Video: I Discuss the Right to Protest, Guantánamo and the Plight of Julian Assange with Team Assange

29.3.21

A screenshot of Andy Worthington being interviewed by Alison Mason of Team Assange on March 20, 2021, discussing the UK government’s attempts to suppress peaceful protest, Guantánamo and the case of Julian Assange.

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I’m pleased to be posting a video of an interview I undertook recently with the London-based activists of Team Assange, who have a primary focus on the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but are also concerned with many other issues of social justice in the UK and around the world.

The interview came about after I met some of those involved with Team Assange in Parliament Square as part of the protests that followed the heavy-handed and astonishingly insensitive behaviour of the police at a peaceful vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, and that also coincided with the second reading, in the House of Commons, of the government’s horrible Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, with its intention of criminalising non-violent protest, and its assault on the rights of Gypsies and Travellers. For my recent articles on these topics, see The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent and Rise Up! How Protest Movements Define the Limits of Covid Lockdowns, and the Perils of Covid Denial.

My interview, with Alison Mason of Team Assange, starts 15 minutes into the one-hour programme, which also features an interview with Action4Assange activist Misty in Washington, D.C., and lasts for 20 minutes. I’ve posted it below, via YouTube, and I hope you have time to watch it, and will share it if you find it useful.

‘Kill the Bill’ and recent police violence in Bristol

Alison and I began by discussing the protests against the police’s treatment of women at the Sarah Everard vigil, and the ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in the days that followed, in which I explained that I hoped that the pressure we can exert on the government to try to prevent the bill being passed will make Priti Patel’s position untenable. I also explained how gratifying it was that the police’s actions at the Sarah Everard vigil had created a palpable sense of unease in Middle England.

Sadly, since then, there appears to have been a deeply cynical effort by the police in Bristol to manufacture a situation that justifies increased police powers, and provides cover for Priti Patel’s planned clampdown on peaceful protest. Last Sunday, police responded to a sit-down protest against the bill outside Bridewell police station in Bristol by deploying riot police, dogs and police horses, which led to police vehicles being set alight, and some of the police station’s windows being smashed.

The violence provided Priti Patel — who has particularly targeted protestors in Bristol since the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston last year — with the opportunity to condemn the protestors, and with the media widely reporting her comments in an uncritical light.

On Twitter, she wrote, “Thuggery and disorder by a minority will never be tolerated. Our police officers put themselves in harms way to protect us all.” Chief Superintendent Will White of Avon and Somerset police then claimed that “one officer suffered a broken arm and another suffered broken ribs” — claims that were later retracted when they were shown to be false — but since then, undeterred, the police have responded to two further protests, both peaceful, with unprovoked violence that has been genuinely shocking.

As local reporter Matty Edwards has explained, “On Tuesday, hundreds staged a sit-down protest outside City Hall. They wanted to highlight how the bill would target Travellers and van-dwelling communities. Following Sunday’s violence, the protesters said they were determined to make the demonstration peaceful. But riot police broke it up, battering protesters with their shields, batons and fists.”

And then, on Friday evening, police responded to a peaceful sit-down protest with even greater violence. As Matty Edwards described it, at around 10pm “police forcefully advanced into the sitting crowd, hitting them with riot shields and batons. My colleagues filmed protesters being struck repeatedly by riot shields and knocked to the ground.” He added, “Over the weekend, more videos have emerged of police violence from Friday night: a photographer being hit over the head by a riot shield while pushed up against a fence; a protester being pushed face-first into a concrete pillar; another lying on the ground being dragged and beaten with batons.”

In a video I saw, riot police were using the edges of their riot shields to attack protestors who had been knocked to the ground; a misuse of the shields that also, very evidently, constituted unprovoked assaults that would appear to be criminal behaviour.

No one should be in any doubt that something genuinely disturbing is happening in Bristol, where last year’s toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston enraged Priti Patel so much that she included a ten-year prison sentence for anyone thinking of doing it again in her wretched bill. It is hard not to see Patel’s cold, divisive hand behind the Bristol police’s recent aggression, and I hope that as many of us as possible will be on the streets next Saturday, April 3, for ‘Kill the Bill’ protests across the country.

Guantánamo and Julian Assange

To return to my interview with Alison Mason, after discussing protest for around ten minutes, at 24:45 we turned our attention to Guantánamo, and I provided a brief summary of the prison’s disgraceful history, and voiced the hope that there will be progress towards its closure under President Biden. It is, of course, a profound disgrace that, after 19 years, the US is still holding 40 men at Guantánamo, mostly without charge or trial.

