Some see him as a pitiful political prisoner and freedom fighter; others view him as a reckless maniac who put people in danger. Few are those who have no opinion of Julian Assange. Either way – it’s time for the founder of WikiLeaks to face the music as a British court determines what happens to him next.
U.S. officials seem anxious to get their hands on Assange, but that’s up to the Woolwich Crown Court, where proceedings got underway Feb. 24. At issue is whether Assange should be extradited to the United States from the United Kingdom over releasing a veritable trove of classified American documents. The WikiLeaks founder is facing 18 charges of conspiracy for masterminding an information dump with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning that included hundreds of thousands of top-secret cables and files regarding the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These papers went public a decade ago. Since that time, a number of those mentioned in the Wiki documents have disappeared. However, thus far, no hard evidence has been produced showing that these people were killed as a result of Assange’s actions.
Assange’s attorney Edward Fitzgerald QC argued that, if extradited, his client could be looking at a sentence of up to 175 years behind bars. Fitzgerald also said that the 48-year-old Australian is entitled to First Amendment protection and should be viewed as a journalist. Reuters reported that the defendant’s attorney based his defense on ideology and that the “extradition request was motivated by politics rather than any genuine crimes.” The political angle is an important distinction because U.K. law includes a clause that forbids extradition on political grounds.
Fitzgerald maintains that President Donald Trump is seeking to make an example of Assange. This comes after the recent dust-up in which he claimed that the president offered the Wiki founder a pardon if he denied Russian involvement in the email leak from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) prior to the 2016 election. Of course, Assange has repeatedly stressed that the DNC leak was not Russian generated. However, he has always refused to release the name or names of those directly responsible. The White House did not comment on this latest statement by Assange’s counsel.
The defense also insisted that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Assange because of his mental state and risk of suicide. Prosecutor James Lewis QC responded that the defense was engaging in “hyperbole.” There is concern that releasing Assange to the United States would be akin to signing his death warrant. The Guardian quoted John Shipton, Assange’s father, who said “[my] son would face what was effectively a ‘death sentence’ if sent to the U.S.”
For sure, Assange is no longer the vibrant, good-looking Aussie after almost seven years inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, followed by incarceration in Belmarsh prison in England. He appeared in court a shell of his former self, looking gaunt, bearded, and wearing a gray sweater and blazer – and this is just the beginning of a long and winding road of legal proceedings for Assange.
Both sides have until May 18 to make their case for and against extradition. It’s expected that it will be several months before presiding Judge Vanessa Baraitser renders her decision. Should she give the United States permission to take custody of Assange, another three-ring circus will likely take the stage in the Swamp.
Without a doubt, this is a sticky wicket for the president to maneuver around during an election year, as he’s both praised and assailed the WikiLeaks founder in the past. The political ramifications of how his administration deals with Assange could be troublesome as there are conservatives who believe that national security should take precedence over certain liberties. But others in the conservative camp call Assange a hero for making public government secrets that should not be hidden from its people. Ultimately, this very well could be one of those lose-lose situations for Trump.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.