28 February 2020

Media freedom campaigners and journalists unite for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

By Jane Whyatt

As extradition proceedings continue in London, around the world more than 1,300 journalists and dozens of media freedom campaigners have expressed solidarity with the defendant: Julian Assange.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has signed a petition calling for Assange to be released. He is wanted in the United States, where the authorities intend to put him on trial in the state of Virginia, charged with facilitating the leak of military secrets. Some of those secrets, sent to the WikiLeaks whistleblowing platform by former US Army signals officer Chelsea Manning, show alleged war crimes committed by American soldiers and drone pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan. WikiLeaks made a documentary about them, Collateral Murder.

Warning: this video contains footage that you may find upsetting, including the lethal shooting of a Reuters film crew by  a remote-controlled drone.

Chelsea Manning, who was pardoned by former US President Barack Obama, has now been re-arrested under the Espionage Act and is in jail in Alexandria, Virginia but refusing to answer any questions about Julian Assange.

The extradition hearing is proceeding in the court attached to the high-security Belmarsh jail, used for convicted terrorists and extremely dangerous criminals.

Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald QC has told the court that his client is being treated inhumanely, and has twice been stripped naked, searched and handcuffed.

In an interview with ECPMFin 2019, United Nations Torture Rapporteur Nils Melzer reported that Assange is being held in solitary confinement and his health is suffering.

Demonstrations have been held outside the jail, with supporters travelling from Australia, France and Germany to demand the release of the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange supporter and police outside Belmarsh jail, London.

The extradition hearing is being held at Woolwich Crown Court adjacent to the prison where Assange is being held. Belmarsh is a maximum-security jail where, in an incident unconnected to the extradition case, two inmates are being investigated after a third prisoner was beaten to death on 19. February 2020.

During the court case,  Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald QC rejected the extradition call: “This extradition should be barred because the prosecution is being pursued for political motives and not in good faith.” He argued the extradition request was part of a wider political war on journalists under President Donald Trump, rather than seeking justice.

Representing the USA at the court case, barrister James Lewis QC said the 48-year-old is guilty of “ordinary criminality” by stealing from and hacking into US government computers. “These are ordinary criminal charges and any person, journalist or source who hacks or attempts to gain unauthorised access to a secure system or aids and abets others to do so is guilty of computer misuse,” Lewis said.

The hearing, which is being monitoring on behalf of the international media freedom community by Reporters Without Borders, is expected to continue for several weeks and to resume on May 18 2020.

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