Media freedom groups and supporters of Julian Assange have asked the Biden administration to drop the US’s pursuit of the WikiLeaks’ founder, saying Donald Trump was opposed to the idea of a “free press”.
In their first appeal to the US government since Joe Biden became president less than three weeks ago, more than 20 groups working to promote human right and a free media, wrote to the department of justice, asking it to drop the case against Mr Assange, saying they were fearful “the way that a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged”.
“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,” said the letter, signed by groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
“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 criminalise these common journalistic practices.”
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There was no immediate response from the White House. But in a short statement released on Monday evening, a spokesperson for the department of justice, said: “We are continuing our efforts to seek the extradition of Julian Assange.”
In early January, a British judge in London turned down a request extradition from the US to send Mr Assange to America to face a total of 18 charges, that accused him of breaches of the Espionage Act and hacking into a Pentagon computer.
The 1917 Espionage Act, passed at a time when the US was at war, does not allow a defendant to argue they were acting in the public interest.
In her ruling on January 4, the the judge, Vanessa Baraitser of Westminster Magistrates’ Court, said she believed the case had been brought in good faith and said the accusations levelled at Mr Assange would constitute a crime in Britain.
Yet, she said she feared the risk the 49-year might take his own life, were he sent to the US, was very high. As a result, she ordered Mr Assange to be remain in jail while the US authorities appealed her decision, and sought to provide additional information about the steps that would be taken to ensure the WikiLeaks’ founder did not harm himself, if he was extradited.
Supporters of Mr Assange welcomed the judge’s ruling in the short term, but said they feared the US would continue to seek to punish the Australian citizen.
He and his supporters say the US wants to stop him and his organisation from publishing details of the West’s deadly actions around the world, often carried out as part of the so-called “war on terror”.
“Julian has the reputation as a speaker of the truth. And WikiLeaks revealed war crimes, and crimes against humanity,” Mr Assange’s father, John Shipton toldThe Independent earlier this year.
“The persecution of Julian is to destroy the capacity of Julian to speak the truth about what’s happened over the last 20 years or so, and the destruction of the Middle East.”
Some of the most powerful information was provided to WiliLeaks by former army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning. She was arrested in 2010, and sentenced her to 35 years in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth.
She spent almost seven years in detention, much of it in solitary confinement, before the sentence was commuted by Barack Obama shortly before he left office.
In their letter, the activists point out the Obama administration, of which Mr Biden was a key part, decided not to pursue the prosecution of Mr Assange. “The Trump administration positioned itself as an antagonist to the institution of a free and unfettered press in numerous ways. Its abuse of its prosecutorial powers was among the most disturbing,” the letter says.
“We are deeply concerned about the way that a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged—perhaps by a future administration—against publishers and journalists of all stripes.”
The New York Times said the department had a deadline of Friday to file a brief in the British court if it wanted to continue to pursue the matter. The department is currently headed by a caretaker official, Monty Wilkinson, the acting attorney general. The letter was addressed to him.
In recent days, Stella Morris, Mr Assange’s partner and the mother of two of his children, has said despite Britain being hit by cold weather, his winter clothes remained in “prison storage”.
She wrote: “Julian should be warm, at home with me and his two sons.”