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Assange extradition decision imminent

Demonstration 17/05/22 6pm at the Home Office

STAND BY for a decision on award-winning journalist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's extradition to face charges in the US under its Espionage Act.

Tim Dawson updated us on Julian's case at the May LFB meeting. Tim had been following Julian's hearings in court for the NUJ and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), of which the NUJ is a part. He is a member of the NUJ's National Executive Council, also Chair of the Freelance Industrial Council and LFB's own Welfare Officer.

On 20 April at Westminster Magistrates' Court the Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring sent Julian's case to Home Secretary Priti Patel - as a Supreme Court ruling said he must. Patel now has to decide whether to authorise that extradition.

Assange's lawyers have four weeks from 20 April to make a final submission - until 18 May. Patel has four weeks from then to reach her final decision on whether to extradite Julian - until 15 June. "Most people assume," Tim says, "that she will authorise the extradition."

Both the IFJ and the NUJ completely oppose Julian's extradition. The NUJ "has opposed extradition on the grounds that it was sought since the moment the terms of it were made known". The union calls for support for Assange because of the implications of his prosecution for journalism: see here.

Demonstrations in solidarity with Julian have drawn between 100 and 200 supporters. Tim feels that "people would be encouraged by seeing actual journalists there," although journalists should perhaps prepare themselves for some present to be "if not hostile, at least a little questioning of their presence". Tim also advises talking to your MP about the "implications for journalism", particularly the prospect of "judicial snatch squads from America, anywhere in the world" locking up anyone whose revelations embarrasses the US.

The next Assange solidarity demo is on the eve of his deadline to submit an appeal – at 6pm on Tuesday 17 May outside the Home Office, 2 Marsham St, London SW1P 4DF - the nearest Underground stations are Westminster and St James's Park.

There remains grounds for appeal. Tim explained that when Julian's team first put its case there were numerous strands to it: due process; the impossibility of a fair trial due to much "bad business" with "secret surveillance of his lawyers"; the intercepting of privileged communications with him; and so on. Another strand is "intrinsically political": extraditions on political grounds is "specifically excluded" in the US-UK extradition treaty. All but one of these grounds were rejected by the judge at Julian's initial appeal (see below.)

While all these arguments still present possible grounds for Julian's team to appeal, the courts would have to agree to hear those, which TIM warned "they may not" decide to do so. Tim has been advised that should Priti Patel decide to go ahead with the extradition, "it would probably be at least a year before he (Assange) is dispatched from these shores even if everything goes against him".

Julian recently marked three years in Belmarsh maximum security prison. The initial hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court, the "first level court", ended in January 2021. At this hearing, the judge rejected most of the above arguments presented in Julian's defence. That appeal succeeded on one ground: the health risk, specifically suicide risk, in view of his "medical backdrop", in particular the fact he has Asperger's Syndrome.

The Appeal Court then heard the US Government's appeal against that decision. It ruled in December 2021 in favour of the US government's arguments, finding that the extradition could go ahead. Julian's legal team then applied to the High Court to launch an appeal against that Appeal Court judgment in favour of the US Government's lawyers, but the High Court did not allow this application to go ahead.

The case could still go to the UK's Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR). But one of these courts would have to be willing to accept that there is "a significant points of law" - rather than points of fact. In March the High Court back declined an application to send a case to the Supreme Court because it was minded that it did not achieve the "significant point of law" threshold.

Julian's rights of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act were introduced by his legal team in the first hearing and dismissed by the judge - along with all other arguments except that on the risk to his health and the "monstrousness of the American penal regime". The freedom of expression defence was not then followed up by his defence. "Could this be re-introduced?" Tim asks.

There are also the "assurances that the Americans provided at appeal". It has been argued that these were "new information" not provided at the initial hearing. The assurances included pledges that "we will try him quickly", within a time limit, and that he can serve any resulting sentence in Australia - of which he is a citizen. Tim notes it's "debatable whether those assurances are believable". There have been cases in which the US has made "similar assurances and then not honoured them." NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet earlier described promises made by the US as "unconvincing").

As the assurances influenced the outcome of the court's ruling, Tim suggests there could be grounds for a Judicial Review based on the apparently dodgy nature of the promises. Such a review would probably be heard at the Court of Appeal - if the Court of Appeal was willing to accept it.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is an institution of the Council of Europe and is wholly separate to the European Union. Indeed Britain "largely drafted" the European Convention on Human Rights that the court oversees. The UK is still a member of the Council of Europe and it still has jurisdiction over Julian's case - which leaves open the possibility of an injunction to prevent extradition while his case is being heard at the ECHR.

LFB member Naomi Canton, who covers extradition, says it's also possible for Julian to apply for asylum in the UK. "If he gets asylum here he can't be deported," - but Home Secretary, Priti Patel could just decline to sign off on his application. "It's hard to get your head round the Tories giving him asylum, " as LFB Chair Tim Gopsill put it.

In the event that Julian avoids extradition, deportation to Australia is possibly on the cards, according to Tim Dawson.

The possibility remains that this will go on longer. Tim, while not suggesting that they are comparable as people, notes that Abu Hamza, who was eventually extradited from the UK to the US to face terrorism charges, threw "everything he could" at avoiding deportation - with the result that the period from his arrest in the UK to his terrorism convictions in Manhattan in 2014 was the best part of ten years.