On October 21, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court in his fight against extradition to the United States. Assange has been charged with 17 counts of Espionage in the U.S., where he faces 175 years in prison related to WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication concerning US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Diplomatic Cables and Guantanamo Bay.
At the case management hearing, the Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied Assange’s legal team’s request for a trial extension, and refused to allow a preliminary hearing to hear arguments that the extradition request was prohibited on the grounds that the prosecution and charges against him are politically motivated. Assange’s lawyer described this as a "political attempt to signal to journalists the consequences of publishing information" and "legally unprecedented move".
After the hearing, renowned filmmaker John Pilger spoke on the plight of his fellow journalist who is imprisoned for journalism:
"This extradition is unlawful. And there is no question about that because …there is one very explicit statute in this treaty that says no one could be extradited if they are charged with a political offense. This under law is a political offense what the US wanted [him] for. So the whole thing should be thrown out of court and Julian [should be] walking out."
The US government’s prosecution of Assange is and always has been politically motivated. He is not in jail for skipping bail. He is not in jail for alleged sexual misconduct. He is there for exposing the war crimes of the US empire. By publishing the documents that are verified to be authentic, Assange through his work with WikiLeaks provided the public with vital evidence of governments’ wrongdoing. For this, he has become a world famous political prisoner.
He has now been made defenseless under the Espionage Act of 1917. This outdated US federal law, created after World War I for wartime prosecutions has now been weaponized by the state to punish whistleblowers and even journalists. Assange, just as any others who are charged under this law, will not be able to have public interest defense and receive a fair trial.
Sign of torture
Monday’s judicial hearing made state’s outlandish political retaliation against this multi-award winning journalist open to the public. During the hearing, Assange, who spends most of his time in complete isolation in London’s Belmarsh Prison mentally struggled to state his name and date of birth. When the judge asked him if he understood the court proceeding, he responded saying, "I can’t think properly".
Clinical psychologist Lissa Johnson noted this display of disorientation as a sign of the effect on him from prolonged solitary confinement. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, who has been deeply concerned about the treatment of Assange and his health, has been warning the public that Assange has been subjected to psychological torture.
Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan shared his observation from attending the hearing. After describing how shocked he was to see his friend’s severe loss of weight and physical deterioration, Murray noted how "his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration." He then went on to describe how he has been skeptical of those who claimed Assange’s treatment amounted to torture, but after seeing the hearing changed his mind completely and now agrees that Assange is exhibiting the symptoms of a torture victim.
Crimes of empire
Despite his waning mental condition highlighted by the mainstream media, Assange is aware of what has been done to him and was clear about the ill treatment he has been subjected to. In a court where he was once again denied his basic rights and his justice was obstructed, Assange gathered the strength to speak his truth in his fight against extradition:
"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. It’s very difficult where I am to do anything but these people have unlimited resources…They are saying journalists and whistleblowers are enemies of the people. They have unfair advantages dealing with documents. They [know] the interior of my life with my psychologist. They steal my children’s DNA. This is not equitable what is happening here."
Truth of the matter is Assange’s extradition case is not about conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with his source, former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning or about violating the Espionage Act by seeking out classified information. This is all about crimes of the empire – their unaccounted historic human rights abuses, torture and oppression, that have been now enacted against Assange and his organization.
The US government’s assault on WikiLeaks has been carried out under the radar since as early as 2008, when US intelligence designated the whistleblowing site as an information security threat to the US army. It escalated in 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks published the trove of US classified military records of the Afghan War and the Iraq War Logs.
This unchecked power expanded, creating a long, dreadful persecution of Assange. Before he was put into a maximum-security prison, being treated worse than a murderer as indicated by UN rulings, Assange had been arbitrarily detained without charge. First he was in prison, then kept under house arrest and lived as a refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. For nearly a decade, despite the UN repeatedly issuing statements demanding the UK to honor its international obligations and allow Assange to leave the embassy without fear of arrest and extradition, the UK government, kept him in confinement, depriving him of medical care and sunlight.
In particular, during the last year of his stay in the Embassy, this already untenable situation got significantly worse. Pressured by the US, Ecuador’s new President, Lenin Moreno put Assange in isolation by cutting off his access to the Internet, denying him phone calls and visitors, which Human Rights Watch general counsel described as being similar to solitary confinement.
Then came the final straw. Ecuador illegally terminated Assange’s political asylum and confiscated his belongings, including legal papers and medical records from his time living in the embassy. Along with his entire legal defense being handed over to the US authorities, he has been denied the basic tools and access to lawyers, being made unable to prepare his defense.
Recently, it came to light that the CIA had been directly ordering a Spanish security company that was supposed to protect Ecuador’s Embassy to spy on Assange. Surveillance was carried out with video and audio for 24 hours, 7 days a week, monitoring privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers and even spying on the women’s bathroom.
In defense of truth
By enduring this Western governments coordinated brutal persecution, Assange, if not broken, was weakened. Here, a man who always spoke truth to power and courageously defended those who are oppressed, is now becoming unable to use his voice to defend himself any longer.
Seeing his friend, who is the greatest journalist of this century suffer from travesty of justice, being tortured to death by the state, Murray laments, letting people know what is at stake:
"I had been even more skeptical of those who claimed, as a senior member of his legal team did to me on Sunday night, that they were worried that Julian might not live to the end of the extradition process. I now find myself not only believing it, but haunted by the thought."
The judicial system has become deaf to cries of injustice and the corporate media has been engaged in obfuscation and blackout, covering up the crimes of empire. While Assange is silenced, being brutally persecuted, the public has become his last line of defense.
Around the globe, solidarity is emerging with those who are able to respond to the plea of truth calling on the conscience of ordinary people. Outside of the court, around 200 demonstrators gathered in support of his freedom. In a statement issued after the hearing, German Member of Parliament Heike Hänsel issued a statement urging the British government and the EU to stop bowing to US interests and instead reject this extraterritorial political persecution.
In his home country Australia, where the government has been silent and has not done anything to protect its own citizen, there have been growing demands for the Australian government to intervene to save Assange’s life. A day after the hearing, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives formally approved the Parliamentary Group that is set up to work toward bringing Assange back home to Australia.
Assange’s first full extradition hearing is set for February. Until we all are able to hear the truth that was brought out at the hearing on Monday, and break the silence to let that truth be told, Assange remains unfree, and with him the free press is locked behind bars. If a concerned public fails to stand up for his freedom now, journalism indeed will soon become a crime. We now must speak for whistleblowers and publishers, those courageous among us who have risked their lives, and given up everything in order to defend our right to free speech. We must act now with courage for this could be the moment before democracy takes its last breath.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency, and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine.