As a Frail and Confused Julian Assange Appears in Court, It’s Time For the UK to Stop His Proposed Extradition to the US

25.10.19

A WikiLeaks image calling for Julian Assange’s proposed extradition to the US from the UK to be stopped, and for Assange to be freed.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

On Monday, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, looked frail and, at times, appeared confused as his lawyers sought a delay to a hearing regarding his proposed extradition to the US to face dubious — and potentially punitive — espionage charges relating to WikiLeaks’ work as a publisher of classified US government information; in particular, “Collateral Murder,” a “classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff,” war logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars, a vast number of US diplomatic cables from around the world, and, in 2011, classified military files relating to Guantánamo, on which I worked as media partner, along with the Washington Post, McClatchy, the Daily Telegraph and others.

Assange has been imprisoned in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in south east London since April, when the government of Ecuador, in whose embassy he had been living for nearly seven years, revoked the political asylum granted to him by the country’s former president, the democratic socialist Rafael Correa, who called his replacement, the right-winger Lenin Moreno, “[t]he greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history” for his betrayal of Assange, declaring, “Moreno is a corrupt man, but what he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget.”

In May, a British court sought to justify Assange’s imprisonment with a 50-week sentence for having broken his bail conditions back in 2012, when he first sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, fearing that he would be extradited to Sweden to face unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations, and would then be handed over to the US.

In September, at a hearing regarding the end of his sentence for breaching his bail conditions, District Judge Vanessa Baraltser noted that, as the BBC described it, “his lawyer had declined to make an application for bail on his behalf,” with the judge explaining that this was “perhaps not surprising in light of your history of absconding in these proceedings,” and adding, “In my view I have substantial grounds for believing if I release you, you will abscond again.”

It was at this point that some of Assange’s supporters claimed that he was being imprisoned “indefinitely,” despite the end of his prison sentence, but in fact, as Judge Baraltser also explained, at the end of the 50-week sentence Assange’s remand status changed from that of “a serving prisoner to a person facing extradition.”

The extradition request from the US, under the terms of the much-criticised 2003 US-UK Extradition Treaty, was revealed on June 13, when the home secretary, Sajid Javid, told the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4, “There’s an extradition request from the US that is before the courts tomorrow but yesterday I signed the extradition order and certified it and that will be going in front of the courts tomorrow.” He added, “It is a decision ultimately for the courts, but there is a very important part of it for the home secretary and I want to see justice done at all times and we’ve got a legitimate extradition request, so I’ve signed it, but the final decision is now with the courts.”

A troubling hearing

The hearing on Monday was a case management hearing as part of the extradition process, with another scheduled to take place on December 19, prior to a full extradition hearing on February 25, 2020, but the whole process may well drag on for several years. In previous cases — those of Babar Ahmed and Syed Talha Ahsan, for example, accused of running a pro-jihadi website — legal challenges to their proposed extradition involved them being held in UK custody for eight years and six years respectively before their eventual extradition to the US.

One question raised by Monday’s hearing is whether Assange is robust enough to survive a long legal challenge. The Independent noted that he “mumbled, paused and stuttered as he confirmed his name and date of birth,” and the Guardian explained that, when the judge asked him if he had understood events in court, he said, “Not really. I can’t think properly.” At this point, according to the Independent, he “appeared to fight back tears,” although he subsequently rallied sufficiently to state, “I don’t understand how this is equitable. This superpower had 10 years to prepare for this case and I can’t access my writings” — a reference to how, in Belmarsh, he has only just been given limited access to a computer. “It’s very difficult where I am to do anything but these people have unlimited resources,” he added.

When it comes to his case, however, it remains abundantly clear that the US has entered profoundly dangerous territory regarding free speech and press freedoms, and, most crucially for Assange, that the UK government should not be going along with it.

Moves to prosecute Assange were made under President Obama, but it was rightly concluded that it was not possible to prosecute him without damaging the right of the media, in countries that claim to respect democracy and the rule of law, to publish classified material that they regard as being in the public interest.

Donald Trump, however, has no such compunctions. Persistently hostile towards media he doesn’t like, which he regularly damns as “fake news,” Trump, on one occasion, asked former FBI director James Comey if he could put journalists he didn’t like in jail. Overall, his approach to the media ought to alert everyone paying attention to the fact that, if he can, he will suppress any media outlet he regards as dissenting from his version of the truth as ruthlessly as any totalitarian regime.

I have my doubts that a case against Assange in the US would be successful, but at this point the main focus of attention for everyone who genuinely cares about free speech and press freedoms must be to oppose Assange’s extradition, and to target Sajid Javid and the British government for their dangerous and unacceptable commitment to the proposed prosecution of a publisher.

