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UK ruling on Julian Assange ‘killing him slowly’, say free speech advocates

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Free speech advocates and experts have criticised a British court judgement for failing to stop WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States.

Assange was ordered extradited from the United Kingdom in 2022 to face espionage charges in a court in Virginia in the US, and he has appealed that extradition.

London’s High Court ruled on Tuesday that it would seek assurances from the Eastern District of Virginia court that Assange would not be subject to the death penalty.

In addition, the UK court sought a written commitment that Assange would be accorded the same rights as a US citizen under the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects free speech and freedom of the press.

“Those [assurances] appear at face value to not be contentious and I cannot foresee the US refusing to give such assurances,” Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University, told Al Jazeera.

In the UK High Court’s decision, Justice Jeremy Johnson wrote “If assurances are not given then we will grant [Assange] leave to appeal without a further hearing … If assurances are given, then we will give the parties an opportunity to make further submissions before we make a final decision on the application for leave to appeal.”

Rothwell said, “Assange now basically joins a queue of others seeking to have their appeals heard and determined. It is doubtful whether these processes would be completed within six months, or possibly by the end of 2024.”

That angers Assange’s friends and advocates, who say that merely fighting extradition, first from the Ecuadorean embassy in London for seven years, then from the Belmarsh maximum security prison for another five, has been punishment enough.

“Once again the UK justice lost an opportunity to do justice,” Stefania Maurizi, an investigative journalist at the leading Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, who has worked with Julian Assange, told Al Jazeera.

“Prominent human rights organisations, like Amnesty International, have repeatedly denounced that assurances are inherently unreliable. The British justice keeps hiding behind the fig leaf of ‘assurances’,” she said.

She believes the extradition process was not an attempt at justice, but a punishment designed to dissuade other whistle-blowers, investigative journalists and publishers.

“According to protected witnesses and to a major investigation by Yahoo News, the CIA tried to destroy Julian Assange by attempting to kill or kidnap him extrajudicially,” Maurizi said. “The British justice is killing him slowly using purely legal means.”

Assange was said to be in too poor a condition to attend Tuesday’s proceedings, even via video link.

“Today’s decision is astounding,” said Assange’s wife, Stella, outside the High Court. “The courts recognise that Julian is exposed to a flagrant denial of his freedom-of-expression rights, that he is being discriminated against on the basis of nationality as an Australian, and that he remains exposed to the death penalty.

“And yet, what the courts have done has been to invite a political intervention from the United States, to send a letter saying, it’s all OK.”

A British judge in January 2021 had ruled that Assange should not be extradited to the US because he was likely to commit suicide in near total isolation.

Stella Assange called Tuesday’s decision “an attack on Julian’s life”.

Assange supporters gathered outside the court, chanting, “There’s only one decision – no extradition,” and “Free, Free Julian Assange.”

The 17 charges of espionage from a district court in the US state of Virginia stem from Assange’s publication in 2010 of hundreds of thousands of pages of classified US military documents on WikiLeaks.

US prosecutors say Assange actively sought whistle-blowers in US intelligence agencies and conspired with one – US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning – to hack the Pentagon’s servers to retrieve those documents.

The files revealed evidence of what many consider to be war crimes committed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They include video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

“This is a signal to all of you that if you expose the interests that are driving war they will come after you, they will put you in prison and they will try to kill you,” Stella Assange told the media gathered outside the court.

Julian Assange has argued that he acted as a publisher of information that was in the public interest. The US indictment sees him as a spy – but that, say free speech experts, is a misuse of the 1917 US Espionage Act.

“The UK High Court’s ruling presents the US government with another opportunity to do what it should have done long ago – drop the Espionage Act charges,” said free speech expert Jameel Jaffer, an international law professor at Columbia University, in a statement shared with Al Jazeera.

“Prosecuting Assange for the publication of classified information would have profound implications for press freedom, because publishing classified information is what journalists and news organisations often need to do in order to expose wrongdoing by government,” said Jaffer, who has been deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and now directs Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute.

In previous testimony on Assange’s case, Jaffer has been critical of how the Espionage Act has been applied by US courts since it came into being during World War I, calling its provisions “extremely broad”, and saying they criminalise activities that might not have been intended to harm the US.

