ASSANGE EXTRADITION: Indictment on Political Offense Runs Counter to Extradition Treaty

The WikiLeaks publisher was indicted for a political offense, writes Marjorie Cohn, which is forbidden by the two-nation treaty.

Assange being forced out of embassy, April 11, 2019. (YouTube)

Julian Assange getting dragged out of Ecuadorian embassy, April 11, 2019. (YouTube)

By Marjorie Cohn

The Trump administration is seeking extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States for trial on charges carrying 175 years in prison. On Feb. 24, a court in the U.K. will hold a hearing to determine whether to grant President Donald Trump’s request. The treaty between the U.S. and the U.K. prohibits extradition for a “political offense.” Assange was indicted for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a classic political offense. Moreover, Assange’s extradition would violate the legal prohibition against sending a person to a country where he is in danger of being tortured.

WikiLeaks Exposed Evidence of U.S. War Crimes

In 2010 and 2011, WikiLeaks published classified documents provided by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. They contained 90,000 reports about the war in Afghanistan, including the Afghan War Logs, which documented more civilian casualties by coalition forces than the U.S. military had previously reported.

(thierry ehrmann, Flickr)

WikiLeaks also published nearly 400,000 field reports about the Iraq War, which contained evidence of U.S. war crimes, over 15,000 previously unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians, and the systematic murder, torture, rape and abuse by the Iraqi army and authorities that were ignored by U.S. forces.

In addition, WikiLeaks published the Guantánamo Files, 779 secret reports that revealed the U.S. government’s systematic violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, by abusing nearly 800 men and boys, ages 14 to 89.

One of the most notorious releases by WikiLeaks was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” video, which showed a U.S. Army Apache helicopter target and fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. More than 12 civilians were killed, including two Reuters reporters and a man who came to rescue the wounded. Two children were injured. Then a U.S. Army tank drove over one of the bodies, severing it in half. Those acts constitute three separate war crimes prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual.

Manning was arrested in 2010 and held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for 11 months. She was forced to stand nude during daily inspections. The former United Nations special rapporteur on torture said her treatment was cruel, inhuman and degrading, and possibly constituted torture. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and after she had served seven years, former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence as he left office.

Two years later, in May 2019, Manning was jailed for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury about Assange and WikiLeaks. She remains in custody.

On Dec. 31, 2019, Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, released a letter he had sent to the U.S. government expressing “serious concern at the reported use of coercive measures against Ms. Manning, particularly given the history of her previous conviction and ill-treatment in detention.” He said her incarceration amounted to torture and urged that she be released without delay.

Two days later, Manning pledged to stay the course, saying, “My long-standing objection to the immoral practice of throwing people in jail without charge or trial, for the sole purpose of forcing them to testify before a secret, government-run investigative panel, remains strong.”

Facing 175 Years in Prison if Extradited

Wall portrait of Julian Assange. (thierry ehrmann/flickr)

Meanwhile, Sweden issued an arrest warrant in 2010 for Assange on alleged rape and sexual molestation allegations.  Assange was questioned by Swedish prosecutors and then left for the U.K., where he was arrested and later released on house arrest.

After Sweden’s request for extradition of Assange was granted by the U.K. Supreme Court in 2012, he was given asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he lived for seven years. A new Ecuadorian government revoked Assange’s asylum in April 2019 and allowed U.K. authorities to enter the embassy and arrest him.

In 2017, Sweden dropped its investigation of Assange. On May 1, 2019, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail by the U.K. court for jumping bail and now faces extradition to the United States. Assange stands charged by the Trump administration with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and conspiracy with Manning to crack a password on a Defense Department computer. He could be sentenced to 175 years in prison.

Assange’s health has severely deteriorated. On May 31, 2019, UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer declared that Assange exhibited signs of prolonged exposure to psychological torture. During his years of isolation in the Ecuadorian embassy, the U.K. government denied him permission to go to a hospital for treatment, resulting in seriously worsening medical conditions.

“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law,” Melzer said.

Treaty Forbids Extradition for Political Offenses

The 2003 extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K. states, “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” It is the “requested state” (in this case, the U.K.) that “determines that the request [by the U.S.] was politically motivated.”

Although there is no clear definition of “political offense,” it routinely includes treason, sedition and espionage, and offenses directed against state power. Assange published “true information obtained from a whistleblower, making the charges against him political in nature, rather than criminal,” Robert Mackey wrote at The Intercept.

Nils Melzer. (UN)

The Obama administration did not indict Assange because it didn’t want to establish “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.

