The Guardian view on Assange and extradition: say no to the US

The WikiLeaks founder must be held accountable for skipping bail. But extradition to America over this case would be wrong
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor of WikiLeaks, right, and barrister Jennifer Robinson speak to the media outside Westminster magistrates court, where Julian Assange was appearing on Thursday.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor of WikiLeaks, right, and barrister Jennifer Robinson speak to the media outside Westminster magistrates court, where Julian Assange was appearing on Thursday. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

On Thursday, British police bundled Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, his refuge of almost seven years. With his emergence into daylight, so too came some clarity on the case which the US has been pursuing against him, and on which it seeks his extradition.

The indictment relates to the secret military and diplomatic files provided by Chelsea Manning, the army whistleblower, which unveiled shocking US abuses and shed light on corrupt and repressive governments worldwide. That Ms Manning is once again in jail, for refusing to give evidence to a secret grand jury in a WikiLeaks investigation, is a disgrace. The importance of the material, published by the Guardian, the New York Times and others, was undeniable. But subsequently we and others strongly disagreed with Mr Assange’s decision to bulk-publish unredacted documents.

Two obstacles initially paused the US pursuit. The first was Ecuador’s decision to grant him asylum. A change in government has led it to rescind that protection, on the promise he would not be extradited to potentially face the death penalty. The second was the Obama administration’s conclusion that pursuing him for publishing the files would set a dangerous precedent, imperilling press freedoms protected by the first amendment.

As a candidate, Donald Trump declared his love for WikiLeaks when the organisation published emails stolen by Russian state hackers from the Democratic National Committee. But six months later, after WikiLeaks released information on the CIA’s hacking operations, the service’s then director Mike Pompeo declared it a “hostile intelligence service” and the US described arresting Mr Assange as a priority.

US authorities say they are charging him on the grounds of conspiracy to access a computer, rather than for the publication of the material obtained. This is an important distinction. The high court last year ruled against the extradition of Lauri Love, accused of breaking into US government websites, in a judgment hailed as setting a precedent for trying hacking suspects in the UK, though the circumstances were very different. The US may also add further charges to the sheet. But it would be naive to regard this charge as the cause of the extradition request, rather than the technical grounds for it. And while Mr Assange is accused in this case of assisting in the cracking of a password, many will fear that the conspiracy charge could be more broadly applied, particularly by an administration so hostile to a free, independent press.

Mr Assange now faces up to a year in prison for skipping bail. He was wrong to do so. He entered the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced allegations of rape and molestation (which he denies), citing fears that Stockholm would hand him to the US. It would be entirely appropriate for Swedish prosecutors to reopen their investigation, as the lawyer representing one of his accusers has requested. None of this alters the dangers of agreeing to his extradition to the US.


1 reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.