‘It’s now or never’: Assange supporters rally ahead of final UK hearing

Hundreds attended a public meeting hosted by Julian Assange’s wife in central London last week ahead of his final UK appeal against the extradition to the US.

Despite freezing temperatures, a large number of campaigners, journalists and MPs across the political spectrum filled Conway Hall, Holborn, to show solidarity and support for Stella Assange in her fight to free the WikiLeaks founder.

In attendance were MPs Jeremy Corbyn, David Davis and Richard Burgon, as well as trade unionist Len McCluskey and comedian Alexei Sayle.

After spending over four years in Belmarsh jail – a high-security prison in southeast London, Julian Assange’s final hearing in the British courts is scheduled for 20-21 February at the Royal Courts of Justice.

This could be the last chance to prevent his extradition from the UK to the US, where he faces up to 175 years for having published leaked classified documents in 2010 which exposed war crimes committed by the US military against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Joe Biden, then US Vice-President, called him a high-tech terrorist, claiming that Assange had made it more difficult for the US to conduct business with allies.

“It’s so important that you, and we, continue this fight for Julian – I do believe that we will get him free,” said Stella Assange.

“What’s been done to him is there to intimidate regular citizens but also journalists – it’s there to give an example of authoritarian abuse to the world.

“He is accused of telling the truth, of practising journalism but he is not just a journalist: he is the most important political prisoner of our times.

“What he revealed wasn’t just how torture was institutionalised during the Bush years or how the State Department was spying on diplomats at the UN – he revealed a whole system of avoiding democratic process and accountability.

“The support for Julian is a global movement, don’t let anyone convince you that no one cares!”

Stella Assange addressing the “Fight to free Julian Assange” public rally

Addressing the rally, Conservative MP David Davis argued that if Assange had been accused of violating the equivalent of the US Espionage Act in the UK – the Official Secrets Act – a British jury would have found him not guilty.

He mentioned prominent cases such as Clive Ponting – a civil servant who leaked classified documents on the sinking of an Argentine ship by the Royal Navy during the Falklands War in 1982 – Iraq war whistleblower Katharine Gun and Derek Pasquill, a Foreign Office official who in 2006 disclosed confidential papers to journalists on government policy in the context of radical Islam.

All were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and but acquitted claiming their actions were in the public interest.

Similarly, he concluded, under British law Assange would have faced a fair trial and “it would be over by now, he would be walking free on the streets of Britain.

“In what world is public interest journalism exposing crimes a crime itself? Clearly not in any sensible world!

“The successful extradition of Julian Assange would criminalise investigative journalism, it would set a legal precedent allowing the prosecuting of anyone who breaks the duty of silence on state-sponsored crime.

“It would impose America’s censorship on British journalism, and for what? For Joe Biden to avoid embarrassing the American government!

“Our country believes itself to be a free society, we believe we have a free press and a real court system that delivers justice: it’s time we live up to our beliefs.”

Tory MP David Davis takes the floor at the “Fight to free Julian Assange” public rally

Former Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey recalled when he and Corbyn visited Assange in Belmarsh prison in September 2023, an “humbling experience” that made him feel both sad and angry at the time.

“I am not happy to be here and no one of us should be – Julian should be a free man, living his life with Stella and his family and engaging in what he does best which is telling the truth to power!

“America has made it clear that they intent to make Julian an example for any other journalist who wants to expose what’s going on in our world.

“If he goes to America, we may never hear from him again,” he added.

He then praised Labour MP Richard Burgon for being at the rally and admitted his disappointment with Starmer, whom he wished had been committed to the cause.

In his speech, Corbyn, a relentless “Free Assange!” campaigner, criticised the British media’s lack of interest in years of judicial ordeal and called for “serious, detailed and extended coverage” of the upcoming hearing.

He said: “This is about the role of journalism in the world – if you want to be able to pursue the truth and be protected in doing that, you need to be standing with and supporting Julian Assange.

“This meeting tonight needs to send a message to Julian: we will be with you as long as it takes for you to be able to work in freedom and go back to your very valuable work.

“Real journalism is designed to make the rich and the powerful feel uncomfortable!”

In a statement, Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns for Reporters Without Borders – an international non-profit organisation that protects the right to freedom of information – said: “The historical weight of what happens next cannot be overstated; it is time to put a stop to this relentless targeting of Assange and act instead to protect journalism and press freedom.

“Our call on President Biden is now more urgent than ever: drop these charges, close the case against Assange, and allow for his release without further delay.”

Supporters say they will gather in a mass protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice at 8.30am on both days of the hearing.

Featured image credit: Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

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