As a Frail and Confused Julian Assange Appears in Court, It’s Time For the U.K. to Stop His Proposed Extradition to the U.S.
by Andy Worthington - Close Guantanamo
October 24, 2019
A court sketch, by Julia Quenzler, of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in court on Monday October 21, 2019, looking noticeably older than before he was imprisoned in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in south east London in April.
On Monday, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, looked frail and, at times, appeared confused as his lawyers sought a delay to a hearing regarding his proposed extradition to the U.S. to face dubious — and potentially punitive — espionage charges relating to WikiLeaks’ work as a publisher of classified U.S. government information; in particular, "Collateral Murder," a “classified U.S. military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff,” war logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars, a vast number of U.S. diplomatic cables from around the world, and, in 2011, classified military files relating to Guantánamo, on which I worked as media partner, along with the Washington Post, McClatchy, the Daily Telegraph and others.
Assange has been imprisoned in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in south east London since April, when the government of Ecuador, in whose embassy he had been living for nearly seven years, revoked the political asylum granted to him by the country’s former president, the democratic socialist Rafael Correa, who called his replacement, the right-winger Lenin Moreno, "[t]he greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history" for his betrayal of Assange, declaring,
"Moreno is a corrupt man, but what he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget."
In May, a British court sought to justify Assange’s imprisonment with a 50-week sentence for having broken his bail conditions back in 2012, when he first sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, fearing that he would be extradited to Sweden to face unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations, and would then be handed over to the U.S.
In September, at a hearing regarding the end of his sentence for breaching his bail conditions, District Judge Vanessa Baraltser noted that, as the BBC described it, "his lawyer had declined to make an application for bail on his behalf," with the judge explaining that this was "perhaps not surprising in light of your history of absconding in these proceedings," and adding, "In my view I have substantial grounds for believing if I release you, you will abscond again."
It was at this point that some of Assange’s supporters claimed that he was being imprisoned "indefinitely," despite the end of his prison sentence, but in fact, as Judge Baraltser also explained, at the end of the 50-week sentence Assange’s remand status changed from that of "a serving prisoner to a person facing extradition."
The extradition request from the U.S., under the terms of the much-criticised 2003 U.S.-U.K. Extradition Treaty, was revealed on June 13, when the home secretary, Sajid Javid, told the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4, "There’s an extradition request from the U.S. that is before the courts tomorrow but yesterday I signed the extradition order and certified it and that will be going in front of the courts tomorrow." He added,
"It is a decision ultimately for the courts, but there is a very important part of it for the home secretary and I want to see justice done at all times and we’ve got a legitimate extradition request, so I’ve signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts."
A troubling hearing
The hearing on Monday was a case management hearing as part of the extradition process, with another scheduled to take place on December 19, prior to a full extradition hearing on February 25, 2020, but the whole process may well drag on for several years. In previous cases — those of Babar Ahmed and Syed Talha Ahsan, for example, accused of running a pro-jihadi website — legal challenges to their proposed extradition involved them being held in U.K. custody for eight years and six years respectively before their eventual extradition to the U.S.
One question raised by Monday’s hearing is whether Assange is robust enough to survive a long legal challenge. The Independent noted that he "mumbled, paused and stuttered as he confirmed his name and date of birth," and the Guardian explained that, when the judge asked him if he had understood events in court, he said, "Not really. I can’t think properly."
At this point, according to the Independent, he "appeared to fight back tears," although he subsequently rallied sufficiently to state, "I don’t understand how this is equitable. This superpower had 10 years to prepare for this case and I can’t access my writings" — a reference to how, in Belmarsh, he has only just been given limited access to a computer. "It’s very difficult where I am to do anything but these people have unlimited resources," he added.
When it comes to his case, however, it remains abundantly clear that the U.S. has entered profoundly dangerous territory regarding free speech and press freedoms, and, most crucially for Assange, that the U.K. government should not be going along with it.
Moves to prosecute Assange were made under President Obama, but it was rightly concluded that it was not possible to prosecute him without damaging the right of the media, in countries that claim to respect democracy and the rule of law, to publish classified material that they regard as being in the public interest.
