The extradition hearing for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is due to start at Woolwich Crown Court In London on February 24. The trial is slated to include one week of legal arguments before being adjourned until May 18.
Why is Assange on Trial?
Assange is wanted in the United States to answer to 18 counts of criminal charges. According to the US Department of Justice, Assange was complicit with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to American national security and defense.
The indictment alleges that “Assange obtained from Manning and aided and abetted her in obtaining classified information with reason to believe that the information was to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation.”
It also alleges that he “received and attempted to receive classified information having reason to believe that such materials would be obtained, taken, made and disposed of by a person contrary to law and aided and abetted Manning in communicating classified documents.”
Reaction to Assange’s Potential Extradition to the United States
The subject of Assange’s extradition has elicited mixed reactions, with a number of politicians and activists putting pressure on the British government not to send him to the US. Among those who have petitioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson are Members of Australian Parliament and politicians from the British Labour Party
Cornell Law School describes extradition as the “removal of a person from a requested state to a requesting state for criminal prosecution or punishment.” In layman’s language it means surrendering or obtaining surrender of an offender from one legal jurisdiction to another.
The One-Sided US-UK Extradition Agreement
Extraditions are normally determined by treaties between countries. The one between the US and UK has always been considered by British politicians and legal experts as being one-sided. Firstly: because it allows the US to demand the extradition of offenders, even when the offenses are committed in the UK.
Secondly: there is no reciprocity on Washington’s part. A 2003 Act of British House of Commons abolished the need for evidence when extraditing offenders to most countries in the world. It also stopped government intervention in extradition cases. As a result, if any country—including the US—requests an extradition from the UK the only thing they need to do is to make an allegation and obtain a warrant of arrest .
While many countries have reciprocated the British extradition procedure, the US maintains that there must be evidence of the crime of which the extradition is being sought. This means that if the UK wants to extradite someone from the US it has to meet what US constitution’s fourth amendment describes as “information sufficient to warrant a prudent person’s belief that the wanted individual had committed a crime.”
This unfairness in the extradition treaty was the subject of debate in the British House of Common last week when Assange’s case was raised by Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn who is against the extradition of Assange asked Johnson whether the “the lopsided treaty means the US can request extradition in circumstances that Britain cannot.”
PM Johnson Agrees with Corbyn on UK’s Unfair Extradition Treaty with US
Johnson supported Corbyn’s remarks by saying, “to be frank I think you have a point in your characterization of our extradition arrangements with the United States and I do think there are elements of that relationship that are unbalanced and I certainly think that it is worth looking at.”
In pointing out the imbalance, Corbyn highlighted the case of Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American diplomat who fled back to the US under diplomatic immunity after killing a British boy in a road accident in August last year. Numerous plea by the British government for her to be returned to the UK have been rejected by President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Corbyn was using Sacoolas’ case to support his argument in Parliament on why Assange should not be extradited to the US.“Will the Prime Minister agree with the Parliamentary report that’s going to the Council of Europe that this extradition should be opposed and the rights of journalists and whistle-blowers upheld for the good of all of us?” Corbyn asked Johnson.
Although insisting that he couldn’t comment on individual cases, Johnson replied, that “it’s obvious that the rights of journalists and whistle-blowers should be upheld and this government will clearly continue to do that.” This was the biggest indication that his government is likely not to support the extradition of Assange to the US. Johnson previously served as editor of the Conservative newspaper The Spectator, and therefore knows what press freedom means and respects it.
Johnson is in a Strong Position to Refuse to Extradite Assange
Trump’s refusal to extradite Sacoolas back to UK offers Johnson good grounds to retaliate by refusing the extradition of Assange to the US. If this happens it wont be the first time UK will be refusing to extradite a suspect to the US .In 2012 the British Government refused to extradite Scottish systems administrator and hacker Gary MacKinnon to the US despite him having been accused by Washington of breaching ninety seven computers belonging to the US military and NASA.
Giving the reason for refusal, then British Home Secretary Theresa May said that “after careful consideration of all of the relevant material I have concluded that McKinnon ‘s extradition would give rise to such high risk of him ending his life.” According to May, McKinnon was seriously ill and his extradition would be a violation of his human rights.
Because of his recent clash with Trump over Huawei, perhaps Johnson might not want to heighten the tension any further by refusing to extradite Assange. The best thing for him to do in such a situation would be to facilitate the transfer of Assange to another country for asylum. The Wikileak’s founder legal team is reportedly already in talks with the French government over the matter.
“We will ask to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days, if not in the coming hours,” said Assange’s lawyer Eric Dupond, adding that “France is the homeland of human rights.”
As matters currently stand there is a possibility that the UK will refuse to extradite Assange to the US. The poor state of his health, the political pressure and the current lukewarm relations between US and UK in light of the Huawei clash are all likely to play a role in the final decision.