With WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange facing possible extradition to the United States, several human rights activists have come to his defense. They argue that punishing Assange would be a blow to journalism and free speech. At present, Assange is serving a 50-week prison term in London.
Assange set up WikiLeaks in 2006 with the aim of publishing sensitive state documents. Four years later in 2010, the website garnered international attention when it released footage of U.S. soldiers killing Iraqi civilians from a helicopter. The video did a lot of damage to the American war effort in the Middle East. The U.S. government accused Assange of violating the Espionage Act.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with 17 counts of espionage, including nine counts of disclosing national defense information, seven counts of obtaining such information, and one count of conspiring to receive the information. An additional charge of conspiracy to commit computer misuse has also been leveled against the 47-year-old Australian.
If found guilty of the charges, Assange could end up spending decades behind bars. “This is the evil of lawlessness in its purest form. With the indictment, the ‘leader of the free world’ dismisses the First Amendment (of the U.S. constitution — TASS) — hailed as a model of press freedom around the world — and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its borders, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world,” WikiLeaks said in a statement (TASS).
An attack on human rights?
Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, is preparing for an extradition fight. She believes that the case will have serious implications for free speech and might eventually be used as a precedent against other media organizations. In all probability, Assange’s defense will largely be dependent on his right to freedom of expression, as protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has said that the charge against Assange is a threat to press freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union calls Assange’s prosecution unconstitutional. Amnesty International has asked the UK to not extradite Assange to the U.S. Human Rights Watch sees the case as a dangerous precedent for news organizations.
The U.S., UK, and some European states had already agreed to go after the leakers of state secrets nearly a decade back. The countries arrived at the decision as they were disturbed by the possibility that organizations like WikiLeaks would gain access and publicize government or military information that might put them in a bad light.
“This is all about trying to recover state secrecy… The U.S. said we can’t do anything about the journalists, but we will go after the sources and the leakers vigorously… There’s a major campaign, people are being put away under the espionage act for potentially decades, and the United States is determined to make an example of these people,” Richard Aldrich, professor of international security at the University of Warwick, said to NBC News.
In the UK, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has stated that the British government must not extradite Assange just because he exposed the military atrocities that took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Backing Assange would come with serious political risks to Britain, since refusing to extradite him to the United States is guaranteed to put a strain on U.S.-UK relations.