The curious case of Julian Assange
“Curious eyes never run dry” reads Julian Assange’s famous message to former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. But will the journalists’ well of information run dry in case he is extradited to the United States?
We are now in the final week of Julian Assange’s extradition hearings at the Old Bailey criminal court in London. The US Justice Department interprets “curious eyers never run dry” as Assange’s encouragement to further steal intelligence, and therefore wants to see him being flown to the US.
Assange’s no-longer-secret family, human right watchdogs, artists like Ai Weiwei or Vivienne Westwood, a long list of politicians including former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, and countless journalists worldwide all oppose the extradition. They fear this would have human rights implications and have a chilling effect on media freedom.
“I don’t think that we can trust that he would receive a fair trial within the United States,” Markéta Gregorová, member of the Czech Pirate Party and elected Member of the European Parliament, told CyberNews.com. She’s been closely following Assange’s case, and the Czech Pirate Party is among other organizations in Europe and the world, demanding to “stop the inhumane treatment of Julian Assange.”
At the beginning of the ongoing hearings, Gregorova was granted access to observe it, but finally together with around 40 other international observers was denied access to the court’s video service. She had to dial-in at 9 am, when the hearing started, and wasn’t able to. Only in the afternoon did the observers receive an email from the court briefly explaining why they were not able to join.
Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange in the US are seen as a “hostile intelligence service” (Mike Pompeo), and the disclosure of around 750,000 classified documents is “strongly condemned” (Hillary Clinton). The US prosecutors stated that “Assange’s actions risked serious harm to United States national security.”
For journalists, the documents that Wikileaks released helped to work with primary sources at a scale never seen before, and with topics of public interest, such as the Iraq or Afgan war, encouraged whistleblowers to uncover the injustices worldwide. Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times were the first to dig into the huge pile of documents, and then newsrooms around the world followed their lead.
“If Julian Assange is silenced, others will also be gagged either directly or by the fear of persecution and prosecution,” stated Stefan Simanowitz from Amnesty International, an organization that has monitored trials from Guantanamo Bay to Bahrain, Ecuador to Turkey, but was denied a seat in Assange’s hearing at the Old Bailey.
Gregorova expressed concern about what the extradition could do for journalists and whistleblowers in case they see, hear, or encounter anything that is not in line with the democracy we are living in. Big personas, such as Donald Trump, are targeting big media, such as The New York Times, accusing them of purveying fake news. Will the extradition curb journalists' perseverance to uncover the wrongdoings of the most powerful?
“If he is extradited, it’s not yet a spit in the face of journalism and whistleblowers. However, in the case of Julian Assange in general, I think it is highly about the freedom of speech and freedom of journalism,” Gregorova said.
The high-security prison of Belmarsh has been Assange’s home for the last 16 months. He is jailed for having breached the UK bail conditions.
Ultimately, the UK will come up with the decision about whether to extradite Assange or not, but only after the presidential elections in the US. The American prosecutors accused Assange of encouraging Manning and other potential whistleblowers to steal classified information, as well as collaborating with Anonymous and LulzSec. Allegedly, he helped Manning to crack a password hash to a classified US Department of Defence computer.
Basically, this means that Assange might be prosecuted not as a journalist or even a spy, but as a hacker. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on each of 17 counts and a maximum of 5 years for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. So, 175 years in total.
“It is ironic that no one responsible for potential war crimes in Iraq & Afghanistan has been punished. Yet the publisher who exposed these potential crimes is the one in the dock,” said Stefan Simanowitz.
Marketa Gregorova was also among those who were denied access to observe the hearing in the UK. Around 40 international observers, including members of the parliament, and representatives from non-governmental institutions, had been denied remote access on the first day even though they received invitations to observe the hearing on the court’s cloud video platform.
The judge was concerned about maintaining the integrity of the court, and the possibility of any photos or screenshots leaking out.
“If the concern of the judge was that some photos, screenshots would leak out, they didn’t have to point out cameras anywhere. They could just let us listen in. Also, it is quite strange that they wouldn’t trust us as they already gave us permission based on our positions. If the court of the United Kingdom claims that they don’t trust me as a member of the European Parliament, that’s quite a strong statement,” Gregorova told CyberNews.
