On Friday morning I was in a small courtroom at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London. Julian Assange, held in Belmarsh Prison and dressed in a pale-blue prison shirt, appeared on a video screen directly in front of me. Assange, his gray hair and beard neatly trimmed, slipped on heavy, dark-frame glasses at the start of the proceedings. He listened intently as Ben Brandon, the prosecutor, seated at a narrow wooden table, listed the crimes he allegedly had committed and called for his extradition to the United States to face charges that could result in a sentence of 175 years. The charges include the release of unredacted classified material that posed a “grave” threat to “human intelligence sources” and “the largest compromises of confidential information in the history of the United States.” After the prosecutor’s presentation, Assange’s attorney, Mark Summers, seated at the same table, called the charges “an outrageous and full-frontal assault on journalistic rights.”
Most of us who have followed the long persecution of Assange expected this moment, but it was nevertheless deeply unsettling, the opening of the final act in a Greek tragedy where the hero, cursed by fortuna, or fate, confronts the dark forces from which there is no escape.
For more information on the Assange case, see Chris Hedges interview U.N. special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer and read the transcript. Also, see Hedges interview WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson.
The publication of classified documents is not a crime in the United States, but if Assange is extradited and convicted it will become one. Assange is not an American citizen. WikiLeaks, which he founded and publishes, is not a U.S.-based publication. The message the U.S. government is sending is clear: No matter who or where you are, if you expose the inner workings of empire you will be hunted down, kidnapped and brought to the United States to be tried as a spy. The extradition and trial of Assange will mean the end of public investigations by the press into the crimes of the ruling elites. It will cement into place a frightening corporate tyranny. Publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, which devoted pages to the WikiLeaks revelations and later amplified and legitimized Washington’s carefully orchestrated character assassination of Assange, are no less panicked. This is the gravest assault on press freedom in my lifetime.
The WikiLeaks publisher was trapped for nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he had been granted political asylum. He feared being sent to Sweden to face sexual offense allegations, which he has denied, and then extradited to the United States. Two months ago, although diplomatic missions are considered sovereign territory, he was physically dragged out of the embassy by British police when the new government of Ecuador revoked his asylum and the Ecuadorian citizenship that had been granted to him. (Assange retains his Australian citizenship.) He was transported to court within three hours of his arrest, given 15 minutes to prepare a defense and summarily handed a 50-week sentence for a dubious bail violation. He was sent to Belmarsh, a notorious high-security prison in southeast London.
We know what will be done to Assange. It has been done to thousands of those we kidnapped and then detained in black sites around the world. Sadistic and scientific techniques of torture will be used in an attempt to make him a zombie. Assange, in declining health, was transferred two weeks ago to the hospital wing of the prison. Because he was medically unable to participate when the hearing was initially to be held, May 30, the proceeding was reset. Friday’s hearing, in which he appeared frail and spoke hesitantly, although lucidly, set the timetable for his extradition trial, scheduled to take place at the end of February. All totalitarian states seek to break their political prisoners to render them compliant. This process will define Assange’s existence over the next few months.
Listen to Chris Hedges’ 2013 interview with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Assange’s psychological and physical state, which includes a dramatic loss of weight that was apparent Friday, came as Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, spoke out after he, with two physicians, went to Belmarsh Prison to assess Assange. Melzer said Assange had undergone prolonged psychological torture. He went on to criticize what he called the “judicial persecution” of Assange by Britain, the United States, Ecuador and Sweden. He warned that Assange would face a politicized show trial in the United States if he were extradited to face 17 charges under the Espionage Act, each carrying a potential sentence of 10 years, for his role in publishing classified military and diplomatic cables, documents and videos that exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. An additional charge that he conspired to hack into a government computer carries a maximum sentence of five years.
At last week’s hearing, Assange spoke only briefly.
He does not have access to a computer, and his attorneys have complained that the heavy restrictions imposed upon him make it nearly impossible for him to prepare his case.
“I know there has been an indictment brought against me,” Assange said through the video conference system. “My lawyers have not yet given me the paperwork.”
He raised objections to the prosecutor’s charge that he and WikiLeaks attempted to hack into a U.S. government computer, insisting “WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher.” The United States has charged him with offering to hack into a government computer to help Chelsea Manning—who passed the files and documents to WikiLeaks—conceal her identity. The government concedes, however, that no such hack ever took place.
“The prosecution attorney told the BBC yesterday I was wanted in the U.S. for computer hacking,” he said. “This is unquestionably false. Even the U.S. admits there was no hack. No passwords were broken. There is no evidence that I, WikiLeaks or Chelsea Manning engaged in hacking. I have 175 years of my life at stake. This is a signal that the prosecution will misrepresent the charges to mislead the press.”
