+44 (0)20 7353 6000
26 Jun 2024

Julian Assange and his prosecution for exposing US state criminality 

In the early hours of this morning, Julian Assange pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act and was sentenced to time served, having spent over five years in HMP Belmarsh challenging his extradition to the USA. 

Since September 2020, Edward Grange and Anna Rothwell of Corker Binning have been engaged as part of the wider legal team providing counsel to Mr Assange. 

Mr Assange’s plea, to conspiracy to obtain and publish documents connected with the national defense, relates directly to the documents that Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks – approximately 90,000 Afghanistan war-related significant activity reports (the “Afghan War Diaries”), 400,000 Iraq war-related significant activity reports (the “Iraq War Logs”), the Guantánamo Detainee Assessment Briefs and 250,000 US diplomatic cables. 

These very documents exposed criminality on the part of the US Government on an unprecedented scale including war crimes, illegal rendition, torture, and the operation of black site CIA prisons across Europe, as well as aggressive steps taken to maintain impunity and prevent the prosecution of any American operatives involved in these crimes.

The US never alleged that these documents were untrue or false. Mr Assange revealed truthful, newsworthy information. The exposure of this information is undoubtedly journalism. The prosecution of Mr Assange for exposing US state criminality amounted to a prosecution for conducting journalistic activity. It has had, and will continue to have, a chilling effect on investigative journalism worldwide. 

Moreover, importantly, in light of the alleged harm that the US submitted in the extradition proceedings was caused by the publication of these documents, it is important to note that not only does the agreed statement of facts contained within the plea agreement make no reference to any actual harm, but the judge sentencing Mr Assange said (after noting how long Mr Assange had spent in custody in one of the UK’s harshest prisons) that:

“There’s another significant fact – the government has indicated there is no personal victim here. That tells me the dissemination of this information did not result in any known physical injury.”

Given the importance of what Mr Assange revealed, the passage of time since the publications and the undoubted chilling effect upon journalists worldwide, it is worth repeating exactly what these publications revealed and the extraordinary impact that they have had.

The publication of the US diplomatic cables alone revealed:

  1. Evidence of CIA and US forces’ involvement in a programme of targeted, extrajudicial assassinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the targeting of journalists for death;
  2. Deliberate killing of civilians;
  3. Attempts to improperly influence judicial proceedings and subvert prosecutions of US personnel by European states;
  4. Evidence of the US government-ordered spying on UN diplomats;
  5. Proof of previously denied US involvement in the conflict in Yemen, including drone strikes;
  6. Corruption in US-backed dictatorships where the WikiLeaks revelations played an important part in the Arab Spring uprising.

Evidence from the diplomatic cables was relied upon in the damning judgment of the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in El Masri v Macedonia (2013) 57 EHRR 25 concerning Macedonia’s cooperation in the US rendition programme. Mr El-Masri had been arrested by agents of Macedonia, who “held him incommunicado, questioned and ill-treated him, and handed him over at Skopje Airport to agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had transferred him, on a special CIA-operated flight, to a CIA-run secret detention facility in Afghanistan” (§3). The WikiLeaks disclosures helped detail the most degrading and appalling torture of an entirely innocent man, in the face of determined invocation by the US and European governments of “state secrets” in order to “obstruct the search for truth” (§§191-192). 

In addition, Clive Stafford Smith (the co-founder of Reprieve) gave unchallenged evidence in Mr Assange’s extradition proceedings that the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks “put a stop to a massive human rights abuse” resulting from US drone killings in Pakistan. The cables contributed to findings by the Pakistani courts that the US drone strikes were criminal offences and a ruling by the Peshawar High Court that such strikes were “a blatant breach of the absolute right to life” and “a war crime”. As a result of the litigation and threat of criminal proceedings against senior US officials involved, “the drone strikes, which were in their hundreds and causing many … innocent deaths, stopped very rapidly”, such that “there were none reported … in 2019”. Without the WikiLeaks disclosure, it “would have been very, very different and very difficult” to prevent the strikes from continuing. 

The Guantánamo Detainee Assessment Briefs revealed that at least ten Guantánamo detainees had been the subject of prior rendition and detention in CIA “black sites” where they were subjected to torture.

The Iraq and Afghan War diaries revealed alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and systematic torture of detainees (including women and children) by Iraqi and US forces (that involved “serious abuse by US Forces appearing in the Iraq War Logs, including electric shocks, water torture and mock executions”) and civilian killings in Iraq. This included details of 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths, which, to this day, “no other public domain force has come forward to corroborate or provide independent evidence about those particular deaths, so the Iraq war logs remain the only source of those deaths” (John Sloboda, co-founder of the Iraq Body Count NGO). 

Based in part on WikiLeaks disclosures of the Afghan War Diaries and the rendition and torture revealed by the Guantánamo Detainee Assessment Briefs, the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) is currently investigating “war crimes by members of the United States armed forces on the territory of Afghanistan, and by members of the [CIA] in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan” in 2003-2004.

These are only a selection of examples of the impact that the disclosures have had around the world. There are many others. Mr Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act was unprecedented. 

In 2010 when the Afghan and Iraq War Logs were published, Julian Assange was 38 years old. In 1932, Walter B Pitkin famously published a book entitled ‘Life Begins at Forty’. Julian’s forties were consumed by seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy and five years and two months in a maximum security prison, HMP Belmarsh. Thankfully, Julian Assange is now free to begin the next chapter of his life with his wife Stella and their two young children.