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'We're feeling the momentum': Julian Assange family says Reality Winner's release raises fresh hope

·5-min read
'We're feeling the momentum': Julian Assange family says Reality Winner's release raises fresh hope
Julian Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Jail since April 2019  (Getty Images)
Julian Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Jail since April 2019 (Getty Images)

For the family of Julian Assange, it was news that could be labelled “very welcome indeed”.

On Monday, it was announced that Reality Winner, a former US intelligence official who leaked crucial information to the media about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, was being released from prison to serve the remainder of her sentence at home.

News of the release of the 29-year-old many consider an important whistleblower, came as Attorney General Merrick Garland met with representatives of several major media outlets, after it had emerged that the Department of Justice (DoJ), which he now heads, had under Donald Trump secretly obtained the phone records of reporters from the New York Times and CNN, to try and squash leaks.

It also came midway through a nationwide speaking tour by Julian Assange’s father and brother, John and Gabriel Shipton, to try and draw awareness to the case of the WikiLeaks’ founder, and to urge the Biden administration to end Washington’s efforts to extradite him to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act.

“We’re feeling the momentum really build here, with the press that we’re getting, with all the people we’re getting speaking on our panels, and with this action in the DoJ,” Gabriel Shipton, 39, told The Independent, from Columbus, Ohio, after events in New York and Washington DC. “I think we’re feeling the momentum, and hopefully there’s a change.”

Earlier this year, Julian Assange, 49, appeared before a court in London to defend himself against an extradition request from the US, where he faces 18 charges of espionage and hacking computers.

He both denied the charges and contested the attempt to bring him to the US, where he could face a total punishment of 175 years’ imprisonment.

Supporters said Mr Assange, whose WikiLeaks site had published graphic details about the deadly nature of the US “war on terror” in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, said he deserved the same protections afforded to more traditional journalists.

They said the US was trying to both silence him for publishing the material passed to him by former US army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, and to send a message to try and frighten other potential whistleblowers and journalists writing about issues of national security or human rights.

In January, a British judge rejected the US’s request to extradite Mr Assange, but ordered that he remain in London’s Belmarsh jail, while the US seeks to appeal the judgment.

His brother said many Americans could not understand why the Biden administration had not simply dropped the case.

He said many said they were particularly surprised given the US president’s purported support of journalists, and his administration speaking out over incidents such as the forced diversion last month of a Ryanair passenger plane by Belarus, in order to detain a dissident journalist.

“I think for Joe Biden and his administration, they’re facing all these problems now that they’re preaching freedom of the press. Joe Biden said himself that what DoJ was doing under Trump, trying to subpoena journalists, to find out their sources … was wrong,” said Mr Assange’s brother.

“The other angle is that it’s going to confront him abroad. What we’re seeing when he’s confronting China, is China’s foreign affairs spokesman coming back and saying ‘what about Assange’.”

Gabriel and John Shipton speak to media over case of Julian Assange (Getty Images)
Gabriel and John Shipton speak to media over case of Julian Assange (Getty Images)

Reality Winner was in 2018 sentenced to five years and three months in prison for violating the Espionage Act. The 29-year-old, who had been employed by the National Security Agency, had been arrested after leaking a top secret document about Russian hackers targeting US election systems to The Intercept news site. She had pleaded guilty, after changing her plea.

Her attorney Alison Grinter Allen confirmed her release to The Independent. She said she remained in custody and was in a residential reentry process in Texas.

“Her release is not a product of the pardon or compassionate release process, but rather the time earned from exemplary behavior while incarcerated,” Ms Allen said in a statement. The young woman’s family has asked Mr Biden to issue a pardon.

“Reality has served a lot of time and gone through quite a bit of trauma to fight for essentially one man’s feelings about his election’s validity,” said Ms Allen.

Reality Winner in 2017 (Getty Images)
Reality Winner in 2017 (Getty Images)

Supporters of Mr Assange have also suggested Mr Biden could issue a pardon to him, even without the need for a guilty plea or a trial. Among those to point this out was whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The 37-year-old in 2013 leaked huge amounts of classified material about the US’s surveillance operations, to The Guardian and other news organisations. He currently lives in Russia, cautious of returning to the US, where he faces two charges under the Espionage Act.

In 2020, in reference to questions about a possible pardon for Mr Assange, Mr Snowden tweeted: “In the US, the pardon power is absolute. It is rare, but pardons have been issued even in the absence of charges, much less a trial or conviction.”

On Monday, others said it was too early to determine whether there had been a definite change in policy by the Biden administration when it came to whistleblowers.

Veteran human right activist Medea Benjamin said the decision to release Winner from prison was to be welcomed.

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However, she added: “Her release from prison is great but it would have been much better if the government had pardoned her.”

Nathan Fuller, an activist who heads the Courage Foundation, a group that supports a number of whistleblowers, including Ms Manning, Mr Snowden and Mr Assange, called on Mr Biden to act in support of the first amendment of the US constitution which protects the right to free speech.

“He should protect the first amendment and stop this Trump-era assault on it,” he said. “This is a Trump-era case. He has every opportunity to drop it right now.”

He said the president had said he wished to end the two-decade long war in Afghanistan, and close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, both vestiges of the so-called war on terror, the abuses of which Mr Assange, Ms Manning and others had exposed.

He added: “He could drop it right now and close the chapter.”

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