Activists Demand Freedom For Assange As Whistleblower Fights Extradition To US

LONDON (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 07th September, 2020) Activists have rallied outside London's Old Bailey, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared on Monday at the start of his extradition hearing, demanding freedom for the whistleblower.

The whistleblower faces up to 175 years in a US prison if found guilty of conspiring to hack into a government computer and steal US military secrets after he exposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been held at Belmarsh Prison near London despite serving a sentence for skipping bail and being in poor health.

Vivienne Westwood, a UK fashion designer and activist, told Sputnik at the rally that she did not expect the 49-year-old Australian to be released, but if he were it would be "amazing and a triumph of democracy." She argued that the United States valued "guns, gasoline, and God" above the truth.

"[Assange] is the only one telling the truth. He's the only one shining a light on the corruption of the world. He's the only truth-teller and the only true democrat," she concluded.

Assange's father, John Shipton, himself a journalist, said the US mounted a smear campaign against Julian as far back as 2008 to silence him and WikiLeaks, using big hitters of the mainstream media The Guardian, the BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post to mark the perimeters of dissent.

"I've been a reporter for more than 50 years and I've never known a smear campaign like this one: the fabricated character assassination of a man who refused to join the club, who believed that journalism was a service to the public and never to those above," he said.

He argued that the sexual assault charges filed against Assange by Sweden in 2010 to have him extradited there were a clear setup. The accusations have been dropped twice but the US now wants him brought over for a trial on 18 felony charges. The four-week London hearing was delayed until September amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"The extradition hearing here, this week, is the final act of the campaign to bury Julian Assange. It's not due process it's due revenge; the American indictment is clearly rigged; a demonstrable sham," Shipton went on to say.

Shipton accused the UK and Australia of abandoning their own sovereignty in allowing a "malign foreign power" to manipulate justice and psychologically torture the whistleblower, whose release was demanded by a UN panel on arbitrary detention in 2016. He said Australia in particular had displayed "cringing cowardice" before the US by colluding against its national.

"Freedom of the press now rests with the honorable few, the exceptions, the dissidents on the internet who belong to no club, who are neither rich nor laid with Pulitzer prizes, but produce fine, disobedient, moral journalism; those like Julian Assange," he said.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic investigative journalist and WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, said at the rally she was angered by the US claim that WikiLeaks had caused harm by publishing classified military information.

She cited WikiLeaks revelations of multiple instances of "collateral murder" of innocent civilians by US troops and contractors in Iraq, including children killed by a Hellfire missile while collecting firewood, a family shot up while driving toward a checkpoint and a US helicopter gunning down a Reuters photographer and a driver who tried to help him in Baghdad in 2007.

"That is the harm I want to talk about. That is the harm that we should be focusing on. And you wouldn't know about this harm if it wasn't for WikiLeaks, if it wasn't for Julian Assange. And we'd have to fight for that right. It is the most important fight," Hrafnsson said.

Tim Dawson, the president of the London-based National Union of Journalists, accused UK government ministers of hypocrisy for standing by The Sun tabloid while ignoring the case against Assange. He said that Britons had the right to know about murders being committed in their name overseas.

"Do we have a right to know when countries are secretly bombed with drones in our name? Do we have a right to know when institutional policies are put in place to torture prisoners? I say that we do. And if Assange is extradited, that freedom will be fatally damaged," he stressed.

If the process against Assange goes ahead, this will affect the freedom of speech and expression across the whole world, Dawson argued.

"If this extradition goes ahead, if Assange is tried in a medieval legal system, it will kill journalists and free expression the world over... That's why our call should be clear and unequivocal: end these proceedings now, free Julian Assange, and defend free expression wherever it's threatened," he added.

Assange was arrested in London in April 2019 at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he sought refuge in June 2012. He was initially sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail but has remained in custody pending his extradition trial, as he is deemed to be a flight risk. In the US, Assange is wanted on 18 Federal charges, including conspiracy to hack government computers and espionage.