Assange’s case 'a threat to free speech worldwide'

Julian Assange
Julian Assange. Adapted from image by OperationPaperStorm/Flickr

Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, believes the United States’ application to extradite him from a British prison is a "very serious threat to free speech and journalism in the US and all over the world."

"This is the first time in US history that the Espionage Act has been used to charge a publisher, let alone to then seek the extradition of a foreign publisher to the United States," she said.

"We have had Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, all kinds of free speech groups, coming forward to say this is basically criminalising journalism."

Robinson’s comments were made during a public conversation with journalist Quentin Dempster organised by the journalists' group PEN International at the University of Technology Sydney on November 15.

"PEN International says the precedent being set threatens a free media worldwide”, Robinson said. “Julian is facing a total of 175 years in jail on charges related to WikiLeaks revelations that the US government covered up massive war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Despite claims that Assange failed to redact leaked US security documents to protect individuals against possible harm, Robinson insists Assange and WikiLeaks carried out a thorough "harm minimisation" redaction process.

"No one has ever been harmed as a result of the WikiLeaks revelations," she said, noting that one US official stated the leaks were "highly embarrassing, not harmful."

Robinson told the audience that as part of Assange's legal defence they would be relying on the fact that the British extradition treaty states: "Extradition shall not be granted for a political offence.”

Robinson criticised the widespread use of secret video surveillance against Assange and his lawyers to monitor meetings inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London, where Assange was exiled for seven years.

"We condemn the oppressive nature of the tactics of US agencies against Julian and his legal team," she said.

She expressed concern for Assange's "deteriorating health" due to the harsh conditions he has faced in Belmarsh Prison, where he is effectively being held "20 hours a day in isolation" while waiting for the full extradition case to commence in February.

Assange has also not been provided with a "suitable computer" and proper internet access to help prepare his defence case.

Robinson slammed Australia’s refusal to make representations on Assange's behalf. "The Australian government has failed to support Julian's rights, as an Australian citizen," she said.

"There are now clear parallels between the recent federal police raids on the ABC and a NewsCorp journalist and the Julian Assange case," Robinson said. "We hope that journalists in Australia are now more aware of the threat to press freedom that Julian's case represents.

"It's now really important for people to get involved in the campaign to free Julian. I know he was pleased at the protests which have occurred in Australia, including the scaling of Parliament House with a banner recently.

"We need a huge, grassroots campaign to call for action to defend Julian."

Robinson recalled that when she first became involved with Assange’s legal defence team in 2010, after the release of the Iraq War Logs, he told her: "The US government will chase us to the end of the Earth, but it is my obligation to do this.

"The persecution of Julian has continued to this day," she said. "It has been a privilege for me to work with him and the other human rights lawyers on this case.

"We must continue to fight until we win," Robinson concluded.