Decision Is Good News for Assange But Sets Grave Precedent for Other Journalists

In a stunning decision, a British judge has blocked the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, saying he would not be safe in a U.S. prison due to his deteriorated mental state. In 2019, Assange was indicted in the United States on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has already announced plans to appeal the ruling. Press freedom advocates have campaigned against Assange’s prosecution for years, arguing it would set a dangerous precedent for prosecuting journalists. The blocked extradition due to concern over prison safety rather than press freedom shows that “this is not the end of the road,” says Assange legal adviser Jennifer Robinson. “This is still a terrible precedent.” We also speak with Jameel Jaffer, founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who says that while the decision is a “very significant victory” for Assange, the judge has largely sided with the U.S. prosecution.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A British judge has blocked the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, where he would have faced up to 175 years in prison. In a stunning decision, Judge Vanessa Baraitser said Assange would not be safe in U.S. prisons due to the state of his mental health. Judge Vanessa Baraitser said, quote, “I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide. … I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” she said. The United States said it would appeal the ruling.

Supporters of Assange, including former British Ambassador Craig Murray, celebrated outside the London courthouse this morning.

CRAIG MURRAY: Today, we are swept away by our joy of the fact —

ASSANGE SUPPORTER: Free Assange!

CRAIG MURRAY: — the fact that Julian will shortly be with us. We have a judgment which I think makes an excuse to deliver justice, an excuse based on the appalling conditions in American prisons, an excuse based on the effect that would have on American mental health, and perhaps a sign — perhaps a sign that the authorities are not prepared to follow through the persecution and destruction of a man for political reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, also spoke shortly after the judge’s ruling.

STELLA MORRIS: I had hoped that today would be the day that Julian would come home. Today is not that day, but that day will come soon. As long as Julian has to endure suffering and isolation as an unconvicted prisoner in Belmarsh prison, and as long as our children continue to be bereft of their father’s love and affection, we cannot celebrate. We will celebrate the day he comes home.

Today is a victory for Julian. Today’s victory is the first step towards justice in this case. We are pleased that the court has recognized the seriousness and inhumanity of what he has endured and what he faces. But let’s not forget, the indictment in the U.S. has not been dropped. We are extremely concerned that the U.S. government has decided to appeal this decision. It continues to want to punish Julian and make him disappear into the deepest, darkest hole of the U.S. prison system for the rest of his life. That can never happen. We will never accept that journalism is a crime in this country or any other.

AMY GOODMAN: Stella Morris, Julian Assange’s partner, is the mother of two of his children.

In 2019, Julian Assange was indicted in the United States on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Press freedom advocates campaigned against his prosecution, saying it would set a dangerous precedent for prosecuting journalists.

Assange has been locked up at Belmarsh, one of Britain’s most high-security prisons since his arrest in April of 2019. He had spent the previous seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been granted political asylum.

In a statement, Amnesty International said, quote, “We welcome the fact that Julian Assange will not be sent to the USA, but this does not absolve the UK from having engaged in this politically-motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial,” they said.

We’re joined by two guests. Joining us from Sydney, Australia, is Jennifer Robinson, human rights attorney who’s been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. And here in New York, Jameel Jaffer is with us, founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Last year he submitted expert testimony to Judge Baraitser in the Assange extradition proceeding.

Jennifer, let’s go to you first in Australia. You’re usually inside the courtroom. Can you respond to this stunning decision of the judge?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, I attended remotely from Sydney. And it is a welcome decision in the sense that the judge recognized in her judgment that sending — that Julian should not be extradited to the United States, but on the narrow grounds that his extradition is oppressive, not for press freedom concerns, but because of the specific medical condition in his declining mental health and the specific prison conditions that he would face once returned to the United States, those being special administrative measures, which is effectively solitary confinement.

This is still very concerning, and free speech groups should still be concerned. We will be looking more closely at the judgment in the coming days. But she agreed with the U.S. prosecution in all other matters, including in respect of the free speech arguments that we had raised about the application of the First Amendment, the unprecedented nature of this case, and the fact that Julian wouldn’t get a fair trial once returned to the United States.

