LONDON, UK - U.S. efforts to have whistleblower Julian Assange extradited from a prison in London to the United States continued this week when the WikiLeaks founder fronted Westminster Magistrates Court.
Whilst he had freshened himself up for the court appearance, having shaved his long, white beard, Assange was looking tired, frail, and disoriented in his blue suit and white shirt. He also appeared to have difficulty in following proceedings and was even unsure of his name and age.
The U.S., earlier this year, after denying for years it was trying to extradite the journalist, finally admitted a scheme was in the works from the time he, together with former U.S. Private Chelsea Manning, leaked tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, and military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing them to major newspaper groups including The New York Times and The Guardian which published them. Assange is now facing 17 charges of espionage. There has been no action taken against the newspapers that published the documents. Surprisingly they have abandoned their colleague, taking no action to oppose the proceedings against him, or defending him in their newspapers.
His country too, Australia, or the successive governments at least that have been in office since he leaked the cables, has also abandoned him, although the Australian government says it is providing the usual consular services it provides to all Australians when they are incarcerated overseas. Assange is currently being held at Belmarsh Prison in South London.
"I can't think properly," Assange said after the brief hearing. "I can't research anything, I can't access any of my writing, it's very difficult where I am to do anything," he said.
"This is not equitable what's happening here."
His solicitor Mark Summers QC told the court the U.S. administration was engaged in a "concerted and avowed drive to escalate its existing war on whistleblowers, to encompass investigative journalists."
"Our case is that it is a political attack to signal to journalists the consequences of publishing classified information."
Summers had made an application requesting a delay in the upcoming extradition hearing as it had only just been learned a security firm in Spain had been secretly recording Assange's conversations while he was holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The firm was providing copies of audio tapes and video footage of its monitoring to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Just last week the Spanish National Court ordered an investigation into Cadiz company Undercover Global, alleging "crimes against privacy and the secrecy of lawyer-client communications, bribery and money laundering." The order was made in response to a complaint from Assange's legal team that the Spanish company had secretly installed listening devices (bugs) at the embassy where Assange lived, in order to obtain material on behalf of the government of Ecuador and "agents of the United States."
"The American state has been actively engaged in intruding on privileged discussions between Assange and his lawyers," Summers told the court on Monday, while claiming material had been copied from Assange's computer and mobile phone. He also spoke of "hooded men breaking into lawyers' offices."
The Australian's solicitor told District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, the U.S. had obtained his medical records, including transcripts of his conversations with his doctors, and had attempted to obtain his childrens' DNA.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, the official WikiLeaks representative, told reporters after the hearing that U.S. agents had even collected DNA samples from nappies discarded at the embassy.
Summers said Assange was not allowed computer access so had no capacity to help prepare his defence. He has been refused permission to speak to his U.S. lawyers by phone, and only last week was he allowed to receive documents from his UK solicitor.
Despite his protestations, the application to have the extradition hearing delayed was rejected. The hearing will go ahead over a five-day period in late February, with brief interim hearings next month and and December.
The whistleblower was dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in London in April in a blaze of publicity, after the Ecuador government turned him over to the British police notwithstanding he had been granted Ecuadorian citizenship and had been given asylum. He was immediately jailed and subsequently sentenced over a breach of bail conditions, despite the fact that the Swedish government had since dropped the charges that had prompted his arrest warrant.
"There's no doubt his health has been adversely impacted by seven years living effectively without natural sunlight and cooped up in the embassy and now at Belmarsh Prison," Australian barrister Greg Barns who is part of the Assange legal team told ABC Radio (Australia) on Monday.
"Prisons are no place for people who are unwell and generally a person's health deteriorates in the prison environment, particularly Belmarsh Prison, which is a harsh prison," he said.
"It does make it difficult in terms of preparation of his case. He's got to be able to instruct his lawyers, this is a complicated case, and he's going to be able to do that in circumstances where his health improves."
