More than 130 prominent German politicians, artists and journalists have joined international organisations in their call to release Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and signed a petition, saying that his detention was a “serious violation” of basic human rights.
The petition is supported by Reporters Without Borders Germany, Amnesty International, Transparency International, the German Journalists’ Union (dju), the Whistleblower Network and the writers’ association PEN-Germany. It calls on the British Government to “release Julian Assange from prison immediately so that he can recover under specialist medical supervision and exercise his basic rights without hindrance”.
This petition comes less than 24 hours after European Federation of Journalists Secretary General Ricardo Gutiérrez highlighted in his report to European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova that Assange is listed as the only detained journalist in Europe.
— Ricardo Gutiérrez (@Molenews1) February 7, 2020
Assange, the publisher of Wikileaks, is at the Belmarsh high-security prison and is facing extradition to the US and criminal prosecution under the US Espionage Act. He has been charged for publishing the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries and US embassy cables, important documents that many journalists around the world used. The War Diaries provided evidence that the US Government misled the public about activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and committed war crimes.
He was arrested by the British police on 11 April 2019. Later that day, he was found guilty of breaching the UK Bail Act. The following month, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison in the UK. On the same day, the US government unsealed an indictment against Assange for alleged computer intrusion, related to a series of leaks provided by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. On 23 May, the US government further charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
His arrest is considered by jurists, politicians, journalists and academics to be an attack on press freedom and international law.
#UK ??The judicial instruments used agst #JulianAssange are a monstrous attack on press freedom. Unless journos wake up to this threat & focus on the grievous harm that his successful prosecution represents, the ability of any of us to report will be seriously damaged @TimDawsn pic.twitter.com/7YDQWygiNr
— IFJ (@IFJGlobal) February 7, 2020
UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer visited Assange in the UK prison and said that “in addition to physical ailments, Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”
In a letter sent to the UK government in October, Melzer wrote: “I found that the UK had contributed decisively to producing the observed medical symptoms, most notably through its participation, over the course of almost a decade, in Assange’s arbitrary confinement, his judicial persecution, as well as his sustained and unrestrained public mobbing, intimidation and defamation.
"Julian #Assange uncovered torture, has been tortured himself and could be tortured to death in the United States. And a case like that isn’t supposed to be part of my area of responsibility?" @NilsMelzer @UN via @RepublikMagazin https://t.co/2srOgwNOxu
— ECPMF (@ECPMF) February 5, 2020
Assange’s state of health further deteriorated and recently entered a downward spiral which may well put his life in danger. “The detention regime currently imposed on Assange appears to be unnecessary, disproportionate, and discriminatory and to perpetuate his exposure to psychological torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Melzer said
In November, Melzer recommended that Assange’s extradition to US is barred and that he was promptly released.
International NGOs have long been calling for a common start to be taken against Assange’s imprisonment.
“We believe that the arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution of Julian Assange set an extremely dangerous precedent for journalists, media actors and freedom of the press,” European Federation of Journalists General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said.
The EFJ also submitted an alert to the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists and other Media Actors to denounce the continued arbitrary detention and psychological torture of Assange.
— Ricardo Gutiérrez (@Molenews1) January 2, 2020
WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson expressed his concern about the gravity of the case when it emerged that foreign journalists had no protection under the First Amendment of the United States, which states “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, hence it can’t be used by Assange to defend himself should he be extradited to the US to face trial.
“We are seeing this incremental approach, a darkness flowing over journalism from that country, and it’s about time that journalists really united in resisting this”, he added.
WikiLeaks' Kristinn Hrafnsson: "We have now learned that the United States do not consider foreign nationals to have a first amendment protection…they have decided they have extra-territorial reach… This is extremely serious and of grave concern to all journalists" pic.twitter.com/Gk69G1wNsc
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 24, 2020
The General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet, described such a move as a “huge threat, one that could criminalise the critical work of investigative journalists and their ability to protect their sources. It is the latest unacceptable act from an administration determined to treat journalists as enemies of the people.”
The International Federation of Journalists also reiterated the concerns expressed in the “Speak Up for Assange” campaign, launched in December. “This case stands at the heart of the principle of free speech. If the US government can prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents, it may clear the way for governments to prosecute journalists anywhere, an alarming precedent for freedom of the press worldwide.”
The use of espionage charges against people publishing materials provided by whistleblowers “is a first and should alarm every journalist and publisher”. If governments use espionage laws against journalists and publishers, “they are deprived of their most important and traditional defense – of acting in the public interest – which does not apply under the Espionage Act.”