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Editorial A circumscribed victory – Assange is not out of danger yet

THE district judge presiding over Julian Assange’s extradition hearing concluded that the conditions inside a US supermax prison and the normal procedures of the US penal system represent a threat to his psychological wellbeing and indeed his life. 

She may be late to reach this conclusion — one already well understood by the many millions for whom the US penal regime is indeed an existential threat — but she is not the first.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser found “…that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.” 

Of course, Assange’s present mental state is itself the product of the strain induced by more than a decade in which his investigative journalism has made him a fugitive from the long arm of the US imperial state intent on avenging his exposure of its war crimes. 

As a closeted refugee in the Ecuadorian embassy until that state itself was suborned by the IMF and, more recently, a prisoner in the notorious Belmarsh jail, he has already paid a high price for his courage in taking on the world’s most powerful imperialist state and its loyal ally.

The legal representatives of the United States have been given a fortnight to appeal her decision and in the meantime Assange will be kept in jail and a bail hearing is fixed for tomorrow.

Our north Atlantic ally has over two million people in jail and the highest incarceration rate in the world (655 per 100,000 population in 2016). 

The figure is extraordinarily high – China, for example, has an incarceration rate of about 118 per 100,000, a bit lower than Britain’s at 146.

In Baraitser’s judgment, which dismissed each of the substantive arguments against extradition save the one grounded in his mental health and resilience, she argued that deporting him to the US would not overturn the bar on extradition for “political” offences.

As the US wants Assange to try him for revealing evidence of its war crimes and abuses of human rights — specifically for aiding US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in the revelation of those war crimes and abuses — she thus excludes such whistleblowing from the category of political. 

In doing so she establishes a precedent that puts at risk every journalist who publishes secret material that exposes crimes by the military, the intelligence apparatus and secret police and any official of the state.

Assange is not a US citizen. He cannot “betray” the US and if he was the conduit for secret material obtained by the same methods from, say, China or Russia, Iran or Venezuela, Cuba or North Korea he would be hailed as a hero by the US government and media and loaded with medals and cash.

This is a highly circumscribed victory and Assange is not out of danger yet. 

NUJ leader Michelle Stanistreet warns: “The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists. 

“In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.”

In handing down a decision that is manifestly political in itself Baraitser’s ruling — that the US prosecutors acting for Donald Trump’s administration had successfully met the tests for Assange to be extradited — serves the interests of a British state that itself is servile to a foreign power.

For the moment the danger of extradition is muted but the threat to both Assange and other journalists and publishers who expose the deeds of the imperial alliance and its servants remains.

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