The judge, Emma Arbuthnot, cut him off, saying “this is not the time to go into this.”
Commenting in 2018 when Assange’s lawyers requested that the warrant for his arrest be dropped, Arbuthnot said, “I accept that Mr. Assange had expressed fears of being returned to the United States from a very early stage in the Swedish extradition proceedings but, absent any evidence from Mr. Assange on oath, I do not find that Mr. Assange’s fears were reasonable,”
This statement by the judge captures the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the judicial persecution of Assange. She dismisses as unreasonable Assange’s fears that if he voluntarily left the Ecuadorian Embassy he would be arrested by British police and extradited to the United States because he did not appear in court to express them. And yet, she is now presiding over his extradition trial.
This circular logic is not the only disturbing aspect of Judge Arbuthnot’s overseeing of the Assange case. She is married to James Arbuthnot, who sits in the House of Lords, is a British Conservative Party politician, was the minister of state at the Ministry of Defense and for nine years was the chairman of the Defense Select Committee in the House of Commons, a committee that oversees the operation of the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces. Arbuthnot, who was reprimanded while a member of Parliament for diverting public funds to maintain his two homes, is a director at SC Strategy, established by John Scarlett, the former head of the British foreign intelligence service MI6. The politician also is on the advisory board of Thales UK, a huge arms manufacturer whose corrupt business practices, which included massive bribes to heads of state in exchange for arms contracts, were exposed when some of its internal documents were published by WikiLeaks.
The judge “has a strong conflict of interest,” Melzer said from Vienna when I interviewed him by video link for my television show, “On Contact.” “Her husband had been exposed by WikiLeaks.”
Assange’s lawyers have asked the judge to recuse herself. She has refused.
“I was able to visit Mr. Assange in Belmarsh Prison,” Melzer said in the interview. “I was accompanied by two medical experts—a forensic expert and a psychiatrist. Both of them were specialized in identifying, examining and documenting psychological and physical torture. What we found was Mr. Assange showed all the symptoms that are typical for a person who has been exposed to prolonged psychological torture. What we’re talking about is severe traumatization. Chronic anxiety. Intense, constant stress, and an inability to relax or focus, to think in a structured, straight line. Someone who is in a constant, hyper-stimulated stage and can no longer relax.”
“Psychological torture can have various consequences,” Melzer continued. “It is difficult to predict exactly how the situation will evolve. What you see now, during my visit, was already alarming. What we have seen since then, his state of health has dramatically deteriorated as predicted by the psychiatrist who accompanied my visit. What can happen during the prolongation is it can have irreversible damage, even on the physical level. First on the psychological and emotional level. But then also on the physical level it can lead to a nervous breakdown and to cardiovascular damage that is no longer reversible.”
Melzer, who is an attorney, closely examined the 2010 Swedish allegations against Assange. He said he found a series of disturbing judicial anomalies and indications that the sexual assault charges were being manipulated by Swedish authorities to extradite the publisher to the United States. When legal proceedings were initiated against Assange, for example, they were immediately made public. Assange learned about the allegations in the press.
“He was in Sweden at the time,” Melzer said. “He immediately went to a police station himself and said, ‘Could I please make my statement and participate in this?’ Sweden law prohibits the publication of the name of the complainant and the suspected offender in a sexual offense case. His statement was taken. Two or three days later, the prosecutor closed the case, saying, ‘There was no evidence of any crime being committed at all.’ ”
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But a few days later the case was reopened by a different prosecutor.
“Mr. Assange voluntarily stayed on in Sweden for three weeks, saying, ‘I’m at the disposal of the prosecution for any questions you have to ask,’ ” Melzer said.
Assange had a commitment in Britain and, Melzer noted, received permission from the prosecutor to leave Sweden. Once he arrived in the United Kingdom, however, Sweden issued an arrest warrant, claiming he was trying to avoid questioning.
“They asked him to come back to Sweden for questioning,” Melzer said. “Then Mr. Assange became a little bit suspicious. ‘I thought we had dealt with this. What is the issue?’ He was afraid that he was being called back so Sweden could surrender him to the U.S.”
Sweden has on several occasions surrendered foreign nationals to the CIA without due process, including handing over two Egyptian nationals, Mohammed al-Zari and Ahmed Agiza, to CIA operatives on Dec. 18, 2001, for transfer from Stockholm to Cairo. The men were seeking asylum in Sweden. Once returned to Egypt they were imprisoned and tortured. Sending asylum seekers to countries that are known to engage in torture is a violation of international law.
