Three extradition cases in the UK illustrate how the U.S. dominates Britain, but Julian Assange’s best chance to go free is to show that this time Washington has gone too far, Joe Lauria reports.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
The formal extradition hearing that will determine whether imprisoned WikiLeaks publish Julian Assange is sent to the United States to stand trail on Espionage Act charges began here on Monday against the backdrop of U.S. domination of Britain in two other extradition cases. They could impact the decision on Assange as his lawyers argue his political case violates the U.S.-UK extradition treaty.
There is simmering anger in Britain over the death last August of 19-year old Harry Dunn after Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a U.S. intelligence agent based in Northamptonshire, turned into the wrong lane and mowed Dunn down on his motorbike.
Saccolas, whom the Mail on Sunday identified as formerly with the CIA, fled Britain back to the U.S. The Crown Prosecution Service charged her in Dunn’s death, but the U.S. refused to extradite her back to Britain, claiming she had diplomatic immunity. She had no official role in the UK.
The Mail on Sunday reported Sunday that Dunn’s parents had been to see British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last month and told him Britain should not extradite Assange to the U.S. until Saccolas is extradited to the UK. The newspaper quoted Dunn’s family lawyer, Radd Seiger, as saying:
“‘Despite its disgraceful refusal to extradite Anne Sacoolas, the US continues to seek the extradition of people in the UK such as Julian Assange. In doing so, they are demonstrating an extraordinary amount of hypocrisy.’
‘As Dominic Raab told us when we met with him on January 27, ‘we are reviewing all options.’ We want him now to exercise the option of not extraditing Julian Assange to the US.’”
With the U.S. refusing to extradite Sacoolas, while demanding at the same time the extradition of Assange, the question of British sovereignty rises to the fore. It is a moment for Britain to show it has the backbone and self-respect to stand up to the United States as an independent nation. The coincidence of the three cases could add pressure from the public on the British courts to link them, providing a possible opening for Assange.
“The [Sacoolas] case is a demonstration of the imbalanced nature of the U.S.-UK extradition treaty,” said Assange lawyer Jen Robinson at a press conference on Tuesday. “That the US is refusing to extradite someone who has been accused of having killed a British teenager in circumstances in which the UK seems ready and willing to extradite a publisher who has won numerous awards for having published information is a pretty stark contrast.”
A Second Case
The Saccolas case came after Home Secretary Priti Patel acceded to a U.S. extradition request earlier this month of British businessman Mike Lynch on a fraud charge. “Her decision opened up Tory divisions, with former Cabinet Minister David Davis using an article in The Mail on Sunday … to brand the US-UK extradition arrangements ‘a bad treaty’” the newspaper reported. It said:
“Mr Davis accuses Ms Patel of ‘spiriting’ Mr Lynch away to America before the verdict and says the decision shows how the extradition treaty is skewed too heavily in favour of America, while doing little to protect Britons.
‘When the US Department of Justice requests the extradition of a UK citizen, we effectively have no choice but to cough them up,’ he writes.
But when UK authorities want to extradite an American ‘the US Secretary of State ‘may’ process the request. What the US ‘may’ choose to do was made crystal clear in the recent case of Anne Sacoolas and the death of Harry Dunn.'”
“The US prosecutors have no requirement to prove their case beyond stating ‘reasonable suspicion’, and there is no prima facie consideration of the charges in the UK,” Davis wrote. “Conversely, for the UK to extradite from the US, we have to clear a higher burden of demonstrating ‘probable cause’, which – unlike in the UK – can be challenged in the courts.”
These cases gave outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn an opening to ask Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Question Time on Feb. 12 whether there was a fair relationship between the U.S. and Britain in regard to extradition cases. Corbyn called the extradition treaty with the U.S. “one-sided.”
“This lop-sided treaty means the U.S. can request extraditions in circumstances that Britain cannot. While the U.S. continues to deny justice to Harry Dunn, will the prime minister commit today to seek an equal and balanced extradition relationship with the United States?”
Johnson, shrewdly aware, no doubt, of Britons’ anger over Sacoolas case, gave a somewhat surprising, and for Assange supporters, encouraging answer. “To be frank I think the honorable gentleman has a point in his characterization of our extradition arrangements with the United States, and I do think there are elements of that relationship that are imbalanced and I certainly think they are worth looking at,” Johnson said.
“This deep disparity with the U.S. is about to be laid bare when the courts decide whether the WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange will be extradited to the U.S. on charges of espionage for exposing war crimes, the murder of civilians and large scale corruption. … Will the prime minister agree with the parliamentary report that is going to the Council of Europe that this extradition should be opposed and the rights of journalists and whistleblowers be upheld for the good of all of us?”
Johnson replied: “I’m not going to comment on any individual case, but it is obvious that the rights of journalists and whistleblowers should be upheld and this government will clearly continue to do that.”
If Johnson’s apparent open-mindedness regarding Assange is at all reflected in District Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision, then Assange’s likely two-prong legal strategy could stand a chance. The first prong is that Assange is being charged for a political offense.
Article 4, Section 1 of the U.S.-Britain extradition treaty says: “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.”
