In late 2018, Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture, was contacted by lawyers representing WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, asking him to intervene on their client’s behalf. ‘I was like, “No. Not this guy. Isn’t this the rapist hacker guy?”’ Melzer recalls.
He ignored the email. Three months later, the lawyers contacted him again, this time warning that Assange’s extradition to the US — where he faces 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents — could be imminent. They also attached a medical assessment by Dr Sondra Crosby, an American physician well-respected for her independent inspection of Guantanamo Bay detainees, who expressed acute concern for Assange’s physical and psychological wellbeing.
‘I was reluctant. Like, what? Living in an embassy with a skateboard and a cat is torture?’
Still, Crosby’s solid reputation gave Melzer pause for thought. He decided he should probably go and see the ‘rapist hacker guy’ for himself. On May 9, 2019, he went to Belmarsh prison in south London, taking two doctors with him (one more than usual, to be doubly objective). A two-year investigation and a book, Der Fall Julian Assange (The Case of Julian Assange), followed.
‘I’ve discovered a lot of dark stuff. After 20 years working in war areas for the Red Cross, I’ve seen plenty of ugly things but I wasn’t aware of how fragile the rule of law is in the western world until this case,’ Melzer says. ‘Whether you like or hate Julian, if we allow telling the truth about government misconduct to become a crime, the powerful will be left completely unchallenged. That’s really what this is about.’
Given the gravity of warnings like this from figures like Melzer — other UN groups have said as far back as 2016 that Assange’s seven-year confinement in the embassy amounted to arbitrary detention — there has been a resounding silence from powerful US and UK media organizations and political movements that identify themselves as defenders of human rights and social justice. Despite their chorus of outrage at the persecution of dissidents and journalists in China, Russia and Belarus, they haven’t had much to say about the whistleblower, who continues to be held without charge in London.
Assange remains in Belmarsh, a high-security facility where he was remanded after Ecuador revoked his asylum in early 2019. While there he completed a UK sentence for breaking his bail conditions; the rape charges pending in Sweden have been dropped. The legal team organizing his defense, led by prominent human rights attorney Gareth Peirce, has not been allowed to meet with him in person since last February because of Covid restrictions.
Meanwhile Assange waits to see if he will be extradited to the US, where he faces a maximum of 175 years in a Supermax prison facility. Once his asylum was revoked and the UK arrested him, the US Department of Justice brought 17 counts related to the possession, communication and publication in 2010 to 2011 of classified military documents from the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, US diplomatic cables and the Guantanamo Bay files. These leaked documents, published in collaboration with the Guardian and the New York Times, exposed human rights offenses and war crimes committed by the US. If extradited, Assange will stand trial in a national security court, where no public interest defense will be allowed; he will certainly be found guilty. In January, the American extradition request was rejected by a British court, not on freedom of speech grounds but because Assange has been diagnosed with depression and Asperger’s syndrome and is considered a high suicide risk. The judge did, however, agree to the DOJ’s request that he be kept in prison until an appeal can be heard, rather than released to house arrest, as is usual in extradition cases. The US appealed the decision in February. Jen Robinson, a member of his legal team, explains that the only reason Assange is still in prison is because the UK government is choosing to act as an arm of the DOJ.
‘It’s also a fairly absurd situation that the Biden administration, which has a policy of closing Guantanamo, is seeking to prosecute the person who published the truth about what was happening in Guantanamo and contributed to the US public’s understanding of the evil and injustice of Guantanamo,’ Robinson says.
‘Dropping the case would be consistent with the Biden administration’s stated policy on freedom of speech. If they dropped it, Julian would be released immediately; he would be with his family and able to recover. That’s what they should do.’
The Obama administration did not indict Assange because of concerns over implications for press freedom; after seven years, it also commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked the NSA documents to WikiLeaks. It was Donald Trump’s Justice department which decided to charge Assange with espionage, and President Biden shows absolutely no sign of changing course. This, for Biden, is a calculated political decision.‘This is not really about Julian Assange; it’s about allowing a precedent to be set. The reason they are doing it with Julian Assange is that it’s easy to set the precedent with him because nobody likes him,’ Melzer says.
Assange is not a sympathetic figure. His nosedive from grace started with those allegations of rape in Sweden, unproven but tenacious. But his real fall came in 2016 when Assange published leaked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of the Clinton-Trump election. The documents, obtained through a Russian hack, revealed a campaign by Clinton supporters to undermine socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign.
‘Even though all he did was expose corruption within the DNC, the Democrats still blame Assange for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. And as long as he can be abused as the perfect scapegoat for their own misconduct, they are unlikely to let him off the hook,’ Melzer says.
Assange-as-Russian-asset was a narrative enthusiastically pursued by the liberal media, particularly by his former publishing partner, the Guardian. A series of stories linking Assange to Moscow culminated in a front-page splash, claiming Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and ‘various Russians’ had visited him on multiple occasions at the embassy, a claim denied by both WikiLeaks and Manafort.
The Guardian offered no evidence other than the testimony of undisclosed sources. Unconvincing, WikiLeaks argues, given that the embassy’s guest log and 24-hour surveillance could provide easy proof either way. The Guardian has neither retracted nor apologized for this story but has since published several editorials arguing against extradition.
Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée and mother of his two youngest sons, believes the paper has failed catastrophically in its responsibility to a former collaborator. She points out that Assange only came to the UK as the Guardian was offering office space and support in return for access to the NSA material that won it a Pulitzer prize in 2014.
‘The problem is that the Guardian is the opinion-setter on the left and they’ve moved into this mindless groupthink around Julian that started even before 2016. You have Marina Hyde writing columns fantasizing about embassy staff killing Julian with knives. They completely lost the plot,’ she says.
‘Now they acknowledge that he shouldn’t be extradited, but that’s not enough. Their negligence has created such a problem that if Julian dies or is extradited, that will forever blot the reputation of the Guardian.’
Assange is supported by all the major rights organizations, from the UN to Amnesty International. He has a broad and eclectic coalition of high-profile champions, from Ai Weiwei to Pamela Anderson, as well as right-wing supporters such as Tucker Carlson and Roger Stone. ‘Julian’s case is central to what it means to live in a democracy,’ says Moris. ‘The right are more engaged with it because the right cares more about free speech than the left does, which is really unfortunate, because if you start limited free speech, eventually the left’s speech will also suffer from it. You end up in a society that no one wants to live in.’
The British and American publics remain unconcerned. As Assange turns 50 this month, Moris believes there are now only two possible outcomes: his freedom or his death.
Melzer’s assessment is no less bleak: ‘My sense is that if he gets released, it is because he is no longer capable of being a threat to states; that he is in a medical condition in which he’s broken, basically.’
If the United States succeeds in its case against Assange, it will set a chilling precedent. Journalists working in any state allied to the US can be extradited and imprisoned for reporting the truth. Yet it would take a massive sea change in public opinion to force President Biden to concede that this is not a precedent our fragile democracies can afford.
‘The combination of whistleblowing and publishing is an absolutely essential societal function. It’s the smoke alarm in society. If we start to prosecute whistleblowers, we’re switching off the fire alarm in our own house,’ Melzer says. ‘Do we really want that?’
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