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 noted. Indeed, many of the documents WikiLeaks released were published in collaboration with the Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel. The outlets published articles based on documents WikiLeaks had released, including “logs of significant combat events in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Assange is being targeted for “political offenses” because WikiLeaks published evidence of U.S. war crimes. He cannot be extradited to the United States under the terms of the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty.

Convention Against Torture

The Convention against Torture has a provision called non-refoulement that forbids extradition to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe a person would be in danger of being tortured. Since Manning was tortured by being held in solitary confinement for 11 months, it is likely Assange would face a similar fate if he were extradited to the United States.

Moreover, a country has a duty to refuse extradition when it would violate fundamental rights, such as the right to be free from torture and cruel treatment.

The Johannesburg Principles of national security, freedom of expression and access to information, which were adopted by a group of experts in 1995, have been widely cited by judges, lawyers, journalists, academics and civil society. They provide, “No person may be punished on national security grounds for disclosure of information if the public interest in knowing the information outweighs the harm from the disclosure.”

Significantly, WikiLeaks’ publication of the Iraq War documents, including evidence of Iraqi torture centers the U.S. had established, actually saved lives. After the Iraqi government refused to grant civil and criminal immunity to U.S. soldiers, Obama was compelled to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Deny Extradition of Assange to US

Assange’s extradition hearing will begin on Feb. 24 in Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s London courtroom. More than 70 lawyers and legal academics, as well as at least 12 former heads of state, have signed a letter that will be sent to the U.K. Home Secretary, stating, “The fact that the charges are brought under the Espionage Act further reveals that this is a matter of a pure political offence [citation omitted]. There is broad international consensus that such offences should not be subject to extradition [citation omitted].”

Veterans for Peace and the National Lawyers Guild have endorsed a petition urging the judge to deny extradition because Assange is charged with a political offense. It reads, “The essence of Assange’s ‘crime’ is that he published documents and videos which revealed the reality of US military and political actions.”

Assange has been awarded Consortium News’s Gary Webb Freedom of the Press Award for “practicing the highest order of journalism – revealing crimes of the state.”

The Trump administration singled out Assange to send a clear message to journalists that they publish material critical of U.S. policy at their peril. “The extradition of Assange would mean the end of journalistic investigations into the inner workings of power,” Chris Hedges wrote at Truthdig.

By the very terms of the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, and consistent with the Torture Convention’s non-refoulement provision, Judge Baraister must deny Trump’s request for the Assange’s extradition to the United States.

Click here for information about how to oppose Assange’s extradition.

To sign the lawyers/academics letter to the U.K. Home Secretary, send an email to and you will receive a copy of the letter.

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 advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.”

Copyright Truthout and reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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15 comments for “ASSANGE EXTRADITION: Indictment on Political Offense Runs Counter to Extradition Treaty

  1. jmg
    February 22, 2020 at 10:40

    Amnesty International has launched a new global campaign yesterday: Julian Assange.

    See on the web and @amnesty on Twitter.

    • John Pretty
      February 22, 2020 at 13:41

      Good that some in their organisation have awakened at last jmg.

      However, the amnesty uk twitter feed is still empty of anything relating to Julian.

  2. February 22, 2020 at 06:41

    Think on this:
    Australian citizen living in Sweden, Britain and the Ecuador Embassy charged with breaking a law of a country he has never been to.
    Extrateritoriality – i thought it ended with China’s 1910 revolution.

  3. February 22, 2020 at 02:12

    I agree. Free Assange. Free Manning and Bring Snowden home and give him a medal.
    Glad to see Assange was awarded the Gary Webb honor.

  4. February 21, 2020 at 23:38

    “Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.” 18 U.S. Code §?4.Misprision of felony

    Manning and Assange had knowledge of crimes. Making them known to “some judge or other person in civil or military authority” was moot as those were the institutions hiding the crimes. Thus people in those institutions were committing crimes of “misprision of felony”. I am not a lawyer, but American legal system is badly twisted by allowing officials to commit crimes and giving them immunity, while abusing those who disclose those crime, which is both moral and legal duty.

    In my opinion, Manning violated illegal orders, classifying information that prevents prosecution of crimes is in itself a crime. Especially that these were heinous crimes. That makes him innocent, and cooperation with innocent actions should not be a crime in a sane legal system.

    • John Pretty
      February 22, 2020 at 13:39

      Piotr, Julian is not an American citizen and has never set foot in the United States.

      Does the United States have the right to prosecute anyone in the world? US law is not International Law.