At the final case management hearing at Westminster Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday Assange’s lawyers made clear, as they have before, that the WikiLeaks‘ publishers’ case is unequivocally political as he is being punished for publishing classified material that has been politically embarrassing to the United States.
His lawyers introduced the notion on Wednesday at Westminster Magistrate’s Court that Donald Trump was willing to do a deal with Assange, an indication of the political nature of the case. “This is a highly politicized case and it has been from the outset,” said WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson at a press conference here last Tuesday, covered by CN Live!
“It was political in 2010 when high-level officials and commentators called for the taking down of WikiLeaks, it was political when people were calling out for the assassination of Julian Assange, and in light of recent events in Iraq one should take this seriously.
It was political Mike Pompeo, then CIA director in 2017, decided to depict WikiLeaks as a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service.’ That was a step to take down Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
The case was political when [U.S. Vice President Mike] Pence traveled to Ecuador … to broker a deal … for Julian Assange in exchange for $10 billion of loans from the IMF. So this is a very political case. Julian Assange is a political prisoner. What’s at stake is not just the life of Julian Assange. … It is the future of journalism.”
(Video: Cathy Vogan)
That this is a political case was reinforced by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell outside Belmarsh Prison after he visited Assange on Thursday. “I think this is one of the most important, significant political trials of this generation,” McDonnell said. “I think it’s the Dreyfus case of our age. The way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons for simply exposing the truth in relation to recent wars. We are hoping that in court he will be able to defeat the extradition bid. We don’t believe extradition should be used for political purposes.”
In response to a question from Consortium News, McDonnell said: “If his extradition takes place it will damage the democratic standing of our own country as well as America. We have a long tradition in this country of standing up for journalistic freedom. “
(Video: Cathy Vogan)
The Queen’s Letter
Her Majesty it appears inadvertently handed Assange’s defense a key argument that his case is political. After activist Chris Lonsdale wrote to the monarch asking her to intervene on Assange’s behalf, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman wrote back saying that as “constitutional Sovereign, 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.” In other words, it’s a political case.
Eavesdropping on the Defense
That, in itself calls for a dismissal of the entire case.
— Anonymous Scandinavia ?#Assange?#NoExtradition (@AnonScan) February 22, 2020
The second prong of the legal strategy is to argue that the prosecuting government eavesdropped on privileged discussions between the defendant and his attorneys while he was in exile inside the Ecuadorian embassy. In a normal case that would be grounds for immediate dismissal of the case.
Spanish prosecutors have determined that a Spanish company, UC Global, was contracted by the Ecuadorian government to surveil Assange, and that the company then gave access to the video surveillance to the Central Intelligence Agency. The story was first broken by the Spanish daily El Pais. Judge Baraitser ruled on Wednesday that this evidence will be admissible at Assange’s hearing.
As Assange’s case began in earnest on Monday in Woolwich Crown Court on the grounds of Belmarsh Prison, where he is being held, support is growing among politicians, journalists, jurists, doctors and the general public.
On Tuesday two Australian members of parliament traveled here to visit Assange. At the same press conference Hrafnsson spoke at, the Australian politicians, who are part of a parliamentary committee in support of Assange, called for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to intervene to bring the WikiLeaks publish home to Australia.
“This will establish a precedent that if you are a journalist who does anything that offends any government in the world then you face the very real prospect of being extradited to that country,” said MP Andrew Wilkie, a former whistleblower. “This is a political case and what is at stake is not just the life of Julian Assange. It is about the future of journalism.”
“I hope that Boris Johnson withdraws this case that is before the courts,” MP George Christensen said. “There is a problem here … What if it was a British journalist or an outspoken British citizen who went on holiday to another country that has an extradition treaty with China, and China wanted to extradite that British citizen?”
CN Live! afterward interviewed Christensen:
(Video: Cathy Vogan)
Last week 1,200 journalists released a petition calling for Assange’s release. It read in part:
“All journalists use information from confidential sources so the legal actions are an extremely dangerous precedent that threatens the world’s journalists and news media. The signatories believe Assange’s imprisonment and the court proceedings are a gross miscarriage of Justice.”
They also wrote:
“We urge our fellow journalists to inform the public accurately about this abuse of fundamental rights. We urge all journalists to speak up in defense of Julian Assange at this critical time. Dangerous times call for fearless journalism.”
This came after Doctors for Assange increased their pressure by publishing a letter in the leading British medical journal The Lancet, calling for immediate health care in a university hospital for Assange. Three hundred thousand citizens have also called for Assange not to be extradited. Amnesty International, after long remaining silent, came out in his defense last week, as did Reporters Without Borders.
And on Saturday, about 1,000 supporters marched from Australia House to Parliament Square here. As the march passed by No. 10 Downing Street, a letter was delivered to Johnson from jurists around the world decrying abuses of law against Assange.
Among the speakers at the rally were musician Roger Waters, Assange’s father John Shipton, writer Tariq Ali, former British envoy Craig Murray, Greek economist and activist Yanis Varoufakis and Hrafnsson.
Varoufakis later spoke to Consortium News.
(Video: Cathy Vogan)
Assange faces 175 years in an American prison if he is extradited and convicted in the U.S. of espionage.
(Video: Joe Lauria)
(Video: Joe Lauria)
(Video: Joe Lauria)
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @unjoe .