Holding anyone indefinitely without charge or trial is unacceptable in any country that claims to respect the rule of law, but  Guantánamo has now been open for so long that a particular aspect of its lawlessness is now becoming what I hope will be a useful campaigning argument: that if — with the exception of the handful of men charged in connection with 9/11 and other acts of terrorism — any of the other men held had been charged with a crime and convicted, they would, by now, have already served their sentence. At Guantánamo, however, where spectral allegations of wrongdoing are never subjected to the rigours of any kind of due process, and all the imprisonments are fundamentally political rather than lawful, it remains possible that men who were never of any real significance — or were cases of mistaken identity — will remain imprisoned until their deaths unless President Biden decides to do something about it.

My mention of mistaken identity prompted Alison to mention Khaled El-Masri, the German citizen who was mistaken for another man with the same name, who was then rendered to a CIA “black site” and tortured, until the US authorities realized what they had done, and released him in Albania, leaving him to find his own way back to Germany.

El-Masri’s story fed into our last discussion, starting at 29:30, about Julian Assange’s extradition hearing, last autumn, at which Khaled El-Masri was prevented from being a witness by the prosecutors, a situation that I also found myself in as I tried to tell the court why the release of the classified military files from Guantánamo, first leaked by Chelsea Manning, and on whose release I worked with WikiLeaks as a media partner, had been so significant.

I discussed how the treatment of Julian, like Guantánamo, reflects the terrorism-related hysteria that has warped notions of justice over the last 20 years, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to mention the largely unknown cases of imprisonment without charge or trial in the UK, on the basis of secret evidence, under Tony Blair, in which a secret court, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) existed, in which barristers for the men held were able to attend secret sessions, but were then prohibited from discussing anything that had taken place with the men they were supposed to be representing.

At the end of our interview, I expressed my disappointment that President Biden has not dropped the extradition request for Julian, following the logic of President Obama, who concluded that prosecuting him would be too damaging to press freedom, but I also noted how I expected the appeal to fail, because I cannot see how the US government can do anything to address Judge Baraitser’s concerns for Julian’s mental state if imprisoned in a maximum-security prison in the US, concerns that, in January, to everyone’’s surprise, led to her turning down the extradition request — although Julian remains imprisoned in Belmarsh until the appeal process is complete.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, featuring the video of my recent interview with the London-based activists of Team Assange, about the new UK police bill, and the threat it poses to the right to protest, and to the lives of Gypsies and Travellers. We also discussed Guantanamo and the case of Julian Assange.

    In the text accompanying the video, I also include an update about genuinely shocking incidents of police violence in Bristol over the last week in response to protests about the bill, involving riot police, horses and dogs. These are genuinely troubling developments that should encourage as many of us as possible to protest against the bill this coming Saturday, in demonstrations that are taking place across the country.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Powerful warnings about the dangerous drift towards authoritarianism from two former police chiefs, as reported by the Guardian.

    Michael Barton, the chief constable of Durham until 2019, said, “I’m not in favour of even more restrictive measures. Surely after an historically unprecedented year-long curfew, in peacetime, the government could show some common sense and gratitude for such incredible forbearance to allow civil liberties to once again flourish. Or are they happy to be linked to the repressive regimes currently flexing their muscles via their police forces?”

    He added, “Fortunately, in the UK we are not a paramilitary-style police force. But these powers dangerously edge in that direction. Police chiefs will be seen as the arbiters of what is and is not allowed when it comes to protest. Democracies thrive on protest. This government has condemned what has happened in the Ukraine but those same protesters would fall foul of our new laws.”

    He also said, “I don’t see anything wrong with the current laws. Protests sometimes means people are inconvenienced.”

    Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police and former vice-chair of the police chiefs’ body, said of the bill’s assault on peaceful protest, “It is short-term and politically driven. It is a reaction to what happened with Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter [protests], in the same way Ricky Tomlinson was a reaction to the industrial strife of the 1970s. Policing was drawn into a particular stance and pose.”

    He added, “It reminds me of the miners’ strike when policing was mobilised for a political reason. It took policing a long time to recover. Policing should be very careful not to be drawn into the situation of being arbiters of which protests can go ahead, and become stuck in the middle. The policing of protest can cause long-term damage.”

    Fahy also said, “Policing is not always about the majority, sometimes it is about protecting rights of the minority. I’m not sure a mature democracy should have the police deciding which protests should go ahead.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/28/protest-laws-move-uk-towards-paramilitary-policing-says-former-chief

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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