This is particularly important after revelations about Monday’s hearing, made by the former British diplomat Craig Murray, who noted that the British government’s lawyers were actually taking instruction directly from the “five representatives of the US government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing),” who were “seated at desks behind the lawyers in court.” At one point, James Lewis QC, for the government, told the judge he was “taking instructions from those behind.” As Murray stressed, “it was not the UK Attorney-General’s office who were being consulted but the US Embassy.”

In light of this complete lack of independence on the part of the British government, which, to be blunt, shouldn’t be taking instructions from the US regarding an extradition request, when the UK’s role ought to be strictly procedural, it was also unsurprising that Assange’s lawyers made no headway with their call for more time to prepare their evidence, and also for consideration to be given to their argument that “political offences” are “specifically excluded from the extradition treaty,” as Murray accurately described it, adding that “[t]here should, they argued, therefore be a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all.”

This, clearly, wasn’t a fair hearing; it was, instead, one dictated by the US, in which not only British government officials, but also the judge were complicit.

WikiLeaks is a publisher; this is not espionage

Nevertheless, once the distractions regarding Julian Assange’s alleged character and allegedly intentions are stripped away — which have been deliberately used by his opponents to cloud the most important issues involved — the prevailing truth is that WikiLeaks is a genuine media outlet, equivalent to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and any other established newspaper readers care to think of, and its freedom to publish must be robustly and rigorously defended.

Assange was never the leaker of classified material — that crucial role fell to Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced and imprisoned as a result, before having her sentence commuted by President Obama, and then, shockingly, being imprisoned again, earlier this year, for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury investigation into Assange, for which she is now also being fined, on what appears to be a completely arbitrary basis, at a rate of $1,000 a day.

And if we’re looking for a historical analogy, the best example for what Assange has done through WikiLeaks is that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Vietnam-era “Pentagon Papers” to the Washington Post. In the 21st century example for which the Trump administration seeks to punish Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning is Daniel Ellsberg, and WikiLeaks is the Washington Post.

In challenging the British government, it is also surely worthwhile for Assange’s defenders to look at what has happened with other proposed extraditions that were subsequently dropped — of Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, for example, both hackers with Asperger’s Syndrome, whose extraditions were turned down because of fears about them killing themselves.

What no one seems to want to talk about is the extent to which Julian Assange may also share similarities with Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love. In the Independent, in 2011, with reference to his early forays into hacking in Australia, he stated, “when I became well known, people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger’s or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum.” Dismissing it as joke, he added, “I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so let’s just say I am — all hackers are, and I would argue all men are a little bit autistic,” but it seems to me that his obsessive behavior is indeed a reflection of someone with Asperger’s — and, as we’re seeing from his weak and confused state on Monday, he, like Gary McKinnon and Lauri Love, may well also not to be able to cope with sustained solitary confinement in a US prison.

The Australian comic writer Kathy Lette has no doubt about Assange’s state of mind. She met him when he stayed at her house — via her husband, a human rights lawyer — and on Tuesday, on Australian TV, she said, “Julian I got to know very well. And I know he’s a controversial character, but I actually think he’s on the autistic spectrum, undiagnosed. My son’s autistic, so I can spot the signs.”

I’m sure Assange’s lawyers are looking at all avenues to prevent his extradition, and will be aware of whether or not this is a fruitful route to pursue, but I hope so, as I fear that, otherwise, his notoriety is as damaging to the mitigating factors regarding his mental health as it is to his role as a controversial publisher. To reiterate, however, the bottom line remains that, if for no other reason, anyone who cares about press freedoms and freedom of speech must stand up and be counted, and oppose the intended extradition of Assange to the US.

The security of all genuine, politically serious journalists depends on it.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, cross-posted from http://www.closeguantanamo.org, examining the latest news regarding Julian Assange, held at Belmarsh maximum-security prison since April, pending his proposed extradition to the US, to face trumped-up espionage charges regarding WikiLeaks’ work as a publisher, making available classified US documents — including the Guantanamo files, which I worked on with WikiLeaks as a media partner — for which there is a compelling case that the public should be informed.

    Assange’s role was as a publisher, and his proposed extradition is a chilling assault on press freedoms, and freedom of speech. The UK government shouldn’t be going along with it, but in fact they seem to be working very closely with US officials, and at Assange’s latest case management hearing, on Monday, his conditions of confinement seemed to be taking their toll, as he was frail and often appeared confused.

