On 24 June, the US Department of Justice filed a new superseding indictment against Assange, broadening the “scope of the conspiracy” claimed in the hacking allegations against him. Assange had previously been indicted on 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA); the new superseding indictment did not add new charges, but expands the scope of the CFAA charge and changes the evidential basis of some of the other charges against him.
Such a move is highly unusual at this late stage in an extradition case, which had proceeded on the basis of the 18-count indictment issued by the US Department of Justice in May 2019. Assange’s US extradition hearing began in February 2020 at the Woolwich Crown Court in London; RSF monitored the first week of proceedings and expressed concern regarding the US government’s lack of evidence for its charges against Assange. RSF believes Assange has been targeted for his contributions to public interest reporting and that his prosecution has serious implications for journalism and press freedom internationally.
“The superseding indictment is the latest in a long series of moves by the US government to manipulate legal loopholes in their targeting of Julian Assange, to undermine his defence, and to divert public attention from the extremely serious press freedom implications of his case. This never-ending persecution simply has to stop. We call again for all charges against Mr Assange to be dropped and for him to be immediately released,” said RSF Director of International Campaigns Rebecca Vincent.
In an administrative hearing at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 29 June, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers expressed surprise over the timing of the superseding indictment, as well as the fact that the defence team had learned about it through the press. The indictment had not yet been sent to Assange’s lawyers or the court, and had not been formally entered into the UK proceedings.
The defence stated that they wanted the US extradition hearing to continue as planned; the full hearing is scheduled to resume from 7 September, when three weeks of evidence are expected to be heard. Assange’s next callover hearing is scheduled for 27 July.
Assange continues to be held at the high security Belmarsh prison, where he remains at risk of exposure to Covid-19 - a risk exacerbated by his underlying health concerns, adding urgency to the need for his immediate release. He has been unable to participate remotely in administrative court proceedings for several months, reportedly feeling unwell and having been advised by his doctors that it was unsafe for him to access the prison’s video conferencing facilities.
The UK and US are respectively ranked 33rd and 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.