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Julian Assange High Court Hearing: Global media freedom is on trial

Amnesty experts will be at High Court hearing (20-21 February) which could determine his fate in long-running extradition battle

Assange could face 175-year sentence in the USA, with good treatment assurances from US government untrustworthy

‘This is a test for the US and UK authorities on their commitment to the fundamental tenets of media freedom’ - Julia Hall

Ahead of a High Court hearing in the long-running extradition case against Julian Assange in London next week, Amnesty International has said that Assange faces the risk of serious human rights violations if extradited to the USA and warned of a profound “chilling effect” on global media freedoms.

The two-day hearing - on 20 and 21 February  is set to determine whether Assange will have further opportunities to argue his case before the UK courts or if he has exhausted all legal avenues in the UK, leading to either the extradition process itself or a possible appeal application to the European Court of Human Rights.

If Assange is denied permission to appeal, he will be at risk of extradition to the US and prosecution under the country’s Espionage Act of 1917, a wartime law never intended to target the legitimate work of publishers and journalists. He could face up to 175 years in jail, while on a less serious charge of computer fraud he could receive a maximum of five years.

Assange would also be at high risk of prolonged solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison. Although the US has offered “diplomatic assurances” to the UK - reportedly guaranteeing his safety if imprisoned - the US authorities’ assurances include multiple caveats and cannot be considered reliable.

Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s criminal justice researcher, said:

“It’s not just Julian Assange in the dock. This is a test for the US and UK authorities on their commitment to the fundamental tenets of media freedom that underpin the rights to freedom of expression and the public’s right to information.

“The risk to publishers and investigative journalists around the world hangs in the balance. Should Julian Assange be sent to the US and prosecuted there, global media freedoms will be on trial too.

“Assange will suffer personally from these politically-motivated charges and the worldwide media community will be on notice that they too are not safe.

“The public’s right to information about what their governments are doing in their name will be profoundly undermined. The US must drop the charges under the Espionage Act against Assange and bring an end to his arbitrary detention in the UK.

“The US assurances cannot be trusted. Dubious assurances that he will be treated well in a US prison ring hollow considering that Assange potentially faces dozens of years of incarceration in a system well known for its abuses, including prolonged solitary confinement and poor health services for inmates.”

Global threat to media freedom

If Julian Assange is extradited from the UK to the USA it will establish a dangerous precedent, meaning the US authorities could target for extradition publishers and journalists around the world. Other countries could also follow the US example. News and publishing outlets often and rightfully publish classified information on matters of the utmost public importance. Publishing information that is in the public interest is a cornerstone of media freedom, is protected under international human rights law and should not be criminalised.

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