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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/11/20

Assange Faces Extradition for Exposing US War Crimes

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From Truthout

Julian ASSANGE, painted portrait -- Wikileaks
Julian ASSANGE, painted portrait -- Wikileaks
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Three weeks of testimony in Julian Assange's extradition hearing in London underscored WikiLeaks's extraordinary revelation of U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guanta'namo Bay. But the Trump administration is seeking to extradite Assange to the United States to stand trial for charges under the Espionage Act that could cause him to spend 175 years in prison.

Assange founded WikiLeaks during the Bush administration's "war on terror," which was used as a pretext to start two illegal wars and carry out a widespread program of torture and abuse of prisoners at Guanta'namo and the CIA black sites. On October 8, 2011, Assange told a Stop the War Coalition rally in London's Trafalgar Square, "If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth."

In 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks published classified material that Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning had provided to the organization. Manning was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking the documents. As he left office, Barack Obama commuted her sentence to the seven years she had already served. That commutation provoked "tremendous anger" in the Trump administration and drew Trump's attention to Assange, Eric Lewis testified. Lewis, chairman of the board of Reprieve U.S. and lawyer for Guanta'namo and Afghan detainees, called this "a politically motivated prosecution."

The files that WikiLeaks published contained 90,000 reports about the war in Afghanistan, including the Afghan War Logs, which documented a greater number of civilian casualties by coalition forces than the U.S. military had reported.

In addition, WikiLeaks published nearly 400,000 field reports about the Iraq War, more than 15,000 unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians, and the systematic murder, torture and rape by the Iraqi army and authorities that were ignored by U.S. forces.

WikiLeaks also published the Guanta'namo Files, 779 secret reports constituting evidence of the U.S. government's abuse of approximately 800 men and boys, ages 14 to 89. That abuse violated the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Perhaps the most notorious release by WikiLeaks was the 2007 "Collateral Murder" video, which depicts a U.S. Army Apache helicopter target and fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. At least 18 civilians were killed, including two Reuters reporters and a man who came to rescue the wounded. Two children were injured. A U.S. Army tank drove over one of the bodies, cutting it in half. The video contained evidence of three separate war crimes prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual.

As they are firing on the civilians, U.S. gunmen can be heard saying, "Look at those dead bastards." In his written testimony, investigative journalist Nicky Hager drew a parallel between the Collateral Murder video and the t nse elevision image of George Floyd screaming "I can't breathe."

Assange Cannot Be Extradited for a Political Offense

The 2003 U.S.-U.K. Extradition Treaty forbids extradition for a political offense. Although the treaty doesn't define "political offense," it generally includes espionage, treason, sedition and crimes against state power. Trump is asking the U.K. to extradite Assange for exposing war crimes. This is a classic political offense. Assange is charged under the Espionage Act and espionage constitutes a political offense as well.

Like the heroic whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who helped end the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Assange is the target of the U.S. government's wrath for revealing evidence of war crimes by the United States. "I observe the closest of similarities to the position I faced, where the exposure of illegality and criminal acts institutionally and by individuals was intended to be crushed by the administration carrying out those illegalities," Ellsberg, who was also prosecuted under the Espionage Act, noted in his written testimony

Ellsberg also wrote in his testimony that he considers the WikiLeaks publications "to be amongst the most important truthful revelations of hidden criminal state behavior that have been made public in U.S. history." He views them "to be of comparable importance" to his own revelations, in performing "such a radical change of understanding." Ellsberg says "[t]he American public needed urgently to know what was being done routinely in their name, and there was no other way for them to learn it than by unauthorized disclosure."

Assange's Prosecution Violates Freedom of Press

While the Obama administration declined to file criminal charges against Assange for fear of setting a dangerous precedent, Team Trump demonstrated no such forbearance. By charging Assange under the Espionage Act, Trump is making him a poster boy for its full court press against the media, which he calls "the enemy of the people." Assange's prosecution would send an ominous message to all journalists: report the unvarnished truth at your peril.

No media outlet or journalist has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information, which is protected First Amendment activity. Journalists are permitted to publish material that was illegally obtained by a third person and is a matter of public concern. The U.S. government has never prosecuted a journalist or newspaper for publishing classified information, an essential tool of journalism.

Information-gathering, reporting and disclosure fit the classic definition of activity protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. There is no distinction between what WikiLeaks did and what The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El País and The Guardian did as well. They all published articles based on documents WikiLeaks released. This is the reason Obama administration which prosecuted an enormous number of whistleblowers considered, but refrained from, indicting Assange. They feared establishing "a precedent that could chill investigative reporting about national security matters by treating it as a crime," according to Charlie Savage of The New York Times. Team Obama could not distinguish between what WikiLeaks did and what news media organizations like the Times "do in soliciting and publishing information they obtain that the government wants to keep secret," Savage wrote. This was called the "New York Times problem."

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Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and a member of the National Advisory Board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. See  (more...)

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