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UK/US: Time to end prosecution of Julian Assange, UN expert says

01 March 2024

GENEVA (1 March 2024) – A UN expert today expressed concern that the possible extradition and imminent prosecution in the United States of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could have serious implications for freedom of expression.

“Gathering, reporting and disseminating information, including national security information when it is in the public interest, is a legitimate exercise of journalism and should not be treated as a crime,” said Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.

The Australian editor, publisher and activist is awaiting the decision of the High Court in the United Kingdom on his appeal against extradition to the United States, where he is facing 17 charges under the 1917 Espionage Act for publishing classified information on the WikiLeaks platform. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

“I am concerned about the use of the Espionage Act in this case, as this statute provides no protection for the publication of information in the public interest,” Khan said.

She noted that if extradited, Julian Assange would be the first publisher to be prosecuted in the US under the Espionage Act.

“It would set a dangerous precedent that could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in the United States and possibly elsewhere in the world,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“International human rights law provides strong protections for whistle-blowers, journalistic sources and reporting in the public interest,” Khan said. “I call on the United States and the United Kingdom, which profess to uphold the right to freedom of expression, to uphold these international standards in the case of Julian Assange.”

The expert urged the UK authorities not to extradite Assange and the US Government to drop the charges.

Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. She was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020. Ms. Khan is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. She teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and was previously Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009, and Head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.

Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

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