Supporters of jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange condemned his arrest and indictments at a press briefing Tuesday in London, saying democracy and press freedom are on trial.
The briefing was hosted by WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, Iceland’s former interior minister Ogmundur Jonasson and Christophe Marchand, a human rights lawyer who is part of Assange’s legal team.
“We have maintained, and there is no doubt in my mind, that this is a watershed moment for the preservation of journalism. This is about press freedom,” said Hrafnsson.
“The Assange case…is about the future of press freedom in our part of the world, where we have been rather privileged with relatively good standing.
“It is a crackdown on press freedom, nothing less, and there is no doubt in my mind that there is a connection to other cases that we have seen in the last couple of weeks; a crackdown on journalists. It’s a very serious situation that we are seeing. It’s an attack on journalism, and it is all interlinked. That’s why it’s extremely important for journalists -- and I speak to you as a colleague – not to forget the fundamentals here and not to forget what the real issue is about,” he said.
Hrafnsson also criticized Assange’s indictment last month by a federal grand jury in the U.S. state of Virginia on felony charges for being allegedly involved in the leaking of classified documents by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, saying it revealed the true nature of the case. He also lambasted the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, under which Assange faces a separate indictment, labelling it an “archaic” law that has never been used against a journalist and publisher.
Assange’s legal battle against extradition to the U.S. will begin Friday, when he is set to appear in a London courtroom.
On Assange’s current situation and pending court case, Hrafnsson urged people to read the statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, which paints a bleak picture of the Assange case and how the governments of the U.K., the U.S., Ecuador and Sweden have been complicit in the attack against Assange and his organization and thus on press freedom.
He also made clear that Assange could be in court for many years and that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a very lengthy procedure in which free and unbiased journalism will come under sustained attack, as will press freedom.
Jonasson related how in August 2011, FBI agents, police and prosecutors arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland illegally without acquiring the necessary licenses to operate in the country. They were asked to leave or remain as tourists.
He explained the true nature of their visit.
“Here is the important point. It was made known to me that their mission -- and I use my words very carefully -- was to frame Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.”
Marchand meanwhile explained how Assange’s illegal arrest is part of a “dark and illegal experiment on freedom of press” and that following his arrest and indictment, WikiLeaks and the weapon they created to expose mass injustices is now at stake.
“What did WikiLeaks invent? WikiLeaks invented a system for whistleblowers, and now they are trying to break the whistle because without the whistle, there is no whistleblowing, and we believe from a human rights perspective that whistleblowing is fundamental in the 21st century,” he said.
He also said that following the leaking of classified information, the U.S. has become a “furious elephant in the room breaking everything” by violating fundamental rights and systematically targeting journalists and whistleblowers in an attempt to silence them. He said this attack can further be seen in preventing a fair trial, the right to see a lawyer, the right to prepare a defense and the right not to be arbitrarily detained.
“It’s a full range of fundamental rights that are violated and it’s a pattern. It’s not something special for Julian Assange. It’s for Julian Assange, it’s for WikiLeaks. Because when you read this indictment from the U.S., what is it about? It’s about publishing classified information, and this accusation of publishing classified information gave rise to the threat of 170 years in prison,” Marchand said.
He also criticized the handling of the case by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court by denying Assange a fair trial. As Assange was convicted in a few hours based on a decision that was taken without his knowledge, Marchand said that the ruling was disproportionate for what Assange did and that it is a revenge from the judicial system against Assange.
“What we are observing and we have observed at Westminster is totally shameful. The U.K. judicial system invented the concept of a fair trial many centuries ago, and now they are not respecting what they invented,” he said.
Assange was arrested in April this year by British authorities at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after President Lenin Moreno ended his asylum. In 2012, Assange sought asylum in the embassy to avoid being extradited to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault, which he denies. The charges were subsequently dropped, though Assange remained in the embassy.
U.S. authorities argue that Assange conspired with fellow former whistleblower Chelsea Manning in downloading classified information and publishing it online via WikiLeaks. If extradited to the U.S. and convicted, Assange could face up to 170 years in prison./aa