  5. February 21, 2020 at 21:44

    assange is a moral and intellectual giant by comparison to the pus filled veins and micro brains of his enemies in the ruling circles and their professional servant class media and political workers, but i wish we would stop referring only to some murders as “war crimes” which accepts the moral degeneracy of war’s mass murders as somehow nice and tidy and not criminal if committed in adherence to the rules of such slaughters…war is the crime, murder is the crime and those crimes are not better if while bashing skulls and burning people to death the murderers adopt filthy “rules” of war…how about a geneva convention on rape and child molesting that says they’re okay if the rapist-molester wears white gloves? assange is a war victim still thankfully alive unlike the tens of millions slaughtered in these supposedly “legal” mass murders.

  6. Jack Flanigan
    February 21, 2020 at 21:34

    Australia should be included in the “award” we have some of the biggest A23577hols running the country and pathetic media and gutless andpathetic public = to the UK and the US.

  7. Vera Gottlieb
    February 21, 2020 at 11:37

    Two peas in a pod…As if the US or the UK have ever given a hoot about any law that didn’t suit them.

  8. Tony
    February 21, 2020 at 08:12

    Worth bearing in mind that one very terrible case of injustice came about because Britain extradited someone to the USA.

    James Earl Ray was framed and given a 99 year sentence for the assassination of Martin Luther King.
    Whilst in prison awaiting trial, he was visited by Percy Foreman who offered to represent him.

    Dick Cavett: “A lot of people in the legal profession were astounded at how you got [James Earl Ray] to change the plea [from “not guilty” to “guilty”].”

    Percy Foreman: “I didn’t get him to change the plea. [Laughing] I simply told him that I thought he would be executed if he didn’t.”

    —The Dick Cavett Show, June 9, 1969

    Interestingly, Foreman had close links to Lyndon Johnson.

    After he was sentenced, Ray wrote to the judge to ask for a trial. But then something very curious happened: Judge Preston battle died of a heart attack.

    The existence of a CIA ‘heart attack’ gun was revealed in 1975 when CIA Director William Colby was asked about it by Senator Frank Church when he appeared before his Senate committee.

  9. MrK
    February 21, 2020 at 02:30

    “Although there is no clear definition of “political offense,” it routinely includes treason, sedition and espionage, and offenses directed against state power. Assange published “true information obtained from a whistleblower, making the charges against him political in nature, rather than criminal,” Robert Mackey wrote at The Intercept.”

    Crimes against the state like espionage are political offenses.

    The Swedish prosecutors in a different case:

    “If it’s a political offence, you can’t extradite a person” to a country outside the EU, said Per Clareus, a spokesman for Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. “And espionage is usually considered a political crime,” he added.

    Julian Assange is charged under 18 USC Chapter 37 titled Espionage And Censorship.

    The May 2019 inditement: Counts 1-17: 18 USC Chapter 37 (Espionage And Censorship), Par. 793 (b, c, d, e, g)
    Count 18: 18 USC Paragraphs 371 (conspiracy) and 1030 (computer intrusion)

    Notice that they had to add conspiracy to Count 18, because the computer intrusion never happened. No password was cracked by Wikileaks as requested by Manning, and no more data was provided than was already being provided through the legal access Manning had to the computer and network on which she discovered the Collateral Murder video to begin with. Also, the video was evidence of a crime, which made it’s classification itself illegal – a felony for whoever classified it.

    Lastly, Buckingham Palace stated they cannot comment because “Her Majesty acts on the advice of her Ministers and remains strictly non-political at all times. This is, therefore, not a matter in which The Queen would intervene.”


    • John Pretty
      February 22, 2020 at 13:36

      Quoting you:

      Lastly, Buckingham Palace stated they cannot comment because “Her Majesty acts on the advice of her Ministers and remains strictly non-political at all times. This is, therefore, not a matter in which The Queen would intervene.”

      I think that may have been a fortunate, but unintentional slip by the Palace. Serendipity. The Queen as a constitutional monarch can never intervene in this type of matter. I hope that Julian’s lawyers can make use of it.

  10. GMCasey
    February 20, 2020 at 22:16

    If Julian Assange is extradited and punished for telling the Truth—-then lies truly rule the world. I suppose that if the UK is heartless and owned by the U.S. —he will be extradited . Trump will revel in this—as Truth and Justice melt away—2 nations will melt down faster than the heat of the climate crisis. I guess too, that the ORWELL World Travesty of Justice Action Award can be shared by both the U.S. and the UK.Still —– but a lot of us will refuse to become Winston Smith

    • jack flanigan
      February 21, 2020 at 21:28

      Australia should also share in the “award”

  11. Joe Tedesky
    February 20, 2020 at 21:50

    What always amazes me is that Australian born Julian Assange by his reporting the news as he sees it is prosecuted by the American government. I question too how far the strong arm of America’s revenge will reach through out the world of international journalism.

Comments are closed.