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12 Dec, 2021 06:08

On Contact: Assange can be extradited, says court

Chris Hedges and Consortium News Editor-in-Chief Joe Lauria discuss the British High Court ruling to allow the extradition of Julian Assange.

On Friday, the British High Court in London overturned an earlier lower court decision blocking the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. The ruling sends the case back to the Magistrate’s Court with instructions to allow the extradition to be approved or denied by British Home Secretary Priti Patel. 

The ruling, which included a decision to continue to hold Assange in a high security prison, is a severe blow to the Wikileaks co-founder’s efforts to prevent his extradition to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act. 

The extradition is now in the hands of Patel, unless Assange’s lawyers, as expected, file an appeal to the UK Supreme Court. 

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled in January that Assange could not be extradited because the inhumane conditions of US prisons would make Assange, who suffers from physical and mental health issues, a suicide risk.

The United States, in appealing the decision, assured that Assange would receive adequate medical and psychological care and would not be subjected to measures commonly used in high profile cases, such as prolonged isolation and Special Administrative Measures – known as SAMs – which impose draconian rules limiting any communication and allows the government to monitor meetings with attorneys in violation of attorney-client privilege. 

The US attempt to extradite Assange has been widely condemned by civil liberties organizations, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch – which have called it an existential threat to freedom of the press. 

If extradited to the United States, Assange – who oversaw the WikiLeaks publication of documents and videos that exposed US war crimes and a range of other illegal and nefarious activities – faces a 175-year prison sentence.

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Chris Hedges: Today we discuss Friday’s ruling to allow the extradition of Julian Assange to go forward with editor-in-chief of Consortium News, Joe Lauria.

Joe Lauria: What the High Court judges did today was knock just one of those pillars out and this whole case, her whole decision collapsed.  And the pillar that they destroyed was based on the US assurances that he would not be put in those special administrative measures, he would not be sent to ADX Florence, Colorado.  That was enough for the High Court judges.  They even say at one point in this 27-page ruling that they don’t even have to bother going through the rest of the case, because this was enough, this is sufficient for them to overturn Baraitser’s decision and send it back to the court with the instructions to have the secretary of state decide whether to extradite him or not.  They implicitly, explicitly believe the United States when they promised that they wouldn’t do these things to Julian Assange.  They call them a solemn undertaking between two governments, in a diplomatic note.

CH: On Friday, the British High Court in London overturned an earlier lower court decision blocking the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States.  The ruling sends the case back to the magistrates’ court with instructions to allow the extradition to be approved or denied by the British Secretary of State for justice.  The ruling which included a decision to continue to hold Assange in a high security prison is a severe blow to the WikiLeaks co-founders efforts to prevent his extradition to face charges under the Espionage Act in the United States.  The extradition is now in the hands of the Secretary of State for Justice unless Assange’s lawyers as expected file an appeal within two weeks to the UK Supreme Court.  District Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled in January that Assange could not be extradited because of inhumane conditions in US prisons that would make Assange who suffers from physical and mental health issues a suicide risk.  The United States in appealing the decision gave assurances that Assange would receive adequate medical and psychological care and would not be subject to measures commonly used in high profile cases such as prolonged isolation and special administrative measures known as SAMs, which impose draconian rules limiting any communication and allows the government to monitor meetings with attorneys in violation of attorney-client privilege.  The US attempt to extradite Assange has been widely condemned by civil liberty organizations including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, which have called it an existential threat to press freedom.  If extradited to the United States, Assange, who oversaw WikiLeaks publications of documents and videos that exposed US war crimes, corruption, lies and a range of other illegal and nefarious activities faces a 175-year prison sentence.  Joining me to discuss Friday’s ruling and its implications is Joe Lauria, the editor-in-chief of Consortium News.  So we were both watching via video link the reading of this ruling.  I’m just going to begin at the very end, and then I want to go through it with you, Joe.  It said the panel--two panels of judges rejected grounds one, and three, and four, but allowed appeal on grounds two, and five, and essentially green-lighted this extradition process that his--Assange’s lawyers have two weeks to appeal.  They have long said to the UK Supreme Court, they have long said that they would do that.  But let’s go through the case.  So we have a ruling on January 4th, by the District Court Judge Baraitser, who--this is a quote from her ruling, “His mental condition is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him.”  Let’s just talk about that ruling.  And then, of course, the challenge that the United States the Biden administration has made to appeal her decision not to extradite Julian, not on the charges but on the US prison conditions and on his own mental health.