So, while we are obviously pleased with the outcome — I’m delighted for his partner — and this has been a very long, 10-year battle for us, the fact that she’s now decided not to extradite him is a positive one, but I think, for free speech groups, for journalists everywhere, this is not the end of the road. And it sets — I think it shows that this is still a terrible precedent.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. says they will appeal this. What does this mean? I mean, on the one hand, you have the possibility of him being freed this week, but could that appeal mean he remains in jail?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: We will be making a bail application on Wednesday morning. That was decided this morning. But, of course, the U.S. has two weeks to appeal. They’ve already indicated that they will appeal, and have indicated that they will likely oppose any bail application.

So, the right and correct position is that now that we have won this first battle, that he ought to be released on remand pending any appeal outcome. If the U.S. is granted permission to appeal — because they must apply for permission — this could be pushed off for several months, perhaps later in the year. And he’s already spent, as I said, almost over a decade under some form of confinement, almost two years in a high-security prison, because of this U.S. extradition request. And it’s really time that the United States puts an end to this. This is an extraordinary prosecution. It never should have been started in the first place. The Obama administration chose not to indict. This case needs to be put to a close, and Julian should be allowed to get on with his life.

AMY GOODMAN: And for those who aren’t familiar with what it is he released, can you explain this case and why he was inside the — in political exile inside in the Ecuadorian Embassy for so many years and then taken by police and put into this supermax Belmarsh prison?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: The indictment and the prosecution from the United States in this extradition case relates solely to publications back in 2010, 2011. This included the publication of the Afghan War logs, the Iraq War logs, of course the famous “Collateral Murder” video showing the murder of journalists in Iraq by U.S. soldiers, and the U.S. diplomatic cables. What we saw were evidence of war crimes, human rights abuse.

And what was really important about the extradition proceedings is that we had evidence from human rights lawyers from around the world about the importance of WikiLeaks’ disclosures in human rights accountability efforts, whether we talk about Guantánamo Bay, the Iraq War and so on.

So, this is what he was facing prosecution for, 175 years in prison for these important disclosures. And what’s troubling about today’s decision is that the judge has found that he could have been extradited had it not been for his medical condition. And that’s a terrifying precedent for journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, if you could respond — you filed expert testimony in his case — to this, again, stunning decision that was made by the judge in Britain this morning?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I do think that the decision is important and surprising, a very significant victory for Julian Assange. I think the press freedom implications are more complicated.

The judge — while ultimately holding that Assange can’t be extradited to the United States on the basis of his mental health and the conditions under which he would be held if he were extradited here, the judge largely endorses the U.S. prosecution theory. And that theory is based on an indictment that sweeps very, very broadly, that basically the indictment is an effort to hold Assange criminally responsible for acts that journalists engage in all the time. And it doesn’t matter whether Assange himself is properly characterized as a journalist. That may be an important debate, but legally it’s completely irrelevant. The important fact is that Assange has been indicted on the grounds that he engaged in activities like cultivating confidential sources, maintaining their confidentiality or maintaining the confidentiality of their identities, and publishing classified secrets. And, of course, those things, all of those things, are integral to national security journalism.

And the press freedom fear here is that the prosecution of Assange, and even the indictment itself, will deter journalism that is important and necessary and that should be regarded as protected by the First Amendment. And I think that this ruling is, again, a victory for Assange, but insofar as it’s an endorsement of the U.S.’s prosecution theory and of the underlying indictment, I think that that indictment is going to continue to cast a kind of shadow over investigative journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2014, I interviewed Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. He talked about the challenges whistleblowers face in U.S. courts.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It is not possible for a national security whistleblower now in the United States to have a fair trial. It’s not possible to have a fair trial because all the trials are held in Alexandria, Virginia, where the jury pool is comprised of the highest density of military and government employees in all of the United States. It’s not possible to have a fair trial, because the U.S. government has a precedent of applying state secret privilege to prevent the defense from using material that is classified in their favor. It’s not possible to have a fair trial, because as a defendant in a national security case, you are held under special administrative measures, which makes it very hard to look at any of the material in your case, to meet with your lawyers, to speak to people, etc. So, this is — it’s just simply not a fair system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had a political asylum in 2014. We may have among the most extensive global TV-radio broadcast interviews with Assange, a number of times inside the embassy, also, before that, when he was under house arrest. And you can go to democracynow.org for that.