“The act exposes leakers to severe penalties without regard to whether they acted with the intent to harm the security of the United States,” Jaffer said after Assange was indicted. “The act is indifferent to … whether the harms caused by disclosure were outweighed by the value of the information to the public.”

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‘Obvious’ Sydney mall killer targeted women, Australian police say

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New South Wales Police commissioner says videos of the attack ‘speak for themselves’.

Australian police have said they believe a man who fatally six stabbed people at a busy Sydney shopping centre specifically targeted women.

Five women and one man were killed on Saturday when a 40-year-old man went on a stabbing spree in the beach suburb of Bondi.

The women killed in the attack were identified as a 55-year-old designer, a 47-year-old architect and volunteer surf lifesaver, the 25-year-old daughter of an entrepreneur, a 27-year-old student from China and a 38-year-old new mother.

A 30-year-old Pakistani security guard, who reportedly tried to stop the attacker, was the only man killed in the attack.

The majority of those injured in the attack were also women.

New South Wales state Police Commissioner Karen Webb said on Monday that it was “obvious” the suspected attacker, Joel Cauchi, singled out women.

“It’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to detectives that seems to be an area of interest that the offender focused on women and avoided the men,” Webb told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“The videos speak for themselves, don’t they? That’s certainly a line for inquiry for us.”

Webb said officers were in the process of interviewing people close to Cauchi to gain “some insight into what he might have been thinking”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the gender breakdown of the victims was “concerning”.

“The gender breakdown is of course concerning – each and every victim here is mourned,” he told ABC radio.

Videos shared on social media showed Cauchi, wearing shorts and an Australian national rugby league jersey, targeting mostly female victims as he rampaged through Westfield Bondi Junction shopping complex.

The attack was brought to an end when police inspector Amy Scott shot him dead.

Australia’s national flag has been set at half-mast at major venues, including the Parliament House and Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, in honour of the victims.

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Al Jazeera and news agencies

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US military says it destroyed dozens of drones fired from Iran, Yemen

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US Central Command says it hit more than 80 one-way attack drones aimed at Israel.

The United States has destroyed dozens of drones and at least six ballistic missiles aimed at Israel from Iran and Yemen, its military has said.

US forces hit more than 80 one-way attack drones, including seven UAVs targeted on the ground prior to launch, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Monday.

“Iran’s continued unprecedented, malign, and reckless behaviour endangers regional stability and the safety of U.S. and coalition forces,” CENTCOM said in a post on X

“CENTCOM remains postured to support Israel’s defense against these dangerous actions by Iran. We will continue to work with all our regional partners to increase regional security.”

CENTCOM made the announcement after Iran late on Saturday launched its first-ever attack on Israeli territory in retaliation for a suspected Israeli attack on its embassy in Syria.

The attack involving more than 300 drones and missiles caused only modest damage as most were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system or the US and its partners.

Defense of Israel Activities Update

On April 13 and the morning of April 14, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) forces, supported by U.S. European Command destroyers, successfully engaged and destroyed more than 80 one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles (OWA UAV) and at least six… pic.twitter.com/QYyk01o1Vs

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) April 14, 2024

US President Joe Biden earlier praised US forces for their “extraordinary skill” in helping Israel take down “nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles.”

Biden described US support for Israel’s self-defence as “ironclad” but warned that Washington would not join any retaliatory action taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government against Tehran.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said US forces “remain postured to protect US troops and partners in the region, provide further support for Israel’s defence, and enhance regional stability.”

The threat of all-out war between Israel and Iran has put the region on tenterhooks, prompting calls for restraint from Middle Eastern neighbours and major powers.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday warned that the Middle East was on “the brink”.

“The people of the region are confronting a real danger of a devastating full-scale conflict. Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate,” Guterres told a UN Security Council meeting convened in response to the Iranian attack.

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Al Jazeera and news agencies

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Iran claims ‘right to self-defence’ in Israel attack

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Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations says his country’s drone and missile attack against Israel was ‘in the exercise of Iran’s inherent right to self-defence’. Saeid Iravani told the UN Security Council Iran is not seeking to escalate conflict in the region.

Published On 15 Apr 2024

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