JL: Well, there were two pillars to her decision.  One was indeed his mental condition, which two defense experts said would lead him to commit suicide, even if he just learned that he’d be extradited before he even left the UK.  And the other part of her decision, the other pillar was the conditions of US prisons.  In particular, as you mentioned, the SAMs, ADX Florence in Colorado, and also to be putting SAMs in ADC, Alexandria Detention Center, pretrial.  What the High Court judges did today was knock just one of those pillars out and this whole case, her whole decision collapsed.  And the pillar that they destroyed was based on the US assurances that he would not be put in those special administrative measures, he would not be sent to ADX Florence, Colorado, that was enough for the High Court judges.  They even say at one point in this 27-page ruling that they don’t even have to bother going through the rest of the case because this was enough, this is sufficient for them to overturn Baraitser’s decision and send it back to the court with the instructions to have the secretary of state decide whether to extradite him or not.  They implicitly, explicitly believe the United States when they promised that they wouldn’t do these things to Julian Assange.  They call them a solemn undertaking between two governments in a diplomatic note.  The judgment says there’s no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say, there’s no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.  Of course, the US--Assange’s lawyers and the High Court hearing at the end of October argued strenuously that these assurances could not be trusted.  Amnesty International call them inherently unreliable, for example, and there’s a history of the US not keeping these promises, despite James Lewis, the British prosecutor for the US, saying the US has never ever broken a diplomatic promise like that in its entire history, which of course, raised plenty of eyebrows around the world.  They--as I said, it’s a solemn matter.  We do not accept that the US refrain for technical reasons to not put them in to the extradition hearing, because the other issue that the US--that Assange had brought up was that of the timing.  Should these assurances have been given during the extradition hearing, which ended in the end of September 2020?  Could they be allowed to be put in afterward?  Were they new evidence or not?  High Court ruled it was not new evidence, it could be put it in any time, they sided law.  So they are abiding these assurances and it was their way out of this situation.  They found--wanted to find a way to overturn the decision not to send him.  They did not challenge the Baraitser’s findings on the mental health.  They basically uphold what Michael Kopelman and Quinton Deeley, the two defense experts said about Assange’s mental condition, his Asperger’s for example.  And that that makes one nine times more likely to commit suicide, et cetera.  They accepted all that, they did sharply criticized Kopelman on this minor issue that the Americans brought up, they sided with them, with the Americans, the High Court did on whether he should have revealed in his first report whether Stella Morris, Assange’s lawyer and fiancee, had had children or not, what about their relationship.  He had hid--he had hidden that because of safety concerns for Stella Morris and the children, and Baraitser accepted that that even though Kopelman misled the court, she accepted that it was for humane reasons and understandable.  Now, what were those threats to Morris and the children?  They came from UC Global.  UC Global, the Spanish security firm, a contractor of the Central Intelligence Agency.  And I challenge anybody to look at that 27-page ruling on Friday and find the word Central Intelligence Agency or CIA in there, it doesn’t exist.  And it was brought up not only at the extradition hearing in September 2020, the UC Global testimony of two former partner and a former employee.  But with great, with a lot more detail in the October High Court hearing.  They allowed, for some reason, these two judges allowed the Assange lawyers to talk about the Yahoo story that most people know about now.  That the see--that this plot wasn’t--was fleshed out, what they’d heard in the extradition hearing the previous year was with many more details about how the CIA seriously considered kidnapping or assassinating Julian Assange and his lawyers.  Assange’s lawyers argued that he could not be sent to a country whose intelligence services had been seriously considering murdering him.  This was all ignored.  In fact, Mark Summers, Assange’s lawyer, at the end told the High Court judges, “You ought to read this article.”  It’s pretty interesting.  If they read it, and they probably did, they totally ignored it.  The CIA is not mentioned at all in this.  And it’s crucial to this case.  I just want to say, Chris, this is a very dark day, as you point out, for press freedom.  And then really, the US and Britain are acting like tin pot dictators, throwing any press critic into a dungeon.  What is left of a democracy that’s on life support anyway, if Assange is actually extradited to the United States.  It’s a very, very dark moment today, Friday.

