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In Extradition Hearing, Julian Assange’s Legal Team Focuses On US Torture And War Crimes Exposed By WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s legal team spent the second morning of a major extradition hearing focusing a magistrate court judge’s attention on United States torture and war crimes that Assange helped to expose.

Defense attorney Mark Summers called Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights attorney who has represented prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to the witness stand. He was asked about human rights cases he pursued, which were bolstered by revelations in documents WikiLeaks published.

For example, Stafford Smith told Judge Vanessa Baraitser that U.S. State Department cables helped those impacted by U.S. drone killings in Pakistan. It contributed to “court findings that US drone strikes are criminal offenses and that criminal proceedings should be initiated against senior U.S. officials involved in such strikes.” [Here’s the full witness statement from Stafford Smith: PDF.]

A high court in Pakistan ruled “drone strikes carried out by the CIA and U.S. authorities were a ‘blatant violation of basic human rights’ including ‘a blatant breach of the absolute right to life’ and ‘a war crime,'” Stafford Smith declared in a statement to the court. Due to the decision, drone strikes that caused many “innocent deaths” stopped “very rapidly.” None were reported in 2019.

The defense had Stafford Smith testify in order to persuade the court that Assange “disclosed U.S. involvement in criminal activity.” Specifically, these were “public interest disclosures” of war crimes and torture. Some of the publications are currently the subject of a criminal investigation into the CIA that is before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In other words, the prosecution against Assange is retaliation for bringing increased scrutiny to U.S. actions throughout the world.

But James Lewis, the lawyer representing the Crown Prosecution Authority on behalf of the U.S. government, was irritated by the defense’s focus on documents that exposed torture and war crimes.

Lewis insisted the U.S. government only charged Assange with documents that revealed the names of informants, and none of the materials Stafford Smith was asked about mattered in the extradition case.

At one point, Stafford Smith contended Lewis was “wrong about the way in which cases are prosecuted” in the United States. An FBI expert or some other individual with a similar background would likely testify during a U.S. trial about terrorism or terrorist groups and how WikiLeaks publications helped them.

Stafford Smith highlighted the many times he has dealt with evidence of torture against Guantanamo prisoners being classified. It has been the U.S. position that revealing such information will endanger U.S. and coalition forces by fueling retaliatory terrorist attacks.

“You cannot tell the court how this case will be prosecuted,” Lewis said. “You’re making things up.”

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. government has sanctioned officials at the ICC for investigating allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan that were likely committed by the CIA, Afghan government forces, and the Taliban and its affiliates. This includes an investigation into the CIA rendition and torture program in the country.

This retaliation against ICC officials was brought up by Summers, and Stafford Smith maintained the Trump administration believes it can sanction anyone who is not an American national who assists in the investigation of torture and war crimes.

Stafford Smith suggested, given how WikiLeaks has supported human rights investigations through its publications, the U.S. government could target Summers and other attorneys with similar sanctions.

Ahmed Rabbani is a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who Stafford Smith represents. He shared evidence related to his rendition and torture that contributed to the ICC decision to investigate U.S. crimes.

“Rabbani remained in Kabul for seven months and was then moved to another prison (which reports indicate was a CIA black site) before being transferred” to the custody of U.S. forces, according to Stafford Smith.

According to Stafford Smith, U.S. government “attacks on journalists, leakers and those journalists who worked with them, has since the earliest days of Afghan conflict, appeared to have a strong chilling effect’ leading to ‘a dearth of individuals from inside government, willing to ‘go on record’ to evidence U.S. violations.”

“The power and value of the WikiLeaks disclosures about Iraq and Afghanistan can scarcely be understated, and are of ‘key importance’ to ‘evidence war crimes and human rights violations by the US and its allies.”

Stafford Smith added, “The cables similarly demonstrated U.S. interference with other rendition investigations in Spain and Poland.”

As the extradition hearing continues, more witnesses are expected to detail criminal activities committed by the U.S. government, which WikiLeaks exposed. It is all part of his defense’s effort to prove the case against Assange is politically motivated.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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