The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) welcomes today’s decision not to extradite Julian Assange to the United States of America. District Judge (DJ) Vanessa Baraitser accepted that Assange is depressed and at risk of suicide. She was satisfied that if extradited, Assange could be held in strict isolation, which would pose a major threat to his mental health. Therefore, DJ Baraitser ruled, it would be unjust to extradite Assange.
We welcome the blocking of the extradition today but remain gravely concerned by the proceedings. They exposed the fact that the 2003 UK-US extradition treaty is ripe for abuse and does not adequately protect journalists and whistleblowers. The US Government’s indictment attempts to criminalise the protection of journalist-source communications and the publication by journalists of classified information. Both are crucial and routine activities for investigative journalists. Indeed, technical measures such as those employed by Assange to facilitate leaks and protect whistleblowers and other sources are now a staple of investigative reporting. In this regard, we strongly disagree with DJ Baraitser, who in her judgment accepts the US government’s lawyers’ arguments that Assange’s conduct went beyond that of a journalist.
The US government has announced that it will appeal the decision. In the interim, a hearing regarding bail has been set for Wednesday 6 January 2021. Given the political nature of the prosecution and especially in light of Assange’s mental health problems in focus today, ECPMF calls for his immediate release.
Lack of access for civil society observers
Today’s ruling concludes a week of hearings of the legal arguments at the Woolwich Crown Court in February 2020 and four weeks of witness testimony hearings at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, in September 2020. ECPMF attempted to observe the witness testimony hearings remotely but did not receive access to the Crowd Video Platform facility. Other civil society observers who had been sent login details had their access abruptly revoked on the first day of the witness hearings. We note that observers who were at the court have also expressed frustration at the extensive barriers established for those attempting to monitor the case, including NGO and political observers. At each stage, the court refused to recognise civil society observers’ specific role or make provisions allowing for professional monitoring of the proceedings. The ECPMF reiterates that trial monitoring is both the exercise and observation of the fundamental right to a fair and public hearing, allowing for scrutiny of its fairness and protecting against judicial arbitrariness. It is highly concerning that in a case of such significance, the court has failed to live up to standards of transparency and openness.