CH: We’ll--yeah, we’ll get into that.  I mean, essentially, it criminalizes any investigative work certainly into the centers of power.  I spent 15 years at The New York Times, I had classified information leaked to me, I published it, that becomes a criminal offense.  Big papers like the Times are lawyered up.  We often--when we wrote an investigative piece, we had to meet with the lawyers before.  And of course, what are the lawyers going to say now if Assange is extradited and this is held up?  They’re going to say, “Oh, you and the paper can go to jail.”  I want to go back to the assurances, because they’re not really assurances.  When you read what’s in this ruling, they come with caveats, escape clauses.  They say that if Julian commits an infraction, I teach in a prison, they can throw infractions at you for phenomenally minor incidents, and send you off to solitary.  So if he commits any kind of an infraction, these assurances are out the door.  I also don’t know, perhaps you do, what legal validity a diplomatic note has, or what recourse the UK would have if it was violated.  Can you address those issues?

JL: I’m not sure they have any recourse.  I don’t know whether which--if whether there are British or American laws that back this, this is a diplomatic note.  It comes on, I would imagine, the rubric of international law.  And having covered the United Nations as a correspondent for 25 years, I understand how international law is routinely ignored by the major powers, particularly, of course, the US, but also Britain.  To give an example, the UN advisory body found that Assange was under arbitrary detention while he was still in the--in the Embassy of Ecuador.  And the Britain just decided that we’re going to ignore that.  They just ignored that.  So I don’t know what this is worth legally.  As I said, Amnesty International says that it’s inherently unreliable.  I don’t think that there’s a solid basis for diplomatic notes or assurances to be believed.  And you’re right, there are caveats.  If he does something, if he does something they don’t like, if he commits some other offense, and that could just be about anything, he could be then thrown into the SAMs.  So it’s very tissue thin.  But this court was so awful, I mean, at one point, they said that they rejected arguments that these were not reliable assurances, as just, you know, rumblings of internet research.  This is just journalistic gossip, basically, on the internet.  I’m looking for the exact quote, but this is the way they see this.  They have this--they’ve zeroed in on these assurances.  They didn’t go anywhere near to talking about his mental health, whether he was really suicidal or not.  They accepted three out of the five grounds of appeal.  In other words, they only accepted two for the US--of the US grounds of appeal, they rejected three of them.  And those two both dealt with the assurances.  The other three dealt with the mental health issues.  They didn’t--they didn’t rule in favor of the US on that.  All they needed was one, the assurances, it’s kind of flimsy, it’s very disturbing, in a sense, superficial because it just takes just that, just that they believe the US assurances that they are solemn.  And, you know, and they are going to just base their entire ruling on the--for Julian Assange can go to the United States because he won’t go into SAMs.  This is what the court is trying to tell us.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we will continue our conversation about Julian Assange and Friday’s British High Court ruling with Joe Lauria, editor-in-chief of Consortium News.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our discussion about Julian Assange and the British High Court ruling to allow extradition with Joe Lauria, editor-in-chief of Consortium News.  So I want to talk a little bit about these conditions, SAMs, there are all sorts of way around it.  I found it interesting in the ruling, they kept talking about Florence--ADX Florence, Colorado as if there aren’t other Guantanamo-like facilities.  Daniel Hale, for example, who exposed the widespread civilian deaths in the drone program, he’s held in a control management unit, a CMU, which really isn’t any different from the kinds of conditions you would find in Florence.  So there are all sorts of ways around it to impose those conditions under another name.

