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Julian Assange: The Deterrent

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be allowed to be extradited to the USA, decided the British High Court. This is dangerous from the point of view of freedom of the press.

Ironically, on International Human Rights Day, the court in London overturns the extradition ban for Julian Assange to the USA. This is a bad signal for press freedom and for the ability of Western democracies to deal with whistleblowing.

One can argue about the classification of Assange as a person, but: The British ruling threatens to call into question how safe journalists, publishers and whistleblowers can feel when they publish secret documents, denounce state grievances and uncover inconveniences. And that's dangerous.

British court sees concerns dispelled

The London High Court ruled on Friday that Assange could now be extradited to the United States. The US had appealed against an extradition ban from January, which the British judges have now upheld.

Judge Timothy Holroyde said recent US government pledges of treatment Assange would receive in the US allayed concerns the court had had: "There is no reason to believe that the US is not accepting the pledge had done in good faith", it said in the court ruling.

In January a UK court initially refused extradition on the grounds of Assange's mental health : there is a "significant" risk that Assange could commit suicide in prison. 

The United States appealed against this and promised at the October hearing that Assange would not be held in strict solitary confinement before or after a trial - if he did not go into debt. They have offered that Assange could serve a possible sentence in Australia upon request, would have access to health care and would not be incarcerated in the ADX Florence maximum security prison. Assange's attorneys dismissed all of this as too vague, citing the risk of suicide and a report alleging that the CIA had plotted against Assange to murder.

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Today's verdict has still not reached a final decision: the court ordered a judge from a lower court to send the extradition request to the UK Home Secretary for consideration, who also has to decide on the extradition. But Assange's representatives will definitely appeal: Assange's fiancĂ©e Stella Moris has already announced that she will contest the decision "at the earliest possible point". 

However, the legal tug-of-war that the case is currently developing must not distract from what is really at stake: In the US, the WikiLeaks founder is to be tried with espionage allegations, and if convicted, he faces up to 175 Years imprisonment.

The Assange case is complex and complex because storytelling has been lying on top of storytelling for over a decade. On the one hand, Assange has lost a lot of sympathy in recent years, for example with the role of WikiLeaks in the US election campaign in 2016. And, for example, the protracted preliminary investigations into allegations of abuse against Assange in Sweden, which were never negotiated in the end, have his image in public influenced. On the other hand, according to observers, the actions of the British judiciary towards him raise questions of the rule of law . And around his years of perseverance in the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​there were repeated reports of spying and plots against him.

But in essence, the fact that Assange's publications a good ten years ago questioned how much transparency democratic governments have to endure. After all, he has published secret documents that were extremely uncomfortable for the US, such as a video showing alleged war crimes by US soldiers in Iraq. The case is complicated because there are two types of allegation: On the one hand, Assange is accused of receiving, evaluating and publishing confidential information. Investigative journalists do the same thing every day.

On the other hand, the allegations go further: He is said to have played a role in the procurement of this information and is said to have instigated it to break into the computers of the US government. And that goes beyond what journalists are and are allowed to do. This is the question that the Assange debate has been about for years. Whether these allegations are serious enough to convict him as a spy, however, see many as contentious.

Mistrust beats transparency

The less tenable these allegations of incitement are, the more fatal is the signal that the Assange case and the handling of it could send. Because that points far beyond the person of Assange and the WikiLeaks platform. What you can see in the fact that the pardoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who passed WikiLeaks secret documents, was subjected to massive pressure: When she refused to testify against Assange, she was arrested again. 

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The Obama administration hesitated for a long time to bring charges against Julian Assange - precisely because the result of his conviction would also raise the question of what consequences this would have for dealing with the media, which at the time, as a partner of WikiLeaks, were extracts from the secret documents published , for example, the New York Times . Under Donald Trump, however, the Espionage Act of 1917 was taken out of the box to indict Assange. So far, Joe Biden seems to want to continue this course.

It is possible that the extradition process will drag on much further: the case could also be heard in the UK Supreme Court. And in the last instance - despite Brexit - it would still be possible to hear Assange's case before the European Court of Human Rights.

In any case, today's judgment does not cast a positive light on how Western democracies deal with unpleasant publications. Assange's case has long been a deterrent: the more severely he is punished, the greater the future risk for sources and journalists if they try to uncover grievances.

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