westminster magistrates court

Scottish PEN expresses concern regarding refusal of bail application by journalist Julian Assange

Scottish PEN notes with great concern that WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange was refused bail in relation to ongoing attempts of the government of the United States that he be extradited to face espionage and hacking charges.

January 13, 2021

Scottish PEN notes with great concern that on Wednesday, 6 January, 2020, WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange was refused bail at Westminster Magistrates Court in relation to the ongoing attempts of the government of the United States that he be extradited to face espionage and hacking charges.

The US authorities’ objection to the granting of bail, in part based upon their assertion that other states are ready to offer protection and asylum to Mr Assange, suggests a worrying willingness to set aside concerns on the part of the international community, including UN experts, free expression groups and scores of human rights lawyers. These and others argue that the ongoing proceedings raise profound concerns regarding freedom of the press in light of Mr Assange’s publication of classified material provided by whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, then a military analyst in the US army. The material revealed evidence of human rights violations and possible war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The case against Mr Assange has contributed to a chilling effect on investigative journalism and his conviction would set a worrying precedent for future cases where publishers face prosecution for exposing human rights abuses by those in power. That this might be the case when so many commentators already seem prepared to ignore the full implications of such an outcome is profoundly unsettling.

We are also troubled that, notwithstanding her decision to refuse the request for extradition at the first instance on Monday, 4 January on medical grounds relating to Mr Assange’s poor mental health, the district judge refused bail on grounds including her satisfaction that his mental health is being managed at Belmarsh prison, where he has been held for the past 18 months.

The decision comes despite Mr Assange’s lawyers’ arguing that a severe outbreak of Covid-19 has occurred at the prison among dozens of prisoners on the wing where Mr Assange has been held, and that the position relating to Covid-19 at Belmarsh has deteriorated since before Christmas.

We join with our colleagues at PEN International, English PEN and PEN Norway in objecting to the threat to media freedom and to investigative journalism that these ongoing proceedings continue to represent. Furthermore, we join them in calling for the withdrawal of the extradition request by the US government against Julian Assange. We also join them in urging the UK courts to grant his bail request with the utmost urgency and not to accede to the demand to extradite Mr Assange at appeal.