Four years ago, on April 11, 2019, the Metropolitan Police entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London and seized Australian journalist Julian Assange. Officially, British police were arresting the WikiLeaks founder for the misdemeanor offense of bail hopping. But the real reason for the arrest was that the United States was seeking Assange’s extradition.
Assange had lived inside the embassy since the government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, correctly fearing Assange would be prosecuted in the United States for his journalism, granted him asylum. He never made it to Ecuador, as the British government staged a siege of the embassy, trapping him in a situation a United Nations working group deemed arbitrary detention. But Correa’s successor, President Lenín Moreno, reversed course, revoking Assange’s asylum and allowed British police to enter the embassy. “The greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history, Lenín Moreno, allowed the British police to enter our embassy in London to arrest Assange,” Correa said afterward. “What he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget.”
That same day, the United States unsealed an indictment against Assange for “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.” The bail-hopping charges, it would later be revealed, were brought by the UK at the request of the White House as part of a plan to arrest him. A month later, the United States would bring seventeen more counts, stemming from Assange’s role in publishing revelations about US war crimes and abuses of power.
Although Assange’s situation is dire, there is cause for hope. On the anniversary of his arrest, there was an outpouring of support for Assange from lawmakers around the world. This is not the first time international lawmakers have called on the United States to halt its prosecution of Assange. But for the first time, they were joined by some US congressmembers.
Four years later, Assange remains trapped in Belmarsh Prison. It is one of Britain’s harshest prisons. Its use during the “war on terror” has earned it comparisons with Guantanamo Bay. And Assange’s health is increasingly precarious, leading his family to charge he is the victim of a “slow-motion murder.”
Thankfully, legislators from a number of countries are now coming together to protest Assange’s prosecution. In the UK, a letter opposing the extradition led by Labour MP and Socialist Campaign Group member Richard Burgon garnered the support of thirty-five MPs and lords. This included not just fellow Labour members, but members of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, a Green, and even a Conservative.
An Australian effort led by the independent MP Andrew Wilkie received forty-eight signatures, with every party in Parliament represented on a letter that constituted over 20 percent of the total parliament. In Mexico, Citlalli Hernández, a senator with Morena, and Manuel Vázquez, a Morena member of the Chamber of Deputies and survivor of the Ayotzinapa massacre, gathered signatures from ninety-seven of their fellow lawmakers. In Brazil, ninety-nine members of Parliament and the Senate sent a letter delivered to the US embassy.
Unlike in the past, this time American lawmakers joined their counterparts abroad to demand Assange’s release. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) led a letter that was joined by congressmembers Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), Greg Casar (D-TX), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). The letter cited the nearly unanimous opposition to the prosecution from press freedom groups, as well as opposition from papers like the New York Times and the Guardian. Many of those papers worked with WikiLeaks on some of the very publications Assange is indicted for. On Twitter, Tlaib did not mince words, stating, “Four years ago today, Julian Assange was arrested for publishing the truth.”
When Julian Assange was first indicted, the group I work for, Defending Rights & Dissent, immediately began visiting congressional offices to educate them about the Assange indictment and the larger threat posed by the Espionage Act. There was (and remains) an incredible amount of misinformation about the issue in Congress. And even many people who privately understand the issue are afraid to speak out against the indictment. While it is impossible not to note the more modest number of signatories on the US letter compared to those from other parts of the world, the bravery of those who signed the letter and its historical significance must be celebrated.
This letter was made possible, in large part, by the work of civil liberties groups like Defending Rights & Dissent to educate Congress about the case, the decision of the Progressive International to hold a session of the Belmarsh Tribunal in DC, and the tireless work of grassroots activists to pressure their representatives to represent their convictions. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.
As any cursory review of social media discussions of Assange reveals, those with the strongest opposition to his freedom have the least to say about the contents of the indictment. This is true inside the beltway, as well. When I reported on a discussion of Assange held by the Michael V. Hayden Center (named for the former NSA and CIA director), the anti-Assange panelists made it clear that they didn’t want to actually discuss the contents of the case against Assange. Claims of harm to national security, no matter how spurious, are always a great cudgel.
But with Assange it is not just the claims of unspecified harm to national security that animate his most vociferous detractors. WikiLeaks published a series of deeply unflattering internal Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that showed deep-seated bias against the Bernie Sanders campaign. As a result, a number of supporters of Hillary Clinton have tried to scapegoat WikiLeaks for her loss. In 2019, the DNC attempted to sue WikiLeaks over their publishing, but a judge threw out the suit on First Amendment grounds.
Robert Mueller also weighed the issue and declined to bring any criminal charges due to a lack of any evidence tying WikiLeaks to any hacking and noting their publication of the DNC emails was protected by the First Amendment. The indictment against Assange pertains only to information published from 2010 to 2011 about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the corrupt dealings of the US State Department. Yet some seem willing to champion his persecution and torture for exposing war crimes in order to avenge the 2016 election.
In an internal letter to colleagues published by the Intercept, Tlaib wrote:
I know many of us have very strong feelings about Mr. Assange, but what we think of him and his actions is really besides the point here. The fact of the matter is that the [way] in which Mr. Assange is being prosecuted under the notoriously undemocratic Espionage Act seriously undermines freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Tlaib is correct to urge her colleagues to put aside their feelings about Assange. While I believe that WikiLeaks is one of the boldest, most important journalist endeavors of this century, the stakes are far higher than the fate of one individual: they are nothing less than the future of the First Amendment.
The world has long rallied against the United States’ persecution of Assange, and members of Congress are finally joining in. We are still far from where we need to be, but we are gaining momentum. The Left must stand with those who are willing to speak out against this persecution.