rights. The UK must fulfil its obligations under international law or risk damaging its reputation as a developed democracy.’

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