Within the next few days, Priti Patel will decide whether to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the US to face trial. It is a decision of world-reverberating importance and it is a worry that it is in the hands of someone whose record cannot be described as libertarian.
The British home secretary has experience in public relations, as a lobbyist, and as a career politician whose main decisions to date include a plan to send illegal immigrants to the central African country of Rwanda and a fumbled response to helping refugees from Ukraine find safe harbour in Britain. She is an ambitious and driven minister, self-declared admirer of Margaret Thatcher and unlikely, you might think, to want to upset an old and major ally.
But upset the US she must because to deliver up Assange will be a disaster for investigative journalism, free speech, and a fillip for repressive regimes everywhere.
It is not necessary to like or support Assange to appreciate this.
Assange will die in jail if transferred to the US, sending an unmistakable signal that obtaining and publishing information from US classified sources can have lethal consequences.
Daniel Ellsberg, now 91, who was prosecuted for his role in publishing the Pentagon Papers which exposed the covert bombing of Laos and Cambodia and thus helped end the Vietnam war, is a strong Assange supporter. He was unsuccessfully prosecuted under the same law that the US government wants to deploy now in 2022.
Assange, in collaboration with a number of international news organisations and a US army intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, revealed to the world some of the depravities of the US forces during the war in Iraq. The investigations established hitherto undeclared levels of civilian casualties. It revealed that more than 150 innocent people were held without charge for years at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, told Ms Patel that the case “raises important questions about the protection of those that publish classified information in the public interest, including information that exposes human rights violations”.
Extradition would have a “chilling effect on media freedom”.
Nearly 60 years ago, in one of the most famous newspaper editorials ever written, the editor of the London Times queried a three-month prison sentence given to Mick Jagger, lead singer of the then-notorious rock group, the Rolling Stones. “Who would break a butterfly on a wheel?” the newspaper asked.
It was a very different case in a different time and the butterfly here is not Julian Assange but that fragile entity called, “press freedom”. All around the world journalist are being killed for trying to bring the truth to people.
Priti Patel should tell Joe Biden and the US Department of Justice that Assange won’t be coming.