Mint Press News Update:
The three British co-defendants who pleaded guilty to being members of the Lulzsec hacktivist group were sentenced by a U.K. court Thursday.
Ryan Ackroyd, 26, the most technically-experienced of the three, received the longest sentence; he will spend 15 months in prison.
Jake Davis, 20, will be imprisoned for one year and Mustafa al-Bassam, 18, will not see jail time, but will have to complete 300 hours of community service.
By contrast, American co-defendant Jeremy Hammond has already spent 14 months awaiting trial in a federal case that carries charges that could result in up to 42 years of prison time. Hammond has also been denied bail or access to family members, unlike his British co-defendants.
“It’s a disturbing commentary on the U.S. criminal justice system that Jeremy Hammond, a young activist who is an asset to his community, will spend longer in pre-trial detention for his alleged participation in these online protests than any of his international co-defendants will when they have fully served their sentences,” National Lawyers Guild Executive Director Heidi Boghosian said in a press release.
Prior Mint Press News coverage:
Accused of publishing internal emails of the private intelligence agency Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) through the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, 28-year-old Jeremy Hammond has been in prison since March 2012 without parole or the ability to see his family.
The Chicago native faces the most extreme punishment with a possible 42-year-to-life sentence in prison and has been charged with five felony counts. Three of the felonies Hammond has been charged with fall under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Each count carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence.
Included in the leaked emails was evidence suggesting that Stratfor spied on activists for Dow Chemical and monitored Occupy Wall Street activity for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Hammond’s trial has not been scheduled yet, but another status hearing has been scheduled for Friday, May 17. His co-defendants in the U.K., however, were scheduled to be sentenced today.
Three British Internet activists — 26-year-old Ryan Ackroyd, 20-year-old Jake Davis and 18-year-old Mustafa al-Bassam — all confessed today to being members of the hacktivist organization Anonymous’ subgroup, LulzSec, and for carrying out cyberattacks on the U.K.’s National Health Service, Sony and News International.
While the sentences the hacktivists received in England have not yet been announced, their punishments are not expected to be as severe as Hammond’s. The hacktivists co-defendants in Ireland and the U.K. have received varying degrees of reprimand for their involvement in similar cyberattacks. The two Irish Internet activists will not be charged in Ireland, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
The U.K. activists could be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution, but Abi Hassen, Mass Defense Coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild, in an interview with Mint Press News, said it wouldn’t be a smart move. “U.S. attorneys were holding off until the case was resolved in the U.K.,” Hassen said, adding that prosecuting the activists may be viewed as a slap in the face to the U.K.’s judicial system.
“Jeremy is a gifted person who cares deeply about the world,” said Hammond’s twin brother, Jason Hammond. “My family is shocked at the treatment he has received by the Department of Justice. Jeremy is accused of committing a non-violent crime yet we are forbidden from seeing him or speaking to him on the phone. He has been denied bail and he’s facing what amounts to a life sentence.”
U.S. Congress has enacted legislation to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. But in cases like Hammond’s where actions by the U.S. government were highlighted, whistleblowers like Hammond are instead viewed as aiding the enemy. A similar case would be that of Bradley Manning, who released hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. files to WikiLeaks in 2010, hoping to generate a discussion about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Extreme punishment in the U.S.?
While President Obama has publicly called for the increased protection of whistleblowers, the Obama administration has prosecuted more people for leaking information than all previous presidents combined. In his first 26 months in office, civilian and military prosecutors charged five whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.
According to a press release from the Jeremy Hammond Defense Committee — a coalition of family members, activists, lawyers and other supporters who are working together to protect free speech and support Jeremy Hammond — the U.K.’s sentencing structure allows people convicted of crimes to serve out the second half of their sentences on “licence,” the equivalent of the United States’ parole, meaning that Ackroyd, Davis and al-Bassam will likely leave prison after serving a few years at most.
Hassen said the varying degrees of punishment for the same crime are interesting since the judicial system in the U.S. was modeled after European systems like those in the U.K.
Hassen said the CFAA law treats any activity on the Internet the same and allows prosecutors to dump charges on people, regardless of intent or damages.
“The CFAA criminalizes an incredible amount of activity online,” he said, giving an example of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old information activist who was threatened with decades in prison for downloading freely available documents from the academic database JSTOR. Swartz took his own life earlier this year.
“I think the main thing is that this law is a terrible law that [Hammond] is being charged under. It reeks of injustice and it’s just so so broad and so vague,” Hassen said.
Written in 1984, before the mainstream emergence of the Internet, Hassen told Mint Press News the CFAA was intended to protect government computers. “There were 12 computers on the Internet when the law was written and so today with the interpretation of the law, terms of service violations can affect just about anybody and make you icable for decades in prison,” he said.
“We have seen again and again the aggressive behavior of prosecutors who are exploiting the vague language in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to threaten young activists with decades in prison. Jeremy Hammond’s treatment and disproportionate sentencing is a mark of overzealous prosecutions that have destroyed young lives and continue to intimidate some of our brightest and most engaged young people,” Hassen said.
Hammond’s battle for freedom
As Mint Press News previously reported, concerning for Hammond supporters is that the judge presiding over his trial, Judge Loretta Preska, is married to Thomas Kavaler, a lawyer and former client of Stratfor, whose email and encrypted password were leaked in the Stratfor hack. Kavaler is a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP — where Preska was also a partner before becoming a judge — a firm that has represented more than 20 victims of the hack.
Preska maintains she can remain impartial because she says that her husband did not have his credit-card information revealed, only his email address, which was already publicly available, and called the fact that she was presiding over the same case that affected her husband “merely a coincidence.”
Hassen says it’s really hard to know what the outcome in Hammond’s trial will be, since Hammond has not been able to participate in his own defense. Hammond has been denied bail because his skills as a hacktivist are viewed as an extreme danger to society, Hassen said, something Hassen and other Hammond supporters find “extremely disturbing” since even stalkers and those who have threatened to kill people sometimes receive bail.
Hassen explained that since the nature of the alleged crime is a computer crime and involves the Internet, Hammond is being kept in jail without access to the Internet and the ability to use a computer.
Last month Hassen said that over the past couple months, Hammond had spent about 11 hours with his defense team. “How does his defense team help prepare his defense when there are no computers in jail and he is not allowed to have Internet access,” he said, adding Hammond’s lawyers are trying to comb through millions of lines of evidence code, such as chat logs.
“It’s hard to know how he can adequately prepare for trial under these circumstances. A defendant should be able to work with his attorneys. People given bail have [a] much higher success rate.”