Stefan Simanowitz

How the US pursuit of Julian Assange is a distraction from impunity for war crimes

In 1791, in an attempt to stop the publication of the first part of Thomas Paine’s seminal work, The Rights of Man, the British government tried to buy up the copyright.

The publisher refused to sell.

The following year, after the second part of the work was published, the government tried a more direct tactic, charging Paine with seditious libel.

Outraged, Paine listed the things his book had done – exposing fraud, ending war and promoting universal peace – stating “if these things be libellous…let the name of libeller be engraven on my tomb.”

More than 200 years on, governments around the world still endeavour to suppress damning information and target those responsible for exposing it.

Today, the US government is attempting to overturn an earlier ruling blocking Julian Assange’s extradition. The appeal, scheduled to last two days, is expected to determine whether the High Court in London will accede to the US administration’s ongoing request that the Wikileaks founder be extradited to the US.

If sent back to America, Assange would stand trial on espionage charges and if convicted could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years. The American prosecutors claim he conspired with a whistleblower – army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning – to obtain classified information. They say the publication of this evidence put their assets at risk.

Assurances by the US authorities that they would not put Julian Assange in a maximum security prison or subject him to abusive Special Administrative Measures, including prolonged solitary confinement, have been discredited by their admission that they reserved the right to reverse those guarantees.

Recent bombshell reports that the CIA considered kidnapping or killing Assange while he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy have cast even more doubt on the reliability of US promises and further expose the political motivation behind this case. These revelations follow evidence produced in court – and not contested by the US government – that people allegedly working on its behalf had bugged the Ecuadorian embassy in London, followed Assange’s family and associates, and burgled the office of his lawyer.

The US government’s indictment poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. Much of the conduct it describes is conduct that journalists and publishers engage in on a daily basis. Were his extradition to be allowed it would set a precedent that would effectively criminalise common journalistic practices.

The potentially chilling effect on journalists and others who expose official wrongdoing by publishing information disclosed to them by credible sources would have a profound impact on the public’s right to know what our governments are up to.

Indeed, at a time when press freedom is under unrelenting assault around the world, the silencing of Julian Assange would be widely felt, impacting journalists either directly or indirectly by instilling the fear of prosecution.

By charging someone with espionage who has no non-disclosure obligation, is not a US citizen and is not in America, the US government is behaving as if they have jurisdiction all over the world to pursue any person who receives and publishes information of government wrongdoing.

The UK court has found that Julian Assange – who has been held in Belmarsh high security prison in London for more than 18 months – would be at risk of committing suicide if detained in poor conditions at US prisons because of his fragile mental health condition.

Today, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard called on US authorities to drop the charges against him and the UK authorities not to extradite him but release him immediately.

“It is a damning indictment that nearly 20 years on, virtually no one responsible for alleged US war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed such crimes is potentially facing a lifetime in jail,” she said.

“The US government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange makes it clear that this prosecution is a punitive measure, but the case involves concerns which go far beyond the fate of one man and put media freedom and freedom of expression in peril.”

Whistleblowers, publishers and journalists are of vital importance in holding governments to scrutiny and perpetrators of human rights violations to account. The charges against Assange should be urgently dropped and he should be released.

THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED BY AL JAZEERA