Australian legal adviser to Julian Assange Greg Barns SC asserts that “one of the most dangerous features of” the journalist’s “case is the idea that the US can seek to extradite any person, anywhere in the world, if they upset US interests”.
The barrister made the remark to accompany an open letter that 152 legal experts and 15 lawyers’ associations have issued to UK prime minister Boris Johnson, calling out his nation for acting in violation of both domestic and international laws in regard to its part in the US extradition case.
The names of a number of other notable Australian lawyers are attached to the letter, which is calling for the “long overdue” release of the Wikileaks’ founder. These include human rights barrister Julian Burnside QC and National Justice Project director George Newhouse.
The legal professionals posit that Assange’s extradition would be illegal as it risks an unfair trial, the political nature of the charges prohibits it under the UK-US Extradition Treaty, while the charges that Julian faces violate freedom of the press and the right to know.
A fresh indictment
Lawyers for Assange released the open letter to coincide with last Friday’s Westminster Magistrates Court proceedings, which marked the final administrative deliberations before the substantive extradition hearings, which are scheduled to commence on 7 September.
However, Friday’s hearing may result in further delay to the extradition proceedings, which were originally set to take place in May but were then postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reason for another potential hold up is that 24 hours before Assange’s 14 August court appearance, the US Department of Justice lodged a superseding indictment.
And while the fresh indictment still contains 17 espionage charges and one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, it extends the scope of the conduct captured within the charges and it broadens the number of people Assange is alleged to have conspired with beyond Chelsea Manning.
Assange’s legal team now have until 19 August to apply for a further postponement to the extradition hearings.
The new indictment has been lodged 14 months after the UK court deadline, and it requires the Australian journalist to be rearrested.
Torture likely in the US
Lawyers for Assange also called out the UK government for its part in the potential extradition, as the principle of non-refoulement contained within the 1951 Convention on Refugees prohibits sending a person to a country where there are grounds to believe they will be tortured.
UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer maintains that Julian will be tortured if he is sent to the US.
While veteran Australian journalist John Pilger warned last February that if Assange is extradited, he “will be placed in a cage in the bowels of a supermax prison” and “cut off from all contact with the rest of humanity”.
Assange was arrested by UK authorities on 11 April last year. On the same day, the US arrested him by proxy over the computer interference charge. That single count was then increased with multiple charges under the US Espionage Act, which together carry a maximum prison term of 175 years.
“This extraterritorial reach is contrary to the rule of law and a dangerous attempt to undermine freedom of speech, a right all of us should cherish,” Mr Barns added last week.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.