In light of the UK home secretary’s worrying decision to sign a US extradition order for Julian Assange, PEN International and English PEN said:
PEN International and English PEN are disappointed by Sajid Javid’s decision to sign a request for Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States, particularly as he could face the risk of serious human rights violations. It took Javid only two months to rule on this request, in sharp contrast to other extradition cases where the Home Office took several years examining the case, before signing the order. Once again, we urge the judicial authorities in the UK not to extradite Assange to the US, as the charges are far-reaching and set a dangerous precedent that could affect the legitimate work of journalists and publishers everywhere.
Following reports that Julian Assange has been charged with 18 new counts of criminal charges, including 17 counts under the Espionage Act, Antonia Byatt, Director of English PEN, commented:
The US Department of Justice is setting a dangerous precedent by charging Assange under the Espionage Act. It is the first time a publisher has been threatened in this way and is against the spirit of the First Amendment and a democracy’s need of a free press.
The British authorities must not extradite WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange to the United States, where he is at risk of serious human rights violations, including detention conditions that could amount to torture or other ill-treatment. PEN is further concerned by the broader implications his prosecution would have on global press freedom.
Julian Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019 at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for breaching his bail conditions in 2012, and further arrested on behalf of the US authorities under an extradition warrant after the Ecuadorian authorities withdrew asylum. An indictment dated 6 March 2018 and unveiled that day charges Julian Assange with one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, including accessing classified information, in relation to leaks of US government materials by former military analyst and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. Assange faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Although Julian Assange was not directly charged with publishing classified information, the indictment includes a list of actions that fall under journalistic activities, namely encouraging sources to provide information, protecting their anonymity and using secure means of communication. Prosecuting Assange for these actions could have a chilling effect on press freedom because it creates precedent and raises risks of similar prosecution of journalists for legitimate practices, such as those outlined in the indictment, which journalists use as part of their professional work.
According to reports, US prosecutors may seek to bring additional charges against Julian Assange, who is currently in custody and due to testify via video-link on 2 May. US prosecutors have until 12 June to outline their case to the British authorities.
‘The broad nature of the US indictment against Assange is a real threat to journalists and press freedom worldwide because it potentially criminalises legitimate journalistic practices. The treatment meted out to his accused co-conspirator Chelsea Manning shows that these concerns are real, and Assange would be at risk of serious human rights violations, were he to be extradited to the US,’ said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
On 11 April 2019, the British authorities found Julian Assange guilty of breaching bail in 2012, an offense that carries up to 12 months in prison. Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over one allegation of rape and one allegation of sexual molestation and coercion, which he denies. Swedish prosecutors have announced they are reviewing a request to reopen the rape investigation, which they had to close in 2017 because they were unable to formally notify Assange. The Swedish authorities have until August 2020 to investigate the rape allegation.
‘Allegations of unlawful, non-consensual sexual activity in Sweden should be investigated and resolved on their own merits. Due process must be followed and the rights of the victim and defendant protected. The Swedish authorities should be made aware that the case against Assange in Sweden is no ground for extradition to the US and ought to be handled as a separate issue. His extradition to the US could have severe implications for journalistic work and practice far beyond Assange’s case,’ said Ola Larsmo, PEN International Board Member.
Between 2009 and 2010, whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, then a military analyst in the US army, leaked classified US government documents to the website WikiLeaks, which revealed that the US army, the CIA and Iraqi and Afghan forces had committed human rights violations. She was held in pre-trial detention for over three years, including 11 months in conditions that the UN Special Rapporteur on torture said amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Responding to reports that Julian Assange was to be imminently expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy, the Special Rapporteur argued that his likely extradition to the United States would expose him to ‘a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ Several UN experts also warned that he would be at risk of serious human rights violations.
PEN adamantly supports the right of all media to publish leaked documents and materials they have received from third parties. While publishing such materials entails a high level of editorial judgment and discretion, principles of press freedom and freedom of information require that these decisions remain in the hands of the publishers themselves, operating independently and free from governmental interference or pressure. WikiLeaks has been criticized for releasing unredacted materials, putting the identity of sources at risk. PEN calls on WikiLeaks to adhere to international standards and norms of journalistic practice and protect its sources with far greater scrutiny and duty of care than what it has shown, to ensure that individuals identified in the materials it publishes are protected from reprisals, because their safety is contingent on their anonymity.
Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence was commuted in 2017. She was jailed again in March 2019 for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and recently held in solidarity confinement for 28 days. She is to remain behind bars until she testifies or until the grand jury concludes its work. PEN urges all governments to strengthen the legal protection of whistle-blowers in order to bring national laws in line with international legal standards, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.