London extradition hearing was the last stand of either Wikileaks founder or Western Intelligence Imperialism, and awaits January decision
By Caroline Hurley
Queensland-born Julian Assange (49) founded Wikileaks in 2006. Four years later it published several huge and devastating leaks provided by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, including: the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs and Cablegate. Wikileaks notably published 250,000 redacted documents and footage of US troops in an Apache Helicopter gleefully shooting dead what turned out to be two Reuters employees and Iraqi civilians fleeing in Baghdad (Collateral Murder video). Evidence of torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees also created shockwaves, as did revelations of Hilary Clinton’s entanglement with Wall Street and military regimes.
The model of public-interest publishing pioneered by Wikileaks, which facilitated anonymous submission of classified material and organised collaborative reporting across jurisdictions, is now widely practised in mainstream media. The threatened indictment of Assange, symbol of press freedom, puts all investigative journalism on trial.
Critics of Wikileaks’ releases included Julia Gillard, then Australian Prime Minister, who said they were illegal, and the then US Vice-President, Joe Biden, who significantly called Assange a terrorist. In 2017 then-CIA director Mike Pompeo declared that Wikileaks was a “hostile intelligence service” aided by Russia.
On the other hand, Julian Assange was named Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2010, and then awarded the Martha Gelhorn Prize in England and the Walkley, an Australian Pulitzer Prize equivalent. However, the US Justice Department embarked on a mission to criminalise him and his associates.
Swedish Rape Allegations
As Assange kept slipping through his pursuers’ fingers, new jeopardy swooped in 2011 from Sweden where, surviving largely without a fixed address, Assange had been spending much of his time. He was recalled there for questioning about two women’s accusations of sexual assault. He agreed to travel from his temporary UK base to answer the charges on condition the Swedish government promised not to extradite him onwards to America.
Assange Seeks Asylum
Refused these terms, and after exhausting British legal options, in 2012 Assange sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
In 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention upheld Assange’s plea as eligible, supported by various statements including one signed by 500 high-profile figures from more than 60 countries. Nothing changed. His house-arrest-like limbo lasted until 11 April 2019 when he was handed over to police.
On 20 February 2019, the International Monetary Fund had given Ecuador a $4.2 billion financial package subject to Washington’s approval. Within days, Wikileaks’ prize source, Chelsea Manning, was subpoenaed to inform on Assange, and punished for non-co-operation by a month in almost total solitary confinement, during which time Ecuadorian president Moreno, formerly a fan, came out against Wikileaks.
With Assange firmly in the clutches of Anglo-American law enforcement, the Swedish sexual assault charges were finally dropped.
After the police arrest, Assange appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. The District Judge remanded him to Belmarsh maximum security prison until 2 May 2019, when another Judge at Southwark Crown Court sentenced him to fifty weeks in jail for violating his 2012 bail conditions.
Handled like a violent criminal, Assange was held in an isolation cell and denied virtually all contact with other prisoners, visitors and his legal representation. Reports of his deteriorating mental and physical health spread.
The US government launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and is now seeking Assange’s extradition from the UK. He faces one charge of conspiracy and 17 charges of espionage.
On 11 April 2019, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia unsealed a 2018 indictment charging Assange with conspiring to commit computer intrusions by assisting Chelsea Manning with breaking a US-government password. Having, under extradition rules, only a 60-day window from the date of Assange’s arrest in London to add more charges, the US Department of Justice unveiled a further seventeen criminal charges against Assange on 23 May 2019, alleging he contravened the Espionage Act of 1917 by publishing the names of classified sources and conspired with and assisted Manning in obtaining access to classified information. The eighteen charges mean a potential cumulative 175 years in prison on conviction.
The US-UK extradition treaty cited in the demand that Assange be handed over explicitly forbids political extraditions – and the US government itself had designated him a political actor in 2010.
Human Rights Watch and others condemned the move as a regulatory weapon of mass destruction aimed at journalists, whistle-blowers and other truth-tellers.
Assange remains a controversial figure, due mainly to allegations about his temperament and conduct, to the sexual assault allegations and to his alleged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 US Presidential Election when WikiLeaks released documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) showing that it favoured Hillary Clinton and had tried to subvert Bernie Sanders. In 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged twelve Russian intelligence officers with computer hacking and working with WikiLeaks and other organisations to disseminate the documents but Assange said that the Russian government was not the source of the DNC documents. In 2019 CNN reported that Assange had used the Ecuadorian embassy to meddle in the 2016 election.
