RSF dispels common misconceptions in the case against Julian Assange

Ahead of “Day X”, the upcoming 20-21 February UK High Court hearing in the extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) examines 12 of the common misconceptions about the US government’s case against him.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange is a “traitor” who should be brought to trial in the United States.

Correction: Assange is not an American citizen, he has never lived in the US, and he does not have any significant ties to the US. He is an Australian citizen who was living and working in London when the US government opened its case against him. The charges against him are connected to WikiLeaks’ publication of materials in the public interest. Assange’s extradition would set a dangerous precedent that could put other publishers and journalists around the world at risk, regardless of citizenship. Worryingly, the US government has also stated that First Amendment protections will not apply to Assange as a non-citizen.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange is a whistleblower who leaked classified information.

Correction: Assange played a different role to that of whistleblower; he did not leak classified information himself, but he published information that was leaked to him. The leaker, former Army analyst Chelsea Manning, already served more than seven years in prison before President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence, stating it was “very disproportionate relative to what other leakers have received”. If extradited to the US, Assange would be the first publisher tried under the Espionage Act, which lacks a public interest defence, meaning anyone accused in this way cannot sufficiently defend themselves. He faces the possibility of a staggering 175-year prison sentence.

  • Misconception: If I don’t believe Julian Assange is a journalist, I can’t defend him.

Correction: Many different views are held about Assange’s status as a journalist, a publisher, or a journalistic source, but what matters most is why Assange has been targeted and the implications of his extradition and prosecution. RSF defends Assange because of his contributions to journalism, as WikiLeaks’ publication of the leaked classified documents informed extensive public interest reporting around the world. His prosecution would have alarming implications for the future of journalism and would represent an unprecedented blow to press freedom.

  • Misconception: If Julian Assange is convicted, it won’t have a wider impact.

Correction: Assange’s conviction would impact the future of journalism around the world and all of our right to know. He would be the first publisher tried under the US Espionage Act, which lacks a public interest defence and is in dire need of reform. His conviction would pave the way for similar prosecutions of others who publish stories based on leaked classified information, setting a dangerous precedent for journalism. This would put many media organisations and journalists at risk, and create a distinct chilling effect on public interest reporting. The ultimate impact would be on the public’s right to know.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange knowingly put people at risk.

Correction: Assange never knowingly put anyone at risk, and he proactively sought protection for anyone who might be harmed as the result of publication of the unredacted dataset in an unusual situation that was outside of his control. It was not WikiLeaks that initially published the unredacted dataset, and when Assange learned publication was forthcoming, he urged the US government to take action to protect anyone who might be harmed. WikiLeaks had worked in partnership with a coalition of professional media organisations - The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais - to treat the leaked information journalistically. The password was publicly disclosed by one of the media partners and other parties then gained access to and published the unredacted dataset. WikiLeaks later republished the dataset. The Department of Justice has never pursued anyone who published the dataset, apart from Assange. So far the US government has not presented evidence of any real harm caused to any person as the result of publication. 

  • Misconception: There is no urgency in the case against Julian Assange, which has been going on for a very long time.

Correction: The US government’s case against Assange has reached a more crucial point than ever before, and the possibility of his extradition is imminent. While the case started more than 13 years ago, following WikiLeaks’ publication of more than 250,000 leaked classified documents in 2010, the extradition proceedings are now reaching a conclusion in the UK courts. The 20-21 February UK High Court hearing represents the beginning of the end of these proceedings, as any grounds that are rejected by these judges cannot be further appealed in the UK. If all grounds are rejected, Assange’s extradition could quickly follow. His only further recourse would be to apply to the European Court of Human Rights.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange remains at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Correction: Assange has been held in a high-security prison for nearly five years. After spending nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had sought refuge from possible extradition to the US, Assange was forced out of the embassy in April 2019 and arrested on charges of breaching bail conditions in 2012, for which he then served a disproportionate sentence of 50 weeks at Belmarsh prison. He has remained in detention at Belmarsh prison ever since, held on remand pending the outcome of the extradition proceedings against him. Assange’s last application for bail was denied in January 2021.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange was protected during his years of refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy. 

Correction: Assange remained an active target of the US government and its proxies throughout his years at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. An investigative report first published in YahooNews exposed alarming discussions of CIA officials under the Trump administration proposing Assange’s possible kidnap or assassination. Assange and his visitors - including his legal team and journalists - were actively surveilled by a Spanish security firm that was contracted to provide security for the embassy. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Assange’s period at the Ecuadorian embassy constituted arbitrary detention, and the former UN Special Rapporteur for Torture found that Assange showed the symptoms of prolonged exposure to psychological torture. After nearly seven years, the embassy ultimately ousted Assange, allowing UK police to arrest him, and Ecuadorian government officials made allegations of absurd behaviours by Assange during his time in the embassy which fuelled intense media smears against him. Embassy officials also reportedly removed Assange’s razor several weeks prior, resulting in his unkempt appearance in the photos taken during his forced removal from the embassy and arrest, which remain in frequent media circulation as his last public photos.

  • Misconception: Julian Assange’s human rights have been respected.

Correction: Assange has faced extensive violations of his human rights in the US government’s case against him, in his surveillance at the Ecuadorian embassy, and in his treatment by the UK courts and prison system. In targeting Assange and no other publisher for the republication of the unredacted dataset in 2010 and pursuing him relentlessly for 13 years, the US government has singled him out for legal persecution. At the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange’s legally privileged conversations with his lawyers were surveilled, and journalists who visited him had their devices tampered with. At Belmarsh prison, for a lengthy period during the Covid 19 pandemic, Assange’s visitation rights were entirely suspended and he was at times confined fully to his cell due to Covid infections on his prison block. During his extradition proceedings, Assange was excessively strip-searched in an apparently punitive manner, and had legally privileged documents confiscated by prison officials. Despite requesting to appear in person in court for every hearing, Assange has not been permitted to do so since a bail hearing on 6 January 2021, only being allowed to join remotely from a video link in prison.

  • Misconception: President Obama or President Biden brought the extradition case against Julian Assange.

Correction: Although Assange remained at the Ecuadorian embassy in London during the Obama presidency, Obama did not actively pursue him. It was the Trump Department of Justice (DOJ) that filed the superseding indictment against Assange and began actively pursuing his extradition. When President Biden took office, his DOJ continued to pursue the appeal that had been started by the Trump DOJ following the first instance decision of the UK court to prevent Assange’s extradition on mental health grounds - a decision that was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

  • Misconception: The US government’s case against Julian Assange is about the 2016 US presidential election.

Correction: This legal case is linked only to WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of more than 250,000 leaked classified military and diplomatic documents, known as Cablegate, the Afghan War Diary, and the Iraq War Logs. The superseding indictment against Assange is on the basis of 18 counts - 17 under the Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - connected to publication of the leaked classified materials. It is not connected to any WikiLeaks activity that followed in 2016 or any other point. 

  • Misconception: There is an active case against Julian Assange in Sweden.

Correction: There is no open case against Assange in Sweden. The rape accusations made against him have been the subject of extensive examination and dispute, including by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, and Assange has denied the accusations. There were never any formal criminal charges, and the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s investigation into Assange was dropped in November 2019 due to a lack of evidence. The US government’s case against Assange, which is based on WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked classified materials, is entirely separate to the accusations made against him in Sweden.

55/ 180
Score : 66.59
23/ 180
Score : 77.51
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