Donald Trump, however, has no such compunctions. Persistently hostile towards media he doesn’t like, which he regularly damns as "fake news," Trump, on one occasion, asked former FBI director James Comey if he could put journalists he didn’t like in jail. Overall, his approach to the media ought to alert everyone paying attention to the fact that, if he can, he will suppress any media outlet he regards as dissenting from his version of the truth as ruthlessly as any totalitarian regime.
I have my doubts that a case against Assange in the U.S. would be successful, but at this point the main focus of attention for everyone who genuinely cares about free speech and press freedoms must be to oppose Assange’s extradition, and to target Sajid Javid and the British government for their dangerous and unacceptable commitment to the proposed prosecution of a publisher.
This is particularly important after revelations about Monday’s hearing, made by the former British diplomat Craig Murray, who noted that the British government’s lawyers were actually taking instruction directly from the "five representatives of the U.S. government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing)," who were "seated at desks behind the lawyers in court." At one point, James Lewis QC, for the government, told the judge he was "taking instructions from those behind." As Murray stressed, "it was not the U.K. Attorney-General’s office who were being consulted but the U.S. Embassy."
In light of this complete lack of independence on the part of the British government, which, to be blunt, shouldn’t be taking instructions from the U.S. regarding an extradition request, when the U.K.’s role ought to be strictly procedural, it was also unsurprising that Assange’s lawyers made no headway with their call for more time to prepare their evidence, and also for consideration to be given to their argument that "political offences" are "specifically excluded from the extradition treaty," as Murray accurately described it, adding that "[t]here should, they argued, therefore be a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all."
This, clearly, wasn’t a fair hearing; it was, instead, one dictated by the U.S., in which not only British government officials, but also the judge were complicit.
WikiLeaks is a publisher; this is not espionage
Nevertheless, once the distractions regarding Julian Assange’s alleged character and allegedly intentions are stripped away — which have been deliberately used by his opponents to cloud the most important issues involved — the prevailing truth is that WikiLeaks is a genuine media outlet, equivalent to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and any other established newspaper readers care to think of, and its freedom to publish must be robustly and rigorously defended.
Assange was never the leaker of classified material — that crucial role fell to Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced and imprisoned as a result, before having her sentence commuted by President Obama, and then, shockingly, being imprisoned again, earlier this year, for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury investigation into Assange, for which she is now also being fined, on what appears to be a completely arbitrary basis, at a rate of $1,000 a day.
And if we’re looking for a historical analogy, the best example for what Assange has done through WikiLeaks is that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Vietnam-era "Pentagon Papers" to the Washington Post. In the 21st century example for which the Trump administration seeks to punish Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning is Daniel Ellsberg, and WikiLeaks is the Washington Post.
In challenging the British government, it is also surely worthwhile for Assange’s defenders to look at what has happened with other proposed extraditions that were subsequently dropped — of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, for example, both hackers with Asperger’s Syndrome, whose extraditions were turned down because of fears about them killing themselves.
What no one seems to want to talk about is the extent to which Julian Assange may also share similarities with Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love. In the Independent, in 2011, with reference to his early forays into hacking in Australia, he stated, "when I became well known, people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger's or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum." Dismissing it as joke, he added,
"I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, so let's just say I am — all hackers are, and I would argue all men are a little bit autistic," but it seems to me that his obsessive behavior is indeed a reflection of someone with Asperger’s — and, as we’re seeing from his weak and confused state on Monday, he, like Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, may well also not to be able to cope with sustained solitary confinement in a U.S. prison.
The Australian comic writer Kathy Lette has no doubt about Assange’s state of mind. She met him when he stayed at her house — via her husband, a human rights lawyer — and on Tuesday, on Australian TV, she said, "Julian I got to know very well. And I know he's a controversial character, but I actually think he's on the autistic spectrum, undiagnosed. My son's autistic, so I can spot the signs."
I’m sure Assange’s lawyers are looking at all avenues to prevent his extradition, and will be aware of whether or not this is a fruitful route to pursue, but I hope so, as I fear that, otherwise, his notoriety is as damaging to the mitigating factors regarding his mental health as it is to his role as a controversial publisher. To reiterate, however, the bottom line remains that, if for no other reason, anyone who cares about press freedoms and freedom of speech must stand up and be counted, and oppose the intended extradition of Assange to the U.S.
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