Perhaps partly because of this record, the media internationally went cold on Julian Assange. The BBC’s website covered the hearings in just four – unquestioning – pieces.
The Logistics of the Hearing
The extradition hearing began at Woolwich Crown Court on 24 February 2020 but was largely adjourned until 7 September. Consortium News and Courage Foundation supplied coverage daily; Counterpunch and Defend Wikileaks did frequently. Even The Guardian engaged though not enough to impress demonstrators outside its offices or signatories of a petition complaining it profited from publishing his leaks yet did not cover the extradition hearing every day one of many leading news outlets, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that had extensively exploited Wikileaks files.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was the only NGO permitted court access. A crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Old Bailey as the case began – speakers included Wikileaks’ Editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, journalist John Pilger, artist Vivienne Westwood and Assange’s dad John Shipton.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser revoked video access to prominent Assange supporters; and Assange’s capacity to attend his own trial was severely curtailed by his confinement in a sound-resistant glass box by which he was separated from the courtroom. Most of the evidence was given remotely.
Inside the Old Bailey, the court heard from witness after witness about the importance of the information that Wikileaks revealed: the exposure of crimes and torture by the US and its allies in the post-9/11 wars.
It was not a normal trial. Usually a witness stands up in court, gives their evidence, and is cross-examined. In this hearing, the presiding district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, had ruled that evidence would be presented through witness statements.
Strangely, a witness was only heard from if the US Government wanted to challenge the evidence being presented.
John Pilger described the proceedings: “The prevailing atmosphere has been shocking. I say that without hesitation; I have sat in many courts and seldom known such a corruption of due process — this is due revenge. Putting aside the ritual associated with “British justice”, at times it has been evocative of a Stalinist show trial”.
Here, in the interests of defending democracy, are the most important evidential contributions.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer note, that “the case is a battle over press freedom, the rule of law and the future of democracy, none of which can coexist with secrecy”.
Daniel Ellsberg, the former US marine who leaked the ‘Pentagon Papers’, which helped to end the Vietnam War by revealing just how the American people had been lied to over the course of the conflict, claimed that, when he worked at the top level of the American Government, accounts of war crimes in Vietnam were held at the highest level of secrecy, with only a few people having access to the information.
In this case, he testified, the accounts leaked by Wikileaks were held on a computer system that could be accessed by more than 100,000 people whose failure to complain he described as a sign that “torture and assassination have been normalised”.
Journalism historian and ex-CNN reporter Dr Mark Feldstein asserted that Assange was a journalist though not an objective one. He noted, despite the emphasis of some lawyers and of Donald Trump, that in fact in any event the benefits of the US Constitution’s First Amendment protections for Free Expression extend “equal treatment for all speakers…who use mass communications technology, whether or not they are members of the press [as an] industry”.
Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies Dr Paul Rogers praised Assange’s dedication to accountability and transparency – an apparent ongoing challenge to administrations with other priorities.
Australian Phillip Adams, whose regularly updated Change.org petition to free Assange obtained over half a million names, claimed somewhat wishfully: “We have a safety net strategy with Queen Elizabeth II for a Royal Pardon if extradition is determined and we have now established a valid case for the International Criminal Court to investigate this United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture verified case of psychological torturing of Julian Assange”.
Der Spiegel journalist John Goetz emphasised the extreme measures Assange took to ensure no one was harmed, including retaining 15,000 documents, and redacting sensitive names.
A statement submitted from Cryptome.org host John Young confirmed that Assange was not responsible for releasing unredacted sensitive material such as remains posted on Cryptome’s site, its removal never requested by US authorities.
Der Freitag publisher Jakob Augstein testified that the unredacted Cablegate files he released came from Openleaks mirrors and not Wikileaks.
Co-founder of NGO Iraq Body Count John Sloboda validated Wikileaks’ high data protection standards while acknowledging its Iraq War Logs as the “single largest contribution to public knowledge about civilian casualties in Iraq”. Revealing 15,000 extra casualties possibly played “the most important role in catalysing public opposition” to war there and in Afghanistan.