The treatment of Assange has been inhumane, according to Professor Nils Melzer, the UN's special rapporteur on torture, who said in a report in June that once he had looked into his case, he had been filled with repulsion and disbelief.
"What I found is that he has never been charged with a sexual offence. True, soon after the United States had encouraged allies to find reasons to prosecute Assange, Swedish prosecution informed the tabloid press that he was suspected of having raped two women. Strangely, however, the women themselves never claimed to have been raped, nor did they intend to report a criminal offence. Moreover, the forensic examination of a condom submitted as evidence, supposedly worn and torn during intercourse with Assange, revealed no DNA whatsoever - neither his, nor hers, nor anybody else's."
"One woman even texted that she only wanted Assange to take an HIV test, but that the police were "keen on getting their hands on him."
"Ever since, both Sweden and Britain have done everything to prevent Assange from confronting these allegations without simultaneously having to expose himself to U.S. extradition and, thus, to a show-trial followed by life in jail. His last refuge had been the Ecuadorian Embassy," the UN official said.
"Alright, I thought, but surely Assange must be a hacker! But what I found is that all his disclosures had been freely leaked to him, and that no one accuses him of having hacked a single computer. In fact, the only arguable hacking-charge against him relates to his alleged unsuccessful attempt to help breaking a password which, had it been successful, might have helped his source to cover her tracks. In short: a rather isolated, speculative, and inconsequential chain of events; a bit like trying to prosecute a driver who unsuccessfully attempted to exceed the speed-limit, but failed because their car was too weak."
"Well then, I thought, at least we know for sure that Assange is a Russian spy, has interfered with US elections, and negligently caused people's deaths! But all I found is that he consistently published true information of inherent public interest without any breach of trust, duty or allegiance. Yes, he exposed war crimes, corruption and abuse, but let's not confuse national security with governmental impunity. Yes, the facts he disclosed empowered U.S. voters to take more informed decisions, but isn't that simply democracy? Yes, there are ethical discussions to be had regarding the legitimacy of unredacted disclosures. But if actual harm had really been caused, how come neither Assange nor Wikileaks ever faced related criminal charges or civil lawsuits for just compensation?"
"But surely, I found myself pleading, Assange must be a selfish narcissist, skateboarding through the Ecuadorian Embassy and smearing faeces on the walls? Well, all I heard from Embassy staff is that the inevitable inconveniences of his accommodation at their offices were handled with mutual respect and consideration. This changed only after the election of President Moreno, when they were suddenly instructed to find smears against Assange and, when they didn't, they were soon replaced. The President even took it upon himself to bless the world with his gossip, and to personally strip Assange of his asylum and citizenship without any due process of law," Professor Melzer said.
"In the end it finally dawned on me that I had been blinded by propaganda, and that Assange had been systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed. Once he had been dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide. And thus, a legal precedent is being set, through the backdoor of our own complacency, which in the future can and will be applied just as well to disclosures by The Guardian, The New York Times and ABC News."
"Very well, you may say, but what does slander have to do with torture? Well, this is a slippery slope. What may look like mere mudslinging in public debate, quickly becomes "mobbing" when used against the defenseless, and even "persecution" once the State is involved. Now just add purposefulness and severe suffering, and what you get is full-fledged psychological torture," said the UN special rapporteur on torture.
"Yes, living in an Embassy with a cat and a skateboard may seem like a sweet deal when you believe the rest of the lies. But when no one remembers the reason for the hate you endure, when no one even wants to hear the truth, when neither the courts nor the media hold the powerful to account, then your refuge really is but a rubber boat in a shark-pool, and neither your cat nor your skateboard will save your life."
"Even so, you may say, why spend so much breath on Assange, when countless others are tortured worldwide? Because this is not only about protecting Assange, but about preventing a precedent likely to seal the fate of Western democracy. For once telling the truth has become a crime, while the powerful enjoy impunity, it will be too late to correct the course. We will have surrendered our voice to censorship and our fate to unrestrained tyranny," Professor Melzer said.
(File photo. Credit: AFP).