Priti Patel now has to make one of the most important decisions of her career: will she bow to heavy pressure from the United States and send a vulnerable man who has been convicted of no crime to face an indeterminate number of years in an American jail where he may experience intimidation and isolation? Her decision is imminent and all other legal avenues have been explored.
This was the scenario 10 years ago in the case of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker who, working out of his north London bedroom, trawled through the computer systems of Nasa and the US defence department in search of information about UFOs and left behind some mildly rude messages about the systems’ sloppy security. The home secretary was Theresa May, who halted extradition proceedings at the last minute.
Now Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and also a vulnerable man – who has been in Belmarsh high-security prison for three years without being convicted of any crime – is facing extradition, with the issue due to be decided this month. Once again, the home secretary has an opportunity to demonstrate, as May did, that respect for justice and humanity are much finer and more enduring qualities than appeasement.
It is worth recalling the words of party leaders in support of McKinnon after Labour home secretaries – to their great shame – declined to intervene in the years after his initial arrest in 2002. Nick Clegg, then leading the Liberal Democrats in opposition, said that McKinnon “has been hung out to dry by a British government desperate to appease its American counterparts”. David Cameron, before he became prime minister, had said: “McKinnon is a vulnerable young man and I see no compassion in sending him thousands of miles away from his home and loved ones to face trial.”
The current case is different in that, while McKinnon remained at liberty, Assange has been held in custody alongside murderers and terrorists after the seven years he spent in the Ecuadorian embassy, seeking political asylum. He should have been given bail long ago to be with his wife, Stella Moris, whom he married in prison in March, and their two young children; he could simply be electronically tagged and monitored. It is also different in that he faces charges under the Espionage Act which carries a potential sentence of 175 years. And yes, the US criminal justice system does actually impose such medieval sentences.
Last year, at the Summit for Democracy, Joe Biden pledged to support a free press: “It’s the bedrock of democracy. It’s how the public stay informed and how governments are held accountable. Around the world, press freedom is under threat.” As it happens, it is 50 years since Daniel Ellsberg was being prosecuted under a similar law to the ones Assange faces for releasing the Pentagon Papers which exposed the lies and hypocrisies of the Vietnam war. He is one of Assange’s staunchest supporters. This week he told me that “this extradition would mean that journalists, anywhere in the world, could be extradited to the US for exposing information classified in the US”. He argues that it would also set a precedent that any reporter could be extradited to other countries for exposing information classified in those countries.
Assange also has the backing of all organisations that battle on behalf of freedom of expression, from Amnesty International to Reporters Without Borders. As Julia Hall of Amnesty International puts it: “Demanding that states like the UK extradite people for publishing classified information that is in the public interest sets a dangerous precedent and must be rejected.”
In March, the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, told the Daily Mail of plans for a new bill of rights: “We’ve got to be able to strengthen free speech, the liberty that guards all of our other freedoms, and stop it being whittled away surreptitiously, sometimes without us really being conscious of it.” How empty those words will be if Assange is extradited.
It was, after all, thanks to WikiLeaks and Assange that the world saw the secret video of a US aircrew falsely claiming to have encountered a firefight in Baghdad and then laughing after their airstrike killed a dozen people, including two Iraqi journalists. Should our ability to see that footage be “whittled away surreptitiously”?
Another Assange advocate is Janis Sharp, McKinnon’s mother, who fought so gallantly on his behalf – a battle now being made into a film. “Ten years’ loss of liberty is surely more than long enough for an extremely ill, autistic man, a whistleblower who shared information of a war crime that he felt was in the public interest to know,” she told me. “Seeing my own son Gary McKinnon suicidal and in permanent mental torment through the terror of proposed extradition, leaves me in no doubt that much-needed compassion must be brought to bear in this very lengthy tragic case.”
Patel has an important choice, but it is not difficult. Extradition should be resisted. Assange should be released and allowed to resume a normal life. Anyone who seriously values freedom of expression should support his fight.
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Duncan Campbell is a former Guardian crime correspondent and Los Angeles correspondent
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