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Ending the torture of Julian Assange

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Julian Assange as he left the UK court in a prison van (Screenshot via YouTube)

Voices from all over the world, including human rights organisations, have been condemning the treatment of Julian Assange, writes Dr John Jiggens.

IN A WATERSHED CASE for journalistic freedom, the hearing for Julian Assange’s extradition to the U.S. begins in London on 24 February 2020. If extradited to the U.S., Assange will face 18 charges under the 1917 Espionage Act and a potential sentence of 175 years in prison for “crimes” that include some of the greatest pieces of citizen journalism of the 21st century: the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Logs, Cablegate and the famous collateral murder video.

Although Assange is not a U.S. citizen, the U.S. has pressured its client states into misusing their legal systems to corral Assange for nine tortuous years, asserting its imperial right to prosecute and punish a journalist who dared to reveal its war crimes. The Espionage Act charges are all about journalism: Assange’s crime is, was and has always been his courageous journalism.

While 12 people were massacred in the collateral murder video, none of the perpetrators has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, the whistle-blower and her publisher have been relentlessly hounded for a decade: Chelsea Manning attempted suicide in prison, while Assange’s family have been shocked by his deterioration.

In his report on the treatment of Assange, Nils Melzer, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, declared that in 20 years of working with victims of war, violence and political persecution, he has never seen a group of democratic States (Sweden, the UK, the USA) ganging up to deliberately 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.

Mr Melzer declared their systematic misuse of legal procedures was a form of legal torture and warned that Mr Assange’s human rights would be seriously violated if he was extradited to the United States.

Mr Melzer stated:

My most urgent concern is that, in the United States, Mr Assange would be exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Assange’s treatment in the UK prison system

John Shipton, the father of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, has condemned the U.S. prosecution of Assange as legal persecution and called on the Australian Government and the Australian public to ensure the gross violation of his son’s human rights ceases. Mr Shipton, who returned recently from the UK, described the serious mistreatment Julian was subjected to in the UK prison system:

It is torture: 22 hours a day, being banged up by yourself, staring at the ceiling. In order to maintain his stability and health and mentality, Julian asks us how far it is between Madrid and Paris and we tell him the answer, and he sets out to walk that, walking up and down his cell, counting the steps in a journey to Paris. His cell is three metres long and he walks that in three strides.

As part of the psychological torture, Assange was intentionally kept isolated by the UK prison authorities and his contact with other prisoners was minimised. When he had visitors, the gaol hallways were deliberately cleared first, as John Shipton recounted:

When I go to meet him, they clear all the hallways and escort him with a guard on each side down these empty, black, echoing hallways into the meeting room. Above your head there are high-fidelity cameras to enable lip-reading if they want and every three metres there are general fidelity cameras.

 

In his cell, every 30 minutes someone opens a peephole and looks into his cell, 24 hours a day. These procedures are described by Nils Melzer as torture. There’s been nine years of torture of steadily increasing intensity. Our government knows this, they have Nils Melzer’s report, yet they repeat like a mantra, due process, due process.

 

Due process is never followed in Julian’s case. Never.

Mr Shipton’s most recent “due process” concern was over reports that Julian was “hot-boxed” before his December court appearance. (“Hot-boxing” refers to keeping someone in an overheated situation and denying them water so they become dehydrated and confused.)

In his last court appearance, Julian couldn’t remember his name and his birth date. His lawyers, Phillip Segal and Greg Barns, along with ten other barristers, wrote that, in their combined 50 years of legal practice defending people, they had never seen a prisoner brought before the court in such a state.

Julian Assange was always aware of the U.S.'s hidden attention to try him under the Espionage Act, says John Shipton.

He could see the Swedish allegations were part of this U.S. ruse; this is why he fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy:

“For nine years, he has realised if he goes to the U.S., that is the end. He has fought for nine years not to go to the United States. He knows it means death.”

Amnesty and the European Parliament supports Melzer

Another voice concerned about Assange’s treatment in the U.S. is Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe, Massimo Moratti, who warned the United Kingdom would be in breach of its obligations to protect Mr Assange’s human rights should he be extradited to the United States:

The British authorities must acknowledge the real risks of serious human rights violations Julian Assange would face if sent to the USA and reject the extradition request. The UK must comply with the commitment it’s already made that he would not be sent anywhere he could face torture or other ill treatment.

However, the contempt for Assange's human rights by the UK, the U.S., Sweden (and Australia) are well demonstrated: in 2016, when a U.N. working party ruled that the British blockade of the Ecuadorian Embassy where Assange had sought asylum amounted to arbitrary and illegal detention, both the UK and Sweden ignored the U.N. ruling. It was further demonstrated by their dismissal of the report by Nils Melzer and Massimo Moratti, who warned the United Kingdom would be in breach of its obligations to protect Mr Assange’s human rights should he be extradited to the United States.

Melzer's advice to the UK in November 2019 was:

When both States realise that the way they have handled this affair is in violation of the convention on torture, they must take measures to alleviate the psychological pressures against Mr Assange. He must be given adequate means to prepare his defence. He cannot be under constant threats of extradition to the U.S. where he is not going to receive a fair trial. It is very important to start alleviating the pressure that is being put on him that is not necessary and is not in line with the rule of law.

Last week, the European Parliamentary Assembly backed the U.N. judgement about the inhuman treatment of Julian Assange and called for his immediate release.

In a report from the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media condemning the British treatment of Assange, it recommended to:

...ensure respect of, the right of journalists to protect their sources, and develop an appropriate normative, judicial and institutional framework to protect whistleblowers and whistleblowing facilitators, in line with Assembly Resolution 2300 (2019) “Improving the protection of whistleblowers all over Europe”; in this respect, consider that the detention and criminal prosecution of Mr Julian Assange sets a dangerous precedent for journalists, and join the recommendation of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment who declared, on 1 November 2019, that Mr Assange's extradition to the United States must be barred and that he must be promptly released.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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