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Assange faces extradition hearing, Berlin stays quiet

Seda Serdar | Ana Maria Roura
May 1, 2019

The WikiLeaks founder is appearing in court for jumping his UK bail and in relation to possible extradition to the US. This has raised alarm, but doesn't seem to concern the German government.

A protestor holds up an Assange mask
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Ochoa

Julian Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching conditions of bail in London on Wednesday, but the WikiLeaks founder's focus is liable to be on his next date in court. 

This Thursday, Assange will appear before a British judge in an initial hearing on his possible, and controversial, extradition to the US.

Following the WikiLeaks founder's expulsion from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11 and subsequent arrest, Ecuador's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Jaime Marchan, revealed to DW how the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) had petitioned embassy officials for information on Assange and his activities.

Assange appears at the window of the Ecuadorian Embassy
Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape chargesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Augstein

In January, several Ecuadorian diplomats testified in London, Marchan said, "but not here in the Embassy because we don't have enough security here, and the questions would have been heard by our then neighbor (Assange)." The ambassador told DW that the interviews took place at Pro Ecuador, a commercial office managed by the Ecuadorian government to promote trade with the UK.

Ecuador's Attorney General's office "received the questions from the Department of Justice of the United States to be asked, through the Ecuadorian judicial system," Marchan said.

The cooperation between Ecuador and the DOJ suggests the US has been working quietly at the highest levels to strengthen its case for Assange's extradition.

Read more: Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden: British MPs

Ecuador’s embassy in London

Against extradition

The German Left party stands by Assange, and its message is loud and clear. "Our goal is to prevent Assange's extradition to the United States," said German Left party politician Sevim Dagdelen, speaking in London on April 15 outside the prison where Assange was being held.

Together with her colleagues Heike Hänsel (of the socialist Left party) and European Parliament representative Ana Miranda (of the environmentalist Greens), Dagdelen had planned to visit Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy when the news of his arrest came. Assange will appear in court on Wednesday to face a charge in the United Kingdom of jumping bail over rape accusations.

Heike Hansel (rechts) und Sevim Dagdelen (Mitte), zusammen mit Ana MirandaDie deutschen Abgeordneten der Linken Fraktion im Bundestag, Heike Hansel (rechts) und Sevim Dagdelen (Mitte), veranstalten zusammen mit der spanischen Europaabgeordneten Ana Miranda eine Pressekonferenz außerhalb des Belmarsh-Gefängnisses, um den WikiLeaks-Gründer Julian Assange zu unterstützen
Dagelen (center) along with Hänsel (right) and Miranda (left) protested for Assange not to be extradited to the USImage: picture-alliance/A. Grant

This charge, however, is minor in comparison to his primary and longtime concern — that of being extradited to the United States on charges reportedly connected to the country's Espionage Act, which lays out punishment for acts harming national security. 

However, Assange's indictment disclosed mid-April this year showed that the DOJ is currently trying to extradite him on changes of "Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion" with Chelsea Manning, the whistleblowing former US Army intelligence analyst who was convicted of espionage. The indictment alleges that Assange assisted her "in cracking a password stored on the US Department of Defense computers."

Dagdelen believes the six-page indictment against Assange could also set a "dangerous precedent" for journalists around the world. She told DW that no matter where they are working or living — even within European Union borders — journalists "could be extradited to the US and be criminalized due to their reporting."

However, in light of recent information about a reported "secret indictment," the scope and severity of charges against Assange could be more serious than the DOJ has so far revealed.

Read more: Opinion: Julian Assange's arrest sets dangerous precedent

A truck with a protest sign supporting Manning and Assange drives down the street
Whereas some see Assange and Manning as having acted in public interest, others say it was classified information that should not have been revealedImage: picture-alliance/dpa//P. Semansky

Death penalty under certain conditions

Following Assange's arrest, German weekly newspaper Die Zeit detailed a document dating back to March 7, 2018 that had been sent to Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German former WikiLeaks activist. In the document, the prosecutors reportedly discuss calling Domscheit-Berg as a significant witness in the case.

The charges stated in this document attained by Die Zeit are "illegally obtaining and distributing classified information," which fall under the Espionage Act and call for a higher sentence. Even the death penalty is possible if an individual is found to have given defense information to a foreign government.

Whistleblower or journalist?

Referring to reports of a "secret indictment" and the possibility of prosecutors seeking the death penalty, Frank Überall, head of the German Journalists' Union (DJV), told DW: "This definitely must be considered" when it comes to extradition. Überall underlined that the threat of capital punishment in the Assange case is cause for serious concern and called for the protection of whistle-blowers, which is "existential for freedom of the press."

Just a few days after Assange's arrest, the European Union expanded protections for whistleblowers through a new directive of the European Parliament intended to better shield them from prosecution.

"In Germany this will also be implemented," said Überall, who sees Assange as a whistle-blower even though Assange considers himself a journalist. "Whistle-blowers are being tenaciously pursued internationally. This is a serious problem since what Assange published was actually in the public interest."

Frank Überall
Frank Überall is the head of the German Journalists' UnionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

However, this new regulation will most likely not be of any use to Assange, since the information a whistleblower shares has to be obtained "in the normal course of work," says Maxence Biger, an aide of MEP Virginie Roziere, who helped negotiate the EU whistle-blower protections.

Silence in Berlin

At a press conference just after Assange's dramatic arrest, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman was tight-lipped. When asked how Germany views the WikiLeaks founder's case, Steffen Seibert said, "This is a matter which doesn't concern Germany and is in the hands of British justice."

While the opposition Left party has been determined and vocal about their support for Assange, other politicians declined to comment on the topic.

Lawyer and former German Green party representative Hans-Christian Ströbele says that in such situations the government is "extremely silent."

When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that US intelligence was keeping allies under surveillance, including eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel's mobile phone, Ströbele recalls: "The investigation committee was working intensively, and there was a unanimous decision that he [Snowden] was an important witness and should testify. He was ready to do so, but the government didn't allow it."

Ströbele also believes Germany is being careful not to further strain its relationship with the US. Bilateral ties have been bumpy since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

However, the journalist union's Überall demanded that the German government should be active behind the scenes, if this was not already the case. Since Assange is not in the country: "This doesn't directly concern Germany." But while "you don't shout about these issues," the government absolutely can and must engage in "diplomacy behind closed doors."