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Australian lawmakers send letter urging Biden to drop case against Julian Assange on World Press Freedom Day

A group of Australian lawmakers wrote to President Biden on World Press Freedom Day urging him to drop the charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as press freedom groups call for the release of Assange and other journalists around the world facing legal cases.

In a Friday letter, the co-chairs of the "Bring Julian Assange Home" Parliamentary Friendship Group – Members of Parliament Andrew Wilkie, Independent; Josh Wilson, Labor Party; Bridget Archer, Liberal Party, and Sen. David Shoebridge, Greens – called on Biden to end the prosecution of Assange, who is in a U.K. prison fighting extradition to the U.S. to face espionage charges for publishing classified American military documents 14 years ago.

A hearing will be held May 20 in front of the British High Court in London to determine if Assange, an Australian publisher, can be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial or if he can make a full appeal challenging his extradition. If the court rules in favor of extradition, Assange's only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights.

"On World Press Freedom Day, we write as a group of Australian Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum seeking the freedom of Julian Assange," the lawmakers wrote. "We write in the hope that Mr. Assange, who has endured maximum security imprisonment in the United Kingdom's Belmarsh Prison for more than five years without conviction on any substantial charge, can go free, can go home, can be reunited with his wife, children, and family."

ASSANGE EXTRADITION CASE MOVES FORWARD AFTER US ASSURES UK COURT THERE WILL BE NO DEATH PENALTY

Assange, 52, faces 17 counts under the Espionage Act for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public, as well as one charge alleging conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. If extradited, Assange would stand trial in Alexandria, Virginia, and could face up to 175 years in a maximum security prison if convicted.

The charges were brought by the Trump administration's DOJ over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and the Biden administration has continued that prosecution. The information detailed alleged war crimes committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.

The letter comes after Biden said last month he is considering a request from Australia to drop the charges against Assange.

"We were heartened by President Biden's recent acknowledgment that the United States is considering Australia's request to end the prosecution of Julian Assange," the letter reads. "We respectfully urge the United States to discontinue the long, expensive, and punishing extradition process that prevents Mr Assange from returning to his family in Australia."

The White House did not respond to Fox News Digital's request for comment.

SQUAD AND MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE JOIN 16 LAWMAKERS CALLING ON BIDEN TO FREE JULIAN ASSANGE

Assange has been held at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.

A U.K. district court judge had rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment.

Assange's lawyers have continued to fight against his extradition, currently seeking the opportunity for a full appeal following the May 20 hearing, which comes after the U.S. provided assurances to the U.K. last month that Assange would not face new charges that could lead to the death penalty. They also said he would be allowed to make a First Amendment argument in a U.S. courtroom – things Assange's lawyers and family described as empty promises.

In March, when the British court asked the U.S. to provide assurances, it rejected most of Assange’s appeals – six of nine he lodged, including allegations of a political prosecution and concerns about an alleged CIA plot under the Trump administration to kidnap or kill Assange while he remained hunkered down in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party has said "there is nothing to be served by his ongoing incarceration" and the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton of the Liberal Party, has said he believes this case has "gone on for too long."

In February, the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament passed a motion demanding Assange be freed, stressing "the importance of the U.K. and the U.S.A. bringing the matter to a close so that Mr. Assange can return home to his family in Australia."

BRITISH COURT RULES JULIAN ASSANGE EXTRADITION ON PAUSE UNTIL US GUARANTEES NO DEATH PENALTY

A cross-party delegation of Australian lawmakers visited Washington, D.C., in September and met with U.S. officials, members of Congress and civil rights groups in an attempt to secure Assange's freedom.

"While we believe the prosecution of Julian Assange is wrong as a matter of principle, we say in any case that there is no justice, compassion, or reasonable purpose in the further persecution of Mr. Assange when one considers the duration and harsh conditions of the detention he has already suffered," the letter concludes.

The Obama administration in 2013 decided not to indict Assange over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of classified cables because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials.

President Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years in January 2017, and Manning, who had been imprisoned since 2010, was released later that year.

No publisher had been charged under the Espionage Act until Assange, and many press freedom groups have said his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent intended to criminalize journalism.

"President Biden has repeatedly said that journalism is not a crime, all the while his administration continues to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for acts that journalists engage in every day," Caitlin Vogus, Deputy Director of Advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation, told Fox News Digital. "To truly celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the Biden administration should immediately drop the Espionage Act charges against Assange."

She continued: "If the DOJ tried to prosecute reporters at the New York Times or Wall Street Journal under the Espionage Act for speaking to sources, obtaining classified information, and publishing that information, we would rightfully see it as a severe threat to the First Amendment. The Espionage Act prosecution of Assange threatens press freedom by opening the door to precisely those kinds of prosecutions of journalists by the current or future administrations."

Reporters Without Borders Executive Director Clayton Weimers told Fox News Digital that the prosecution of Assange "could set a very dangerous precedent for American press freedom."

"This would be the first time the Espionage Act, an archaic law badly in need of reform, would be used to punish the publisher of factual information, not just the leaker," he said. "In this case, the leaker, Chelsea Manning, has already served her sentence. But if the Justice Department is successful in prosecuting Assange, they're opening the door to prosecuting any journalist or media outlet – including Fox News – to prosecution for publishing government secrets, even if that publication is in the public interest."

On World Press Freedom Day, many other journalists around the world are facing legal cases for their journalistic work, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia on espionage charges for allegedly stealing secret military documents.

"We continue to call for the Kremlin to release Evan Gershkovich, and indeed for the release of all wrongly jailed journalists around the world," Weimers said. "We also call on the State Department to designate journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, a US citizen, as 'wrongfully detained.'"

ARTIST THREATENS TO DESTROY PICASSO, REMBRANDT, WARHOL MASTERPIECES WITH ACID IF JULIAN ASSANGE DIES IN PRISON

When governments arrest or imprison journalists for covering the news, Vogus said, it "threatens everyone's freedom and ability to be informed."

"Arresting journalists for covering the news is an authoritarian bullying tactic whether it's happening in Russia or Austin, Texas," she said. "Compelling reporters to reveal their confidential sources will make whistleblowers less likely to come forward. Sources often risk their livelihoods and even their freedom to tell journalists what they know about corruption, crimes, and wrongdoing."

Reporters Without Borders downgraded the U.S. to 55 among nations in the 2024 World Press Freedom Index.

"The U.S. should be a beacon for press freedom around the world. Instead, we have recently seen journalists in the U.S. arrested and prosecuted simply for doing their jobs across the country, and witnessed growing distrust fueled by the irresponsible rhetoric of some political officials," National Press Club president Emily Wilkins and National Press Club Journalism Institute president Gil Klein said in a statement. "The falling ranking of the U.S. in the World Press Freedom Index shows that we are headed in the wrong direction."

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, National Press Club and many other press freedom groups are urging Congress to pass the bipartisan PRESS Act, which would prevent the federal government from compelling journalists to reveal their sources and confidential work.

Москва

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