Fact Sheet Regarding the Situation of Julian Assange
1. The United States government has charged WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange with seventeen counts under the Espionage Act,1 and one charge of conspiracy to commit unauthorised access to a government computer, a violation of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Following the US PATRIOT Act, the CFAA charge is classed as a terrorism offence.
2. The US seeks his extradition from the UK. The matter is due to be heard the week of 24 February 2020. All major international human rights organisations, journalist unions and media outlets, are opposed to his prosecution and extradition to the US because the prosecution criminalises normal journalistic activity and because of the extraterritorial effect of the Espionage Act and CFAA charge as amended by the PATRIOT Act.2
3. If convicted, Mr Assange faces 175 years in prison; this is effectively a death sentence. The charges relate to Mr Assange carrying out regular journalistic activity that uncovered the disclosures of Chelsea Manning. These disclosures detailed war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the US government and their agents, including, the groundbreaking Collateral murder video, Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diaries, Cablegate, and the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Manuals, published in 2010 and 2011. None of these disclosures placed Australian interests or personnel at risk.3 In addition, none of these disclosures placed any US sources or national security at risk.4
4. Mr Assange was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge from 19 June 2012-11 April 2019, after seeking and gaining political asylum by the Ecuadorian government. He sought protection from US political persecution and attempts to imprison him over his work as the publisher of WikiLeaks. Mr Assange was granted asylum after the UK and Swedish governments refused to give an assurance that they would not extradite him to the US over WikiLeaks publications. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Mr Assange was being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorean embassy.5
5. After his arrest, two of his manuscripts, as well as his legal papers, medical records and electronic equipment was handed to US officials by Ecuadorean embassy staff. The seizure of his belongings violates laws that protect medical and legal confidentiality.6
6. Mr Assange is now being held in Belmarsh Prison after being sentenced to 50 weeks for a bail violation. His sentence formally ended on the 21 September 2019, however, he is still being held as a prisoner facing extradition.7 The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that the sentence was punitive and disproportionate given the nature of the offence and usual sentences.8 This sentence also did not take into account the fact he was granted asylum due to a well founded fear of persecution.
7. In Belmarsh, there are concerns about whether Mr Assange will be able to adequately prepare his defence, as the cases against him are extremely complex. Legally privileged documents must be posted to him delaying receipt by up to two weeks. To date he does not have access to a computer or the prison library.
8. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has stated that Mr Assange is a victim of psychological torture.9 Several medical reports outline mounting concerns about his ill-health due to prolonged arbitrary confinement.10 Mr Assange has been in the medical wing of the prison for a number of weeks.
9. Mr Assange has never been charged in Sweden. A ‘preliminary investigation’ into an alleged sexual offence was reopened for a third time in Sweden after Mr Assange’s arrest. This case was dropped twice previously after Mr Assange provided evidence and prosecutors did not think there was a case.11 At no time did either women accuse Mr Assange of non-consensual sex. Sweden has different laws regarding sexual offences. Mr Assange was accused of ripping a condom, which was tested and not found to contain his DNA.12 The Swedish authorities wanted to drop the arrest warrant for Assange as early as 2013; it was the UK government that improperly insisted it continue.13 In June, the district court declined to authorise Mr Assange’s extradition to Sweden.
10. There is a significant and grave risk of human rights violations should Mr Assange be transferred to US custody, particularly torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.14 The Trump administration has expressed pro-torture views, and promoted officials involved in the US war on terror torture program to positions of power. It is also certain that a fair trial will be impossible given that Mr Assange will be tried in the Eastern District Court of Virginia, and not a regular US court. The judge handling the case, Leonie Brinkema is known for hard-line stance on issues of national security and the use of secret evidence is allowed.15 A fair trial will be compromised given the highly politicised nature of the case, the threats by public officials against his person and the conduct of the US investigators.
11. Mr Assange is an Australian citizen. In 2018, the Hon Julie Bishop renewed Mr Assange’s passport. There is currently a deportation notice issued by the UK which is to deport Mr Assange back to Australia. If Mr Assange is not extradited to the US then the Australian government will be asked to accept him as a deportee. The Australian government has intervened in matters concerning Australian citizens abroad who face serious human rights abuses. Mr Assange is at serious risk of human rights abuses should he be extradited to the US, therefore urgent political representations are highly appropriate in this matter.
12. There is no doubt that Mr Assange is either a Publisher or a Journalist and he has been recognised as such internationally as well as by significant publishers and journalists in Australia, his home country. Mr Assange was awarded a Walkley award in 2011 by the Australian Walkley Foundation, and was conferred over seventeen awards for excellence in journalism and promoting human rights.16 Head of Investigations at the ABC, John Lyons also describes him as a journalist.17 Any attempt to compromise his status as such is driven by the legal strategy alone of the US. It is important that other publishers and journalists, as well as third party commentators, appreciate the significance to distinguish the reality of the work of Mr Assange versus the allegations and legal strategy of the US government. As such they need to be mindful of not being inadvertently complicit in any inappropriate claims.
13. The prosecutors in the US want to deny Mr Assange is a journalist, as this robs him of a vital defence under their First Amendment. If Mr Assange is instead made to look like a ‘hacker’, it delegitimises Mr Assange’s professionalism as a journalist and publisher, and contributes to the narrative that the leaks are therefore illegitimate. The effect of this, is a shift in focus away from the war crimes and other embarrassing materials WikiLeaks exposed. As a journalist and publisher, Mr Assange deserves to be recognised as a journalist and publisher, and hold full protections under first amendment rights in the US.18
2 Including, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, RSF, MEAA, IFJ.
18 John Lyons, Head of Investigations at the ABC, recently stated that “I don’t agree with all of the WikiLeaks style of journalism … but I think at the moment it’s about the American government and others trying to essentially nail him because he revealed information which didn’t jeopardise their security or lives, but in fact embarrassed them for what they were doing”