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Julian Assange – from Belmarsh to freedom at last

At long last the WikiLeaks founder is free. For all those who care about freedom of speech it’s time to celebrate, writes TIM DAWSON of the International Federation of Journalists

IT IS a victory for common sense, media freedom and human decency. Julian Assange is free and, it seems, will stay that way.

For the US, expending such energy attempting to incarcerate the WikiLeaks founder for the rest of his life has exposed a bullying nature, damaged its reputation as a haven for free speech and has shone an unforgiving light on its military operations. This agreement creates the opportunity to repair that damage.

For Assange it ends a legal process that, in various forms, has overshadowed his life for 14 years, including seven in the Ecuadorian embassy and five in HMP Belmarsh. Psychiatric reports to the court reveal that this has driven him to catatonic despair and sparked fears among those closest too him that his will to live was all but extinguished. 

He should now be able to devote himself to bringing up his young sons, and enjoying time with Stella, his wife, who he married in prison.

This extraordinary saga began in when Assange obtained two vast information dumps from the US military in 2009 — the Afghan and Iraqi war logs. Containing nearly half a million records, mostly categorised “secret,” these recorded military factions in granular detail. They cast and unflattering light on operations, exposing multiple human rights abuses. The “collateral murder” video, in which a helicopter gun ship mowed down civilians and journalists as the crew whooped, was the emblematic centrepiece.

The route by which these “war logs” came to be published in full is twisty and complicated, involving news platforms such as the Guardian and the New York Times, which first collaborated with Assange and then turned their back on him when another leaks platform, Cryptome, published them in full, prompting WikiLeaks to follow suit.

The full extent and nature of the subsequent US attempt to bring the Australian to heel may not be known for many years. The Obama administration considered prosecution and then abandoned the idea rather than engage in a messy fight involving press freedom. That all changed, with the election of Donald Trump and the appointment as secretary of state of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo in 2018.

A crazed suite of charges based on the US Espionage Act was concocted. Plans were hatched to assassinate Assange on the streets of London. An extensive bugging operation was mounted to listen in on Assange’s confidential meetings with lawyers. Those of us involved in media freedom argued that prosecution for activities that are normal for a journalists — finding a witness to wrongdoing and helping them to discreetly supply evidence — jeopardised reporters the world over.

When the Ecuadorians ejected their guest from the embassy in 2019, he was arrested and incarcerated in Britain’s most secure prison — Belmarsh, on London’s southern fringe.

It is from here that Assange has fought deportation to the US to face charges. If convicted he could have faced a 176-year jail sentence, to be served in effective solitary confinement in a “supermax prison,” to which visits are all but impossible.

There have been nearly two months of court hearings, spread over four years. At an early stage, the judge who presided over the hearings, rejected extradition on the grounds that for someone with Assange’s mental health history the prospect was “oppressive.” This was quickly overturned, and in recent times the courts have repeatedly found for the US. 

In May, however, judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson surprised even Assange’s own team when they granted leave to appeal. The court had asked the US Department of Justice whether Assange would be granted protection under the first amendment of the constitution — that guarantees free speech and a free press.

Some argue that such protections apply only to US citizens. The reply was equivocal, “it would be up to the court.” That did not satisfy the British judges so a date was set in July for a hearing that had the potential for being a public relations disaster for the US.

The possibility for a plea deal has been in the air for months. US diplomats hinted at the possibility, and President Joe Biden himself appeared to float the prospect in an off the cuff reply to a reporter in April. Several times, Assange’s lawyers have told me that the end was close.

Last week, I journeyed to Belmarsh with members of the executive of the International Federation of Journalists to call on President Biden to end this persecution. For years, at the entrance of the jail has been parked a mobile advertising trailer carrying the slogan “Free Julian Assange” in giant letters. It was gone. I learned too, that campaigners employed by the Free Assange campaign were now working elsewhere. Clearly a deal was afoot.

The device by which Assange is being freed appears complex. He pleads guilty to a single, criminal charge of conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US information. Presumably he will be sentenced to a sentence for this of less than the time that already served. The case will be heard in US-adminstered Saipan, the capital of the Northern Marianas islands, in the western Pacific. This is both en route to Australia, and sidesteps Assange’s great fear that if he touches down on US soil, he will never leave.

In the end, the absurdity of the charges, the resources and reputation spent in pursuit of Assange, and the sight of a free spirit laid low by the most powerful nation on Earth overwhelmed the prosecution.

For the charges to be completely dropped would have been better, but for now the plea deal ends an unbecoming performance that risked irreparable damage to media freedom. Whether you have been cheering Assange from the outset, or still have questions in your mind about his methods and personal actions, if you care about free expression, this is a time to celebrate.

Tim Dawson is deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists.

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