I visited Julian Assange in prison, what can you do?
The last time I saw Julian Assange, exactly one year ago, when he was still at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, I didn’t know yet that the next time I would see him would be in a high-security prison.
I didn’t visit as a journalist, as a lawyer, nor as a family member – I came as a friend.
But not only as a friend – I’ve also visited Julian as a member and one of the co-founders of DiEM25, the movement that has continuously stressed that the freedom of Julian Assange is a European issue, a precedent that might have dire consequences for democracy and freedom of the press in Europe. And of course – his life.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t prepared for a prison visit. I wasn’t prepared because I didn’t know if the visit will take place at all up until the very last moment. But more importantly, I simply couldn’t: how can you possibly be prepared for visiting a friend in prison?
It’s not that those of us who had previously visited Julian at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London were not prepared for a situation like this. But no one could have quite imagined that it would be as brutal as it actually was. That he would be dragged out of the Embassy, after his asylum was revoked as if he was a war criminal and not an arbitrarly detained publisher as the UN has ruled in 2015 and UN officials repeated multiple times.
Then Ecuador handed over all his belongings, including legal notes and two manuscripts, to the United States. Julian ended up in Belmarsh prison where he served his bail sentence until September 22, after which he’s been kept there solely for the purpose of the extradition to the US. His prison conditions have not changed, he is still basically in solitary confinement, 23 hours in his cell, facing extradition to the US where he’s charged for espionage and 175 years in prison sentence.
The last time I met him (and CIA will probably know the exact date) was in November 2018. The only thing I can still recall now is that it must have been November, because there was an exhibition of Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” on display in London for the first time – actually just a few corners away from Knightsbridge.
It was a rather strange synchronicity, a sort of temporal and spatial “return of the repressed”, namely, a fatal reminder that Julian might end up in prison too. Gramsci, who was one of the greatest political minds of the 20th century was imprisoned by the Italian Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in 1926, and compiled the notebooks while he was in prison, in 33 volumes, between 1929 and 1935. These are an important contribution to 20th century political theory and philosophy, including pertinent insights into the architectures of power, hegemony, institutions, state, organisation.
As I was visiting Julian in the Embassy last November, I couldn’t get rid of the thought that he is, just like Gramsci, a political prisoner whose thoughts about the complex issues and challenges of the early 21st century were of great value for the cognitive mapping of our crazy world.
Whether he was thinking or speaking about the role of institutions and the importance of transparency, about technology or geopolitics, Julian was always not only the best informed one but also someone who’s ability to “zoom out”, to grasp and understand the “big picture”, connecting all the dots (and facts) has certainly led to a better understanding of today’s world. From various military interventions to military coups, from war crimes to human rights violations.
Clearly, from the beginning of his imprisonment, Assange, just like Gramsci, decided that his struggle will not end there. But unlike Gramsci, Julian is still not able to write prison notebooks, and we hope he won’t be writing them in prison. But that depends also on you.
As I was standing in the waiting room of the prison, I looked at the seated families that gathered and waited for their numbers to be called in, to finally meet their beloved ones.
I don’t know them, but I could have seen their worried faces, even faces of small children, who were passing by the guards with control dogs in between the waiting room and meeting room – probably with similar anxieties and feelings as myself.
Yet, I was not visiting a criminal. Of that I was sure. The real criminals were those whose war crimes he, Julian Assange, exposed and who want him in an even worse high-security prison than this one, in the United States of Donald Trump. It is sufficient to watch “Collateral Murder” again, in order to understand why they want him extradited. Or why they (some familiar faces) even thought of assassinating Assange:
I visited Belmarsh prison with Julian’s father, John Shipton, a humble, committed and determined man, whose graceful gestures and even-tempered voice led me through the prison in a protective way as if it wasn’t him who is in a more difficult situation than myself.
With his thoughtfulness, he reminds me of Julian. And it must be hard for him, him who moved to England to be close to his son, him who travels across Europe to meet with lawyers and supporters, but he was strong. And as we were standing there, a wife of a prisoner came up to John to say her husband supports Julian and that the isolation they are putting him through-departing him from other prisoners is inhumane.
When we finally entered the room and I came closer to the table where Julian was sitting, he stood up and we immediately and spontaneously hugged. And it was the strongest hug we have ever exchanged. For apparent reasons. Last time we saw each other he was at the Ecuadorian Embassy, now he was in a high-security prison.
Last time we talked he still had an uncertain future, this time it was quite clear – unless he is freed, he might die in prison, to repeat the words of his father John Shipton, and Nils Melzner UN Special Rapporteur on Torture who recently warned that Julian’s life is now at risk. Everyone should read what Craig Murray has written about in “Assange in Court“. So obviously most of our conversation – surveilled all the time, of course – pertained to his situation and the danger he is facing.
Even though he has visibly suffered since the last time saw each other, even though he has lost 15 kilos in weight, and even though his life might be at risk, Julian was fully focused. Perhaps he was pausing more than usual, taking more time to gather his thoughts, sometimes struggling, visibly shaken by difficult prison conditions, but at the same time he used his usual dark humor, unexpected analogies and abstract thought. We talked about how his case was not just about him – although it is clearly about his life – how it is about human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and last but not least, democracy.
He was really glad to hear about all the actions and events organised by his supporters across the world, from the WE ARE MILLIONS exhibitions across Europe to the Australian endeavours to bring Julian home. Just later that day, John and I joined a protest, in front of the UK Home Office where hundreds of people gathered for the concert by rappers M.I.A. and Lowkey.
I know how much Julian loved M.I.A.’s song “Paper Planes” and I wished he could have been there. In the Embassy, even if the situation was far from ideal (let’s never forget, he was in “arbitrary detention”), we would listen to music from time to time. Besides M.I.A., there was also Rage Against the Machine, so earlier that day in prison I mentioned that RATM is reuniting – and he smiled.
As I was going to Belmarsh prison I was thinking whether this information was relevant at all, should I mention it? It seemed totally irrelevant having in mind the short time we would have together during the visit, but at the same time, these are the kind of news that can make someone smile. Even for a brief moment.
Once you exit the high-security prison, once you are suddenly back “outside”, back to “your normal life”, while he is still “inside” waiting for a letter or another short visit, most of his time completely alone in his cell, what you’ve just been through hits you like a belated arrow: why is Julian not able to exit these doors? Why is he not able to spend time with his family and friends, to recover from the 10 years of persecution? Why is he not free to go to a concert by Rage Against the Machine? Why is he not teaching at a UK University, definitely a better way of using his talents, instead of suffering in prison? And so many other questions.
That short moment of happiness was perhaps a message in a bottle from a better – and still possible – future, but what about the rest of the 23 hours in his solitary cell? He said I should tell you that he uses his time in a cell to walk and think, around 10-15 km each day, imagining he is walking across Europe.
He reads the letters, although they are still coming in with much delay. And he is grateful to everyone. And even in this difficult situation, he said it is not just about him, it is about the very essence of democracy.
But it is also about him. It is about his life.
So what can you do?
Don’t wait, do whatever you can. And do it now.
Write him a letter about the “outside” world (with facts about relevant events and how concretely you are helping him), force your MPs to take action and ask your political parties what they are doing to protect freedom of the press and prevent the extradition of Julian Assange, organise and join protests; write to NGOs and individuals who deal with human rights and press freedom and ask them what they are doing to free Julian; donate to his defense fund and make sure to join DiEM25 as we will continue to stand with our member Julian Assange and fight until he is free.
Together, we can win!
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