The Trials Of Julian Assange–And Why He Is Vital To Our Future
Above Photo: Dandelion Salad/Flickr
One of the most concerning sights of the pre-trial hearings in Julian Assange’s extradition case has been his documents. The WikiLeaks founder shuffled into the video conferencing room at Belmarsh high security prison, in southeast London, on October 11th, carrying a cardboard box full of paper files. When he appeared in person at Westminster Magistrates Court, ten days later, he was carrying a folder full of papers as he took his seat behind a screen separating him from the judge.
Incredible as it may seem, these dog-eared sheaves of paper constitute the notes for his defence against an extradition request from the US on espionage charges, which could, if upheld, see him sentenced to 175 years’ prison, with no possibility of parole. In one of multiple violations of his rights as a remand prisoner, he is operating under restrictions meaning that he has no access to a laptop computer.
According to the Prison Reform Trust booklet on Access to Justice provisions for all UK prisoners:
“The [Ministry of Justice] guidance does say that laptops should be given to people who could not prepare for their case properly without it, but should not be given if it would just make things more convenient”.
His UK barrister, Mark Summers QC, also reported at the case management hearing on October 21st that Assange has been unable to speak from the prison to his American lawyers. Asked by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser whether he understood proceedings at the court, Assange put it mildly:
“This is not equitable… I’m up against a superpower, with unlimited resources, which has been preparing this case for ten years”.
In a case of such gravity and complexity – relying as it does on details from thousands of documents stored online – it is surely axiomatic that access to a laptop computer is more than a matter of mere convenience.
At a more recent hearing, on November 18th, Gareth Peirce – the veteran human rights lawyer who is acting for Assange – reported that, “after months of battle”, he finally did now have access to a computer. However, she wanted it put on record that the computer is “not suitable for the purpose for which he needs it”. This was, she told the court, “a major impediment [to] Mr Assange’s ability to access the materials he needs to prepare his case”.
Baraitser’s response exemplified the convoluted Kafkaesque quality of the bureaucracy that now has the WikiLeaks founder in its coils. She dismissed Peirce’s concerns, saying that she had “no jurisdiction over the conditions in which he is held”. This was the same judge who confined him to Belmarsh, a Category A prison, in the first place, for skipping police bail – essentially, failing to report to a police station – for 50 weeks. It is very rare for any custodial sentence to be imposed for such an offence. That sentence was up in September, but he was remanded in custody pending the extradition request, because, Baraitser said, he had “a history of absconding in these proceedings”.
This is doubly fallacious. His sentence for the bail violation related to proceedings arising out of a rape allegation in Sweden. Proceedings regarding that allegation were over at that point (and were finally dropped last week). With the extradition request, a new set of proceedings commenced.
Moreover, Assange did not “abscond” during the proceedings from Sweden. Instead, he voiced his concerns at the time that a Grand Jury indictment was being prepared against him, and that, if arrested in the UK and sent in custody to Sweden, he would then be rendered to the United States. When no assurance was forthcoming from either Sweden or the UK that this would not happen, he instead sought and obtained political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. That is not “absconding”, as Baraitser falsely claimed, but exercising an internationally recognised right provided for in the Refugee Convention.
During his time at the embassy, Assange repeatedly made clear his willingness to be interviewed in London by Swedish police, either in person or by video link. The British Crown Prosecution Service pressured the Swedish prosecutor not to come to London: a fact that came to light only through a Freedom of Information request from the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica.
The CPS destroyed most of the incriminating correspondence to frustrate the FoI requests. The emails that surfaced did so only because some copies were accidentally overlooked. They show that in 2013 Sweden had wanted to drop the case against Assange. But the CPS emails stated
“don’t you dare” and “please do not think this case is being dealt with as just another extradition”. The effect, reporter Stefania Maurizi wrote, has been to keep him in “a legal and diplomatic quagmire”.
More recently, a London court rejected the newspaper’s request for access to further documents that would have revealed whether the CPS held information on the case from the US State Department or Department of Justice. The judgement stated that public knowledge would not have increased if this had been established. “Rather incredible”, as Maurizi remarked, since
“the entire Assange case revolves around the role of the United States authorities… establishing whether the British and US authorities discussed this possibility [of extraditing him to face trial in the US] from the very beginning is crucial”.
As it is, the manner and attitude of the British authorities in every aspect of the case leaves no room for doubt that they are deeply in cahoots with the plot to silence Julian Assange and ensure he never sees the light of day again. At a case management hearing on October 21st, Baraitser rejected a defence request for the extradition hearing to be delayed by three months from the scheduled date in late February.
The request arose from a case in Spain which – as Mr Summers pointed out – emerged unexpectedly, after the timetable for the case was originally set. It concerns Undercover Global, a Spanish security company that won a contract at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and then – according to a whistleblower – proceeded to eavesdrop on Assange, record him round the clock, and pass all the material to the CIA. This involved “intruding on privileged discussions between Mr Assange and his lawyers”, Mr Summers said. The head of UC Global, David Morales, has been arrested and bailed to appear at Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, accused of breaches of privacy.
The Spanish case is instrumental in Assange’s arguments against extradition since, Mr Summers said, it points to the political nature of the charges against him. The UK/US Extradition Treaty, dated 2003, states:
“Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense”.
