A petition drive for the release of Julian Assange has begun among members of Congress

Action4Assange activists supporting Rep. Tlaib’s petition initiative will storm Capitol Hill in Washington DC this Tuesday — not in the manner of Trump supporters two years ago, but peacefully and diplomatically. Sit-ins of support April 11th in Rome and in Genoa as well.

On the fourth anniversary of Julian Assange’s imprisonment in Belmarsh Prison (London), where he awaits extradition to the United States, activists from around the country will converge on Washington DC to get their representatives to sign onto a letter drafted by congresswoman Rashida Tlaib[1] (D-Mich), which asks Attorney General Merrick Garland to drop the criminal charges against the Australian publisher and to withdraw his Department’s extradition request, issued under the Trump Administration and currently pending with the British government.

Rashida Tlaib at her campaign headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, August 7, 2018, Wikimedia Commons

This April 11th, then, beginning at 10 am (in Rome 4 pm), dozens of Action4Assange activists will meet in the cafeteria of the House Office Building and divide into small groups which will then proceed to lobby select congresspersons, telling them to put aside their personal opinions of Julian Assange and to sign for his release because, under attack, is not just a man but Freedom of the Press itself.

Simultaneously in Rome, FREE ASSANGE Italia activists will be holding a sit-in in Piazza della Repubblica starting at 3 p.m., with the collaboration of other groups such as Italians for Assange and Free Assange Wave. In Genoa, too, FREE ASSANGE Italia activists will hold a rally, in Piazza De Ferrari from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. These two Italian protests, just like the one in Washington, will denounce the Australian journalist’s imprisonment without trial which, precisely on April 11, will have lasted four years.

The letter that the activists in Washington DC will be asking their members of Congress to sign was written by Congresswoman Tlaib a week ago and has already garnered the signatures of her more progressive colleagues: Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush; it also looks like Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are about to sign. But the pro-Assange activists want to widen the circle of signatories to include centrist Democrats and even some Republicans. “Freedom of expression and freedom of the press affect us all, across the board,” they point out.

After lunch, their lobbying will continue until 4 pm (or 10 pm in Rome), just in time to join the sit-in that Action4Assange will be holding outside the Attorney General’s office on Pennsylvania Ave at 10th St NW.

Below is the text of the letter.

Dear Attorney General Merrick Garland,

We write you today to call on you to uphold the First Amendment’s protections for the freedom of the press by dropping the criminal charges against Australian publisher Julian Assange and withdrawing the American extradition request currently pending with the British government.

Press freedom, civil liberty, and human rights groups have been emphatic that the charges against Mr. Assange pose a grave and unprecedented threat to everyday, constitutionally protected journalistic activity, and that a conviction would represent a landmark setback for the First Amendment. Major media outlets are in agreement: The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel have taken the extraordinary step of publishing a joint statement in opposition to the indictment, warning that it “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”

The ACLU, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Defending Rights and Dissent, and Human Rights Watch, among others, have written to you three times to express these concerns. In one such letter they wrote:

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.”

The prosecution of Julian Assange for carrying out journalistic activities greatly diminishes America’s credibility as a defender of these values, undermining the United States’ moral standing on the world stage, and effectively granting cover to authoritarian governments who can (and do) point to Assange’s prosecution to reject evidence-based criticisms of their human rights records and as a precedent that justifies the criminalization of reporting on their activities. Leaders of democracies, major international bodies, and parliamentarians around the globe stand opposed to the prosecution of Assange. Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic have both opposed the extradition. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called on the U.S. government to end its pursuit of Assange. Leaders of nearly every major Latin American nation, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Argentinian President Alberto Fernández have called for the charges to be dropped. Parliamentarians from around the world, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, have all called for Assange not to be extradited to the U.S.

This global outcry against the U.S. government’s prosecution of Mr. Assange has highlighted conflicts between America’s stated values of press freedom and its pursuit of Mr. Assange. The Guardian wrote “The US has this week proclaimed itself the beacon of democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world. If Mr. Biden is serious about protecting the ability of the media to hold governments accountable, he should begin by dropping the charges brought against Mr. Assange.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald editorial board stated, “At a time when US President Joe Biden has just held a summit for democracy, it seems contradictory to go to such lengths to win a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech.”

As Attorney General, you have rightly championed freedom of the press and the rule of law in the United States and around the world. Just this past October the Justice Department under your leadership made changes to news media policy guidelines that generally prevent federal prosecutors from using subpoenas or other investigative tools against journalists who possess and publish classified information used in news gathering. We are grateful for these pro-press freedom revisions, and feel strongly that dropping the Justice Department’s indictment against Mr. Assange and halting all efforts to extradite him to the U.S. is in line with these new policies.

Julian Assange faces 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.  The Espionage Act charges stem from Mr. Assange’s role in publishing information about the U.S. State Department, Guantanamo Bay, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this information was published by mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, who often worked with Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks directly in doing so. Based on the legal logic of this indictment, any of those newspapers could be prosecuted for engaging in these reporting activities. In fact, because what Mr. Assange is accused of doing is legally indistinguishable from what papers like the New York Times do, the Obama administration rightfully declined to bring these charges. The Trump Administration, which brought these charges against Assange, was notably less concerned with press freedom. 

The prosecution of Mr. Assange marks the first time in U.S. history that a publisher of truthful information has been indicted under the Espionage Act. The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well. In the future the New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information. Or, just as dangerous for democracy, they may refrain from publishing such stories for fear of prosecution. 

Mr. Assange has been detained on remand in London for more than three years, as he awaits the outcome of extradition proceedings against him. In 2021, a U.K. District Judge ruled against extraditing Mr. Assange to the United States on the grounds that doing so would put him at undue risk of suicide. The U.K.’s High Court overturned that decision after accepting U.S. assurances regarding the prospective treatment Mr. Assange would receive in prison. Neither ruling adequately addresses the threat the charges against Mr. Assange pose to press freedom. The U.S. Department of Justice can halt these harmful proceedings at any moment by simply dropping the charges against Mr. Assange.

We appreciate your attention to this urgent issue. Every day that the prosecution of Julian Assange continues is another day that our own government needlessly undermines our own moral authority abroad and rolls back the freedom of the press under the First Amendment at home. We urge you to immediately drop these Trump-era charges against Mr. Assange and halt this dangerous prosecution.

Members of Congress

CC: British Embassy; Australian Embassy

The 46-year-old lawyer Rashida Tlaib was born to working-class Palestinian immigrants in Detroit, her mother from Beit Ur El Foka, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, and her father (an assembly line worker) from Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. She is one of a handful of Democrats who are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America. She represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District which includes parts of Detroit.

Patrick Boylan