The unexpected decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny a US demand to extradite Julian Assange, foiling efforts to send him to a US super-max jail for the rest of his life, is a welcome legal victory, but one swamped by larger lessons that should disturb us deeply.
Those who campaigned so vigorously to keep Assange’s case in the spotlight, even as the US and UK corporate media worked so strenuously to keep it in darkness, are the heroes of the day. They made the price too steep for Baraitser or the British establishment to agree to lock Assange away indefinitely in the US for exposing its war crimes and its crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But we must not downplay the price being demanded of us for this victory.
Judge’s denial of extradition of Julian Assange is a very welcome moment. Sadly, his reprieve comes not because of the many, many principled arguments against the US extradition case – all of which were rejected by the judge – but because Assange is considered a suicide risk
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) January 4, 2021
A moment of celebration
We have contributed collectively in our various small ways to win back for Assange some degree of freedom, and hopefully a reprieve from what could be a death sentence as his health continues to deteriorate in an overcrowded Belmarsh high-security prison in London that has become a breeding ground for Covid-19. In Defense of Julian A... Best Price: $19.98 Buy New $23.00 (as of 06:07 EDT - Details)
For this we should allow ourselves a moment of celebration. But Assange is not out of the woods yet. The US has said it will appeal the decision. And it is not yet clear whether Assange will remain jailed in the UK – possibly in Belmarsh – while many months of further legal argument about his future take place.
The US and British establishments do not care where Assange is imprisoned – be it Sweden, the UK or the US. What has been most important to them is that he continues to be locked out of sight in a cell somewhere, where his physical and mental fortitude can be destroyed and where he is effectively silenced, encouraging others to draw the lesson that there is too high a price to pay for dissent.
The personal battle for Assange won’t be over till he is properly free. And even then he will be lucky if the last decade of various forms of incarceration and torture he has been subjected to do not leave him permanently traumatised, emotionally and mentally damaged, a pale shadow of the unapologetic, vigorous transparency champion he was before his ordeal began.
That alone will be a victory for the British and US establishments who were so embarrassed by, and fearful of, Wikileaks’ revelations of their crimes. The Most Dangerous Man... Best Price: $2.26 Buy New $19.49 (as of 03:07 EDT - Details)
Rejected on a technicality
But aside from what is a potential personal victory for Assange, assuming he doesn’t lose on appeal, we should be deeply worried by the legal arguments Baraitser advanced in denying extradition.
The US demand for extradition was rejected on what was effectively a technicality. The US mass incarceration system is so obviously barbaric and depraved that, it was shown conclusively by experts at the hearings back in September, Assange would be at grave risk of committing suicide should he become another victim of its super-max jails.
One should not also discard another of the British establishment’s likely considerations: that in a few days Donald Trump will be gone from the White House and a new US administration will take his place.
Cypherpunks: Freedom a... Best Price: $3.45 Buy New $8.99 (as of 08:30 EST - Details) There is no reason to be sentimental about president-elect Joe Biden. He is a big fan of mass incarceration too, and he will be no more of a friend to dissident media, whistleblowers and journalism that challenges the national security state than was his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Which is no friend at all.
But Biden probably doesn’t need the Assange case hanging over his head, becoming a rallying cry against him, an uncomfortable residue of the Trump administration’s authoritarian instincts that his own officials would be forced to defend.
It would be nice to imagine that the British legal, judicial and political establishments grew a backbone in ruling against extradition. The far more likely truth is that they sounded out the incoming Biden team and received permission to forgo an immediate ruling in favour of extradition – on a technicality.
Keep an eye on whether the new Biden administration decides to drop the appeal case. More likely his officials will let it rumble on, largely below the media’s radar, for many months more.