European human rights experts have joined the campaign urging the UK government not to extradite controversial WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange to face trial in the United States, warning that it could have a ‘chilling effect’ on media freedom.
In a letter published on Wednesday, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on UK Home Secretary Priti Patel not to extradite Assange.
“The broad and vague nature of the allegations against Mr Assange, and of the offences listed in the indictment, are troubling as many of them concern activities at the core of investigative journalism in Europe and beyond,” stated Mijatović’s letter.
“Consequently, allowing Mr Assange’s extradition on this basis would have a chilling effect on media freedom, and could ultimately hamper the press in performing its task as purveyor of information and public watchdog in democratic societies,” she added.
Assange’s fate is now in the hands of Patel and a decision is expected imminently. The US is seeking to try Assange over the alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose defence and security information after WikiLeaks, which Assange edited, published thousands of leaked documents related to the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If convicted, Assange would likely receive a life sentence that would see him die behind bars. Last year, a British court ruled that Assange could be extradited despite his legal team’s warnings about the state of his mental health and that he is a suicide risk.
The legal case against him has been running for over a decade. Back in 2012, the UK Supreme Court upheld a decision to extradite Assange to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. The case against him in Sweden was later dropped.
Back in 2016, when Assange was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after claiming political asylum, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging member states “to grant Julian Assange political asylum and guarantee his safety and freedom of movement within the EU”.
In Brussels on Wednesday (18 May), meanwhile, a group of 30 EU lawmakers protested in front of the European Parliament entrance, demanding the release of Assange, who has been held in Belmarsh prison in London since being arrested after his asylum was cancelled by the Ecuadorian authorities.
The MEPs were predominantly from the Left and Green groups, including the entire MEP delegation from the Italian Five Star Movement.
“The British government must listen to MEPs’ request and choose to be on the right side of history” said Five Star Movement MEP Sabrina Pignedoli.
“His fate concerns democratic rights, freedom of the press, and the need to make citizens around the world aware of the serious war crimes of the past,” she added.
There have also been a series of demonstrations and public protests in London in recent weeks demanding Assange’s release.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]