OPINION

Assange decision is a welcome one, but it won't save the free press

Supporters of Julian Assange celebrate a UK magistrate's decision to deny his extradition to the United States. Picture: Getty Images
Supporters of Julian Assange celebrate a UK magistrate's decision to deny his extradition to the United States. Picture: Getty Images

They say in war, politics and sport that a win is a win is a win.

But some victories are better than others.

In the long saga that has been the life of Julian Assange since he created the whistleblower site Wikileaks - using it to uncover war crimes, a myriad of failures at the US State Department and other organs of the secret state as well as revealing various duplicities in the Democrats - this week saw him receive an all-too-rare win.

But it is a problematic win, to say the least - very narrowly based. Indeed, it is a win that goes against all the advocacy of his legal team - pretty much rejected in full by Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser.

Ultimately, Baraitser did not refuse the extradition of Assange to the United States based on matters of principle - such as respect for the first amendment and its full protection of free speech - or concerns that Assange would not get a fair trial in the Virginia court renowned for putting away into maximum security those the US security state regard as a threat.

Anyone hoping to find words that respect freedom of speech or freedom of the press will be bitterly disappointed by the judgment. Rather, Baraitser said Assange had breached US national security laws, and further there were parallel offences via the Official Secrets Act in the UK. The mainstream press, especially in Britain and Australia, so quick to abandon Assange, should be deeply concerned.

It was hardly a ringing endorsement, then, by the judiciary for the fourth estate.

We must ask the question whether we would be prepared to allow any Australian citizen to experience such extreme incarceration.

Fundamentally, Baraitser's decision was based on the personal safety of Julian Assange, and the incapacity of the US prison system to ensure his safety. The decision repeatedly mentions convicted billionaire paedophile Jeffry Epstein, who hung himself while in the custody of New York prison authorities.

Baraitser refers to how imperilled Assange currently is: not merely because he is has been diagnosed with Asperger's, but because he is clearly at risk of suicide - although the fact he remains banged up in Belmarsh, hardly a mental health retreat, is somewhat of a contradiction.

Given the magistrate's decision, it would be unfathomable for Assange to be denied bail.

Without third-party intervention, he risks facing 175 years buried alive in a maximum-security prison, ADX Florence, in Colorado. This would be a death sentence, and Baraitser regarded this, too, as a threat to Assange's mental health and safety.

The inmates of Administrative Maximum Facility Florence - the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" - are an assortment of international and domestic terrorists, murderers and fraudsters, from the Unabomber to Al Qaeda operatives, from serial killers to Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

At one time even the father of actor Woody Harrelson was incarcerated there for the murder of a Federal Court judge on behalf of a drug cartel.

For good measure, Assange would effectively be kept in a black site, a prison within a prison with no independent monitoring. Captives spend 23 hours a day in their 12-foot-by-seven-foot cells.

An artist's rendition of a cell at ADX Florence. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

An artist's rendition of a cell at ADX Florence. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Men imprisoned in ADX beg to be subjected to the death penalty. Special Administrative Measures (SAMS) restrict contact with the outside, and it would be illegal to report any conditions of Assange. There is limited healthcare and force-feeding is common - as is suicide, self-harm, mutilations, beatings, psychosis, and forcible sedation. Those who are sick are shackled to their beds.

According to a former warden, it is no place for humanity. It is a hi-tech hell that marries Dante and extreme forms of psychological torture developed by the CIA in its many black sites.

ADX Florence is purpose-built to develop depression, learned helplessness and suicidal ideation for all its inmates.

So Assange's life hangs in the balance. Some have praised the UK court's decision for removing countless grounds of appeal by focusing on the mental health challenges facing Assange. Equally, the US appeal now becomes simple: to argue they can guarantee the "safety" of Assange in an environment that would drive the strongest of us mad.

Australia has no facility like this, and certainly we must ask the question whether we would be prepared to allow any Australian citizen to experience such extreme incarceration.

But the US does not have a history of backing down. It will appeal, and this process alone could take 18 months.

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Next week is the 19th anniversary of the United States bringing prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners are still incarcerated without trial. President Obama promised to shut it down. Like many of his "Yes We Can" statements, it proved to be "No We Won't".

Still, Obama saw the risks to freedom of the press in prosecuting Assange and, decided the danger in jailing a publisher/journalist was too great.

Which leaves the ultimate decision here to the man who can actually affect Assange's fate: President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden is no Assange groupie.

But he is an avowed Christian and an opponent of the death penalty. The spate of recent executions under Trump has led to calls on the part of many Democrats for Biden to suspend the death sentence on day one of his presidency.

Assange is not facing the death penalty, but the prospect of 175 years in such a facility is a de facto death sentence - at his own hand, if not the state's.

This years-long saga has worn down many people, not least Julian himself.

President-elect Biden may just be able to show the mercy required to turn the page on this ultimately senseless and tragic affair. A pardon would end the saga and reaffirm the integrity of America's first amendment.

It's well beyond time for this Australian citizen to come home.

  • Tony Nagy is a business consultant and former journalist at The Age.
This story Assange decision is a welcome one, but it won't save the free press first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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