Assange published documents to show human rights abuses – lawyers

The first part of the extradition trial of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange ended last week after intense days of legal arguments and keeping Assange in a glass box in a British court, for all the world to see but not hear.

Assange’s legal team is trying to convince a British judge that his decision to release classified US documents about Guantánamo Bay and the actions of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing but political.

The War Diaries provided evidence that the US Government misled the public about activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and committed war crimes. The information was carried by major media outlets around the globe in public interest reporting.

He is fighting extradition charges to the US where he will face 18 charges of attempted hacking and breaching the Espionage Act for releasing the documents.

He can face up to 175 years in prison and has been kept in detention in a high-security prison in the UK, since September, serving a 50-week jail term.

He was arrested last September after being evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy, following a change of government, where he had sought refuge for more than seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape. The rape charges were dropped last year.

International NGO Reporters Without Borders, which is monitoring the extradition hearing, expressed concern at the “clear lack of evidence” from the US and also about Assange’s well being.

The prosecution, which is arguing on behalf of the US government, said Assange put sources at “serious and imminent risk” when he released the documents – some of which had disappeared. He also had damaged the country’s interests abroad and damaged the US defence and intelligence capabilities.

However, Assange’s defence team said he should be protected from extradition because the US-UK treaty ruled it out for political offences. He had published classified documents to highlight human rights abuses.

Wikileaks had partnered with international media organisations to redact the documents before their release – one of these had published the password separately, which gave access to the full text. Assange had attempted to mitigate any risk to sensitive sources by notifying the White House and State Department, urging them to take action to protect them.

“We were not surprised by the prosecution’s argument, which again confirmed the lack of evidence for the charges against Assange. This week’s hearing confirmed our belief that he has been targeted for his contributions to public interest reporting. We call again for the UK not to extradite Assange to the US, for the charges against him to be dropped, and for him to be released as a matter of urgent priority,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said.

The organisation also expressed concern about his wellbeing and that he highlighted several times that he could not communicate properly with his legal team because of his segregation in the glass box. “I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am watching Wimbledon,” he said on Wednesday.

His lawyers told presiding district judge Vanessa Baraitser that, after the first day of the extradition hearing, Assange was strip-searched twice, handcuffed 11 times, moved holding cells five times, and had his legally privileged documents confiscated on entering and exiting the prison.

She, however, said it was not within her jurisdiction. She also rejected a request for Assange to be seated next to his lawyers when the trial resumes in May.

“We remain extremely concerned for Assange’s treatment and wellbeing, as he was clearly not well this week and struggled to participate properly in his own hearing. The reports of mistreatment at Belmarsh prison are alarming, and we expect that to be addressed as a matter of urgent priority,” RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent said.

RSF also called for Assange to be allowed to sit next to his legal team and not held in a “glass cage like a violent criminal”.

This is not the first time that concerns have been expressed about Assange’s state of health. In a recent interview, Assange’s father John Shipton said he was extremely worried about his son’s health and that he would die in prison.

His health also alarmed UN rapporteur on Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer who said the journalist had been deliberately exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment while imprisoned. Assange is also listed as the only journalist held under arbitrary detention in Europe in the Council of Europe’s press freedom alerts.

Amnesty International also urged the US authorities to drop all charges against him. “The US government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange for having published disclosed documents that included possible war crimes committed by the US military is nothing short of a full scale assault on the right to freedom of expression”.

There was also harsh criticism for the secret recordings of Assange meeting with his legal team in the Ecuadorian embassy. It is believed that these recordings were then passed on to the US authorities.

Last month, the board of the Consortium for Independent Journalism awarded Assange the 2020 Gary Webb Freedom of the Press Award for courage in the face of an unprecedented attack on press freedom. The award is named after journalist Gary Webb who took his own life after the mainstream press vilified him for accurate reports about a CIA operation that flooded urban areas of the US with cocaine from Nicaragua.

Assange’s extradition hearing will continue again in May.

                           
                               
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