The press does not have the right to access the full set of documents on the Julian Assange case. That is what judge Edward Mitchell finally ruled in an appeal taken to the London Upper Tribunal by la Repubblica, after we have spent the last four years trying to access the full documentation to investigate the Assange case and factually reconstruct it.
In an extremely technical judgement just made public and which the judge himself characterises as “unusually long”, Mitchell rejects our legal arguments and states that he believed public knowledge of Mr Assange’s case would not have increased if it was known that the CPS held information from the US State Department or Department of Justice. A rather incredible argument considering that the entire Assange case revolves around the role of the United States authorities, who want to get their hands on the WikiLeaks founder, extradite him to the US and jail him for life: establishing whether the British and US authorities discussed this possibility from the very beginning is crucial.
Julian Assange is currently in the high-security prison in Belmarsh in London. He is in very precarious condition and in fact is still in Belmarsh’s health unit. Last July the UN Special Rapporteur on torture said he is “gravely concerned” about his situation. Assange is awaiting the extradition hearing, after US authorities indicted him for alleged violations of the US Espionage Act for the publication of secret US government documents. A crucial extradition hearing is supposed to be held in February 2020 in London. If the founder of WikiLeaks is extradited to the US, he risks 175 years in jail: it would be the first time in US history that a journalist has ended up in jail for his work.
Although the Assange case has been going on for the last nine years, no media and no journalist, with the exception of our newspaper, has ever tried to access the full set of documents on the case.
In 2015, we submitted a request for access to the documentation under the Freedom of Information Act in four jurisdictions: Australia, the country where Assange was born; England where he has been since 2010 after publishing explosive secret documents on the US government; the United States, where he is indicted for the WikiLeaks publications; Sweden, where he ended up in a rape investigation which was opened the 20th of August 2010, closed the 25th of August 2010, reopened the 1st of September 2010, closed again the 19th of May 2017 and finally reopened the 13th of May 2019 and it is still ongoing and in the preliminary stage after nine years.
Our attempt to access the documents has been hindered and hugely delayed in every jurisdiction. However, the very few documents we have obtained so far have allowed us to unearth crucial information. They provide indisputable evidence of the UK’s role in helping to create the legal and diplomatic quagmire which kept Julian Assange arbitrarily detained since 2010, as established by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD). In fact, it was the UK Crown Prosecution Service which advised the Swedish prosecutors against the only judicial strategy that could have brought the Swedish rape investigation to a quick closure: questioning Assange in London, rather than trying to extradite him to Stockholm. It was the Crown Prosecution Service which tried to dissuade the Swedish prosecutors from dropping the case in 2013. Finally, it was the Crown Prosecution Service that wrote to its Swedish counterpart: “Please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request” and destroyed crucial documents, even though the case is still ongoing and very controversial.
When we tried to shed light on these facts, to understand why the British authorities acted this way and why the Assange case was not “just another extradition request”, we ran up against a true rubber wall, so much so that we were forced to sue the Crown Prosecution Service.
Our first appeal to the London First-tier Tribunal was rejected: the judge established that the press has no right to access the documentation, because the need for the British authorities to protect the confidentiality of the extradition process outweighs the public interest of the press to know.
Today, Judge Edward Mitchell has rejected our appeal to the Upper Tribunal. At this point it is not clear who will be able to introduce some transparency and oversight in the Assange case, considering that the press is not allowed to do so.
In our appeal to the London Upper Tribunal, we have been represented by three brilliant London lawyers, Philip Coppel – an authority on the UK Freedom of Information Act, Estelle Dehon from Cornerstone Barristers and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers .
“The decision is disappointing since it means that the FOIA system remains less user-friendly for requesters, and particularly for journalists, because of how it approaches arguments about the public interest”, Estelle Dehon says to La Repubblica, “We are considering the merits of appealing”.
By Stefania Maurizi