It has been one year since the United States government, with the support of the governments of Ecuador, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, dramatically escalated their political prosecution against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
On April 11, 2019, Assange was expelled from the Ecuador embassy in the U.K. British police arrested him and charged him with violating bail conditions when he sought asylum in 2012, but the arrest was also connected to an indictment and extradition request filed by the U.S. government.
Video showed police carrying the body of a long-haired and bearded Assange, who was in clear distress. He begged the UK to resist President Donald Trump’s administration as officers loaded him into a van.
Assange was taken to Her Majesty’s Belmarsh Prison, where he served a 50-week sentence for the bail charge imposed against him. He remains in jail, despite his deteriorating health, the way it inhibits his ability to work with his legal team on his extradition case, and the reality that the global coronavirus pandemic threatens the lives of every incarcerated or jailed person.
Vaughan Smith, a friend who allowed Assange to live with him under house arrest in 2010, wrote on April 9 that Assange is “confined alone in a cell 23 and a half hours every day. He gets half an hour of exercise and that is in a yard crowded with other prisoners. With over 150 Belmarsh prison staff off work self-isolating, the prison is barely functioning.”
“We know of two COVID-19 deaths in Belmarsh so far, though the [Ministry] of Justice have admitted to only one death. Julian told me that there have been more and that the virus is ripping through the prison,” Smith added.
On March 25, British Magistrate Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied Assange bail, despite widespread calls for the release of detainees and prisoners to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Assange’s legal team asked Baraitser to postpone a three-week extradition hearing scheduled for May 18. Baraitser refused to move the date.
According to Smith, “[Assange] is convinced this is happening to disadvantage him legally. Unable to meet with his lawyers, he cannot prepare his defense properly.”
In 2017, Lenín Moreno was elected president of Ecuador. His government has advanced conservative policies that include establishing closer ties with the U.S. government, and following his election, a pressure campaign was waged against Assange in order to coerce him into leaving the embassy.
“Between March 2018 and April 2019,” as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer summarized, “The progressively severe harassment of Mr. Assange by the Ecuadorian authorities reportedly culminated in a situation marked by excessive regulation, restriction and surveillance of Mr. Assange’s communications, meetings with external visitors (including lawyers and medical doctors) and his private life; by various degrees of harassment by security guards and certain diplomatic staff; and by the public dissemination of distorted half-truths, defamations and deliberately debasing statements, including by the state leadership.”
In March 2019, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $4.2 billion financing deal to support the Ecuador government over the next three years. Authorities subsequently “suspended” Assange’s citizenship and ended his asylum, without much notice, on April 11.
U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who provided over a half million documents to WikiLeaks that exposed war crimes and diplomatic corruption, was subpoenaed that same month to testify before a grand jury empaneled by the Justice Department. She refused to testify and was held in contempt in a jail in Alexandria, Virginia.
Following his arrest, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment that charged him with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.” It involved an allegation that Assange tried to help Manning crack a password so she could search the military’s secret information networks anonymously.
Mathew Ingram at the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, “The fact that Assange wasn’t charged under the Espionage Act for receiving or publishing classified documents, some argue, means the indictment isn’t as much of a threat to journalism.”
However, as Ingram highlighted, an affidavit against Assange described the core of the government’s case. “Much of it, Gosztola argues, appears to be an attempt to criminalize a wide range of standard practices engaged in by investigative journalists.”
(Note: Shadowproof was one of the few media outlets to emphasize the computer crime charge included language from the Espionage Act, which was a major warning sign.)
Manning was released from jail on May 9, when the grand jury’s term elapsed. The government immediately reconvened the grand jury and subpoenaed Manning. Again, she refused to comply with the subpoena and faced worse punishment. A federal judge punished her with fines—$500 per day after 30 days and then $1000 per day after 60 days.
On May 23, Assange was charged with seventeen violations of the Espionage Act. It explicitly criminalized the publication of information and sought to impose U.S. secrecy law against a non-U.S. publisher.
Ben Wizner, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, reacted, “For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism and a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS reported on July 9 that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was spied on by a Spanish private defense and security firm called Undercover Global S.L., when he lived in the Ecuador embassy.
