For Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, life has not been easy since his organization published leaked classified material in 2010. The Australian-born journalist has since been either on the run or holed up in embassies in an effort to avoid extradition to the United States. Yesterday, his situation improved considerably as a Swedish court ruled Assange cannot be detained in absentia for a criminal case on rape allegations dating back to 2010. He has rebuffed these charges as a ploy for Sweden to turn him over to the US.
Assange is presently detained in London on a one-year sentence for violating the conditions of his bail. A United Nations investigator, Nils Melzer, visited Assange alongside two doctors specialized in the evaluation of torture on prisoners. Based on their findings, Assange was declared unfit for a court appearance via video link.
“He shows all the signs that are typical for person who has prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma,” Melzer said.
In 2010, he willingly turned himself over to British police after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant. After two years of fighting extradition in London courts, a battle he ultimately lost, Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. He had remained there until April of this year when Ecuador revoked his asylum, after photos of Ecuadorian President Lenin Morena began circulating online connecting him with a corruption scandal.
With the ruling from the Swedish court, the British government now must decide whether or not to extradite Assange to the US. The American government has been keen to bring Assange to trial ever since the 2010 leaks. Those cables and documents – nearly 250,000 – were published wholly without redaction, exposing the names of not only US military personnel, but also foreign informants
From Assange’s point-of-view, these documents and even video footage displayed the hidden atrocities of war.
After Chelsea Manning, former U.S. Army soldier, covertly downloaded and saved the material from military databases, she first offered the material to The Washington Post and The New York Times. They declined to publish it, so she turned to Assange who readily made the information available.
Manning was ultimately tried and convicted on 17 of 22 charges pertaining to espionage and theft of government property. She served seven years in prison after former US President Barack Obama reduced her original 35-year sentence, but she’s now behind bars again for refusing to testify at a grand jury on Wikileaks.
In both cases, with Assange and Manning, and even with fellow leaker Edward Snowden, moral dilemmas underpin court hearings and extradition requests. The first amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting the right to freedom of speech and has historically been an incredibly strong shield protecting news publications and their sources. Even if they acted outside the law to bring this material to light, there’s the dividing question of whether or not they should be punished for revealing war crimes, corruption, and the like.
Under Obama, the Justice Department opted not to charge Assange, because they believed the legal basis wasn’t sufficient enough for court. There was also the differentiating factor between Snowden and Manning, people who’ve physically stolen classified information, and Assange who simply publishes it. Bringing the leakers to justice through US courts is much more palatable than indicting what many would consider to be a news publisher. The federal government often prefers to avoid attacking journalism companies due to the perception that it would be attacking the freedom of speech.
With Trump at the helm, things are different though. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the president’s first year in office. He’s made it clear that Assange will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Pompeo declared as CIA director.
Two weeks ago, federal prosecutors filed 18 charges against Assange for violating the Espionage Act. Should a trial take place, it will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications as have trials for journalists in the past.
Wikileaks was the focus of the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Convention server which revealed party favoritism for Hillary Clinton over her opponent, Bernie Sanders. The investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller only charged Assange with assisting Manning to crack a Department of Defense database, however.
Under this pretense, the US has even more ammunition to file an extradition request in London. The Swedish court’s ruling comes as Trump and Pompeo are in London visiting British leaders. Although the topic of extraditing Assange wasn’t originally on the agenda, given their shared enthusiasm for bring Assange to trial, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities to see them broach the subject.