It has been six years since Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to seek asylum from possible extradition to the United States to face indictment under the US Espionage Act.
At the time, Assange, an Australian national, was wanted by Sweden for questioning over sexual offense allegations. Assange had also broken the terms of his UK bail. Since then, he has become even more controversial, having published US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and internal emails from Democratic Party officials.
While some admire and others despise Assange, no one should be prosecuted under the antiquated Espionage Act for publishing leaked government documents. That 1917 statute was designed to punish people who leaked secrets to a foreign government, not to the media, and allows no defense or mitigation of punishment on the basis that public interest served by some leaks may outweigh any harm to national security.
The US grand jury investigation of Assange under the Espionage Act was apparently based on his publishing the leaks for which Chelsea Manning, a former US army soldier, was convicted. Her sentence was commuted.
The publication of leaks—particularly leaks that show potential government wrongdoing or human rights abuse—is a critical function of a free press in a democratic society. The vague and sweeping provisions of the Espionage Act remain ready to be used against other publishers and journalists, whether they be Wikileaks or the New York Times.
Assange has agreed to surrender himself to the British police – but only if he were granted assurances against extradition to the US, where he could face life in prison. He also offered to appear in Sweden if Sweden would offer similar assurances.
In 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Assange’s stay in the Ecuadorean embassy, enforced by the alternative of his potential extradition to the US, to be an arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Ecuador, offended by Assange’s political comments, this year has denied him internet access and visitors, other than occasional contact with his lawyers. Ecuador denied Human Rights Watch permission to visit him this May. Concern is growing over his access to medical care. His asylum is growing more difficult to distinguish from detention.
The UK has the power to resolve concerns over his isolation, health, and confinement by removing the threat of extradition for publishing newsworthy leaks. It should do so before another year passes.