The report was based on “documents, video, and audio material” that was “used in an extortion attempt against Assange by several individuals.” In May, Spanish police arrested journalist José Martín Santos, who had a record of fraud, and a computer programmer for their alleged involvement in an “attempt to make €3 million from the sale of private material.”
Journalists for EL PAÍS found the spying on Assange’s legal defense meetings to be most significant. They were stunned by the fact that Assange held meetings in the women’s bathroom if he wanted to ensure privacy. And they took note of U.C. Global’s “feverish, obsessive vigilance” toward Assange (“the guest”), which became more intense after Moreno was elected.
The Justice Department subpoenaed Jeremy Hammond, who was months away from completing a federal prison sentence related to his role in the leak of files from a now-defunct private firm known as Stratfor, which WikiLeaks published in 2012. He joined Manning in resisting the grand jury and was held in contempt.
Further revelations on the espionage operation against Assange came in October, when EL PAÍS reported the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was apparently involved in compiling reports on journalists, attorneys, doctors, and any Russians or Americans, who visited Assange.
U.C. Global operated a security checkpoint. When visitors entered, they were instructed to “hand over their bags, computers, electronic devices, and cellphones.”
Employees of the company put together a report that could be shared with the CIA via a server in Jerez de la Frontera. Reports contained the date of the meeting, a copy of the visitor’s passport, the content of their conversation, and video from the meeting. (The FBI allegedly had access to files too.)
The company took apart and photographed cellphones. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, the co-founder of The Intercept, had photos taken of his cellphone as well as Russian visas in his passport, which he obtained to visit NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Greenwald told Shadowproof, “Affiliates of the U.S. government, including the CIA and FBI, were effectively spying on their own citizens, including me, through an elaborate fraud in which visitors to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London who visited Julian Assange were lied to, told they had to give their passport for identification purposes and their cellphone for security purposes when, in reality, those items were seized so they could be photographed and put on a server, which both the CIA and FBI could access.”
What EL PAÍS exposed constituted “an illegal and unconstitutional search” of his personal property by the U.S. government, Greenwald added.
The Swedish prosecution authority again re-opened a “preliminary investigation” into sexual allegations against Assange after he was expelled from the embassy in April. But by November the effort to revive the case a third time, without any new information, fell apart.
Assange was detained in conditions of solitary confinement until January 2020, when he was moved from the medical wing of Belmarsh to a wing with 40 other inmates because his legal team and inmates at the facility convinced the prison governor to transfer him.
A one-week extradition hearing in February offered a wider glimpse into the U.S. government’s political case against Assange. James Lewis, the Crown Prosecution Authority attorney tasked with securing extradition for the U.S. government, showed how frustrated he was by Manning’s resistance to the grand jury.
Lewis also made it clear that he does not think Assange should be protected by a U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty that provides some protection for those charged with political offenses.
Assange’s legal team outlined several details related to Trump’s politicization of the Justice Department, as well as U.C. Global’s espionage operation.
The hearing concluded with an episode that brought attention to the magistrate court judge’s contempt for Assange. His legal team asked the judge to allow him to leave a glass box at the back of the courtroom so he could hear proceedings and participate in his legal defense. Lewis informed the court the prosecution was “neutral” on the matter, yet Baraitser denied the request.
Days before much of the United State shut down to halt the spread of the coronavirus, the grand jury investigating WikiLeaks was dismissed. Manning was set free, yet ordered to pay a $256,000 fine. Hammond was transferred to complete his sentence.
Assange’s legal team have feared for his survival ever since he was confined at Belmarsh, but the coronavirus represents a new threat to his life.
More than 60 medical doctors have condemned the “torture and medical neglect of Assange” and urged the Australian government to intervene in order to protect the health of one of their citizens.
Over 1200 journalists from 98 countries have united to protest the “gross miscarriage of justice” that is unfolding.
Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who was targeted by the CIA-backed espionage operation, believes only public pressure will save Assange.
“What I have seen in this case is completely unacceptable, completely incompatible with freedom of the press in our democratic societies,” Maurizi declared.
Maurizi contends if the U.S. succeeds in putting Assange on trial, the “whole WikiLeaks team of journalists,” including Sarah Harrison, who helped Snowden get asylum in Russia, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, and Joseph Farrell, a WikiLeaks ambassador, will be next.