    As I explain in the conclusion of my article, “anyone who cares about press freedoms and freedom of speech must stand up and be counted, and oppose the intended extradition of Assange to the US. The security of all genuine, politically serious journalists depends on it.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    ‘Protest at plans to move the Julian Assange Court Hearings to Belmarsh Magistrates Court!’
    https://wiseupaction.info/2019/10/24/protest-at-plans-to-move-julian-assange-court-hearings-to-belmarsh-magistrates-court/

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that troubling update, Anna. It’s very important that the proceedings remain open to public scrutiny.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    There has been very little media coverage and the Government have kept things as quiet as possible, the big story of the people in the lorry came in, and covered all and everything. Our government are part of the ‘deep state’ I’m not sure if you are familiar with that expression; referring to the complex and diverse tentative mutual interests, that make the strange situation we face. When something like this happens it seem to activate all sorts of things. I found out lots of stuff regarding various issues around the world. I’ve posted a few letters to Julian, later ones with SAE and a PO in the last one. I do not believe he read or received them, not sure but there seemed little communication at all.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Malcolm, and thanks for your interest in the case. I know correspondence has been getting through to Julian, but who knows? Perhaps not all of it is allowed, as one of the things we know about prisoners regarded as politically significant is that the authorities don’t play fair, and constantly chip away at prisoners’ self-reliance.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    An additional development of significance is the British authorities’ decision to block a request by a Spanish judge to “question Julian Assange in London as a witness in a case exploring allegations that the Spanish security firm Undercover Global S.L. spied on [him] while he was living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London”, as El Pais reports.

    The Spanish inquiry involves documents and video footage obtained by the newspaper which “show that UC Global S. L. spied on Assange’s meetings with his lawyers, where his legal defense strategy was discussed”, and that UC Global’s owner David Morales “allegedly offered recordings of these and other conversations to US intelligence services.”

    El Pais reports that the British position is “unprecedented in these types of requests for judicial collaboration”, and “is being viewed by Spanish judicial bodies as a show of resistance against the consequences that the case could have on the process to extradite [Assange] to the United States.”

    See: https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/10/23/inenglish/1571817241_796975.html

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    In other news, a cross-party group of eleven Australian MPs – including former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, and former foreign minister Bob Carr – is calling for Assange, who is an Australian citizen, to be repatriated: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/eleven-mps-form-group-to-advocate-for-julian-assange-s-return-to-australia-20191023-p533ho.html

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    In my article I also mention Chelsea Manning, who is imprisoned and is arbitrarily being fined $1000 a day for refusing to cooperate with a Grand Jury inquiry into Wikileaks. Please spare a thought for her, and also for Jeremy Hammond, seven years into a ten-year prison sentence for releasing information about the private intelligence firm Strategic Forcasting (Stratfor), who has also just been “found in contempt” for refusing to cooperate with the Grand Jury in Virginia.

    He’s just issued a statement saying, “As many of you know, I was just a few months from my scheduled release from federal prison when I was unexpectedly dragged in chains and planes to this raggedy detention center in Alexandria, Virginia. I am outraged that the government is threatening additional jail time if I do not cooperate with their grand jury investigation. Their draconian intimidation tactics could never coerce me into betraying my comrades or my principles. In the spirit of resistance and with great contempt for their system, I am choosing silence over freedom.”

    See: https://www.sparrowmedia.net/2019/10/jeremy-hammond-issues-statement-explaining-why-he-is-resisting-the-edvas-grand-jury/

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Jeremy Hammond – a man of integrity and immense courage.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Very much so, Anna.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Pam Arnold wrote:

    I suspect he will never be extradited and we will kill him slowly in prison

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I hope he’s allowed enough visitors to prevent his total mental collapse, Pam, as he’s clearly suffering from severe and quite deliberate isolation.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Mickey Huff wrote:

    Thank you, Andy. Sharing. Would love to have you on our show [Project Censored] to talk about this sometime if you are interested…

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Mickey. I’d be delighted to do so.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Thank you for this. Assange deserves to be free. The criminals he exposed are and they need to be held accountable for their crimes.
    Free Julian Assange.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. Good to hear from you. Yes, isn’t it strange how little discussion there is of the significance of what WikiLeaks exposed, via Chelsea Manning, and how it is part of a speculative future case against senior US officials who haven’t been held accountable at all for their various crimes?

    Regarding Guantanamo, for example, the files contain unique evidence of the ways in which the US authorities exploited vulnerable prisoners – through torture or other forms of abuse, or through bribery – to help them compile what purported to be evidence justifying the imprisonment of most of the men held, but which, in fact, was quite stunningly unreliable information. One day, I’d like to think, there’ll be a proper inquiry into the extent to which Guantanamo was both wrong and counter-productive, in which these files would play a major part.

