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New court ruling is no ‘victory’ for Julian Assange

Julian Assange's ordeal is far from over. Credit: Getty

May 20, 2024 - 3:30pm

Today’s UK High Court ruling on the Julian Assange case was a much-anticipated one. The two judges were called to decide on whether the WikiLeaks founder could mount a new appeal against his extradition to the US on charges of leaking military secrets under the Espionage Act. If Assange had lost his right to an appeal, he could have potentially been handed over immediately to the US authorities for deportation.

That scenario has, for now, been averted: the two British judges ruled in Assange’s favour, upholding his right to appeal against his extradition to the US.

For Assange’s supporters, this is obviously good news. There’s little doubt that, if extradited, he would almost certainly be sentenced to life imprisonment in extremely punitive conditions which would push his already critical physical and psychological conditions over the brink. “If he’s extradited, he will die,” his wife Stella has said.

Yet the ruling falls short of what Assange’s supporters have been demanding for years: his immediate and unconditional release.

It’s worth recalling that Assange has been held without trial in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison — and subjected to “prolonged psychological torture”, according to a UN report — for more than five years, despite being technically innocent before British law. Before that, he spent seven years in self-exile in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid being extradited to America, where he had good reason to believe he wouldn’t be given a fair trial — a fear subsequent events would prove justified.

Assange has now been subjected to relentless legal persecution by some of the world’s most powerful governments, primarily the US and UK, for 14 years. These state authorities, including their judicial branches, have had no qualms about disregarding fundamental principles of due process in their effort to crush Assange (including “proactive manipulation of evidence”).

The truth is that there is no plausible case against Assange. The Americans’ case rests on two main pillars. Firstly, that his work does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment because he didn’t limit himself to receiving and publishing classified documents but allegedly “went beyond that” by actively seeking classified information, as well as helping Chelsea Manning and others to hack into Government computers. The second is that Assange and WikiLeaks damaged national security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” for US sources and informants. Both claims, however, have been thoroughly refuted.

What Assange is being punished for is obvious to everyone: having exposed crimes committed at the highest level of the US state, including war crimes, civilian massacres, torture, illegal “renditions”, mass surveillance programmes, political scandals, pressure on foreign governments and widespread corruption. The US can’t let go that unpunished — not least to ensure that no other journalist dares to follow in his steps.

But the fact remains that the work Assange did at WikiLeaks was indistinguishable in any legally meaningful way from what traditional news organisations do — including actively seeking out confidential information of public interest. This is why Barack Obama and his justice departments ultimately decided not to bring charges under the Espionage Act against Assange. They understood that if they indicted him, they would also have to prosecute the New York Times, and other news organisations and writers who published classified material. They called it the “New York Times problem”.

The Biden administration also understands this. White House officials know that convicting a journalist would set a terrible precedent, especially in the run-up to the election. But at the same time, they can’t allow Assange to walk free — not yet at least. This is why keeping him in a never-ending legal limbo, with the active complicity of the British state, is the ideal solution from their perspective: it achieves the aim of punishing Assange while maintaining the pretence of the rule of law. Assange himself described this technique as “punishment as process”: subjecting enemies of the state to lengthy detentions without trial — almost 2,000 days in Assange’s case — only to be slapped with minor charges after years.

The latest ruling, which further kicks the can down the road — potentially for years — perfectly fits this modus operandi.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Hold on – what’s the evidence for this claim ?
“despite being technically innocent before British law.”
I wasn’t aware that he’d been charged with any UK crime or put on trial for one. Why is British law relevant ? The statement appears meaningless and irrelevant to the case.
I note however that Assange is a convicted criminal in Australia (pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking in 1996).
Also, “On 11 April 2019, Ecuador revoked his asylum, he was arrested for failing to appear in court, and carried out of the Embassy by members of the Met”.
Is that “technically innocent” ? Sounds like a cut and dried crime there in itself.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

On May 1, 2019 Julian Assange was sentenced to 50 months for skipping bail. He completed his sentence early and was then held pending extradition. So he is free and clear under British law, and is only being held because of the American charges.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Rebecca Joynes, convicted of sex with two of her 15-year-old pupils, is on bail, even though it was when she was bailed for sex with the first one that she seduced the second one and got pregnant by him. Yet Julian Assange, convicted of nothing in Britain (and of nothing more than hacking Australia), is still in Belmarsh, which is clearly killing him. That it should kill him would seem to be the purpose.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

That’s a misunderstanding of bail conditions. Bail is normally granted if there’s little perceived risk the accused may abscond or re-offend. In Joynes case, the further offence doesn’t disqualify the perceived risk. In Assange’s case, the risk of absconding is enormous, hence the respective rulings.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

He is half-dead.

Mike Rees
Mike Rees
1 month ago

He’s a bail jumper. He skipped before and the result was he was remanded into custody. Only has himself to blame.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Rees

Over the Swedish “rape” allegation, of which the less said, the better.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Rees

Julian Assange completed his sentence for skipping bail 4 years ago. The only reason he has been in prison for the last 4 years is because of the American extradition request. That he deserves no blame for. He’s innocent of the American charges.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

You can’t possibly know that he’s innocent until it’s been tested in court by a trial. None of us can.

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

You most certainly can know that is innocent. All you have to do is look at the charges alleged by the prosecution.
They allege that he received classified information and passed it to the NYT, Guardian etc for publication. Clearly, he did do that but (equally clearly) doing so is not illegal. If it were then the NYT, Guardian etc would also be in the dock. So the distinction that the prosecution now alleges is that he solicited that information whereas they merely sat in their offices, and had the story drop in their lap.
If that distinction were meaningful, then just about every story based on a leak ever would subject to prosecution. Since that is not the case, we can say that the prosecution case is tosh.
There is also the small matter of the US having been caught bugging legally privileged conversations between Assange and his legal team whilst he was in the Ecuadorian embassy. That alone makes it impossible to conclude that he could receive a fair trial.

Geoff W
Geoff W
1 month ago

A Trump White House would jump at any chance to try him.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Good lord! This article does sound to me as the epitome of the conspiracy theory. Who else is conspiring against him ( I’m making an educated guess here – it’s not them/they)? I’m surprised Mossad is not implicated somehow.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Can we all agree that governments must keep secrets? I hope so because we should all understand that otherwise we’ll be falling prey to all kind of foes. It goes without saying therefore that those who are in the leaking business must be deterred. Leakers are simply both arrogant and irresponsible.

Campbell P
Campbell P
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Is ‘UnHerd Reader’ yet another MI5 plant?