THE PRESIDENTS of Venezuela and Argentina have demanded an end to the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently fighting extradition to the United States at the Old Bailey court in London.
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro signed an open letter, along with a group of over 167 former presidents, ministers, heads of state and parliamentarians, decrying Assange’s prosecution as violating ‘the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to know.’
The Australian-born journalist faces charges of espionage for having published vast troves of US military records and diplomatic cables ten years ago.
Among the group are Brazilian former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef and former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa.
The letter described the 17 Espionage Act charges against the Australian journalist as violating “’the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to know.’
‘The broad and vague nature of the allegations against Julian Assange, and of the offences listed in the indictment, are troubling as many of them concern activities at the core of investigative journalism in Europe and beyond,’ read the letter.
‘Extradition on the basis of the indictment would gravely endanger freedom of the press,’ it added.
The letter also said that Assange has been ‘denied time and facilities to prepare his defence in violation of the principle of equality of arms which is inherent to the presumption of innocence and the rule of law.’
It referred to findings by UN torture expert Nils Melzer, who said that Assange showed clear signs of psychological torture.
Brazil’s former leader, Lula, called for ‘the democrats of the planet Earth, including all journalists, all lawyers, all unionists and all politicians,’ to voice their support for Assange.
‘Assange should be perceived as a hero of democracy,’ Lula said in a statement. ‘He does not deserve to be punished. I hope the people of the UK, the people of France, the people of the United States will not allow this atrocity.’
Australian lawmaker Andrew Wilkie, who has also signed the letter, said ‘Assange is being politically persecuted for publishing information that was in the public interest, including hard evidence of US war crimes.
‘That the perpetrator of those war crimes, America, is now seeking to extradite Mr Assange is unjust in the extreme and arguably illegal under British law,’ he said.
If extradited, he warned, Assange would face 175 years in prison, and that ‘the precedent would be set for all Australians, and particularly journalists, that they are at risk of being extradited to any country they offend.’
Assange’s legal challenge in the UK started a decade ago, when he began fighting an attempt to extradite him to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. Those charges, however, were later dropped.
After a break in proceedings following a coronavirus scare, the extradition hearing of the WikiLeaks founder resumed last week.
In June 2012, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to the US, where he could face years in prison for publishing the classified information.
After living for seven years at the embassy premises, he saw Ecuador revoke his asylum in April 2019. UK police were then allowed in and dragged him out of the building.
He served a short British prison sentence for violating bail terms. He remains imprisoned pending the outcome of the US’s extradition request.
An extradition hearing took place in February and was due to resume in May, but was delayed due to the pandemic.
The hearing resumed earlier this month at the Old Bailey court in London, where Assange’s legal team and an attorney for the US government faced off. The hearing is due to run until early October.
- On 18 September 2020, the National Union of Journalists issued the following press release by Tim Dawson, under the headline: WikiLeaks as important as the Pentagon Papers.
‘On 3rd May 1972, Daniel Ellsberg spoke at a peace rally in Washington DC. It was a year since he had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post revealing that successive Presidents had lied about US involvement in Vietnam.
‘What Ellsberg – who was played by Matthew Rhys in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post – didn’t know, as he stepped up to the microphone on the steps of the Capitol Building, was the the crowd had been infiltrated by CIA “assets”.
‘Their instructions were to “break both his legs”, or even kill him. President Nixon had personally acquiesced to the planned assault during a meeting with Henry Kissinger.
‘The attack, however, was aborted as the speakers took to the rostrum. It was not, though, to be the last of the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks to “get” the former Marine, whose whistleblowing did much to bring the Vietnam war to an end.
‘At the time of the speech, he was already facing charges under the Espionage Act with a 115 years jail term.
‘When his trial started in January 1973 he was forbidden from explaining his motivations for leaking to the court – despite having revealed for the first time the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia and the gravest lies by a succession of Presidents.
‘And one of Nixon’s senior staff members had secretly offered trial judge Matthew Byrne the top job in the FBI if Ellsberg was convicted.
‘By chance, his trial ran concurrently with the Senate Watergate Committee.
