Hearing Coverage

Hearing highlight: U.S. silencing Assange for threatening its immunity

Read the full report from day 1 of Julian Assange’s final bid to appeal his extradition here. Find all extradition coverage here.

February 20, 2024 — The prosecution of Julian Assange should be seen within the context of the United States’ efforts to prevent its own war crimes from being investigated and prosecuted. It’s an extraordinary effort to silence a critic for taking evidence of the crimes of war out of the SCIFs and into the ICC. 

Mark Summers QC, arguing for the defense, pulled no punches in describing the importance of the documents WikiLeaks revealed. “These were the most important revelations of criminal U.S. state behavior in history,” he said, referring to the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, the State Department Cables, and the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Assessment Briefs published in 2010 for which Assange is now being tried. 

The Collateral Murder video, documenting U.S. Apache helicopter fighters gunning down reporters and children in Iraq, is “the most important revelation since Abu Ghraib.”

“The cables Assange published disclosed extrajudicial assassinations, rendition, torture, dark prisons, and drone killings,” Summers said. The Guantanamo Bay files, showing the treatment of detainees, were described to the court as a “colossal criminal act.” On the Afghan and Iraq documents, the evidence showed allegations of “extraordinary seriousness.”

“What was being disclosed by the publications,” Summers said, “was criminality which permeates, was tolerated by and was facilitated by the American government.”

But Summers’ key point was not merely that these documents have been used to inform the public, though they have certainly done that, about the nature and detail of the horrors of these wars the United States worked to keep secret. Just as importantly, Summers argued, these documents have been used in other courtrooms, in foreign courts where they’ve been used to establish that war crimes have been committed and to find evidence of rendition and torture. 

Recall Assange’s initial extradition hearing, in which we heard testimony about the extensive and unprecedented usefulness of WikiLeaks’ releases in finally bringing justice in courts around the world.

Human rights attorney Clive Stafford-Smith testified in September 2020:

Clive Stafford Smith, a U.S.-U.K. dual national and the founder of Reprieve, which defends prisoners detained by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay and others in secretive detention localities around the world, testified about the importance of WikiLeaks material in their litigation. He first discussed the utility of WikiLeaks disclosures in litigation in Pakistan relating to drone strikes and the “sea change” in attitudes towards US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Regarding rendition, assassinations, torture exposed in WikiLeaks documents, Stafford-Smith said, “Speaking as a U.S. citizen, it is incredibly important that it stopped … I feel that my country’s reputation was undermined and criminal offenses were taking place.”

“The litigation in Pakistan would have been very, very difficult and different” if it weren’t for WikiLeaks disclosures.

John Goetz testified about using the documents to confirm CIA torture:

Giving an example of the types of stories that WikiLeaks releases assisted with, Goetz explained had been investigating the story of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia, extraordinarily rendered to a black site in Afghanistan where he was detained and tortured in 2004. This wasn’t known at the time, so Goetz searched the documents for el-Masri’s name, saw that he had been brought to Afghanistan, and found the CIA kidnappers “who’d forced el-Masri onto a military plane, sodomized him and sent him” to Afghanistan.

Goetz tracked down the CIA agents responsible in the United States, interviewed them, and reported the story. Following that broadcast, a Munich state prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for the 13 CIA agents. But, Goetz said, “It turns out the arrest warrant was never actually issued to the United States.” When he saw the State Department cables, he discovered that the U.S. had pressured the German prosecutor to issue the warrant in a jurisdiction where the perpetrators didn’t live, threatening “repercussions” otherwise.

There are many more examples from the initial extradition proceedings:

Summers also said that the disclosures brought about the “cessation of some of the practices that they revealed,” potentially referring to the 2011 revelation that after WikiLeaks cables in 2010 documented war crimes by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the Iraqi government refused to grant the U.S. military immunity going forward, leading the U.S. troops to ultimately withdraw from Iraq entirely.  

Because the U.S. refuses to operate without impunity. Look no further than its actions at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first time the court looked into crimes committed by the U.S. in Afghanistan. International human rights lawyer Susan Akram wrote in September 2020, 

Claiming the ICC’s investigation into alleged war crimes by U.S. forces in Afghanistan poses a national security threat, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 11 effectively criminalizing anyone who works at the ICC. Its lawyers, judges, human rights researchers and staff could now have their U.S. bank accounts frozen, U.S. visas revoked and travel to the U.S. denied.

The following October, the new chief prosecutor at the ICC “deprioritized” the investigation of U.S. offenses in the conflict, deciding to instead focus only on crimes committed by the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Summers referenced these actions specifically. “The UK and the U.S. have taken very different paths since the end of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “The UK has engaged in a public inquiry. The U.S. has taken another path. It has insulated officials from the ICC, it has conferred immunity from prosecution within the U.S., and it has classified such evidence as it exists under state secrecy laws.” 

The documents that Assange and WikiLeaks made public provide evidence for potentially hundreds of criminal actions like those investigated by the ICC.

“The fact that the U.S. had been seeking to impose global impunity should be a red flag for the motives for the prosecution of the person who disclosed those very crimes,” Summers said. This is a paradigmatic example of state retaliation for the exercising of political opinion. 

The U.S. considered going even beyond prosecution. As Yahoo News reported in September 2021, more than half a year after the district judge’s January 2021 ruling — meaning this is new evidence since then, all the more reason to grant an appeal for judges to properly assess it in context — the CIA drew up plans to kidnap and even kill Julian Assange while he was under political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Against the background of obstructing anyone investigating these disclosures, the ICC investigation, and U.S. efforts to obstruct it, Summers said, “the evidence now shows that the U.S. developed a plan to either kill or rendition Mr. Assange to the USA.”

“There was a plan to kidnap and poison Mr. Assange from within the embassy. There were red flags everywhere.”