Judging by the first week of hearings in February, it doesn’t seem to be important whatever the prosecution says or does, or how the defense responds. The decision already appears to have been made.
There can surely be a surprise when the next three to four weeks of hearings in the extradition case of Julian Assange at Old Bailey are completed. There is still every possibility that when the last word is said in court, Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser will decide that the United States has not made its case and that Assange will not be sent to stand trial in Alexandria, Virginia.
But judging from the first week of hearings in February at Woolwich Crown Court, all signs point to a decision already having been made to extradite Assange, and that the next three to four weeks will be simply justice going through the motions to make it appear that the WikiLeaks publisher is getting a fair trial. There is a name for such a thing:
“A show trial is a public trial in which the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt, and/or innocence, of the defendant. The actual trial has as its only goal the presentation of both the accusation and the verdict to the public so they will serve as both an impressive example and a warning to other would-be dissidents or transgressors.” (Wikipedia)
Is there any better way to describe what has been happening to Assange than the above definition?
A Weak Case
The prosecution’s case against Assange is exceedingly weak, but it doesn’t seem to matter. In the first week, America’s British lawyers didn’t mention the only technicality that Assange can really be charged with: unauthorized possession and dissemination of classified information.
That’s because it’s a charge that directly implicates the rest of the press, which for years has possessed and disseminated secret material and never faced charges. It was an issue so much in the forefront of U.S. thinking that it had its Queen’s Councillor directly address the press gallery at the beginning of February’s proceedings to try to convince the reporters that they were not a target.
But making such an appeal introduced the very notion that the press is indeed at risk in this case. Without the unauthorized possession charge, there isn’t much left for the U.S. to work with. That would be a problem if this were a serious judicial proceeding.
So the U.S. has a couple of fallback positions. One is to accuse Assange of recklessly endangering the lives of U.S. informants in WikiLeaks releases. There is a great deal about this in the Espionage Act indictment. Except informants aren’t mentioned in the Espionage Act and among the statutes cited at the head of the indictment, none mention endangering informants’ lives.
That’s because there does not seem to be any law against it. But even if there were, we know from Australian journalist Mark Davis that it was Assange who was most concerned about redacting informants’ names and did an all-nighter on the weekend before publication to cut as many names out as possible.
There is also the fact that former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the WikiLeaks releases caused no harm beyond embarrassing Washington and other governments.
Rules of Engagement
The prosecution has so far not mentioned the leak of the Collateral Murder video and the reason for that is probably because the video, which presents prima facia evidence of a U.S. war crime, was never classified, and thus not a breach of the Espionage Act.
The prosecution seemed instead to indicate in the first week that they would make a big fuss about Assange publishing the classified rules of engagement regarding the Collateral Murder incident. Those apparently were classified. But the defense has argued that Chelsea Manning leaked the rules, and they were published by WikiLeaks, precisely because they show that the U.S. broke them in gunning down those civilians on a Baghdad street.
Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion
The other fallback for the prosecution is to press the case that Assange conspired with Manning to break into a government computer to steal government documents. The indictment against Assange makes crystal clear that Manning already had legal access to those documents, and that Assange was only helping her to sign in under an administrative name to protect her identity.
The defense then dropped a bombshell in February, asserting that the purpose of the exercise was not to steal documents, but to allow Manning to illegally download music videos and video games, which are forbidden to active duty U.S. personnel. It will be interesting to see where this charge will wind up.
No Access to Lawyers
In a serious proceeding, Assange would have been allowed access to his attorneys to prepare his case. But the British prison system has not allowed this in the weeks leading up to today. Assange was given a read-only computer whose keys were glued shut, and when he happened to get a legal document, it was confiscated from him, at the time he was stripped search and handcuffed 11 times before a hearing in February.
These are not the actions of a judicial system that is serious about seeing justice done.
We are still waiting for a just outcome but are bracing for one long ago decided.