MELBOURNE, Australia — As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faced the threat of extradition to the United States and imprisonment at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, his lawyer warned against the type of inflammatory rhetoric that she said might have led to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona.
Assange was particularly justified in fearing the impact of ferocious attacks by politicians such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, said Jennifer Robinson, the London-based Australian lawyer.
Robinson said in an interview with GlobalPost that the shooting of the Arizona congresswoman showed that inflammatory rhetoric, of the type used by Sarah Palin against both Assange and Giffords, could incite violence against its targets.
Assange’s defense team also had to take seriously the threat of U.S. action against its client, she said — including the double danger of him being extradited to Guantanamo Bay and facing the death penalty.
“She says things like ‘hunt him down like Al Qaeda and the Taliban,’” Robinson told GlobalPost in a telephone interview Wednesday, referring to Palin.
“There have been numerous calls for his assassination and from very high-profile people as listed in our defense document – [Republican Mike] Huckabee, Sarah Palin – and the danger of this rhetoric is demonstrated by what happened in Arizona."
Robinson continued: “Politicians have to be responsible … these are irresponsible statements which can lead to the incitement of individuals. It’s rhetoric, but they need to understand that there may be consequences for that rhetoric and there may be people who don’t just see it as rhetoric and might see it as a call to action, and that’s what we saw in Arizona. So it is something that must be considered incredibly serious.”
Asked if death threats were now a regular occurrence for Assange, Robinson declined to go into detail but said: “It is a fact of his life that these sorts of threats are made.”
She was speaking a day after Assange appeared in a London court for the latest stage of the legal process surrounding Swedish attempts to extradite him on rape charges.
The 39-year-old Australian, who is free on strict bail conditions, has denied the Swedish claims. He and his supporters have claimed they are part of a U.S.-inspired conspiracy to destroy him and his WikiLeaks website. The site and its founder have been at the center of a global storm that escalated in November, with the release of secret diplomatic cables whose content angered and embarrassed the United States and other governments.
In a skeleton summary of the case, released after Tuesday’s brief court hearing, the defense team argues that if Assange is extradited to Sweden, the United States might seek his extradition and detention “at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere.” There would then be a “real risk” of him facing the death penalty.
“It is well known that prominent figures have implied, if not stated outright, that Mr. Assange should be executed,” the defense summary says.
Robinson reinforced those arguments, arguing that senior U.S. officials such as Attorney General Eric Holder had indicated the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama would go to great lengths to prosecute Assange.
“When you have the U.S. attorney general saying things like ‘we are looking into how to prosecute him and if we can’t find a way we’ll change our laws’ – that’s retrospective application of criminal law if that’s what they intend to do and it’s a complete breach of international law,” Robinson said.
Of the potential threat of extradition to Guantanamo Bay, she said: “It would be remiss of us not to raise that as a possibility.”
“Our human rights argument that relates to the U.S. is the risk of onward rendition. Why we raise that as a risk is that there are documented cases in the last five years where Sweden, in cooperation with the U.S., has extraordinarily renditioned individuals out of Sweden to Egypt, where they’ve been tortured.
“In one case it was explicitly stated that there were U.S. officials on Swedish territory who facilitated that extraordinary rendition in breach of international law.
“More recently we’ve seen in Sweden with the release of the WikiLeaks cables a far higher rate and incidence of U.S. surveillance in Sweden, and intelligence cooperation, that the Swedish parliament weren’t aware of. There is an ongoing parliamentary and constitutional committee inquiry into that, specifically into illegal acts by U.S. agents in Sweden, and they’re considering criminal prosecution. This background of facts in Sweden, we can’t ignore that.”
However, she added: “Obviously, though, it is one of a number of arguments, and we think it strengthens our other arguments, which are actually related to the European arrest warrant.”
Assange will return to court on Feb. 7 for his full extradition hearing. Robinson said the defense was under no illusions about the difficulty of winning the extradition fight.
“The European arrest warrant system is designed to facilitate transfer across borders. It was specifically designed to make it much easier to extradite, so winning against a European arrest warrant is very difficult.”
As for Assange, Robinson said he remained optimistic but that, “He’s very much a realist.”
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