A ‘Very Long Uphill Road’ for Assange

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Last week, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid gleefully signed the extradition request from the U.S. to hand over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The U.S. is seeking Assange’s extradition because it has charged him on 18 counts of having violated the Espionage Act of 1917. The final decision on the extradition request now rests with British courts. The first extradition hearing was scheduled for last Friday, but Assange’s poor health made it impossible for him to attend in person, and so he appeared remotely via video link. Assange has already spent seven years in a small room in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he had received asylum under then-President Rafael Correa. However, Ecuador’s current President Lenin Moreno decided to suspend his asylum and allowed British police to enter the embassy and arrest him last April.

All additional hearings have now been suspended until February of next year. Meanwhile, Assange remains in a maximum security prison in Belmarsh, where he is serving a 50-week sentence for having skipped bail. Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson responded to the court decision as follows.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: As we heard inside the court, this case is an outrageous affront to journalistic protections. This indictment will place a chilling impact and will affect journalists and publishers everywhere all over the world. by the U.S. seeking to extradite and prosecute a publisher outside of the U.S. who is not a U.S. citizen for having published truthful information about the United States: evidence of war crimes, human rights abuse, and corruption the world over.

GREG WILPERT: We’re now joined by John Pilger, who has been observing the Assange case very closely, and who was present at the extradition hearing last Friday. John is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, and his most recent film is called The Coming War in China. Thanks for joining us today, John.

JOHN PILGER: You’re welcome.

GREG WILPERT: So what was the hearing last Friday like? Did Assange have an opportunity to actually defend himself and to make his case? And what was the reaction from the U.S. lawyers and the judges there?

JOHN PILGER: No, he didn’t have an opportunity to defend himself. And that’s the first major issue here. He doesn’t even have a computer. He doesn’t have access to documents. He’s kept, a lot of the time, isolated, although he’s in a hospital ward. So, for instance, he questioned the prosecutor, lawyer appearing on behalf of the U.S. government, and said that there is one charge here that is unquestionably false. Even the U.S. admits that there was no hacking. You mentioned at the beginning, Greg, there were 18 charges of espionage. In fact, one of these charges is hacking. That doesn’t even relate to him. It shows how shambolic the whole thing is. As far as the espionage charges, none of those, none of those are crimes under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

So when he tried to defend himself on this one charge that doesn’t even apply to him, the judge, Emma Arbuthnot, virtually shut him up. And that was really the end of it. It was meant to be a brief hearing in which future dates for the case were agreed. But you got a real sense, a real flavor, of, if not a done deal, then a very, very long uphill road for Julian Assange and his lawyers.

GREG WILPERT: So why do you think Home Secretary Sajid Javid was so eager to extradite Assange? And given this eagerness, how likely do you think that these extradition hearings against Assange will be fair?

JOHN PILGER: It’s very difficult to know. I don’t think these initial extradition hearings will be fair at all, no, because the first–this one last Friday, for the reasons I’ve outlined, was not fair. He can’t–he’s not allowed to defend himself. He’s not given access to a computer so that he can–so that he can access the documents and files that he needs. I think where it will change is if the lower court, the magistrate’s court that is dealing with it now and will deal with it over the next almost nine, ten months, if they decide to extradite Julian Assange, his lawyers will appeal. And it will go up to the High Court. And if necessary, eventually, to the Supreme Court here in the UK. And I think it’s there in the High Court where he may well–I say ‘may’–get justice. That’s a cautiously optimistic view. But I think he’s he’s most likely to get it there. He certainly won’t get it the United States. There’s no indication of that.

GREG WILPERT: Actually, I’ve heard also that there was a similar case not too long ago in which the extradition hearings took almost three years. But eventually the Supreme Court did prevent the extradition from the UK to the U.S. But turning to another issue, Assange, just like yourself, is an Australian citizen. Has the Australian government done anything to protect Assange, as far as you know?

JOHN PILGER: No. It’s a very short answer to that, Greg. They’ve done absolutely nothing. And in fact, they’ve done the converse. It was Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 who decided that WikiLeaks had performed a criminal act, and the Australian Federal Police had pointed out to Prime Minister Gillard that there was no such crime. So they were eager to help convict Julian Assange of these concocted crimes, and have fully cooperated, I would say colluded, with the U.S. in seeing this case get to the stage it has now.

GREG WILPERT: Of course, one of the big issues–and we’ve actually done interviews with Daniel Ellsberg and others–is the topic of what effect this will have on freedom of the press. But in an article you wrote after Assange’s arrest, you suggested that another angle that people should pay attention to is to look at what other potential war criminals have done, such as Tony Blair, and that we should imagine his extradition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Talk about this comparison between Assange’s alleged crimes, and those of Tony Blair, for example.

GREG WILPERT: Well, where Julian Assange was on Friday, Friday morning, at the Westminster Court in Marylebone in London, is about a 20-minute cab drive to a very small part of London called Connaught square. And that’s where Tony Blair has a very palatial residence, where he lives on the basis of all his–the millions that he’s accumulated since he left 10 Downing Street. He advises various dictatorships and does other so-called consultancy work. But of course Blair is most remembered in this country and around the world for his collusion with George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq, it is now generally agreed by the scholarship, I think that at least a million people died as a direct result, and at least four million refugees fled that country as a result of that invasion.

So under the Nuremberg standard, that was–that would be regarded as a paramount crime. Blair has not been charged, and there’s no suggestion that Blair would be charged, and it’s very unlikely that he will be charged. So there is your comparison. Whereas Julian Assange is a journalist and publisher. He has committed no crime. He has published classified documents. And that’s an act protected, as I say, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And if he is convicted, then all his collaborators on the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Sydney Morning Herald, and numerous other newspapers and news organizations around the world will also be guilty. But most important, in the future it will–it sends a very clear message that if journalists do their job and tell their readers and viewers and listeners what governments do behind their backs in their name, if they do their job, then they’re very likely to be prosecuted in the same way.

It is probably the most–well, it is most certainly the most important case in my career as a journalist. It presents the most, the gravest threat to press freedom which I can remember.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, unfortunately we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to John Pilger, award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. Thanks again, John, for having joined us today.

JOHN PILGER: You’re welcome, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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