One of the reasons why Assange’s case is so closely monitored, according to her, is that it feels like he is being protected from international observers. They are eager to get more information not on the trial, but on Assange himself as there are concerns about his physical and mental health.
Stella Moris, a lawyer, fell in love with Julian Assange and gave birth to two of his children, Gabriel and Max, while he was in an asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This all came to light only in April 2020. She spoke up amid the fears that Assange’s life was on the brink as COVID-19 spread in the Belmarsh prison.
“Day 2 of medical evidence. Day 2 of the US tearing open the last bit of privacy Julian had, his and our private suffering and despair,” said Stella Moris, who has now joined the public fight for Julian Assange.
Michael Kopelman, the professor emeritus of Neuropsychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said that Assange is deprived of sleep, suffering from weight loss, and can even find ways to self-harm.
“I am as certain as a psychiatrist ever can be that, in the event of imminent extradition, Mr. Assange would indeed find a way to commit suicide,” he wrote in written submissions to the court.
The father of Gabriel and Max is repeatedly suffering from depression. It might be from spending 23 hours per day in his cell. Or the fact that his family had to hire an actor to visit him and pretend to be his firstborn’s father just so that Julian Assange could see his son regularly.
“You only do this if you think there’s a serious security risk,” Stella Moris told 60 Minutes Australia.
And what about the fact that the security company, allegedly associated with the CIA, had instructions to steal Gabriel’s DNA by collecting his diapers to shine a light on Assange’s secret family?
These are just crumbs of information. And that’s a lot to take in. A lot of famous people expressed their support for Julian Assange. Pamela Anderson visited him in the embassy, Vivienne Westwood held a spectacular protest outside the court. This week, artist Ai Weiwei joined Assange’s father John Shipton for a silent protest outside the Old Bailey.
The hearing is clearly of public interest, and therefore international and impartial observers are eager to listen to it but are not able to.
“There’s a fear that the case might be politicized. And if there’s such a fear, it’s even more important that observers and the general public know the most information so that these fears can be diminished,” Gregorova said.
She is ready to make statements, write open letters, or take other actions if necessary. But she’s cautious about it and for now, only monitors the hearing.
“I won’t talk about resolutions just yet. It’s not yet on the table. We don’t know yet what will happen. We don’t want to make a case of something that is going on fairly and simply if that’s the case. We don’t know it yet,” Gregorova told CyberNews.com.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe has already sided with Assange due to the potential impact on press freedom and concerns about ill-treatment.
“The indictment raises important questions about the protection of those that publish classified information in the public interest, including those that expose human rights violations,” the Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović.
She added to the considerations of The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer. He thinks that the detention conditions and the sentence in the United States would present a risk of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment of Julian Assange.
Nils Melzer pointed out that since Julian Assange’s arrest and incarceration in Belmarsh Prison, he’s been isolated, deprived of social contacts, and his environment made arbitrary and unpredictable.
“These are very serious forms of ill-treatment, but they are carried out in such a way that the individual components look almost harmless on their own. In combination and with increasing duration, however, they have a murderous effect,” Nils Meizer said.
Marketa Gregorova personally doesn’t think that Julian Assange should be extradited. “I don’t think that we can be really secure that he will be charged fairly, and it wouldn’t be a political process which I’m very afraid of, and therefore I don’t think that this should happen,” she told CyberNews.
She was at the Woolwich Crown Court in January when the United Kingdom started to negotiate if Julian Assange would be extradited to the United States.
The organization of the hearing back then was disorganized, she agrees. “In January, it was quite chaotic, but at least I thought that we are being allowed to observe it to some extent. This time I don’t think it’s because of chaos or lack of organization. They really purposefully blocked us from being there,” she said.
We’ll hear the decision on the extradition only after the presidential election in the US. Barack Obama didn’t open the case because he didn’t want to set a dangerous precedent on freedom of speech. But Donald Trump is in constant war with the media. What if he’s not re-elected? What implications could it have on Julian Assange’s case?