JL: Absolutely.  I think it’s Marietta in Ohio.  I don’t know how many--I think there’s about a dozen prisons in the US that could have SAMs.  One of them is the Alexander Detention Center.  And there was--and during the extradition hearing in September, there was a huge back and forth over several hours of one day about whether in fact there was SAMs in ADC.  People on the Assange witness stand said that there were, and of course the Americans were trying to say there weren’t.  Another thing we should keep in mind is that the Central Intelligence Agency gets to decide a huge part of whether or not as prisoner goes, a national security prisoner as Assange is, would go to a SAMs or not.  And that’s another thing that never comes up about the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in this.  And there’s another admittedly--a telling part of the diplomatic note, it says in there the Americans wrote that he wouldn’t go to pretrial detention in ADX, Colorado.  And that is not a pretrial detention.  Everyone knew that that’s after conviction he would go there.  He’s going to be held in Alexandria.  And yet that mistake, if that’s what it is, or is it a sleight of hand so that they could say, “Look, you know, we never promised that he wouldn’t go under Special Administrative Measures in Alexandria,” because the document actually says pretrial in Colorado.  And the defense team in their documents to the court pointed that out.  That didn’t come up.  The judges never noticed it, didn’t say anything about that.  I’m not an expert on these Special Administrative Measures, but I do know that, you’re right, there are different forms that it could take.  I think isolation on its own is not SAMs, so that he could be kept isolated and that in itself has been designated as torture after certain number of days by human rights organizations.  They could do what they want with him when they get back.  The courts know that, the High Court judges knew that.  And they decided this anyway, simply on a promise.  It’s quite extraordinary.  There was a story last week by Richard Medhurst in the UK.  He found some classified documents showing that a case of Mendoza in Spain, that the US lied.  They absolutely lied, he proved it.  And yet the court dismisses that very case in this judgment of 27th, that there was no problems with that.  I mean, it’s--if you really held them up to it, they would not be able to come up with the kind of statements that they do in this High Court, and the case was made in the High Court by the Assange lawyers, it failed, now it’s up to them to argue this again at the Supreme Court, but who has a lot of hope that this would happen.  The sad part, Chris, I want to add, is that Friday was the last day of the US democracy--so-called democracy summit.  It was the day in which two journalists were given the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm, one of whom, Maria Ressa, is on video saying that condemning Assange and saying that journalism must do what is good for national security.  She actually says that.  This is the kind of journalist that the national security state wants.  These are the kind of journalists the national security state rewards.  And Assange did the exact opposite, he fulfilled the supreme role of journalism which is to hold powerful people to account when they commit horrendous crimes and corruption and they’ve--they’re throwing him back into Belmarsh, he will not get--probably get bail, and if they don’t win at the Supreme Court, he will wind up on the shores of United States, and this marks a country no longer really democratic.  They have to have summits in order to convince us, I think, that they’re democratic, Chris, because this really put [INDISTINCT]

CH: I mean, I just want to run through quickly--I want to run through quickly, Joe, the legal anomalies in this case, number one, he’s charged under the Espionage Act, although he is not a US citizen and WikiLeaks is not a US-based publication.  He is granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, the embassy is sovereign territory of Ecuador, the British police, Theresa May, sends the police in to grab him, even though he has been granted political asylum, and he’s dragged out.  He is held in a high security prison because of a violation of bail, which was caused when he fled to the embassy because Sweden was trying to extradite him on trumped up charges that they later dropped as soon as the UK had him in their hands.  You had UC Global, which you mentioned before, this is the Spanish security firm that was working on behalf of the CIA, and taping meetings with his attorneys and this isn’t conjecture, those were leaked to papers like El Pais in Spain.  Just over and over and over, this burlesque, and yet this ruling didn’t address any of it.

JL: No, it did not.  It did not.  It’s not a normal case.  It’s not a serious legal case.  It is a purely political case.  I don’t think anyone could deny that just by what you’ve just said.  Now as far as him being charged under the Espionage Act even though he’s not an American and he never operated on US soil, there is an amendment 1961 of the Espionage Act that made it universal.  It’s a case of a British--an American diplomat in Warsaw who took some classified--who was found in bed with another woman and the Polish secret service took pictures of him, they blackmailed him but they couldn’t get him under the Espionage Act because he left the US embassy to give the documents.  So they put this amendment in, so it is universal.  If you could--Britain could’ve said no, we don’t--we don’t recognize that.  They could’ve rejected the extradition request, but of course they did not.  As far as him being dragged out of the embassy, that is non-refoulement.  I mean, the government--the British police could not enter without the permission of the Ecuador government.  We know from that Yahoo story that the British government refused to go along with the US plan to go in and try to kidnap him because they would not go in there.  So they got the agreement of the Ecuador government to go in the embassy and arrest him.  But it still violates the principle of non-refoulement.  He was not really allowed as a--if he’s under threat, to be sent back to a place where he was threatened.  So this is not a normal trial, Chris.  And we can’t really look at it that way, and I think that’s our problem, we’re trying to apply logic here and principles and the idea that he was spied on, his--he was eavesdropped on by the country that is prosecuting him by their intelligence services.  This is extraordinary, this would’ve been thrown out of any other case but this is not any other case, it’s not just an example they want to make of Assange, they want to stop him from doing the work.  They--he’s exposed their criminality and any criminal gang is going to stop anyone who’s exposing them.

