Julian Assange, the founder and editor of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks whose diplomatic safe haven in the small Ecuadorian embassy in London appears increasingly precarious, is launching a legal challenge against the Trump administration, after a Virginia district court accidentally revealed the existence of a sealed federal indictment against him in the United States.
Lawyers for the Australian publisher and activist have filed an urgent application to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) aimed at forcing the hand of US prosecutors, requiring them to “unseal” any secret charges against him.
The legal move is an attempt to prevent Assange’s extradition to the US at a time when the new Ecuadorian government under former President Rafael Correa‘s successor, President Lenìn Moreno, has been making his stay in the central London embassy increasingly inhospitable.
It is believed American prosecutors have been investigating Assange since at least 2011, when a grand jury hearing was opened into the whistleblowing website’s publication of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, in conjunction with a number of international newspapers.
The IACHR is an autonomous part of the Organization of American States (OAS) to promote and protect human rights. The group monitors human rights in the Americas and hears appeals on individual cases. The Trump administration, however, has boycotted its recent hearings, and its decisions are not legally binding on OAS member states. But it can generate international pressure by creating political embarrassment for states that are found to have committed human rights violations.
The 1,172-page submission by Assange’s lawyers calls on the US to unseal any secret charges against him and urges Ecuador to cease its “espionage activities” and surveillance of Assange and “to stop the isolation imposed on him.”
“The application by Mr. Assange’s lawyers identifies a raft of legal obligations that the U.S. and Ecuador are flouting in their treatment of Mr. Assange,” WikiLeaks said in a statement. “The lawyers document Trump Administration attempts to pressure Ecuador to hand over Mr. Assange, notably recent serious overt threats against Ecuador made by senior U.S. political figures, unlike the more veiled threats made in the past.”
“The calls to extradite Mr. Assange to the United States, as the result of his work as a publisher and editor, is the reason Mr. Assange obtained political asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London in August 2012,” WikiLeaks said.
Baltasar Garzón, the international coordinator of Assange’s legal team, called for “international solidarity for this case in which the right to access and impart information freely is in jeopardy,” the statement said.
A decision whether to unseal the details of an indictment against Assange is held up in a courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia. In November, Judge Leonie Brinkema delayed her decision for what she said would be a week.
The WikiLeaks petition to the IACHR also “reveals for the first time that U.S. federal prosecutors have in the last few months formally approached people in the United States, Germany and Iceland and pressed them to testify against Mr. Assange in return for immunity from prosecution,” the WikiLeaks statement revealed.
“Those approached are associated with WikiLeaks’ joint publications with other media about U.S. diplomacy, Guantanamo bay and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the statement.
The Trump administration “is clearly intent on using the prosecution of Julian Assange as an ‘icebreaker’ to set a dangerous precedent that would enable the prosecution of most serious media organizations,” WikiLeaks warned. It noted that the threats against Assange have “significantly increased” since WikiLeaks published the “Vault 7” CIA documents, “the largest leak of CIA classified information in history.”
The petition points out espionage activity against Assange in the embassy by private security firms contracted by Ecuador “which, instead of being involved in protecting the asylee, have spied on Mr. Assange and his visitors.” The private firms have been acting as informants to the FBI, WikiLeaks said, citing media reports.
“Ecuador is required to end the regime of isolation imposed on Mr. Assange, suspending the application of the so-called special protocol and guaranteeing his rights as an asylee will be respected in full,” the filing said.
Assange’s lawyers say the Trump administration has pressurised Ecuador to hand over Assange, making increasingly overt threats. In December, the New York Times reported that Ecuador’s new president Lenin Moreno tried to negotiate surrendering Assange to the US in exchange for “debt relief”.