UK Court Gives Biden Chance to Dodge Assange Appeal by “Assuring” His Rights

On the 29th March 2024, Marjorie Cohn writes in truthout

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is closer than ever to being extradited to the United States for trial on 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion over WikiLeaks’s 2010-2011 revelation of evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. He faces 175 years in prison.

“This is a signal to all of you that if you expose the interests that are driving war they will come after you, they will put you in prison and they will try to kill you,” said Stella Assange, Julian’s wife, of his prosecution.

On March 26, the United Kingdom Divisional Court denied Assange the opportunity to make most of his appellate arguments. But the two-judge panel of Justice Jeremy Johnson and Dame Victoria Sharp left open the possibility that Assange could appeal on three grounds. They found that Assange “has a real prospect of success” on the following issues: If extradited to the U.S., he will be denied the right to freedom of expression, will suffer discrimination because he’s not a U.S. citizen and could be sentenced to death.

Rather than simply allowing Assange to argue the three issues on appeal, however, the panel gave the Biden administration an out. If the U.S. provides the court with “satisfactory assurances” that Assange won’t be denied any of these rights, his extradition to the U.S. can proceed without an appeals hearing.

Stella Assange called the decision “astounding,” adding, “The court’s recognized that Julian has been exposed to flagrant denial of his freedom of expression rights, that he is being discriminated against on the basis of his nationality and that he remains exposed to the death penalty.” 

At an earlier stage in this case, the U.S. gave the U.K. High Court “assurances” that Assange would be treated humanely if extradited. That caused the court to reverse the magistrate judge’s denial of extradition (which was based on the likelihood of suicide if Assange is held in harsh U.S. confinement). The High Court accepted those assurances at face value in spite of the U.S.’s history of reneging on similar assurances.

The current ruling, however, requires U.S. assurances to be “satisfactory” and the defense will have an opportunity to challenge them at a hearing.

“Mr. Assange will not, therefore, be extradited immediately,” the panel wrote, implying that if they had denied his appeal outright, the U.K. authorities would put him on a plane to the U.S. forthwith. They gave the U.S. three weeks to come forward with satisfactory assurances.

If the U.S. fails to provide any assurances, Assange will be granted a hearing on the three grounds. If the U.S. does give assurances, a hearing to decide whether they are satisfactory will occur on May 20.

“The Biden administration should not offer assurances. They should drop this shameful case that should never have been brought,” Stella Assange said.

These are the grounds the High Court will review if the U.S. fails to provide “satisfactory assurances”:

1. Extradition Would Violate Freedom of Expression Guaranteed by Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights 

Assange would argue at trial that his actions were protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “He contends that if he is given First Amendment rights, the prosecution will be stopped. The First Amendment is therefore of central importance to his defence,” the panel concluded.

The First Amendment provides “strong protection” to freedom of expression, similar to that provided by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the panel noted. Article 10 (1) of the convention says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Gordon Kromberg, assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Assange’s trial would be held, said the prosecution might argue at trial that “foreign nationals are not entitled to protections under the First Amendment,” the panel noted. In 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that Assange “has no First Amendment freedoms” because “he is not a U.S. citizen.”

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2020 case of Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International that “it is long settled as a matter of American constitutional law that foreign citizens outside United States territory do not possess rights under the US Constitution.”

The panel wrote that if Assange “is not permitted to rely on the First Amendment, then it is arguable that his extradition would be incompatible with article 10 of the Convention.”

But even if the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors give “significant assurances” that Assange’s First Amendment rights would be protected, that is no guarantee. Prosecutors are part of the executive branch, which cannot bind the judicial branch due to the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers.

“The ruling reveals that the High Court does not understand the American system of government,” Stephen Rohde, who practiced First Amendment law for almost 50 years and writes extensively about the Assange case, told Truthout. “It only has before it the executive branch of the U.S. government. Whatever ‘significant assurances’ the Department of Justice may give the High Court, they are not binding on the judicial branch.”

Moreover, Rohde said, “The High Court is obligated to uphold Assange’s rights to ‘freedom of expression’ under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects Assange even if the U.S. courts refuse to do so. The only way to do that is to deny extradition.”

2. The U.K. Extradition Act Forbids Discrimination Based on Nationality

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who would be tried in the U.S. if the Biden administration’s pursuit of extradition is successful.

Section 81(b) of the U.K. Extradition Act says that extradition is barred for an individual who “might be prejudiced at his trial or punished, detained or restricted in his personal liberty by reason of his … nationality.”

Due to the centrality of the First Amendment to Assange’s defense, the panel noted, “If he is not permitted to rely on the First Amendment because of his status as a foreign national, he will thereby be prejudiced (potentially very greatly prejudiced) by reason of his nationality.”

3. Extradition Is Barred by Inadequate Death Penalty Protection Required by the Extradition Act

Section 94 of the U.K. Extradition Act says, “The Secretary of State must not order a person’s extradition … if he could be, will be or has been sentenced to death for the offence” in the receiving state. That limitation does not apply if a written “assurance” that is “adequate” says “that a sentence of death- (a) will not be imposed, or (b) will not be carried out (if imposed).”

None of the charges that Assange is currently facing carry the death penalty. But if extradited to the U.S., he could be charged with aiding and abetting treason or espionage, both of which are capital offenses.

Ben Watson KC, secretary of state for the Home Department, admitted that:

a.) The facts alleged against [Assange] could sustain a charge of aiding or abetting treason, or espionage.

b.) If [Assange] is extradited, there is nothing to prevent a charge of aiding or abetting treason, or a charge of espionage, from being added to the indictment.

c.) The death penalty is available on conviction for aiding or abetting treason, or espionage.

d.) There are no arrangements in place to prevent the imposition of the death penalty.

e.) The existing assurance does not explicitly prevent the imposition of the death.

The panel noted that when former President Donald Trump was asked about WikiLeaks publishing the leaked documents, he said, “I think it was disgraceful…. I think there should be like a death penalty or something.” If Trump is reelected, he may seek to ensure that his Justice Department adds capital charges to the indictment.

In concluding that Assange could raise this issue on appeal subject to “significant assurances,” the panel cited “the potential, on the facts, for capital charges to be laid; the calls for the imposition of the death penalty by leading politicians and other public figures; the fact that the Treaty does not preclude extradition for death penalty charges, and the fact that the existing assurance does not explicitly cover the death penalty.”

Appeal Grounds Denied by Panel

Remaining grounds for appeal that Assange requested were denied by the panel. They include prosecution for a political offense, prosecution based on political opinion; violation of right to a fair trial; violation of right to life; and violation of right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In addition, since no publisher has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing government secrets, Assange could not have known it was a crime.

The panel also ruled that Assange could not introduce new evidence adduced after the magistrate judge’s ruling. This includes a Yahoo News report detailing the CIA’s plan to kidnap and kill Assange when he was living under a grant of asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

If the U.S. offers “significant assurances” and extradition is ordered, Assange could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights and raise these additional issues as well.

Meanwhile, there is a possibility that instead of filing “assurances,” the Biden administration will opt to avoid the political pitfalls of Assange’s extradition to the U.S. and offer a plea bargain to end the case.

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