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Julian Assange: the man behind the protests

If you’ve walked to the King’s College Strand campus over the last week, chances are you’ve come across the wave of protests that hit the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday and Thursday. But why were there protests and who was behind them?

The protests took place on the 27th and 28th of October, with the start of the UK High Court’s two-day hearing of the U.S. extradition appeal for Julian Assange. They were organised by WISE Up Action, a network claiming to be in solidarity with the Australian journalist, cyber security activist and whistleblower.

Who is Julian Assange?

Assange first founded the non-profit organisation, WikiLeaks, in 2006. But he rose to prominence in the public eye in 2010, after WikiLeaks published thousands of classified documents on certain war crimes committed by the U.S. during the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. These included the killing of civilians, bombings in Iraq, and the famous Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incident.

Background to the extradition appeal

In November of the same year, an international arrest warrant was issued against Assange by the Swedish government for sexual misconduct. Assange denied the claims, stating it was a plot to extradite him to the U.S. for trial. Skipping his bail and seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K., he was granted asylum on the grounds of political persecution.

However, after 7 years of granted asylum, the Ecuadorian embassy terminated their aid to Assange in 2019, due to his “outrageous” behaviour. This was followed immediately by his arrest and detention at the Belmarsh maximum-security prison, whereby he was charged with a 50-week sentence for skipping bail.

An additional 170-year sentence was added to the charges when the U.S. indicted Assange for breaching the Espionage Act of 1917. Assange has been kept in Belmarsh since 2019, with the authorities noting a gradual degradation in his mental health.

What is the extradition appeal and why is it important?

The process to extradite Assange to the U.S., where he would be tried for 17 charges, began in 2019, but was delayed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On 4th of January 2021, a district judge, Vanessa Baraister, ruled against the case for extradition, accepting the evidence that detention in a maximum security U.S. prison presented an “oppressive” risk of suicide for the cyber security activist.

Lawyers for the U.S. authorities have appealed to overturn this ruling, with the argument that the judge was “misled” by Assange’s psychiatric evaluation. The hearing for the appeals took place at the Royal Courts of Justice on the 27th and the 28th of October.

Assange’s legal team and lawyers are concerned about the implications that extradition would have for Assange. His lawyers have speculated about alleged assassination and kidnap attempts by the CIA, although these claims are yet to be proven.

“There are great grounds for fearing what will be done to him given the revelations of surveillance in the embassy and plots to kill him,” Edward Fitzgerald, QC for Assange told the British High Court.

Similarly, activists from WISE Up Action are concerned about the implications of Assange’s extradition for human rights and free speech. Despite U.S. reassurances that Assange would not be subject to restrictive solitary confinement in the U.S. or a “supermax” prison for the worst offenders, activists and Assange’s lawyers have claimed that there are no guarantees that these assurances would be binding. Moreover, activists from WISE Up Action have also expressed concern on how the espionage charges against Assange pose a serious threat to investigative journalism and the freedom of the press.

The hearing ended on the 28th of October with a decision by the High Court to postpone the ruling on the U.S. government’s appeal to extradite Assange.

 

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