Julian Assange is being persecuted by Donald Trump, his extradition trial heard.
Peace studies professor Paul Rogers told the Old Bailey today (Weds) that Assange’s prosecution is politically motivated.
Assange, 49, is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to expose military secrets between January and May 2010.
A US grand jury indicted him on 18 charges – 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act.
He is accused of publishing un-redacted US government documents and faces a maximum 175 year prison sentence if convicted.
Assange’s team called Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and author of nine books on the war on terror, as a witness on the third day of the four-week trial.
Prof Rogers sat in a grey jacket, light blue shirt and patterned green tie on video-link from his home office.
Edward Fitzgerald, QC, for Assange, asked: ‘In your view is the prosecution motivated by criminal justice concerns or political motivations?’
He replied: ‘The evidence very strongly supports the latter.
‘There are some personal elements which do relate to President Trump himself.
‘The previous administration did consider this eight or nine years ago but decided not to take action.
‘In that gap you have a return to political motivation which is unusual to most countries.
‘Mr Trump takes antipathy to President Obama.
‘President Obama took this decision not to charge Assange and that would be one reason, probably a significant one, why Mr Trump would take a different view.
‘Much of this case relies heavily on politics and the changing administrations within the US.
‘An administration has come in which takes views on many subjects.
‘This is an administration that really sees this from a political standpoint.’
James Lewis, for the US government, asked: ‘What evidence do you have that prosecutors have prosecuted on a political basis?’
Prof Rogers: ‘What do you mean by prosecutors, are you talking about the people right at the top?’
Mr Lewis: ‘Trump is not a prosecutor.’
Prof Rogers: ‘No, but the person who directs the Department of Justice is essentially a political appointee.’
The four week extradition hearing at the Old Bailey – sitting as Westminster Magistrates’ Court – continues.
The reporters who broke the Watergate scandal would have been charged with espionage under the rules the US is imposing on Assange, the Old Bailey heard.
Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, advocating the rights of public interest journalism, was called as Assange’s second witness of the day.
Wearing a purple shirt with the top button undone and sporting AirPods and side parting he appeared by video-link in front of a grey wall from his home in San Francisco.
‘Stories like this do not land on journalists desks, once they get information they will ask for more,’ he said.
‘This would criminalise every single reporter who has received any document whether they asked for it or not from a source who potentially broke the law.
‘The two most famous reporters in US history Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could have been charged with persistently asking for information from FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt – or ‘Deep Throat’ as he was referred to – during the Watergate investigation.
‘Similarly the San Francisco Chronicle could have been charged with violating the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure when they reported on the steroids scandal in baseball.
‘It’s why virtually every newspaper in the US has vehemently condemned the trial as a clear and present danger to the US.
‘Many have criticised Assange and Wikileaks in the past but they see the extreme dangers their journalists would face should this case go forward.
‘There’s a rich history of reporters of all stripes reporting on sensitive national foreign policy issues.
‘This is the only time in history the US have used the Espionage Act against somebody who was not a government employee.’
Mr Lewis said: ‘The prosecution’s case is Julian Assange is not a journalist.’
Mr Timm replied: ‘It doesn’t matter whether or not the government deems him a journalist.
‘Whether or not anyone considers him a journalist is beside the point. He was engaging in journalistic behaviour and that is the right of everybody.’
Mr Timm said his organisation had donated a six-figure sum to help cover Assange’s legal costs.
‘Our organisation believes this case is a dire threat to press freedom, so we decided to make a contribution to the cause of the case.
‘It was $100,000.’
Publishing the names of US informants in Iraq and Afghanistan may have put their lives in danger but ‘is not illegal,’ the court heard.
Mr Lewis said: ‘Julian Assange is no journalist.
‘Would a responsible journalist publish the names of a third party while knowing that publishing the un-redacted story would put their lives in danger?’
Mr Timm replied: ‘No court has said publishing those names is illegal.
‘Congress debated this very issue.
‘There was a shield law proposed by Joe Lieberman that would have made it a crime. That bill failed to pass.
‘This wasn’t illegal. Congress decided it wasn’t.
‘Whether I would have published them is immaterial and this conduct is protected by the first amendment.’
Mr Lewis: ‘Journalists deplored the decision to put sources at risk.’
Mr Timm: ‘I’m not saying that Wikileaks have perfect editorial judgement. Sometimes newspapers make mistakes but that doesn’t mean something should be made illegal.
‘I do not think the US government should be making that determination.
‘The question is not whether we agree with the decision to publish the names but whether it is illegal. This publication was not illegal.’
Mr Lewis asked the witness if he was a lawyer.
Mr Timm: ‘I graduated law school in 2011 and was admitted to the New York bar.’
The lawyer then asked him why he thought his opinion was worth more than a court of law.
Mr Timm: ‘My case is in line with court opinions, this court proceeding is wholly unprecedented.
‘The Supreme Court precedent is almost wholly on the side of Mr Assange in this case.’
Mr Lewis: ‘So you think it’s perfectly fine, perfectly legal to publish the names of informants knowing it’s likely to result in their death?’
Mr Timm: ‘First of all I don’t think anybody knows it’s likely to result in their death. The US government could point to no specific deaths in this case.
‘Regardless, the first amendment has never been a balancing act between harm and benefit.
‘It sometimes allows for odious speech, for speech that is unpopular.
‘Frankly it’s possible that in some kinds of speech some harm would result.
‘But it’s vital they are protected from prosecution even when it comes close to a line or a particular subject matter some find uncomfortable.
‘This is not me saying I would have made the same decision but editorial judgement should not be decided by the US government.
‘I didn’t say it was right or that I agreed with the decision, merely it would be unconstitutional for Mr Assange to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.’
Assange’s lawyer Mark Summer QC interrupted to tell his opponent he had run out of time.
Mr Lewis said: ‘Oh, I thought I had an hour?’
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said: ‘Yes, you had it.’
Mr Lewis: ‘Oh well are we sure we want to stick to that?
‘I don’t accept I should be limited to one hour.’
The judge allowed the lawyer to finish questioning the witness.
‘In fact I have finished but I don’t like being interrupted,’ he added.
He stood up 10 minutes later and said: ‘Sorry if I was a bit cross earlier but I didn’t like being interrupted.’
The hearing continues tomorrow (thurs).