Analysis. In a partial victory, Assange will not be extradited to the U.S., but investigative journalism remains under fire. Washington is determined to appeal.

A victory for Assange, but not for investigative journalism

The decision by a British court not to extradite the founder of WikiLeaks to the United States due to issues related to his mental health is a partial victory.

On one hand, the sentence safeguards Julian Assange’s mental and physical condition (although he is still locked up in a British jail) and avoids his transfer to an American maximum-security prison, but on the other hand, it marks a defeat for the defense’s arguments, which aimed to counter the heavy charges coming from the U.S. by placing the activities of their client within the realm of investigative journalism—which they were, as demonstrated by the solidarity of a large part of the media world, which, thanks to the documents brought to light by Assange, has been able to publish and reveal to everyone a number of the atrocities committed by the U.S., and not only.

The hearing that took place on Monday in London, in which the 49-year-old Australian hacker risked being extradited to the U.S. on charges that included espionage (with the risk of a total jail sentence of 175 years), was in fact of fundamental importance, not only for Assange’s life, but for all investigative journalism in general.

The case against him referred to the publication by WikiLeaks of thousands of leaked documents about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, along with embassy cables: material which was released and published in major newspapers around the world between 2010 and 2011.

According to the U.S. prosecution, Assange helped Chelsea Manning, a U.S. defense analyst, violate the Espionage Act (not coincidentally, also invoked when the Pentagon Papers on American wrongdoings in Vietnam were published in the U.S.; the documents were brought to light by Daniel Ellsberg and then published by the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1971).

According to U.S. prosecutors, Assange was an accomplice in Manning’s hacking. However, as the Australian’s defense has repeatedly argued, this was not hacking at all. In truth, the accusation is mostly political: WikiLeaks revealed to the world the cruelties perpetrated by the American army in Afghanistan (including the murder of two Reuters reporters), and this is unacceptable to Washington.

As Valigia Blu wrote, “Manning was later charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and other crimes. The sentence was commuted in 2017, when then-outgoing President Barack Obama decided to grant the former soldier a pardon.”

In 2013, the Obama administration had concluded “that it could never charge Julian Assange with crimes related to the publication of classified documents without criminalizing investigative journalism itself.” In 2019, however, the Trump administration added espionage to the other 17 charges.

In denying Assange’s extradition, the judge motivated her decision based on concerns about “his mental condition.” According to Baraitser, the repeated episodes of self-harm and the suicidal thoughts expressed by Assange during his period of detention in the U.K., in the Belmarsh maximum security prison in London, would make his transfer to the U.S. “unjust and oppressive,” where Assange would also be at risk of committing acts of self-harm, including suicide.

In a week, Assange’s defense team will ask for him to be set free on bail, but there will almost certainly be a U.S. appeal: the spokesman of the U.S. Department of Justice, Marc Raimondi, said that “While we are extremely disappointed in the court’s ultimate decision, we are gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised. In particular, the court rejected all of Mr. Assange’s arguments regarding political offense, fair trial, and freedom of speech. We will continue to seek Mr. Assange’s extradition to the United States.”

Monday evening brought another possibility, coming from Mexico and its president Lopez Obrador: “I’m going to ask the foreign minister to carry out the relevant procedures to request that the UK government releases Mr. Assange and that Mexico offers him political asylum,” Obrador said in a press conference.

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