British prisoner Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is standing trial at the Old Bailey this week. He faces deportation to the US and a 175-year sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.
If he is deported, he will be tried before a secretly prepared court in eastern Virginia. This US court is close to the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, which means the jury will be drawn overwhelmingly from members of the American military and espionage community.
Currently in Belmarsh maximum-security prison without trial, Assange has already been deprived of his liberty for over nine years.
The US has charged Julian Assange with unspecified offences — but this charge only came to light because of an inadvertent “copy and paste error” by the American justice department. The case was supposed to have been kept secret, because the US feared the “sophistication of the defendant”.
His ‘crime’, in the eyes of the US, is exposing war crimes, such as the cold-blooded killing of Iraqi civilians by helicopter gunship, captured on film.
152 lawyers and 15 legal associations have signed an open letter demanding Assange’s “right to a fair trial before the UK courts”. The signatories include the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Association of American Lawyers. The lawyers say: “Mr. Assange has been denied time and facilities to prepare his defence in violation of the principle of equality of arms which is inherent to the presumption of innocence and the rule of law.”
The ex-National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance said: “One of the most dangerous features of the Assange case is the idea that the US can seek to extradite any person, anywhere in the world, if they upset US interests. This extraterritorial reach is contrary to the rule of law and a dangerous attempt to undermine freedom of speech, a right all of us should cherish.”
The NUJ, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Frontiers, PEN and many other NGOs have called for the extradition proceedings to be halted immediately and for Assange to be released.
Presiding British judge Vanessa Baraitser’s record of extradition in deportation cases is 96%. She has consistently refused to address Assange’s mistreatment in Belmarsh — where he has been handcuffed multiple times, moved cells, and frequently strip-searched. She refused Assange’s request for emergency bail during the lockdown, and isolated him from his lawyers in court.
At the Old Bailey this week, NGOs have been denied access to the court, as has the executive director of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hraffsson.
Vanessa Baraitser is overseen by the Chief Magistrate and Senior District Judge for England and Wales, Lady Emma Arbuthnot, who previously presided over the case herself. During that period, Lady Arbuthnot rejected the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s condemnation of Assange’s virtual imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he took refuge.
Arbuthnot also dismissed Assange’s request to have his charges for skipping bail dropped – charges based on an allegation of rape, which Sweden dropped for lack of evidence.
This rape allegation, designed to damage Assange’s reputation, was never actually lodged by the Swedish woman in question. She did not accuse Assange of rape, but her testimony was later doctored by the Swedish police without her involvement. According to UN Special Rapporteur, Nils Melzer, the Swedish police constructed the rape story.
Arbuthnot’s husband is Lord James Arbuthnot, an ex-Tory defence minister. He sat on the political council of the hard right Henry Jackson Society, and currently hosts and chairs events for the Society at the House of Lords. This summer the Society invited Mike Pompeo — who deems WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service” — to speak at its meeting in London. It also boasts Priti Patel, who will sign Assange’s extradition if the court rules against him, as one of its former political council members.
The Henry Jackson Society has issued several strongly anti-Assange statements. In 2016, it claimed he had “a long track record of stealing and distributing information, peddling conspiracy theories, and casting aspersions on the moral standing of western democratic governments.”
Former associate director, Douglas Murray, said WikiLeaks “illegally obtained, or stole as we used to call it, a whole set of government documents and published them with consequences which are still not fully understood… I think Mr Assange has been bonkers and paranoid for years, it’s part of his alleged political makeup, and indeed I would allege that of many of his supporters.”
Without mentioning her husband’s connection with the Henry Jackson Society, Lady Arbuthnot stepped aside from hearing Assange’s case herself because of a “perception of bias”, though she didn’t declare a conflict of interest in the case and hasn’t formally recused herself.
Not content with its own kangaroo court, the British establishment is now blocking critical reporting of its record of corruption and lies.
Declassified UK, a news website which has actively exposed the mistreatment of Assange, has been blacklisted by the Ministry of Defence and refused access to information for holding the government to account.
“All journalists and media organisations should be concerned about the MoD’s boycott of Declassified,” said its editor, Mark Curtis. “The MoD is sending a message — if you criticise us, we might blacklist you. If a public body demands that independent journalists be compliant to its wishes, it doesn’t believe in a free media at all. That is an exceedingly worrying sign and a major blow to journalism in the public interest.”
The blacklisting of Declassified UK has been criticised by the International Press Institute and the Council of Europe. Declassified UK is supported by the National Union of Journalists and Index on Censorship.
The Assange case and the Declassified blacklisting are part of the same clampdown on media reporting. First they came for WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, then they came for Declassified UK. If Assange is deported, who will be next for ‘legal’ rendition to the US?
Simon Korner is a professor and writer for the Socialist Correspondent.
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