UK: Open letter calling for the release of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange

UK: Open letter calling for the release of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange -

Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP
Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France
London
SW1H 9AJ

CC: Rt Hon Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

3 July 2020

Dear Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP,

On 8 June 2020, responding to a question in the House of Lords about the United Kingdom’s
stance regarding the protection of journalists and press freedoms, Minister of State Lord Ahmad
of Wimbledon said, “Media freedom is vital to open societies. Journalists must be able to
investigate and report without undue interference”.

We, the undersigned, agree with this statement and call on the UK government to uphold its
commitment to press freedom in its own country. At the time of Lord Ahmad’s remarks,
WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange had been imprisoned on remand in the high-security HMP
Belmarsh for more than a year as he faces extradition to the United States on charges of
publishing. We call on the UK government to release Mr Assange from prison immediately and
to block his extradition to the US.

The US government has indicted Mr Assange on 18 counts for obtaining, possessing, conspiring
to publish and for publishing classified information. The indictment contains 17 counts under the
Espionage Act of 1917 and one charge of conspiring (with a source) to violate the Computer
Fraud and Abuse Act, which uses Espionage Act language. This is the first ever use of such
charges for the publication of truthful information in the public interest, and it represents a
gravely dangerous attempt to criminalise journalist-source communications and the publication
by journalists of classified information, regardless of the newsworthiness of the information and
in complete disregard of the public’s right to know.

On 24 June 2020, the US Department of Justice issued a second superseding indictment against
Mr Assange, adding no new charges but expanding on the charge for conspiracy to commit
computer intrusion. This new indictment employs a selective and misleading narrative in an
attempt to portray Mr Assange’s actions as nefarious and conspiratorial rather than as
contributions to public interest reporting.

The charges against Mr Assange carry a potential maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
Sending Mr Assange to the US, where a conviction is a near certainty, is tantamount to a death
sentence.

This is an unprecedented escalation of an already disturbing assault on journalism in the US,
where President Donald Trump has referred to the news media as the “enemy of the people”.
Whereas previous presidents have prosecuted whistleblowers and other journalistic sources
under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information, the Trump Administration has taken
the further step of going after the publisher.

Mr Assange himself has been persecuted for publishing for nearly a decade. In 2012, with fears
of a US prosecution that later proved prescient, Mr Assange sought and was granted asylum from
the government of Ecuador, and he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Because the UK
declined to guarantee Mr Assange wouldn’t be extradited to the US, the United Nations’
Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Mr Assange’s detention was indeed arbitrary
and called on the UK to “immediately [allow] Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to walk free
from the Ecuadorian embassy in London”.

President Obama’s administration prosecuted US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning for
disclosing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks on the US’ wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, as well as State Department cables and files on inmates at the Guantanamo Bay
prison. But the administration, which had empanelled a Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks
as early as 2010, explicitly decided not to prosecute Mr Assange due to what it termed the “New
York Times problem.” As the Washington Post explained in November 2013, “If the Justice
Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other
news organizations and writers who published classified material, including The Washington
Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper”.

When President Trump came to power, then-Attorney General of the US Jeff Sessions
announced that prosecuting Assange would be a “priority”, despite the fact that no new evidence
or information had come to light in the case. In April 2017, in a startling speech against
WikiLeaks’ constitutional right to publish, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo declared WikiLeaks
a “non-state hostile intelligence service” and said, “Julian Assange has no First Amendment
privileges”.

On 11 April 2019, Ecuador illegally terminated Mr Assange’s diplomatic asylum in violation of
the Geneva Refugee Convention and invited the British police into their embassy, where he was
immediately arrested at the request of the US. Mr Assange served a staggering 50 weeks in
prison for a bail violation, but when that sentence ended in September 2019, he was not released.
Mr Assange continues to be detained at HMP Belmarsh, now solely at the behest of the US.
Even before the lockdown initiated by the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Assange has been held in
conditions approaching solitary confinement, confined to his cell more than 22 hours a day. Now
under containment measures, Mr Assange is even more isolated, and he hasn’t seen his own
children in several months. Furthermore, Mr Assange has been allowed extremely limited access
to his lawyers and documents, severely hampering his ability to participate in his own legal
defence. Following a visit to HMP Belmarsh accompanied by medical doctors in May 2019, UN
Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer determined that Mr Assange had endured
psychological torture.

Mr Assange’s extradition hearing, which commenced for one week in February 2020 and is
scheduled to continue for three more weeks, is set to resume in September. But the coronavirus,
which has reportedly already killed at least one fellow inmate at HMP Belmarsh and which
continues to spread through prisons at an alarming rate, puts the health and well-being of Mr
Assange, who suffers from a chronic lung condition that makes him especially vulnerable to
Covid-19, at serious risk.

The continued persecution of Mr Assange is contributing to a deterioration of press freedom in
the UK and is serving to tarnish the UK’s international image. Reporters Without Borders cited
the disproportionate sentencing of Mr Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaking bail, the Home
Office’s decision to greenlight the US extradition request, and Mr Assange’s continued detention
as factors in the UK’s decline in ranking to 35th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press
Freedom Index.

We call on the UK government to release Mr Assange without further delay and block his
extradition to the US – a measure that could save Mr Assange’s life and preserve the press
freedom that the UK has committed to championing globally.

Signed:
Nathan Fuller, Executive Director, Courage Foundation
Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Adil Soz, International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary – International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
Archie Law, Chair Sydney Peace Foundation
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Christine McKenzie, President, PEN Melbourne
Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN
Kjersti Løken Stavrum, President, PEN Norway
Lasantha De Silva, Freed Media Movement
Marcus Strom, President, MEAA Media, Australia
Mark Isaacs, President of PEN International Sydney
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ)
Mousa Rimawi, Director, MADA – the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms
Naomi Colvin, UK/Ireland Programme Director, Blueprint for Free Speech
Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Peter Tatchell, Peter Tatchell Foundation
Ralf Nestmeyer, Vice President, German PEN
Rev Tim Costello AO, Director of Ethical Voice
Robert Wood, Chair, PEN Perth
Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive Officer, Index on Censorship
Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19
Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch
William Horsley, Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists
Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa)
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)