The Final Stop on Assange’s WikiLeaks Journey May Be Life in U.S. Prison
Julian Assange, one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers, may be nearing the final stop on his storybook journey. On September 7, 2020, Assange’s long-delayed evidentiary hearing resumed in London, United Kingdom, for possible extradition to the United States after being delayed for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic . Assange rose to prominence in 2006 following the creation of his non-profit whistleblowing organization, WikiLeaks, and to international infamy in 2010 when WikiLeaks provided a series of leaks to Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst. The leaks included classified American war logs from both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as classified diplomatic cables belonging to the U.S. State Department from embassies and diplomatic missions around the world in an operation commonly referred to as Cablegate . Though Manning was arrested and eventually convicted in 2013 of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, Assange evaded arrest by seeking asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London from 2012 until April of 2019, when his asylum was withdrawn by Ecuadorian authorities following a series of disputes .
Assange has been wary of extradition to the United States in the decade since the initial leaks. He has done all he can to avoid it, even going so far as to live in an embassy for seven years without ever leaving it. His fears have become reality in the courtroom. His defense team claims that, should he be extradited, a maximum sentence of 175 years is possible, with a minimum sentence likely in the range of 12 to 15 years . Assange’s team is arguing that his politics, Australian citizenship, and his affiliations with hackers and other whistleblowers would keep him from having a fair trial in the U.S. They cited the words of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as evidence of extreme anti-Assange bias, who called WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” . On top of this, President Donald Trump himself has said that he wants to jail him and “keep him quiet” . Assange’s team is also worried that he will be sent to a supermax federal prison in Colorado if extradition is allowed, which currently harbors some of the world’s most dangerous prisoners such as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and a number of al-Qaeda terrorists. Additionally, they are adamant that Assange would be at a “high risk” of suicide should he be sent to the United States .
On the other side of the case, American prosecutors have presented their own arguments for Assange’s extradition. They have stated that the WikiLeaks founder has violated the Espionage Act by accessing and releasing top-secret government files, just as Manning was convicted of doing, by conspiring to obtain and disclose the hundreds of thousands of pages of secret government documents that constituted the 2010 leaks. Prosecutors have also charged Assange with conspiracy to commit “computer intrusions” by helping Manning attempt to hack a password to obtain access to further government files, as well as with soliciting hackers to break into Icelandic government computers to steal information. They claim that Assange’s defense is exaggerating the claim that he would receive a years-long sentence, but rather something in the 48-63-month long range. A WikiLeaks lawyer has also stated that Dana Rohrabacher, a California congressman, suggested that President Trump could pardon Assange as President Barack Obama did for Chelsea Manning in 2017 . In return, Assange would have to say that Russia had nothing to do with a hack and leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee prior to the 2016 American presidential election, which resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz .
Many believe that a dangerous precedent has been set by the U.S. Justice Department since they have already indicted Assange, and that if the U.S. successfully wins extradition and transports him to American soil, it may be difficult to prevent an outcome that greatly harms Americans’ First Amendment rights . Critics of this viewpoint argue that the WikiLeaks publication of unredacted material with the names of sources under Assange had put the lives of many U.S. forces at risk. It is also entirely possible that even if Assange manages to avoid extradition, the crimes he is alleged to have committed would also be prosecutable in the United Kingdom under the Official Secrets Act, which provides protection of state secrets for national security purposes . The fate of Assange’s future will likely be decided in the coming weeks as the trial hears from more witnesses and a decision is passed down from Judge Vanessa Baraitser. Assange will then learn whether he will be sent to the U.S. and likely face years of prison, or if he will be allowed to remain in Britain and possibly have a chance at returning to the life he was forced to give up eight years ago.