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Assange's road to extradition raises concerns

Seda Serdar
December 18, 2019

WikiLeaks founder Assange is set to appear via video in a court hearing. His health and arrest conditions continue to be of concern to human rights experts, as calls to define him as a political refugee increase.

A poster showing Julian Assange with an American flag over his mouth
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Dunham

On Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is expected to appear via video conference at Westminster Magistrates Court in London for a case management hearing related to his possible extradition to the United States. The 48-year-old is currently being held in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison outside of London.

Assange's full extradition hearing is currently scheduled to begin at the end of February. Thursday's management hearing will therefore not result in a decision on extradition but will identify relevant issues and future legal arrangements.

Assange's lawyers directed a DW request for further information on the hearing to the WikiLeaks organization, which said that this hearing will be "a longer one, in which the court may consider whether to move the February extradition dates." However, a request for extension at a previous case hearing in October was turned down, UK newspaper The Guardian reported.

The US has charged Assange with multiple counts of espionage related to the publication of classified national defense information on WikiLeaks in 2010. Most of the published documents pertained to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The charges against him also include conspiring to hack government computers. If convicted, Assange could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

In the meantime, Sweden has dropped an investigation into rape allegations against Assange — the main reason he had sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012, as he had feared extradition to the US via Sweden. He remained holed up in the embassy until April 2019. After being evicted, he was arrested and sentenced by the UK to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail

Julian Assange stands at the window
Assange spent seven years in the Ecuadorian EmbassyImage: Getty Images/J.Taylor

In a recent report, Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said Assange had been subject to "psychological torture" due to years of isolation during his residence at the Ecuadorian Embassy and detention conditions at Belmarsh prison.  

Following this report, more than 60 doctors wrote a letter in November to the British government highlighting Assange's deteriorating health and warning that if not treated, he "could die" in prison.

'Change in public awareness'

Assange is a controversial figure, and Melzer is considered one of his most vocal supporters. He told DW that even though the conditions of Assange's imprisonment have not changed, the doctors' open letter was nonetheless influential. "I see a change in public awareness of the importance and the urgency of the matter," he said.

In a speech to the German Parliament in late November, Melzer said that Assange is "now only in preventive detention to avoid his escape during the American extradition ... there is no need for a maximum-security prison and certainly not for isolation."

Nils Melzer
Melzer is one of Assange's most outspoken supportersImage: picture alliance/KEYSTONE/S. Di Nolfi

Melzer complained that British authorities had yet to respond to the letters he sent to them inquiring about Assange's conditions. He expressed skepticism about why the UK was not providing transparency and information since it is a state "that traditionally would be very open in a dialog."

Just this week, the Academy of Arts in Berlin, one of the oldest cultural institutes in Europe, also published a press release calling for "humane and constitutional treatment of Julian Assange."

Kathrin Röggla, vice president of the Academy, told DW that the institution joined the call of the German Association of Democratic Lawyers (VDJ) to recognize Assange "as a political refugee." Röggla said a more involved civil society creates more pressure. But she added that, "Everyone is waiting for the German government to be more involved in foreign policy issues."

German government keeps its distance

The German government has approached Assange's case with caution from the start. Shortly after the WikiLeaks founder's arrest, a spokesperson for Angela Merkel said his case "is a matter which doesn't concern Germany and is in the hands of British justice." 

More recently, in an interview with the German newspaper Kölner Stadt Anzeiger, Assange's father called upon Merkel to provide more political support for his son.

A sketch of Assange from an October case management hearing
Assange appeared previously in a case management hearing in October, where this sketch was madeImage: Reuters/J. Quenzler

Frank Überall, the director of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), told DW that the German government appears uninterested. "You sometimes get the impression that people are asking, what does this have to do with us? He's not German. It has nothing to do with Germany directly," he said.

He believes that while Germany cannot be the "world's police," there is a "moral obligation" in such situations "to speak out loud and clear."

In response to DW's inquiry, Gyde Jensen, the chairwoman of the German parliament's human rights committee, noted that, "In case a humane accommodation of prisoners is not guaranteed, further investigations have to be made. Therefore, a review of the conditions of detention of Julian Assange seems necessary."

Jensen also emphasized her great concern over the protection of whistleblowers. "However, it is important that denunciation and slander are not tolerated and that the acquisition of information takes place within a reasonable scope," she said of the release of information by whistleblowers. 

Even though the US sees Wikileaks as a "hostile spy agency," many are concerned that Assange's case could set a dangerous precedent on freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Melzer agrees with this view. "I think this is a crucial point in time where the people have to realize that this is not about some man whom they like or don't like, but that this is about their own rights and the integrity of the democracies and the rule of law systems that they live in."

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