PEN welcomes the decision not to extradite Julian Assange, yet the threat to media freedom remains

Julian Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, speaking on news of the decision not to extradite, photo credit Jason Garcia.

The news today, 4 January 2021, of the decision not to extradite WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange to the USA is hugely welcome. The judge’s decision was made on medical grounds relating to Assange’s poor mental health. She did, however, make clear her view that there are otherwise grounds for the extradition request. The threat to freedom of the media and to investigative journalism therefore remains. The US government has 14 days to submit an appeal the court’s ruling, and Assange will remain detained at least until his bail hearing scheduled for 6 January.

PEN International calls for the withdrawal of the extradition request by the US government against Julian Assange. It also urges the UK courts not to accede to the demand to extradite Assange when it comes to appeal. Meanwhile, Julian Assange should be granted release from prison as a matter of urgency.

Assange has been held since April 2019 in the UK’s Belmarsh High Security Prison for breaching the UK Bail Act. He had taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. That he has been detained for so long under strict conditions in a high security prison without reasonable grounds and places his health at risk, demands that he be granted compensation for this unnecessary internment.

In May 2019, Julian Assange was indicted by the US Justice Department on 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010. He was additionally charged on one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. UN experts, free expression groups and scores of human rights lawyers have made it clear that this prosecution raises profound concerns about freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution and sends a dangerous signal to journalists and publishers worldwide, raising the possibility of legitimate news-gathering activities being criminalised. Through WikiLeaks, Julian Assange published classified material provided by whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, then a military analyst in the US army, which revealed evidence of human rights violations and possible war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. US prosecutors criticized Julian Assange for putting the identity of sources at risk by publishing unredacted materials.

If Assange were to be convicted as charged, this would open the door for further prosecutions of those who seek to disclose malpractice and human rights abuses by those in power by criminalising legitimate journalistic practice. In essence these practices are a) encouraging sources to provide information, b) protecting their anonymity and c) using secure means of communications.

The US Espionage act of 1917 was designed to punish spies and traitors working with foreign governments during wartime. Using it to sentence Chelsea Manning to 35 years in prison was in itself a threat to critical publishing. Manning, it should be noted, has since been pardoned. The fact that Julian Assange could face decades behind bars would cause a chilling effect on critical journalism seeking to expose the truth about crimes committed by governments. The fact that a government decides that a specific document is secret or confidential does not make it so, and on many occasions the public’s right to know overrides the state’s desire to keep matters secret, such as evidence of human rights violations or corruption.

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Snowden case: The State tries to gag a dissenting free voice

On 21st April 2016, Edward Snowden filed a lawsuit, with Norwegian PEN as the intervention party, against the State by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. The action’s purpose is to legally establish that Norway has no right to extradite Snowden to the United States. Snowden’s alleged crime consists of having exposed mass surveillance under the auspices of the American intelligence agency, the NSA. His actions are of a political nature and he cannot therefore be extradited to the United States, according to the Norwegian Extradition Act and International Law.

On 18th May the State, by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, delivered a response to our writ of summons. In the defence’s reply, the Attorney General seeks to dismiss the lawsuit on formal grounds. Then State argues that the case should be handled in accordance with criminal procedure and the plaintiff’s civil action cannot be initiated on formal grounds.

Norwegian PEN stresses that the State has not acknowledged the core issue: the recognition of the political nature of Edward Snowden’s actions, and consequently the necessity of his guaranteed safe arrival in Norway to receive the Ossietzky prize without danger of extradition.

The fact that the State, on formal grounds, is attempting to avoid a judicial review of the Extradition Act and secure Edward Snowden’s safe passage to Norway, confirms the importance of the case from a freedom of expression point of view. The outcome could lead to the gagging of a historically important free voice.

By awarding Edward Snowden the Ossietzky prize, Norwegian PEN seeks to create a debate surrounding the international legal framework on mass surveillance.  We seek to protect and strengthen the role of whistleblowers nationally and internationally and to praise Snowden’s unselfish and personal integrity and courage by warning us all against illegal surveillance.

In a letter from Oslo City Court of 19 May, the plaintiff is granted the opportunity to submit comments to the State’s response before 26 May.

The case is being diligently pursued by our lawyers, Halvard Helle and Emanuel Feinberg at Advokatfirmaet Schjødt.

Contact Norwegian PEN:
William Nygaard, President: 90892601
Hege Newth Nouri, Secretary General; 93002262

Contact Advokatfirmaet Schjødt:
Halvard Helle, Partner: 22018800
Emanuel Feinberg, lawyer: 22018800