But, Jameel, last week, you tweeted, “It’s crucial to understand that the case isn’t just incidentally about press freedom. The whole point of the case is to criminalize national security journalism.” So, let’s talk about that. In fact, if you were listening to the judge today, before the end — and I want to ask Jen Robinson about this — when she talked about his mental condition and what this could mean in U.S. prisons — a real indictment of U.S. prisons — it did sound like she was going in another direction on the issue of press freedom.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think that what you have to understand here that the Trump administration or the Department of Justice could have indicted Assange on much narrower grounds, and they did initially indict him on a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And that prosecution would have raised some press freedom concerns, too, but the press freedom concerns would have been much less significant than the ones that are raised by this Espionage Act indictment. So there was a decision made at some point to indict Assange on these broader grounds, even though narrower grounds might have been available. And the decision was made even though the Obama administration decided that there was no meaningful way to distinguish Assange’s activities from the activities of journalists and mainstream media organizations in the United States. So there was a very deliberate decision to go after Assange with these very broad claims claims, even though — these very broad charges, even though the Justice Department itself had concluded, under President Obama, that distinguishing Assange from journalists and mainstream news organizations was legally difficult, if not impossible.

And I think that the only way to explain that decision is to understand that the whole point of the prosecution, the whole point of the indictment, is to cast a shadow over investigative journalism, and national security journalism in particular. The point of this prosecution is not so much to go after Assange, because they could have done that on narrower grounds. The point of the prosecution is to criminalize national security journalism. I understand that that sounds extreme, but I really don’t think that there’s any other possible explanation for the decision to go after Assange in this particular way. The point is to get at the activities that journalists are engaged in all the time — again, protecting confidential sources, communicating with them confidentially, cultivating sources, publishing classified secrets. These are the pillars of investigative journalism, of national security journalism in particular. And those things are the target of the indictment.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Robinson, were you able to see him at Belmarsh?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: We haven’t been able to see Julian at Belmarsh since the beginning of the year, since the COVID restrictions were implemented. I think it’s really important to talk about the prison conditions he’s facing in the United Kingdom so far because of this U.S. extradition request. So, we were not able to visit him in person since March, since the outbreak of COVID. He hasn’t had social visits. It’s made our ability to prepare for this case incredibly difficult.

But the isolation that he has suffered already because of the prison conditions in the U.K. and because of the COVID pandemic — there’s been an outbreak of COVID on his prison block in recent weeks, which has meant that he’s effectively been 24/7 in his cell, not even allowed to leave in order to wash, because of the risk of contracting COVID. And we are very concerned about what would happen to him, given his ongoing medical conditions as a result of the many years in confinement, the complications that he would suffer as a result of that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jen, when Joe Biden was U.S. vice president, he likened WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to a “hi-tech terrorist.” That was the strongest criticism from the Obama administration. Reading a piece from The Guardian, it says, “Biden claimed that by leaking diplomatic cables Assange had put lives at risk and made it more difficult for the US to conduct its business around the world.” Is it conceivable that President Trump would pardon Julian Assange? And would that matter at this point, given that he will not be sent to the United States, at least at this point? The U.S. has appealed.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: It is still conceivable that — President Trump still has the power to pardon Julian Assange at this point. And, of course, while this is an important decision, this decision protects Julian from extradition from the United Kingdom; the indictment and the prosecution still remains afoot. This is an extraordinary prosecution. And I agree with everything that Jameel has had to say about the impact in the United States with respect to First Amendment protections, but it’s also concerning for journalists outside of the country, because, let’s not forget, the impact of this ruling is that she would have extradited him had it not been for his particular concerns around his mental health. So, this is actually still a very dangerous precedent and one that — the fact that we’ve won this first step doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the end of the road. There’s still going to be an appeal. And I think all British journalists and journalists outside of the United States need to be looking at this decision, as well, to see the fact that they could still potentially be extradited under this precedent. And that’s dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jameel Jaffer, I asked Jennifer Robinson to describe what it was that Julian Assange had released, among them a video that he called “Collateral” — that WikiLeaks called “Collateral [Murder],” which exposed a U.S. Apache helicopter opening fire on a group of Iraqi residents in New Baghdad, an area of Baghdad. They opened fire from the Apache helicopter, having gotten approval from back at the forward operating base. And in addition to killing the Iraqis on the ground, they killed two Reuters employees: an up-and-coming journalist, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a videographer, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, who was more than a driver. He often took Reuters journalists around when they were in Iraq. He was the father of four. It was a horrifying image. Reuters had, year after year, demanded from the U.S. government if they had video. And it was that video that WikiLeaks released, among, well, millions of other documents. But the significance of this, Jameel, and also —