When Assange’s lawyers asked for a guarantee that he would not be extradited to the United States, Swedish authorities refused. Assange’s lawyers said he would be willing to undergo questioning by video link from Britain, a proposal Sweden rejected despite having used this procedure in past criminal cases. Assange proposed to be questioned by Swedish officials in Britain. This offer, too, was rejected. The Swedish authorities insisted he return to Sweden.
“That is why Mr. Assange looked for refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy once the extradition proceedings to Sweden didn’t go in his favor at the Supreme Court in the U.K.,” Melzer said.
“What is called a rape allegation [in the Swedish case] is not what would be called a rape in English or Swedish or any other language in the world,” Melzer said. “I know what I’m talking about because I speak Swedish. What the rape allegation refers to is an offense that doesn’t involve any violence. He has been alleged of intentionally ripping a condom during consensual intercourse with a woman. She said it was intentional. He said it was an accident. Predictably, this is something no one will ever be able to prove. The piece of evidence submitted to the prosecution, the condom, was examined and did not have any DNA on it from him, or from the complainant, or anyone else.
“There is no evidence that he committed a sexual offense … ,” Melzer said. “This whole narrative is extremely important. It dominated his presence in the Ecuadorian Embassy for seven years.”
A leaked email exchange between Swedish judicial authorities, who sought to drop the case four years before they formally abandoned proceedings in 2017, and Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, handling the Assange case, included a message to the Swedes warning them not to “get cold feet!!!”
Assange’s 50-week sentence is for violating his bail conditions by refusing to surrender to the British authorities and accept extradition to Sweden. After he requested and took political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, the British government refused him safe passage to the airport, trapping him in the Ecuadorian compound. The Swedish judiciary, which conveniently reopened its case against Assange the moment he was taken from the embassy, has since dropped its extradition request, clearing the way for his extradition to the United States.
In 2017 Lenin Moreno was elected president of Ecuador. He sought to mend relations with the United States and agreed, apparently in exchange for debt relief, to unilaterally revoke Assange’s asylum status and the Ecuadorian citizenship he had been granted under the previous administration. Ecuador was given a $4.2 billion debt relief package by the International Monetary Fund three weeks before Moreno authorized British police to enter the embassy in London.
Judge Michael Snow called a disheveled Assange “a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own self-interest” when he appeared in court three hours after being dragged out of the embassy April 11. The only words Assange spoke during that hearing were “I plead not guilty.” The 50-week sentence he received for bail violation is only two weeks short of the maximum provided by law.
“This shows the disproportionate sentencing and bias against him,” Melzer said. “Normally a bail violation would end in a fine and perhaps in a very grave case a short prison sentence [much less than 50 weeks].”
Melzer said he is convinced Assange cannot “get a fair trial in the United States” after nearly a decade of “unrestrained public mobbing, intimidation, calls for his assassination and instigation to violence against him.”
“He has been exposed to public ridicule, including by serving officials and former officials of government, by prominent personalities,” Melzer said.
“A fair trial requires legality—that he’s actually being charged for something that is punishable,” Melzer said. “Seventeen out of the 18 charges are under the Espionage Act. All of them relate to activities that any investigative journalist would conduct and would be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 18th charge, the so-called hacking charge, doesn’t relate to him. The U.S. doesn’t claim he actually hacked a computer to receive information. He obtained all of the information he published [from] someone who had full clearance. He received this information. He may have perhaps encouraged the source, as any journalist would do, to give him the information and then published it. The hacking charge relates to him unsuccessfully attempting to help the source break a password that would have allowed her to cover her tracks. But he didn’t succeed.”
“I don’t see any possibility that Mr. Assange would be acquitted in the U.S. or that he would receive a very light sentence of six weeks in prison,” Melzer said. “That is utterly unrealistic, especially under the so-called espionage court, in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he has been charged. There has been no defendant that has been acquitted there of national security charges.”
“A fair trial requires equality before the law,” Melzer said. “When a government prosecutes a whistleblower, let alone a journalist, for having exposed serious crimes by government agents—we’re talking about war crimes—and then these war crimes are not being prosecuted [this is not equality before the law].”
“There is no longer the rule of law,” Melzer said. “There is no longer equality before the law. There are no longer transparent court proceedings when you have a secret grand jury and a secret session debating classified evidence. These are proceedings skewed against the defendant. I don’t think Julian Assange would get a fair trial.”
“Britain, Sweden and Ecuador have violated the convention against torture,” Melzer said. “They should release Mr. Assange. They may question him in response to the sexual offenses. Frankly, I don’t think there is much behind that. If there is, I think he has suffered more than his share already through that ill treatment. He should be released. He should be compensated and rehabilitated by those states.”