Barring Extradition on Mental Health Concerns: Assange

Talal Hangari 12 December 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Anglo-American war on press freedom continues: The UK High Court has ruled, against an earlier judgement, that Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States. A District Judge found in January 2021 that it would be oppressive to extradite Assange because of his poor mental health, the likelihood that he would be held in harsh isolated conditions, and the consequent risk of suicide. The inadequacies of that judgement wrongly accepted that the US prosecution of Assange was not politically motivated and that it did not violate Assange’s right to freedom of expression. In any event, at issue in the US appeal was the question of whether it was right to bar extradition on the basis of mental health concerns.

The High Court, equipped with ‘assurances’ from Washington, ruled that Assange could be extradited because these assurances supposedly eliminated the risks considered by the District Court. The assurances given by the US government are these: that Assange will not be subjected to restrictive Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) (unless he commits a ‘future act’ that would justify them); will be able to serve his time in Australia; will receive clinical and psychological treatment if recommended by a clinician; and will not be held at the maximum security ADX facility in Florence, Colorado (unless he commits a ‘future act’ that would justify this).

According to the High Court judgement, ‘There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say. There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.’ Of course—when has there ever been an example of the American government lying, particularly when it comes to matters of ‘national security’? One would require the naivety of a man who studied law at Oxford—and is friends with the Tory minister who planned Assange’s arrest and called him a ‘worm’ (as one of the two High Court judges happened to be)—to take such assurances at face value.

Consider the extent of Washington’s attempts to apprehend Assange. When the US indicted Assange in 2019 it took the unprecedented step of prosecuting a publisher under the Espionage Act of 1917, which raises the problem of having to prosecute all media sources that publish classified information. According to the Washington Post, the Department of Justice under Obama decided not to prosecute Assange for this reason in 2013. Several of the counts in the US indictment refer to the ‘Disclosure of National Defense Information’, and another refers to ‘Conspiracy to Obtain and Disclose National Defense Information’. This antiquated First World War-era law is being used to criminalise the ordinary practices and procedures of investigative journalism. There were even efforts by American intelligence officials to classify the likes of Assange as ‘information brokers’ instead of journalists, thus bypassing free speech protections. There are clear political reasons, namely, Assange and his colleagues’ exposure of America’s war crimes, mass surveillance, and rights violations, that the US so desperately wants to silence him.

Consider also the hostile terms in which Assange and WikiLeaks were attacked by senior American officials: in 2017 then CIA director Mike Pompeo described WikiLeaks as a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’. That year, as an investigation by Yahoo! News citing numerous former US officials has shown, the Trump administration hatched plans ‘at the highest levels’ to abduct or murder Assange. This included a proposal to ‘break into the embassy, drag [Assange] out and bring him to where we want,’ though this suggestion was reportedly dashed by the consideration that ‘This isn’t Pakistan or Egypt — we’re talking about London.’ There is also testimony from a former employee of Spanish security company UC Global that the US was surveilling Assange during his time in the Ecuadorian embassy, including monitoring his conversations with his lawyers. The Biden administration’s decision to continue prosecuting Assange is characteristic of the anti-democratic bipartisan consensus in Washington, which holds that the American public must be prevented from scrutinising the criminal behaviour of the government. After all this, are US assurances seriously to be taken as ‘good faith’ commitments? Is the word of the US government really so pristine?

It almost goes without saying that human rights and press freedom groups have unanimously condemned the High Court’s ruling, and for good reason. This case cannot be abstracted from politics. The American government has an obvious political interest in pursuing Assange—the mafia tactics of this rogue state prescribe that anyone who stands up to the world’s boss must be crushed and made an example of. Washington’s hope is that the next time a journalist uncovers information about severe human rights abuses by America and its allies, they’ll stop to consider that Assange is rotting in a cell, and leave the ugly truth buried. After all, the law only cuts one way: those respectable American officials who committed the atrocities that Assange and WikiLeaks exposed have not had to suffer a day in prison for their actions. Such is the glorious liberal order we inhabit.

The British ruling elite, aided by a compliant media, has obediently served the US in depriving Assange of his liberty and punishing him. Assange’s lawyers will now appeal to the Supreme Court. Every believer in the cause of freedom and democracy should hope that the US extradition request is ultimately rejected.