The judge in the UC Global case, Jose de la Mata, sent a European Investigation Order to the UK Central Authority, seeking permission to interview Assange, from Belmarsh, via the same videoconferencing facilities used to link him into the October 11th hearing in London. In an unprecedented response, the UKCA rejected the request, citing a list of implausible excuses. De la Mata is now understood to be considering other means of getting witness evidence from Assange – without which the case can hardly proceed.
Why are the UK authorities so keen to collude in the persecution of Julian Assange? For British officialdom to prostrate itself before the demands of its Washington ally is far from novel, of course. When America says ‘jump’, the British establishment reflex is to ask ‘how high?’ and ‘into what country?’ Inconveniently, WikiLeaks’ most eye-catching revelations include a picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which British troops were heavily involved, fundamentally at odds with ministers’ optimistic presentation of ‘our side’ as the ‘goodies’. The material in the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and the US diplomatic cables, undermines what the journalist Jonathan Cook calls the whole “narrative matrix created to serve the US security state”.
But there is a more fundamental fear nagging at the transatlantic power elite. For decades now, political discourse in the US and core allied states has been arranged around the primacy of two key ideological constructs: a neoliberal view of economic and social affairs, and a neoconservative view of international relations. These are two sides of a coin. The US National Security Strategy of 2002, published under the Administration of George W Bush, states that “free elections and free markets constitute the sole sustainable pathway to national success”. Countries that derogate from this pattern can be construed as a threat – and, “as a matter of self-defence and common sense, America will strike at such threats before they are fully formed”.
When first iterated, these ideas enjoyed considerable popular support. Shrinking the state; empowering people to “spend more of their own money”; carrying out “humanitarian interventions” overseas, all seemed new and appealing. The self-mythologising ascendancy of Thatcherism, in 1980s Britain, claimed to have dispelled the grunge and gloom of the previous decade. Lowering barriers to capital accumulation seemed, to many, to be the key to prosperity. Later, NATO’s Operation Allied Force in Kosovo seemed to achieve its aim of expelling the forces of Slobodan Milosevic, without the need for risky deployments of ground troops.
But they have now turned sour. The Tories’ 1986 party conference promised to take “the next steps forward” by privatising utilities and rail – but these are the very state assets the public now want back, according to consistent opinion poll findings. And the rapid and conspicuous unravelling of propaganda claims to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq have left publics in troop-supplying countries notably reluctant to support war-making across national borders. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism have lost their power to convince in their very English-speaking north Atlantic homelands.
Worse, the rest of the world is now convulsed by unrest in places as far apart as Hong Kong, Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia and Chile. In the last, especially, neoliberalism is explicitly in the firing line, with the uprising having been touched off by a price rise on the privately run suburban rail network serving the capital, Santiago. The Bradford Peace Professor, Paul Rogers, has bracketed these manifestations with Islamic State militancy as “revolts from the margins” – very different, indeed, in aims and character, but united as symptoms of a breakdown in consent to be ruled on the basis of the past. The choice, as he puts it, is to attempt to keep the lid on such perturbations – or meet the challenge of identifying and engaging with unjust systems and structures, to embark on positive reforms.
Lids, of course, when pressed down, tend to blow off in the end with still greater force. The privations, inequalities and injustices occasioned by the neoliberal and neoconservative hegemony lead to the widespread infringement of human needs.
“Unless satisfied within the norms of society”, the Australian conflict resolution researcher and practitioner, the late John Burton wrote, “they will lead to behaviour that is outside the legal norms of the society”.
Political changes are often triggered by such behaviour. Indeed, Thatcher herself fell from power after her policy for a Poll Tax went up in flames of rioting on the streets of London. Ultimately, however, positive reform has to be conceptualised, enacted and implemented. For that, sharp analysis is more important than brute force. And, in the job of identifying and anatomatising the continuing undeserved ascendancy of neoliberalism and neoconservatism–and understanding and explaining their implications–the material bequeathed to us by WikiLeaks is an indispensable toolkit for critical thinking.
The war logs, the Collateral Murder video from Baghdad, and the diplomatic cables uncover what is habitually kept hidden by military euphemisms, such as “collateral damage”. WikiLeaks’ disclosures of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership showed us how business is, in effect, being lined up to displace governments as a source of authority and holder of public trust. Not only would all public services have to be opened to tender by corporations – any disputes would be referred to a private court dominated by business interests.
If neoliberalism and neoconservatism are now zombie ideologies, kept alive only by the animating forces of coercion and secrecy, this was a vampire treaty: it shattered on exposure to the light. Once publics found out what it contained, it became politically toxic, and was indefinitely shelved.
So Julian Assange sits in the crossover domain of a giant Venn diagram of political economic interests. The British state’s response is reminiscent of its attempt to join George W Bush’s war on Iraq by stealth, before anyone noticed. It was caught out when UN weapons inspectors began refuting all the false claims in the government’s “dossier” about “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” – and by massive public opposition. The war went ahead but the subsequent revelations have put a massive political obstacle in the way of any further troop deployments or bombing campaigns. It is that public opposition that will keep Assange out of a US federal prison, and, with him, hope alive that we can think our way through to reducing injustice and inequality.