From October 27 -28, the High Court in London will consider the US government’s appeal against the January decision opposing Assange’s extradition to the US, where he would face trial on 18 charges that could land him in a prison for the rest of his life — all for publishing information in the public interest. The US government will be allowed to appeal on five specific grounds, following the High Court’s decision to widen the scope of the appeal in a preliminary hearing on August 11, which now includes the US government’s attempts to discredit a key witness who testified on the state of Assange’s mental health, as well as other narrow, more technical grounds.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), welcomed the decision opposing extradition, but criticised the substance of the ruling, which was based only on mental health grounds. We share the serious concerns about Assange’s mental health, and for this reason have stated that his extradition to the US is a possible matter of life or death. However, the court failed to take a strong position in favor of journalism and press freedom, which we fear leaves the door open to future similar prosecutions against publishers, journalists and sources. We believe Assange has been targeted for his contributions to journalism, as Wikileaks’ publication of thousands of leaked classified documents - the basis of the US charges - informed extensive public interest reporting by media around the world, exposing war crimes and human rights violations.
We continue to call for the charges against Assange to be dropped, and for him to be immediately released and certainly not extradited to the US. Assange’s extradition and prosecution would have severe and long-lasting implications for journalism and press freedom around the world; the impact simply cannot be understated. RSF is the only NGO that has monitored the entire extradition proceedings to date, but it has not been easy, due to severe restrictions on observation imposed by the court. We were hoping to once again be present in court to monitor the historic extradition appeal hearing and analyse and report on proceedings. Shortly before publication - the morning of the hearing - we were still fighting for court access.
This is par for the course in a case in which, as I keep repeating, nothing is normal. During the first-instance proceedings - held for a week in Feb 2020 and a full four weeks in Sep 2020, with the decision given in a January 4 hearing - the district judge refused to recognise professional NGO observers as having any role different to the public.
It left us having to fight for very few spaces in the public gallery, which involved queuing for several hours each morning to even get into court, with a range of other ludicrous issues further impacting our ability to monitor — ranging from additional seats being held back for mysterious VIPs who never materialised, to a broken buzzing lighting fixture making it difficult to even hear proceedings.Even with COVID restrictions in place, I have been allowed into court in Malta to monitor proceedings connected to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and in Turkey to monitor the murder trial of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, without any access issues. It is only in the UK that I have faced such extensive and constantly evolving barriers to observation — an experience shared by my RSF colleagues from other offices.
These access issues, along with the UK’s continued detention of Assange in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London for no reason other than the fact that the US is pursuing its appeal, are only serving to tarnish the UK’s international reputation. If the UK government means what it says in its stated commitment to championing media freedom globally, it must lead by example, which it is failing spectacularly to do in this case.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle