The ruling by the High Court in London that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently in a British prison, can be extradited to the U.S., where he is facing charges under the Espionage Act, is a blow to all those who believe in press freedom.
A lower court had earlier this year rejected the U.S. request for extradition, citing his mental health. His lawyers and doctors had argued that he might be driven to suicide by American jail conditions. But the High Court, after receiving some assurances from the U.S. authorities that Mr. Assange would not be held in restrictive prison conditions (based on his conduct), decided to allow the extradition. The U.S. accuses him of conspiring to hack into defence databases to get sensitive unclassified information. The leaks, the U.S. says, put lives at risk.
If convicted, Mr. Assange, 50, could face up to 175 years in jail. His legal team will now appeal and the legal process could drag on for years. But these cases have already put him in one or the other form of confinement for years. He took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 while facing a probe on accusations of sexual assault in Sweden, which were later dropped. In 2019, after his arrest from the Embassy, he was jailed for 50 weeks in the U.K. for breaching his bail conditions. He is now in London’s Belmarsh prison.
The documents WikiLeaks released on the Iraq and Afghan wars, which were published by almost all media houses, exposed official crimes and cover-ups. Any responsible, democratic government should have taken action against those who committed those crimes. Instead, the U.S. government went after the publisher.
The Trump administration unsealed the indictment against Mr. Assange for violating the Espionage Act, a First World War-era law, after his 2019 arrest. The U.S. government argued that he was not a journalist. But beyond the definition of journalism, what the U.S. tried to do was to use a controversial law to punish someone who published unpleasant truths about powerful entities. If he is extradited and convicted, it would set a bad precedent for press freedom and investigative journalism, raising questions about the protection the First Amendment offers to the press.
It is ironic that the administration of President Joseph Biden, who convened a global “Summit for Democracy” last week and emphasised the role of free press, is following Mr. Trump’s policies in pursuing Mr. Assange. If the U.S. and the U.K., among the world’s oldest democracies, are serious about their proclaimed commitment to press freedom, they should take steps to set Mr. Assange free. The ordeal the “free world” has put this man in for exposing abuses of power has taken away years from his life and affected his health. This should not go on forever.
WikiLeaks / The Hindu