Human rights historian and attorney Carey Shenkman attacked the Espionage Act 1917 for being a divisive tool to silence dissent, and for omitting a public interest defence.
London barrister Jennifer Robinson gave evidence of a visit to the Ecuadorian Embassy by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who, representing Trump, spoke of brokering a pardon for Assange if he confided his sources for 2016 Democratic National Committee leaks. Assange refused but the offer clearly re-affirmed the political nature of his incrimination.
German citizen Khalid El-Masri gave evidence about how Wikileaks undermined US pressure on the German state not to arrest the thirteen CIA agents involved in his rendition and extreme torture in a black site. He had relied on cables Wikileaks published to win his case at the European Court of Human Rights.
Dean Yates from Reuters praised Wikileaks for countering US lies about the wrongful violent possibly war-crime deaths in Baghdad of his two colleagues in July 2007.
Conservative journalist Cassandra Fairbanks recounted her horror on learning that her meeting with Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy was secretly recorded, and that his eviction and arrest by British police were being negotiated between Ambassador Richard Grenell and Trump fixer Arthur Schwartz, who was heard saying Assange’s arrest was planned based on direct “orders from the president”.
Several days’ medical evidence included a diagnosis by Dr Michael Kopelman, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychiatry at King’s College London of Assange’s severe depression and Asperger’s syndrome. Kopelman concluded that he is “as certain as a psychiatrist ever can be that, in the event of imminent extradition,” along with long-term harsh isolation in North American custody, Assange “would indeed find a way to commit suicide”.
Former US Marines judge advocate Yancey Ellis asserted that if extradited, Assange would be held in extremely-controlled Belmarsh-like conditions, probably at Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia, contradicting assurances of some minimal freedoms made by the prosecution’s witness US attorney Gordon Kromberg.
Agreeing with Ellis was founder of Virginian Justice Advocacy Group Joel Sickler, who explained supermax jail cells are only “about the size of a parking space”, making communication with fellow prisoners or anyone impossible, while access to legal aid for appeals and to basic healthcare is sorely deficient despite provisions pledged in theory by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Maureen Baird, a former US prison warden outlined the nature of Special Administrative Measures which top up ordinary prison conditions for the likes of Assange with extreme gagging restrictions and other degrading inhumane deprivations that rule out therapeutic activities and render victims incommunicado and hopeless. Challenging SAMs was totally futile: in her twenty years’ experience, Baird never witnessed one removed but rather, a number extended.
Substantiating this reality came evidence from US Attorney Lindsay Lewis concerning her client Abu Hamza, who was placed under a SAM on extradition from the U. K. to the U. S. eight years ago, despite promises to the contrary and his severe disabilities. Grievances about this enforced alienation were without redress. Like Baird, Lewis knew of no instance of an inmate getting a SAM revoked through the Administrative Remedy process.
That torture system contravenes Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “I am uncertain how the BOP has been able to continue with these types of isolation units, given all the studies, reports and findings of the horrific physical and psychological effects they have on inmates,” said Baird.
Two statements were admitted from two anonymous former employees of UC Global, a private security firm hired to spy on Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy following approaches from US intelligence officials. According to El Pais, UC Global Director David Morales secured a contract in Las Vegas with a company employed by Trump financier Sheldon Adelson to transmit recordings to the CIA. The witnesses said serious consideration was given to how, mimicking the Kremlin, they could kidnap Assange and even poison him.
Defence lawyer Mark Summers passed on a message from Assange’s lawyer Gareth Pierce protesting about the chilling effect on her team’s legal defence when they discovered that conversations between them and their client had been bugged.
Outside the court setting, former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote a letter to The Guardian and libertarian former US Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul wrote on the website of his own institute that The War on Assange is a War on Truth, noting that “to get around the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, Assange’s tormentors simply claim that he is not a journalist”.
In a critical and unexpected shift towards the end of the hearing, Judge Baraitser acknowledged the case’s political motivation.
She announced she would deliver her ruling on 4 January 2021. That is after the US election but before a new administration takes office.
Updated January 4th, 2021: On January 4th 2021 the UK rejected the US request to extradite Julian Assange saying that the “special administrative measures” Assange would be subject to during his detention would have a severe negative impact on his mental health. The case is being appealed by the US