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‘A Massive Chill On Investigative Journalism’: First Hearing In Julian Assange’s Extradition Case

The first procedural hearing in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition case was held in the United Kingdom. It was very brief, and Assange appeared via video link from Belmarsh prison.

“I do not wish to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and protected many, many people,” Assange declared.

Essentially, those words indicated to the judge that Assange would fight his extradition to the United States and maintain his right to appeal whatever outcome occurs at the Westminster Magistrates Court.

Another procedural hearing will be held on May 30, where the U.S. government will have to “show cause” that there is ample evidence for extradition.

Presuming the court accepts the U.S. government’s evidence, fuller arguments will take place on June 12. Assange will likely have all the papers that make up the U.S. government’s “formal extradition request” by that date.

Jen Robinson, an attorney for Assange, said the hearing was part of a “process that started back in 2010, when the Obama administration opened the criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. The investigation has been pursued aggressively by the Trump administration ever since.”

“Despite what you heard from the prosecutor in the courtroom today, this case is not about hacking,” Robinson contended. “The case is about a journalist and a publisher, who had conversations with a source about accessing that material, encouraged that source to provide that material, and spoke to that source about how to protect their identity.”

“This is protected activity that journalists engage in all the time, and any prosecution and extradition of Mr. Assange for having done so, or alleged to have done so, will place a massive chill on investigative journalism the world over.”

Robinson reminded the press that Chelsea Manning, whose disclosures to WikiLeaks are at the center of this case, is in jail in the U.S., although her sentence was commuted.

Manning is “being held in contempt of court for refusing to give further testimony about WikiLeaks and is going to be held indefinitely until she gives that evidence in the context where the U.S. is seeking to perfect and potentially add to its extradition. No democratic nation ought to behave this way,” Robinson added.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, who took over the media organization in September 2018, suggested the conditions at the Belmarsh prison are “appalling” as a result of “austerity and cutbacks.”

Since Assange was arrested, Hrafnsson said, “He has spent 23 out of 24 hours a day in his cell, most of the time. That is what we call in general terms solitary confinement. That’s unacceptable, and that applies to most of the prisoners in that appalling facility.”

“It is unacceptable that a publisher is spending time in that prison,” Hrafnsson further declared.

Dozens of supporters, as well as several journalists, were not allowed into the hearing. It was initially scheduled for a larger room at the courthouse then moved to a room with only 10 seats in the public gallery.

Following the hearing, Hrafnsson went to the Ecuador embassy to retrieve the personal property of Assange and others who worked with him while he was living there for nearly seven years.

“They didn’t answer the door,” Hrafnsson told a group of supporters and a handful of press. “I could hear they were behind the door. They didn’t even open the door. It’s disgraceful.”

Hrafnsson called it a “theft” and mentioned he called the Metropolitan Police, who know their way around the embassy quite well because they were invited by the embassy to act on behalf of the Trump administration and drag him out on April 11.

Police spoke to the staff and informed Hrafnsson they would work with him to open up a channel so the property could be returned. But a list of items that the embassy had would likely be necessary to make this possible.

The type of property in the embassy includes family photos and computer equipment, but according to Hrafnsson, it is not limited to Assange’s property. Someone who was not identified was with him to retrieve their telephone and other “personal belongings.”

“We have no idea what kind of mess they are doing with [those] belongings,” Hrafnsson stated. “Because they have been smearing Julian Assange with all kinds of disgusting stories.”

There apparently was a contingent of yellow vests from France, who were there to support Assange.

Lauri Love, an activist and computer scientist who faced extradition to the U.S. for allegedly hacking into U.S. systems but won his case, was outside the court to support Assange.

“I’m here to support Julian and to oppose this extradition. It’s very concerning, this case. I don’t think it is a simple case of what is alleged,” Love said. “I think it’s a pretext to punish a person who has reported on a lot of things that the public needed to know,” like war crimes and the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

“WikiLeaks has made some very powerful enemies in the course of reporting the truth, and now those enemies want to exact their revenge and persecute him,” Love suggested.

The United States government made it fairly clear the case is not limited to some alleged computer crime. Ben Brandon, the prosecutor representing the U.S., told the court, “The charge relates to one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”

None of that would be relevant if the Trump administration was not shoehorning espionage allegations into a charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in order to survive a challenge from Assange’s attorneys in the UK courts.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."