Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
Last December, the High Court ruled that there was no legal barrier to extraditing Julian Assange to face espionage charges in the US. This week, Westminster Magistrates Court formally approved his extradition. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, will now give her final decision on the case. However, even if Patel gives his extradition the nod, Assange will still be permitted to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. Regardless of whether one supports or opposes Assange’s activism or his divisive personality, there are compelling arguments to reject his extradition.
The 2003 UK-US Extradition Treaty, a relic of the Blair era, is naturally balanced in the favour of the larger country. It is seems unthinkable that American officials would permit the UK to extradite someone for publishing British government or military documents because of it. Indeed, an ongoing high-profile case where the US continues to frustrate is Britain’s request to extradite US citizen Anne Sacoolas. Charged with causing death by dangerous driving of a nineteen-year-old near RAF Croughton, Sacoolas returned to Virginia in 2019 under diplomatic immunity and the UK’s attempts to bring her to justice have been blocked. Why should the British government allow US pressure to trample over its sovereignty without so much as a hint of compromise on the horizon?
Unlike the Sacoolas case, politically-based extraditions are expressly prohibited by Article 4 (1) of the 2003 treaty. It would be hard to deny that the files Assange was responsible for publishing via WikiLeaks are intensely political, ranging as they did from informing that a US helicopter fire killed civilians in Iraq to the unveiling of the Democratic National Committee’s bias against Bernie Sanders. These revelations have understandably prompted sharp criticism of elements of the American military and political apparatus.
It is perhaps for this reason that back in 2019 the US first demanded that Assange be extradited on a charge of computer misuse, which his lawyers naturally saw as a scheme to get him on American soil where he could be slapped with political charges. Indeed, the US later inserted 17 espionage charges. Yet under the conventions of international law, which the UK is so quick to take for granted, Assange’s case ought to have been dismissed outright.
The previous case for Assange to remain in the UK rested on the argument that he was at risk of suicide should he be extradited to an American prison. This was overturned when the US assured Assange he would be eligible to apply to serve any sentence in his country of birth, Australia. It was also promised he would not face the generally harsh regime referred to as “Special Administrative Measures”, which among other restrictions, can require attorney-client communications to be monitored.
It is also significant that US prosecutors are known for their tendency to threaten defendants with harsher sentences in the hope of striking a plea bargain they can pass off as a success for their firm. In reality, US authorities would be under no real pressure to stay true to these assurances once Assange was under their jurisdiction, and violating them would be characteristic.
Moreover, Assange’s spying charges seem weak in light of recent history. In 1971 The Washington Post and The New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers”, that revealed much about the US role in the ongoing Vietnam War. The publications were defended by the Supreme Court on the basis that one who reveals such sensitive information when contracted to not do so is a criminal, but someone who may publish the information is not. This precedent is vital to the protection of journalistic freedom and suggests that Assange would not be guilty.
To date, no journalists have been successfully prosecuted under the US Espionage Act for publishing facts judged to be in the public interest. If Assange’s case were to up-end these precedents, it would be dangerous for investigative journalism in America and across the world. This could even leave the door open for British journalists to be shipped across the Atlantic for alleged crimes against Washington, however shaky the evidence.
I am aware that much of Assange’s dedicated fan base consists of the classic anti-Western leftist set à la Corbyn and Chomsky. They are quick to jump on the side of virtually anyone with whom the US picks a fight, regardless of their grisly crimes. Many don’t take Assange’s WikiLeaks cache as evidence of corruption and mismanagement, but as yet more proof that the US- and by extension, the West as a whole- is irredeemably evil. Leading “progressives” including Naomi Wolf and Michael Moore have even smeared the two Swedish women who alleged sexual assault from Assange, as liars and US agents. One of the things I admire most about the US is its rich history of political liberty. I criticise its legal system not because I believe a strong America is bad for the world, but precisely the opposite.
The UK cannot prompt reforms to the US judicial system any more than we can change China or Russia. He also points out that the UK risks damaging relations with the US if it refuses to extradite Assange. While it is silly to deny that Washington is the senior partner in the UK-US relationship, even the closest of friendships need boundaries to remain healthy. If we are to draw our barriers somewhere, freedom of the press would be a good place to start.