Julian Assange faces up to 175 years in a US jail over espionage and hacking charges, as activists decry threats to future of press freedom.
A British judge will decide if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges for publishing secret US military documents.
The 49-year-old Australian is accused of illegally hacking into US government websites and leaking documents containing logs on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and diplomatic cables in 2010.
“I am expecting the worst,” MIT professor and prominent US foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky said.
“I hope I am wrong,” the 92-year-old activist added, calling Assange’s incarceration “unfair, unjust and criminal but power reigns”.
Julia Hall, an expert on counterterrorism, criminal justice, and human rights at Amnesty International,said “it was best not to speculate at this point”.
“So many things have changed over the course of the trial to date. We are ready for either outcome,” she said.
Assange, whose trial began in February last year and concluded in October, is currently being held at the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London.
The Australian citizen was arrested in April 2019 from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he was granted asylum in 2012, in order to avoid being arrested after Interpol issued an arrest warrant for him on rape allegations in Sweden, an investigation which was later dropped.
That same month, a grand jury in the US state of Virginia charged him with one count of computer hacking for allegedly assisting former US Marine Chelsea Manning in accessing the classified documents.
In May 2019, the WikiLeaks founder was indicted under the US Espionage Act of 1917 on 17 counts for soliciting, gathering and publishing US military and diplomatic documents in 2010, all provided by Manning.
The Australian is the first publisher to be charged under the act and could face up to a maximum of 175 years in prison.
Among the contents published by WikiLeaks was a 39-minute video of a US military Apache helicopter firing over and killing more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists.
Daniel Ellsberg, a widely celebrated American whistle-blower, said Assange’s release of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs were “comparable in importance” to the Pentagon Papers, a study on the US war in Vietnam which he leaked in 1971.
If extradited, the Wikileaks publisher is likely to appeal the decision, which could delay extradition proceedings for an indefinite period.
In case he is not, Assange is expected to remain in jail in the United Kingdom.
Rights groups fear if Assange is extradited to the US, he could face ill-treatment in a prison there.
Hall said her organisation’s research into maximum security or ordinary federal prisons in the US has revealed the use of Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), such as extreme isolation, which she said amounts to “torture”.
“When it comes to Assange, it is glaring the risk that he would be put into a maximum-security prison and subjected to SAMs,” the human rights lawyer said.
Assange has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as well as depression and other mental health-related issues, Hall said.
“If the decision comes to extradite Assange, we will come out very strongly against it as the UK will be going against its international obligations,” she said.
The United Nations Convention against Torture says “no State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.
Moreover, Hall claimed Assange’s right to a free trial in the US has already been “undermined”.
“Statements of political leaders at the very top [in the US] have already prosecuted him in public already. His presumption of innocence … in the United States, has already been woefully and profoundly undermined,” she said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” whose work must be “mitigated and managed”. He also accused Assange of being a “fraud”.
Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said if Assange is extradited, the ramifications for journalism and press freedom will be “severe and long-lasting”.
“We would see a distinct chilling effect on the publication of leaked information, which in turn impacts the public’s right to information,” Vincent said.
The previous US administration led by Barack Obama refused to persecute Assange, fearing it may leave US news outlets such as the New York Times vulnerable as well who, together with WikiLeaks, also published the leaked documents.
In December, the UK-based newspaper said charges against the WikiLeaks founder “undermine the foundations of democracy and press freedom in both countries”.
RSF’s Vincent said if the legal system fails to deliver justice, “it will be clear that a political solution is needed, as the targeting of Assange in itself is politically motivated”.
“There is a need for greater public pressure on the UK government not to extradite Assange, and on the US government to drop the charges against him. One means of accomplishing that could be a presidential pardon by President Donald Trump in his final days in office, or by [President-elect] Joe Biden following his inauguration,” she said.
Demands in the US that Trump, who now has fewer than three weeks in office, should pardon Assange have increased in recent months, with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a Republican, and US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard calling for it.