Julian Assange’s extradition trial in London this fall revealed the lengths to which the US government was willing to go to secure the return of the WikiLeaks founder to America. It also threw light on a disturbing abuse of process in the English courts.
Assange was indicted in federal district court in Virginia in 2019 on 17 counts of violating the 1917 Espionage Act by “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense,” as well as for conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network. If the British court approves Assange’s extradition and he’s found guilty, he could be sentenced to as much as 175 years in a maximum-security prison under “Special Administrative Measures,” a particularly cruel version of solitary confinement.
Assange was indicted for spying, but Washington may have engaged in a bit of its own espionage in order to secure his extradition. In the month-long extradition trial, held in London’s Central Criminal Court, anonymous witnesses who had worked for a Spanish security firm testified that the firm, UC Global, bugged Assange when he was living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London—and that UC Global passed on the information it gathered to US intelligence.
UC Global had originally been hired by the Ecuadorean government simply to provide security for the Ecuadorean president’s daughters. But the mission changed, said the witnesses, after David Morales, owner of UC Global, traveled to Las Vegas and obtained a contract with a security company owned by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. According to the witnesses, Morales then became obsessed with monitoring and recording the lawyers who met with Assange, because, as Morales put it, “our American friends were requesting it.” The implication was that Adelson, a major Trump donor, was the cutout connecting UC Global to US intelligence through his own security company, which had close connections to US intelligence and security agencies.
Morales, who has been detained since last year and is on trial in Spain, frequently traveled to New York to deliver filmed material on Assange. Later, he asked his employees to set up a livestream connection from the embassy to an office in the United States. There were even plans to poison Assange, and Morales suggested the embassy door could be left open to kidnap him.
All this and much more was exposed by Gareth Peirce, Assange’s lawyer, and by Witness 1 and Witness 2, the former UC Global employees who decided to confess everything as long as their anonymity was maintained, because they fear retaliation from Morales and those associated with him.
The defense showed time and again how the WikiLeaks cables exposed crimes committed by the United States. Unfortunately, revealing government crimes may not be sufficient reason to escape sentencing under the Espionage Act. The act, which has never been used to put a journalist on trial until now, is considered by many legal scholars to raise troubling constitutional issues because it infringes on First Amendment rights to receive and publish information.
What has been put in question with the Assange case is not only his life but also the principles that characterize journalism, which is being likened to criminal activity. If this extradition attempt is successful, no one should feel safe in calling authority to account or in scrutinizing the actions of those who hide behind the veil of power, since the United States will feel empowered to extradite anyone in the world Washington views as an enemy.
Noam Chomsky, one of the numerous defense witnesses, said that “Julian Assange, in courageously upholding political beliefs that most of us profess to share, has performed an enormous service to all the people of the world who treasure the values of freedom and democracy.”
A Tainted Proceeding
During the four weeks of the extradition hearing, the prosecutor, James Lewis QC, and his team busied themselves with removing paragraphs from the testimony of Khaled El-Masri, a victim of the CIA’s rendition program (El-Masri, a German citizen, was kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia and secretly transported to a black site in Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured before the agency finally admitted its mistake and released him).
The WikiLeaks cables revealed not only revealed the torture of El-Masri but also the pressure Washington put on the German government to reject extradition of the CIA agents guilty of this act, as requested by the German courts. Unsurprisingly, El-Masri could not connect to the court via the Internet to offer his testimony, so part of it (with redaction) was read in court.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser seemed almost to have teamed up with prosecuting attorney Lewis to prevent German journalist John Goetz from giving his account of an allegation against Assange, one that is rooted in a dinner in a London restaurant. During that dinner, Assange allegedly said that he didn’t care about the fate of the informants on the WikiLeaks cables that were published without redaction—something many witnesses, including Goetz, who was present at the dinner, said is not true.
These “confessions” by Assange are found in the book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, and they were used by Lewis to depict Assange’s allegedly irresponsible and criminal attitude. Strangely, Leigh and Harding weren’t called to testify in court on this.
Judge Baraitser’s decisions have highlighted an abuse of process in the English courts. She denied bail release for Assange and didn’t even allow him to sit next to his lawyers in the well of the court. The US military’s court-martial of Chelsea Manning was more humane than this.
The judge also rejected the defense lawyer’s protest that Assange did not have enough time to respond to new US government accusations, which were introduced at the 11th hour. Baraitser allowed the prosecutors four hours to cross-examine, but the defense was allowed only 30 minutes per witness, and she dismissed its arguments routinely throughout the proceedings.
Baraitser’s decisions could arise from an institutional conflict of interest. An investigation by Declassified UK revealed that Baraitser’s boss is Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot, whose husband, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, a former Conservative defense minister, has extensive ties to the British intelligence and military community exposed by WikiLeaks. Her son Alexander Arbuthnot is also linked to an anti–data leak company created by the UK intelligence establishment and staffed by officials recruited from US intelligence agencies behind that country’s prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder. In addition, Declassified UK has also revealed that a key Assange prosecution witness is part of an “academic cluster” that has received millions of pounds from the UK and US militaries.
The world press, with few exceptions, has been absent from the hearing. This was not helped by Judge Baraitser’s suspension of access to 40 organizations, including Amnesty International, on the first day of the hearing.
The queen recently announced the appointment of Judge Emma Arbuthnot to the High Court, which takes effect on February 1, 2021. Baraitser’s decision is due on January 4, and whatever she decides will certainly be appealed—and Arbuthnot will hear those appeals.
Whatever the decision, Assange will be vindicated in the end, because he has the legal, procedural, and moral arguments on his side. But he is a lonely David fighting the Goliath of the US and UK intelligence and military establishments. And even if he wins his extradition fight, he could spend many years in Britain’s high-security Belmarsh prison. If so, it will be the only punishment the United States will be able to give him for crimes he never committed.