Press freedom groups call on Biden DOJ to drop Assange charges
Two dozen major human rights and press freedom organizations are calling on the new Department of Justice to drop the charges against Julian Assange. The cosigners have written to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson in a letter warning that “the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.”
The letter was organized by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and signed by leading rights groups including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and PEN America.
The cosigners write,
“The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.”
The letter comes just days before the United States’ deadline to appeal the ruling in Julian Assange’s extradition hearing. On January 4, British Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked Assange’s extradition last month on medical grounds, and the U.S. announced its intent to appeal that decision. It has until February 12 to file its appeal.
The New York Times’ Charlie Savage writes, “The litigation deadline may force the new administration to confront a decision: whether to press on with the Trump-era approach to Mr. Assange, or to instead drop the matter.”
Then-President Trump’s Department of Justice requested Assange’s extradition and indicted him on unprecedented charges for the 2010 publication of the Iraq and Afghan war logs, the State Department cables, and Guantanamo Bay Detainee Assessment Briefs. The indictment threatens Assange with 175 years in prison, and it would mark the end of the First Amendment’s protection of the right to publish.
But Trump’s outgoing prosecutor Zachary Terwilliger said he wasn’t sure if his successors in President Biden’s Department of Justice would keep up the prosecution. Biden’s nomination for Attorney General, Merrick Garland, is a longtime federal judge who has taken strong positions in favor of robust press freedom. Garland’s confirmation hearing has been delayed.
If the U.S. submits its appeal application in the UK this Friday, a High Court judge will review the submission, decide whether to grant the appeal, and then schedule oral arguments. The rights groups’ write,
“We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment.”
The Obama-Biden Justice Department looked into charging Assange back in 2013 for the same publications, but decided against doing so due to the dangers such a prosecution would pose to press freedom.