US Justice Department asks British court to approve extradition of Assange

Prosecutors have separately accused Julian Assange of participating in a hacking conspiracy, which is not a journalistic activity. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Biden administration has signalled that for now it is continuing its predecessor's attempt to prosecute Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, as the Justice Department filed a brief this week appealing to a British court to overturn a ruling that blocked his extradition to the United States.

This week, human rights and civil liberties groups had asked acting Attorney-General Monty Wilkinson to abandon the effort to prosecute Assange, arguing that the case the Trump administration developed against him could establish a precedent posing a grave threat to press freedoms.

The Justice Department had been due to file a brief in support of its appeal of a judge's ruling last month blocking the extradition of Assange on the grounds that US prison conditions are inhumane.

The appeal was lodged Jan 19 - the last full day of the Trump administration - so the decision to proceed with filing the brief was the first opportunity for the Biden administration to reconsider the disputed prosecution effort. A spokeswoman from the Crown Prosecution Office said Friday (Feb 12) that the US government filed the brief Thursday.

The case against Assange is complex and does not turn on whether he is a journalist, but rather on whether the journalistic activities of soliciting and publishing classified information can be treated as a crime in the United States.

The charges centre on his 2010 publication of diplomatic and military files leaked by Chelsea Manning, not his later publication of Democratic Party emails hacked by Russia during the 2016 election.

Prosecutors have separately accused him of participating in a hacking conspiracy, which is not a journalistic activity. The immediate issue at hand in the extradition case, however, is neither of those things, but rather whether US prison conditions are inhumane.

In January, a British judge, Ms Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates' Court, denied Assange's extradition - citing harsh conditions for security-related prisoners in US jails and the risk that Assange might be driven to commit suicide if held under them.

She held that "the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States."

In its new brief, the Justice Department was expected to defend how the federal Bureau of Prisons handles security inmates and to argue that such conditions were not a legitimate reason for the close US ally to block an otherwise valid extradition request.

Ms Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, said the group was "extremely disappointed" that the Biden Justice Department had pressed on with the effort to bring Assange to the United States for prosecution.

"This marks a major missed opportunity for President Biden to distance himself from the Trump administration's terrible record on press freedom," Ms Vincent said.

During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials weighed whether to charge Assange. But they worried that doing so would raise novel First Amendment issues and could establish a precedent that could damage press freedoms in the United States, since traditional news organisations like The New York Times also sometimes publish information the government has deemed classified.

The Obama administration never charged Assange. But the Trump administration moved forward with a prosecution. Its first indictment merely accused Assange of a hacking conspiracy, but it then filed a superseding indictment charging him under the Espionage Act in connection with publishing classified documents.

In 2019, as Mr Joe Biden was seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for president, The Times asked whether he would keep or jettison the novel Espionage Act charges against Assange the Trump administration had brought.

In a written answer, Mr Biden demurred from taking a position on the case but drew a line between journalistic activities and hacking.

"Journalists have no constitutional right to break into a government office, or hack into a government computer, or bribe a government employee, to get information," Mr Biden wrote, adding, "We should be hesitant to prosecute a journalist who has done nothing more than receive and publish confidential information and has not otherwise broken the law."

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