The Assange Appeal Is the Defining Trial of Our Time

In the Assange extradition appeal, the British and American establishments are fighting journalists' unions from across the world – and their mission is simple: to make effective scrutiny of the powerful impossible.

In January, a British court ruled against allowing Assange's extradition to the US. – but that decision is now being appealed. Credit: Getty Images

You can tell a great deal about the forces at work in the Assange extradition hearings simply by looking at the lawyers who faced each other in the High Court in the latest episode.

The US government has employed James Lewis QC to argue that Julian Assange should be extradited to America and tried under the 1917 Espionage Act. And you can see the attraction that Lewis must hold for the US state.

Lewis is the Chief Justice of the Falkland Islands and in his house the wall is adorned with a framed front page of the of the Falkland Islands newspaper from the day the British forces retook the islands from Argentina in 1982.

Lewis was previously engaged in defending a former soldier accused of shooting dead John Pat Cunningham during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Cunningham was running away from soldiers when he was gunned down and is said to have had the mental age of a child.

It’s safe to say that Lewis is the go-to lawyer for the UK establishment, especially in extradition and business cases.

Defending Julian Assange is Ed Fitzgerald QC, an internationally renowned human rights lawyer, who previously defended MI5 whistleblower David Shayler. He’s instructed by solicitor Gareth Pierce, whose outstanding work includes the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Orgreave miners and Moazzam Begg.

When Home Secretary Priti Patel vents about ‘lefty lawyers’ it’s pretty certain that Gareth Pierce is one of those she has in mind. And in James Lewis, she has found a lawyer who is a soulmate.

Lewis is to the legal world what ratters are to the dog world. He’s short-tempered and abrasive, given to expostulations of disbelief when confronted with what he obviously regards as verminous arguments in favour of a free press or freedom of speech.

In a way, Ed Fitzgerald is an ideal foil for Lewis. Avuncular and genial, Fitzgerald seems to simply give Lewis what Paddington Bear describes as a ‘hard stare’ when he makes one of his frequent declarations of disbelief that anyone could possibly doubt the word of the US government.

As Lewis attempted to maintain that the judge at the Westminster Magistrates Court had been neglectful in believing an expert psychiatric witness and so finding against the US extradition request last February, Fitzgerald simply observed that ‘my learned friend and I don’t seem to be looking at the same judgement’.

But perhaps the key exchange of the two-day hearing came late on the second day. And it was not an exchange between Lewis and Fitzgerald but between Mark Summers QC, for the Assange defence team, and one of the two High Court judges hearing this appeal.

Summers was introducing evidence from the Yahoo News story which revealed a CIA plot to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange towards the end of his period of asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Almost as soon as Summers began the judge leaned forward and interjected with the thought that ‘Yes, yes, I’m sure the CIA was interested in Mr Assange.’ As Summers replied, what was at stake was not some relatively benign ‘interest’ in Assange, but the preparation of a plan to kill or abduct him.

Moreover, this plot was the third occasion on which the US has acted illegally in trying to extradite Assange. Previously they had suborned the security firm UC Global, who were employed to protect Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy, to spy on Assange, his family, and his lawyers.

And they had also knowingly used FBI informant, convicted fraudster, and sex offender Siggi Thordarson as a prime witness in these extradition hearings—using evidence which Thordarson has recently admitted was full of lies.

Yet it is the very same CIA that will determine the prison conditions in which Assange will be kept if he is extradited to the US.

So the question at the heart of the hearing is this: is it reasonable to assume that the agency that has repeatedly acted illegally to ensnare Julian Assange, and which has even developed plans to kidnap or kill him, can be assumed to be acting in good faith when they give assurances that he will be humanely treated in the US prison system?

And how much more doubt should there be about this when, as Lewis admitted in a mistimed and flustered summing-up, any assurances given now cannot be specific and can be withdrawn at a future date?

Indeed these ‘Schrödinger’s assurances’, there when the US needs them but gone when the defendant needs them, are neither real nor trustworthy.

So the appeal judges will now have to go away and decide whether this rapidly crumbling case, increasingly visible as a revenge attack on a journalist for exposing the crimes of the powerful, will be given a new lease of life—or whether they will concur with the existing judgement of the Westminster Magistrates Court and put an end to a farce which has already run for far too long.

Outside the courts, that balance of the argument has swung Assange’s way. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and practically every human rights organisation on the planet is calling for the end to this extradition.

So is the National Union of Journalists, its Australian equivalent, and the International Federation of Journalists. So are parliamentarians across the globe. So is the UN. So are many of the major newspapers in the UK—even those who have been hostile in the past.

Only the core of the political establishment remains obdurate—the Tory cabinet, the Labour leadership, the BBC—entranced as ever by the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

But every political case of this kind is decided fifty percent in court and fifty percent in the court of public opinion. In the High Court, there is no jury of Assange’s peers who will be the arbiters of his fate. In the court of public opinion, however, it is ordinary citizens who have the deciding vote.

That is why, as the High Court judges sequester themselves in their chambers to decide their verdict in coming weeks, it must be the voices of ordinary people that are raised loud enough to shape the outcome of the civil rights trial of the century.