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — how U.S. news organizations, like The New York Times, like The Washington Post, treated or backed, or didn’t back, Julian Assange, though they certainly used the information he released?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, there’s no doubt that that particular disclosure was hugely significant. And it’s not the only disclosure that WikiLeaks has made that I think has made sort of dramatic contributions to public understanding of government policy, and national security policy in particular.

But I think it’s important to think not only about the disclosures that WikiLeaks has made, but rather the disclosures that other news organizations have made over the past 20 years that would not have been possible, or would have been criminalized, if one accepts the theory that the U.S. government is asserting in this particular case, because if it — you know, if it were in fact the case that the publication of national security secrets was itself a violation of the Espionage Act and not constitutionally protected — which is the government’s theory here — then virtually everything we know about the conduct of the so-called war on terror, we wouldn’t know it. You know, we wouldn’t know about the CIA’s secret prisons but for disclosures of government insiders to The Washington Post, which The Washington Post then published in 2005. We wouldn’t know about the warrantless wiretapping program, which The New York Times disclosed. We wouldn’t know about the abuses of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, which The New Yorker and 60 Minutes disclosed. Like, all of that stuff was based on disclosures by government insiders to media organizations, which then published classified secrets.

And that is precisely the basis on which the government is prosecuting Assange. And I know that there are factual distinctions between the activities that Assange has engaged in, the activities that some New York Times journalists have engaged in. Those factual distinctions don’t ultimately matter to the indictment. The indictment, at the end of the day, charges Assange with publishing classified facts. And if you accept that publishing classified facts is not just a violation of the Espionage Act, but not constitutionally protected, then you are endangering not just the kinds of disclosures that WikiLeaks has undertaken, but the disclosures that other media organizations engage in literally every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jameel, I want to ask you about the push to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. During a news conference last year, President Trump suggested he would consider granting Edward Snowden a pardon.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There are many, many people — it seems to be a split decision, that many people think that he should be somehow treated differently, and other people think he did very bad things. And I’m going to take a very good look at it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump. Your final thoughts, Jameel?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think we should welcome a pardon of Snowden, whoever it comes from. I would have welcomed it had it come from President Obama, and I would welcome it if it came from President Trump. I think that Snowden has contributed a huge amount to public debate about government surveillance. There are all sorts of reforms to the law that can be traced to Snowden’s disclosures in particular. Snowden’s disclosures helped us understand the extent to which government officials had misled the public about the scope of the NSA’s activities. I think it would be entirely appropriate to pardon him. And I think that it’s — you know, it’s intolerable that whistleblowers, who report to the public gross abuses of civil liberties and human rights, pay this very high cost for those disclosures, while the people, the officials, who authorize those abuses are appointed to higher and higher posts. I think that’s intolerable. And for that reason, I would welcome a pardon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. And again, Edward Snowden just announced he just had a baby with his partner. They live in Moscow now. This is Democracy Now! I want to thank Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He is the director there. And I want to thank Jennifer Robinson, speaking to us from Sydney, Australia. She is an adviser to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Next up, as Georgia prepares for two Senate runoff elections on Tuesday, President Trump caught on tape threatening Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state. Stay with us.