Western governments will have blood on their hands unless they stop persecuting Julian Assange

Jan 18, 2021

The case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is complex, containing elements of law, freedom of speech and of the media, journalism, politics, international relations and health. In the recent hearing to determine whether Assange should be extradited to the US, health became the dominant discourse. He may die if several Western governments do not stop persecuting him.

Assange is seriously mentally ill. The magistrate in the extradition proceeding decided he could not be extradited to the US because if he were, it was highly likely he would die by suicide. Other aspects of the legal reasoning in that judgment were open to criticism, but this one wasn’t.

Assange is a political prisoner, having been locked up for 10 years at the behest of the governments of the US, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ecuador and, because of its neglect of his cause, Australia.

Assange was the director of Wikileaks at the time it released a hoard of US government documents revealing details of American political and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some quarter of a million documents were involved. Extracts were published in association with the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais. The US went after Assange, not the newspaper editors.

Wikileaks was not in league with any nation that was America’s enemy. It sought to expose to the world the nefarious and sometimes deadly activity in which the US and, later, other governments had engaged. It acted like any journalist with a brief to investigate matters of national security might have done. It disclosed classified documents in the public interest so that news organisations could report on their content and the public could make evidence-based assessments as to the propriety of the actions that had been revealed.

Nevertheless, the US government argued that the documents’ disclosure might have caused serious damage. The contention was that in releasing the trove of documents, Wikileaks had endangered the work and the lives of local people who had acted as informers on behalf of the US government and its allies.

It has not been widely reported, however, that the US government commissioned an internal investigation to study the effect of the disclosures and to produce a list of people who might have been killed because of the revelations. After an exhaustive examination, the team of 120 counter-intelligence operatives, under the direction of Brigadier Robert Carr, determined that it had not been able to find a single person who had died as a result of the Wikileaks releases.

Despite this finding, even as late as the recent UK extradition hearing, the US government has continued to assert that a number of of its military collaborators and citizen informers had been killed or injured as a result of Wikileaks’ disclosures.

Assange had been working for some time in the UK. However, his freedom ended not long after the document dump in 2010. The cause was allegations of rape brought against him by prosecutors in Stockholm. The Swedish Government sought his extradition from the UK to answer questions in relation to alleged offences that had occurred during two separate episodes of sexual intercourse with women while in the Swedish capital.

Apart from those involved no one knows exactly what happened on those two evenings. The stories of the participants are starkly opposed. Assange claimed his innocence from the outset. The two complainants’ accounts could not be dismissed. That said, Swedish prosecutors eventually discontinued all relevant criminal proceedings. Assange was neither tried nor convicted of rape or any other sexual misdemeanour.

The significance of these events lies not in the facts about the sexual interactions, however, but in the extradition proceedings that emerged from them. As soon as the Swedish Government initiated extradition proceedings, the UK Government took Assange into detention. There followed an extraordinary series of events.

Assange was desperately afraid that if he were extradited to face charges in Sweden, no matter what the outcome, the Swedish Government would send him on to the US to face prosecution in relation to Wikileaks’ activities in publishing classified information. The focus of US attention remained upon the Iraq/Afghanistan revelations. The US Government denied it intended to charge Assange but, drip by drip, news leaked out that a Grand Jury had been convened to determine what criminal charges he would face if returned to the custody of US authorities.

To avoid extradition to the US, Assange skipped bail in the UK and took up asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. This foreshadowed a personal disaster. The UK Government established a permanent police presence outside the Embassy and made it clear Assange would be arrested as soon as he tried to leave it.

Inside the Embassy, he had two rooms, one tiny living room and an equally tiny bathroom. His stay at the Embassy lasted seven years. He could not go outside. He was deprived of fresh air, sunlight, the ability to move and exercise freely and access to medical care. The UK Government refused to allow his transfer to a teaching hospital for medical treatment. Doctors were discouraged from visiting him at the Embassy. It was as if he were in solitary confinement.

Foreign governments placed immense pressure on Ecuador to allow them to engage in surveillance. Assange was subject to constant watch. He was surveilled in private and with visitors, including family, friends, journalists, lawyers and doctors. His rights to privacy, freedom of speech, legal professional privilege and doctor-patient care were consistently violated. After some years of confinement, his health began to deteriorate.

In 2015, the United Nations Committee on Arbitrary Detention determined that Assange’s confinement inside the Embassy constituted a grave breach of his right to be free from arbitrary detention. It observed that he had been denied the opportunity to defend himself against the Swedish allegations; the duration of his detention had been incompatible with the presumption of innocence; he had been denied the right to contest the necessity and proportionality of his arrest, and his detention for five years had put his health at serious risk.

In a letter to The Lancet, 117 British doctors complained that Julian had been treated cruelly and suffered medical neglect. They said:

“We condemn the torture of Assange. We condemn the denial of his fundamental right to appropriate health care. We condemn the climate of fear surrounding the provision of health care to him. We condemn the violations of his right to doctor-patient confidentiality. Politics cannot be allowed to interfere with the right to health and the practice of medicine.”

Following a change of government in Ecuador in 2018, Assange was dragged by London police from the Ecuadorian Embassy and locked up in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh prison along with the nation’s most dangerous criminals. He had pleaded guilty to breaching bail and was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment.

After he was detained by the UK, the US Government finally showed its hand. It charged him with 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act. His ‘espionage’ consisted of releasing the original trove of Iraq/Afghan files. Among other things, these files disclosed alleged war crimes, the deaths of civilians at the hands of American troops, the infliction of torture, arbitrary detention and governmental corruption. Wikileaks had provided crucial information upon which news organisations and citizens around the world could discern the morass of the Middle-East war.

The Espionage Act defines the unauthorised publication of national defence or classified information as a felony. Critically, it does not allow for a public interest defence. That means a jury is barred from taking into account the difference between a whistleblower exposing government crimes to the press, and a spy selling state secrets to a foreign government.

The prosecution constitutes a grave threat to independent journalism. Every national security journalist who reports on US classified information now faces possible espionage charges. It paves the way for the US government to indict other international journalists and publishers. It normalises other countries’ prosecution of journalists as spies.

A few weeks ago, a UK magistrate refused the US Government’s request that Assange be extradited for trial. She did so because of the risk he might suffer grave damage to his mental health. He was not granted bail, however, and remains in Belmarsh.

Assange’s mental state is critically compromised. It was clear, for example, that he could not properly comprehend the nature and content of his extradition hearing late last year. Following a detailed examination of his situation in Belmarsh prison, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment reported that the cumulative effect of his shocking treatment over a decade had constituted psychological torture. His conclusion was damning:

“In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and persecution, I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up deliberately to isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”

His detention must end – now.

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