‘Day by day, the hearings in Washington brought the various conspiracies against Ellsberg to light. Eventually Judge Byrne felt he had to intervene. “The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case” he ruled.
‘Ellsberg was acquitted “with prejudice” meaning that he could never be tried for those offences again.
‘It is easy to see why Ellsberg, now 89, sees parallels between his own case and that of Julian Assange.
‘ “WikiLeaks provided the first unauthorised disclosure of such magnitude for 40 years”, he believes. “I observe the closest of similarities to the position I faced. The (US government) intended to crush (me) in part in revenge for my act of exposing them but in part to crush all such future exposure of the truth.”
‘In his evidence to the WikiLeaks founder’s ongoing extradition hearing, Ellsberg said: “I have followed closely the impact of (WikiLeaks revelations) and consider them to be amongst the most important, truthful revelations of hidden criminal state behaviour that have been made public in US history.
‘ “I view the WikiLeaks publications of 2010 and 2011 to be of comparable importance (to the Pentagon Papers).”
‘Ellsberg worked with Assange at the height of the WikiLeaks. They met several times and Ellsberg held one of the encrypted backup copies of leaked US military files on behalf of WikiLeaks.
‘ “I have also spoken to (Assange) privately over many hours. During 2010 and 2011, at a time when some of the published material had not yet seen the light of day, I was able to observe (Julian’s) approach. It was the exact opposite of reckless publication and nor would he wilfully expose others to harm.
‘ “WikiLeaks could have published the entirety of the material on receipt. Instead I was able to observe but also to discuss with him the unprecedented steps he initiated, of engaging with conventional media partners, (to maximise) the impact of publication (so) it might (best) affect US government policy and its alteration.”
‘Cross-examined for the US government by James Lewis QC, it was put to him that there was a critical difference between himself and Assange. Ellsberg had purposefully kept secret four of the 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers because he did not wish to jeopardise efforts for a negotiated peace in Vietnam.
‘Ellsberg dismissed out of hand the frequently made assertion that “the Pentagon Papers were good and WikiLeaks bad”, robustly stating his view that the government’s behaviour was the same in both cases. If anything, Assange took a more sophisticated approach to redaction than he had been able to, he says.
‘ “For years I was vilified in many quarters”, he told the court. “Only since the WikiLeaks revelations have I been praised as some kind of foil to Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.”
‘He says, however, that Assange uncovered a dark change in US military behaviour.
‘ “The most shocking aspect of the Wikileaks’ revelations is that corruption, torture and assassination have become so common that they are not even classified top secret.
‘ “When I was an officer in the field, or when I was compiling the Pentagon Papers, incidents of this kind would have been given the highest possible classification.
‘ “Today, they have become so normalised that they are in files to which literally thousands of people have access.”
‘Ellsberg has always maintained that his actions were those of a patriot. “The oath of office that I took was to defend the constitution of the United States”, he says, making clear that he considers his actions to be true to that commitment.
‘Nonetheless, he still feels a weight of responsibility for not acting earlier, he says: “I have long regretted not releasing the documents in August 1964, and it is a heavy burden for me to bear. Had I done so that terrible war might well have been averted altogether.”
‘His whistleblowing did presage a change of direction in US policy, but not before nearly 400,000 military personnel and as many as four million civilians had been killed.
‘WikiLeaks Afghan and Iraq revelations came far more quickly after those conflicts and, according to other expert witnesses to the hearing. They caused a similar sea change in public perceptions of those wars.
‘Ellsberg suggests that the Afghan War Logs exposed the “Vietnamistan” of that conflict in which a military stalemate led to the civilian population no longer been recognised as human beings, resulting in crimes against humanity and mass killings of the worst kind.
‘Today Ellsberg lives in northern California with his second wife Patricia Marx. His devotion to working for a better world is undimmed.
‘Three years ago he published his third book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner, about his working life before the Pentagon Papers. He remains a director of the Free Press Foundation, of which he is co-founder, and retains academic affiliations with two universities.
‘He also remains in no doubt that he and Assange are brothers in arms. “The prosecution he faces (is) clearly focused, fairly and squarely, at the centre of political movements of which I regard myself as part and which much of my life have spent committed to pursuing”.’