CH: And let’s be clear, he’s not accused of publishing anything that’s false.

JL: No.

CH: Everything that he has put out.  That’s quite a record that neither you nor I as longtime newspaper reporters can say that we’ve never made a mistake.  It’s pretty remarkable.  And also the fact that he didn’t--he didn’t hack in and get the documents.  They were delivered to him by a source, the--for the Iraqi War Logs, of course, by Chelsea Manning.  And this is how journalism works.  It’s how you and I work.

JL: Yes.  However, they’ve been trying to build that case.  If you go back to 2010, December, Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press, he’s asked, “Are you going after Julian Assange?”  And he said, “Only if we can catch him red-handed having stolen or participating in the stealing of the documents.”  But if he’s handed those documents like any other journalist and publishes them, we can’t do anything.  And in fact, the Obama administration did not indict him under the Espionage Act.  And they didn’t get him on any kind of hacking charge.  Now fast forward to the Trump administration, and they use this informant who had started under the Obama administration and to lie, he admitted now he’s lied as an FBI informant that Assange ordered hacking.  So the hacking part of this, the so-called computer intrusion conspiracy charge is very, very key to this because without that, it just collapses because he’s a journalist receiving documents, like you said, you did all the time.  So they can’t get him, and that’s their out to tell the New York Times, “Hey, we’re not going after you because this guy’s a hacker.”  And I think a lot of people in the media--corporate media bought that story.  But that part of the case collapsed when Sigurdur Thordarson admitted in an interview with an Icelandic magazine that he made it all up.  It’s extraordinary.  So that collapsed and we put that in with the other things we were mentioning about how unusual this case is and how many illegalities there are and had still persist, the fact that they don’t have this hacking charge anymore, they do try to say that he helped Chelsea Manning break into a computer, that’s a long involved story but we--her testimony during the extradition hearing that there was no way that, first of all, that Chelsea already had security clearances for all those documents, the indictment itself says that.  Second of all, most of the material, almost all the materials she’d given to WikiLeaks had already been given to WikiLeaks before this incident.  And it was put forward by Assange’s side that he simply was trying to help her break in under a different password to download music videos and videogames because it’s not allowed to active service personnel and she was--I mean, they don’t have a very strong case on the computer side.  And all was really talked about, talk about the Espionage Act, but without the computer charge, they really can’t get him on the Espionage Act alone.  But the fact that they did, that the Espionage Act does not carve out an exception for journalists, it was never used before to indict a journalist for possession--unauthorized possession and publication until now, and that changed, in my opinion, the Espionage Act into an Official Secrets Act because in Britain, they very much have prosecuted journalists for publishing secret--state secrets before.  So this is the danger of this, the fact that the Espionage Act is being used and the Biden administration, when he was in the Obama administration, Biden refused to go along with this, Obama administration refused to go along with it, and now they are.  Now they are.  And I think it’s simply pressure from the Democrats because in 2016, which has nothing to do with this case, and pressure from the Intelligence Agencies who must still be angry about Vault 7, which was the largest leak of CIA material, which was the impetus behind Pompeo trying to kill the guy.  So I think still those are still operative against Biden.  The fact is this is so dangerous because as you said at the top, a journalist being indicted and imprisoned for publishing changes the game completely, changes the whole thing.  You cannot get up there and pretend and preach democracy to other nations when you do such a thing.

CH: Great.  We’re gonna have to stop there.  That was Joe Lauria, editor-in-chief of Consortium News on the ruling in London on Friday that the US can go ahead and pursue extradition of Julian Assange.

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