Release the Right to Free Speech

Will the leader of the Labour Party stand up for human rights or will he bow to the establishment?

Anttoni Numminen | Thu, 16 Apr 2020

You might be getting tired of lockdown at this point, not being able to go out whenever you want and having to cope with being at home for most of the time. Not great but bearable, right?

Now imagine if instead of not just being allowed outside, you were only allowed to leave you room for 30 minutes a day to walk around the block, alone. Imagine this had been going on since May last year. Imagine if in addition to this you had to defend yourself in a court case which could result in you being incarcerated for the rest of your life. Hardly equals in comparison.

This is the scenario that Wikileaks founder, whistle-blower and journalist Julian Assange finds himself in. He has been held at the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison in solitary confinement since May 2019 when police arrested him at the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had been staying for almost 7 years.

Currently, Assange is being held for skipping bail in 2012 but is also fighting extradition to the US where he could face up to 170 years in prison under the US Espionage Act[1] . If convicted, it would be the first time that a journalist or publisher in the US has ever been successfully prosecuted for the act of publication.

As such, it is deeply worrying that journalists, newspapers, people in general, do not seem to be particularly concerned with Assange’s case. Assange exposed some of the most horrendous acts committed by the US in Iraq, including war crimes (see Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder[2] ). He has published documents from the Guantanamo Bay files, CIA espionage orders and the Iraq War Logs to the Climategate emails. Information without which, the world would be a different, more dangerous place.

And yet, most of the media have ignored Assange’s plight. His situation in Belmarsh was described by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, as psychological torture and last year he expressed concerns that, due to his deteriorating health, the journalist’s life was at risk. [3] This was before the outbreak of Covid-19 and, with Assange already suffering from a serious lung condition, he is extremely vulnerable[4]  to this respiratory virus.

Even Iran, a country hardly renowned for its justice system has released British Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe[5]  from prison. And despite freeing thousands of low-risk prisoners from UK prisons[6]  because of the risk of infection, Assange remains imprisoned in a gaol that has already incurred a fatality from Covid-19.[7] 

Under the circumstances, it would at least seem appropriate that Assange’s extradition hearings be postponed to a later date. Last week, Assange’s legal team requested a temporary adjournment to the hearings on the basis that his lawyers have been unable to communicate with him because of restriction caused by the nationwide lockdown. The request was denied by magistrate Vanessa Baraitser. Her reasoning was that it would be premature to postpone the hearings at this point.[8] 

As such, Assange’s hearing is set to go ahead on 18 May. But without access to his lawyers, his documents or his own defence papers, these hearings are nothing more, to quote John Pilger, than a show trial.[9] 

If he is deported, it will be another nail in the coffin of press freedom. It will say to anyone that challenges US “security concerns”, ‘question us and you lay yourself vulnerable to a judicial snatch squad’.

It is not too late, but time is running out. Particularly those with powerful platforms must make their voices heard. Not least the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. This is a litmus test for Starmer. Will he, as a former human rights lawyer and new leader of Europe’s largest political party, stand up for what is right, or will he kowtow to the establishment.

We must all act and make our voices heard in defence of the sacred, fundamental freedoms that Assange represents.

Fail to do so, and we may wake up one morning to the silence of a new kind of tyranny.


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