    And for anyone interested, my detailed assessment of 422 of those files is here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/category/2002-2011-the-complete-guantanamo-files-new/

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kevin. Good to hear from you. My hope, as I’ve mentioned before, is that Julian has enough access to visitors to stave off total mental collapse, but it’s worthwhile for everyone concerned with Julian’s mental health to read the account of Craig Murray, who was in court on Monday, and who stated, “Until yesterday I had always been quietly sceptical of those who claimed that Julian’s treatment amounted to torture – even of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – and sceptical of those who suggested he may be subject to debilitating drug treatments. But having attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that yesterday changed my mind entirely and Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness.”
    See: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2019/10/assange-in-court/

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Jeanine Molloff wrote:

    Thanks for this wonderful contribution. You are a treasure. In addition to Mickey Huff, I would love to interview you on my segment for Progressive News Network with Rick Spisak.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeanine. I’d be delighted to be interviewed for your show.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Hanann Abu Brase wrote:

    Thank you Julian Assange for everything you have done to save our lives by exposing war criminals, including sacrificing your own life, we will never forget you and wish you could know how much we appreciate you.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Hanann. Supporters may be interested to know that they can write to Julian in Belmarsh. There’s no guarantee that he’ll receive everything that’s sent, as withholding letters from the outside world is one way that the authorities deliberately contribute to the isolation of politically vulnerable prisoners, but we know that some letters have been getting through.

    Here’s the address:

    Mr Julian Assange
    Prisoner #: A9379AY
    HMP Belmarsh
    Western Way
    London SE28 0EB
    UK

    Please read the instructions here: https://writejulian.com

  22. Anna says...

    I had read Murray’s account – for those who do not remember or simply are too young to have known, he’s the one who disclosed terrifying torture in our ‘anti-terror coalition partner’ Uzbekistan when he was ambassador there at start of the GWOT.
    Appaling and it suggests that Assange does not stand a chance of anything even resembling a fair trial.
    Maybe the Australian option is his best chance to be saved.
    Seems like a good idea to write letters to the court as Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd suggested with even an example of such a letter: https://wiseupaction.info/2019/10/24/protest-at-plans-to-move-julian-assange-court-hearings-to-belmarsh-magistrates-court/
    No such hope for Chelsea. Years ago I wrote to every single EU parliament member asking them to award her the EU’s Sacharov prize. Only two ever answered…
    As for writing to Assange, I suppose the key to having one’s letter passed or stopped is to avoid anything that might irritate the censors. Better to write a bland support that reaches him, than a fierce one which ends up in the dustbin. When a few years ago I wrote to a mutual friend of ours in Belmarsh, I received an answer, so apparently it did reach him.
    There is nothing more cruel than suddenly re-imprisoning someone who finally had been released from outrageously unjust & cruel jail and had started to rebuild his/her life. From that moment on, every single morning at six a.m. can be the next one when they bang on your door and drag you away. Every single day of your remaining life, as the illusion that at least the prison part of your ordeal had ended, is shattered.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna, although the circumstances, as usual, aren’t great.
    I still find it difficult to believe that the British government will get away with extraditing a publisher to face espionage charges, and I do genuinely anticipate that there will be a long legal struggle, going, very probably, all the way to the Supreme Court, where there are judges with a greater appreciation of the significance of this case for press freedoms and freedom of speech than has, to date, been demonstrated either by the lower court judge, or by the home secretaries involved – first Sajid Javid, and now Priti Patel.
    So my biggest worry is actually Julian’s ability to survive throughout this long process, and I can only hope that, because the British government can’t hold him completely incommunicado, those who visit him will be able to prevent his complete mental collapse.
    And who knows? Maybe Trump won’t even be in the White House at the end of this legal process, and there will be a recognition, in the US, as there was under Obama, that prosecuting Assange is too damaging in terms of its assault on the First Amendment to be allowed to proceed.
    A hopeful analysis, I know, but as we were recently saying – and I paraphrase – without hope there is nothing.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    If you’d like to sign a petition for Julian, there’s an Australian petition on Change.org calling for his return to Australia, which currently has over 180,000 signatures: https://www.change.org/p/free-julian-assange-before-it-s-too-late-stop-usa-extradition
    Efforts to set up a British parliamentary petition were thwarted, because the proposed extradition is now regarded officially as a matter for the courts, not for Parliament, even though government lawyers seem so clearly to be involved in working with US officials during the court proceedings.

  25. John Pilger: Julian Assange’s Extradition Case is a SHOW TRIAL! + Roger Waters: The US and UK are trying to KILL Julian Assange! + Assange in Court by Craig Murray – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] As a Frail and Confused Julian Assange Appears in Court, It’s Time For the UK to Stop His Proposed… […]

  26. John Pilger: Julian Assange’s Extradition Process Is A Charade – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] As a Frail and Confused Julian Assange Appears in Court, It’s Time For the UK to Stop His Proposed… […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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