The slow-motion crucifixion of Julian Assange

The slow-motion crucifixion of Julian Assange

FOR THE PAST five years I’ve been reporting on what Catholic Worker and Assange supporter Ciaron O’Reilly refers to as the ‘slow-motion crucifixion of Julian Assange’. My first interview in 2014 was with Assange’s father, John Shipton, on the second anniversary of his flight to the Ecuadorian Embassy. Julian’s birthday was approaching and Shipton was organising a care package for his son. The package included a cat, to give Julian companionship in the isolation of his closely-guarded diplomatic sanctuary. Mr Shipton spoke with understandable bitterness about the Obama Administration’s mistreatment of his son. He told me: They have the record for hounding and imprisoning more whistle-blowers than all other administrations combined ... They are determined to put the lives of anybody who reveals their misdeeds in limbo. They are cruel people, actually. They do things like sentencing people to three life terms in prison. They attempt to remove all hope. They are cruel. Prophetic words, as it has turned out: recently the U.S. has revealed they will seek to imprison Julian Assange for 175 years. Assange’s latest limbo is Belmarsh Prison, described as Britain’s toughest prison. Home to many of Britain’s most notorious criminals and terrorists, it is known locally as England’s Guantanamo Bay and “Hellmarsh Prison”. Assange is kept in his cell 23 hours per day with half an hour in the recreation yard and half an hour to compete with other prisoners to make phone calls, making his attempts to prepare a defence extremely difficult. Recently, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Nils Melzer, visited Mr Assange with a psychiatrist. He described Assange’s treatment over the past eight years by the U.S. and its allies – Britain, Australia, Sweden – as amounting to torture and in violation of UN Conventions. The UN had previously released a report describing Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy as “arbitrary detention” but the UK Government ignored this. Professor Melzer said he worried that Assange’s health had deteriorated to the point he was no longer able to stand trial and participate in court hearings. “Secondly, I must say I’m appalled at the consistent, sustained, concerted abuse this man has been exposed to at the hands of the democratic states over a period of almost a decade,” said Professor Melzer, who accused these states of judicial harassment of Assange. The UN Special Rapporteur said he was gravely alarmed at the risks Mr Assange would be exposed to if extradited to the United States. Those risks included a “politicised show-trial” in violation of fundamental human rights. Professor Melzer, at any rate, had more to say: If there are criminal offences that he is alleged to have committed, by all means he needs to respond to that in a court of law. But then he needs to be given adequate means to prepare his defence. He cannot be under the constant threat of being extradited to the United States where he is not going to receive a fair trial. Assange’s extradition hearing was held in June in Westminster Magistrates' Court. In addition to the five years Assange was facing for hacking charges, the U.S. filed seventeen new charges under the Espionage Act for soliciting and publishing classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under these seventeen new charges, Assange faces an additional 170 years in prison. Assange repeatedly argued that the reason he took flight to the Ecuadorian Embassy was because the U.S. was preparing such charges. He has been vindicated: the U.S. has hidden the charges for eight years. Although numerous publications in the U.S. and the rest of the world also published these documents, U.S. journalists are protected from such prosecution. This is because, under U.S. law, their work is deemed in the public interest. Therefore, the U.S. State has argued that Assange, who won Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Walkley Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, is not a journalist. As well as finally revealing what the charges against Assange actually were, the hearing also set a date for the extradition trial, which will be no earlier than February 2020. Among the eighty people packed into the small courtroom were Assange supporters John Pilger and Ciaron O’Reilly. O'Reilly was reminded of the fate of another liberator two thousand years before. Julian Assange was too sick to attend and appeared via a video link from the prison hospital. He looked very weak, said O’Reilly. He has been unable to prepare for any court appearance, let alone have access to the books he needs, or a computer, or a law library, in jail. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that the Australian Government was providing consular assistance to Julian Assange, but he wouldn’t be given any “special treatment”. O’Reilly dismissed this as bureaucratic newspeak. He said: The Australian Government hasn’t played any proactive role in advocating for his human rights: access to due process and free speech as a journalist. There are huge issues involved in charging any journalist under the Espionage Act as even the Washington Post and the New York Times and Bob Carr are beginning to realise. This could be the end of journalism in relation to the military. Australia needs to lift its game and defend the human rights of its citizen Julian Assange. Professor Melzer described the judicial harassment that Assange has been subjected to as torture. After eight years, the legal torture of Julian Assange continues. The next episode in this “slow-motion crucifixion” is Assange’s extradition trial, due in eight months. In the meantime, Julian Assange rots away in Britain’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh Prison, contemplating the 170 years in prison he faces for seventeen crimes of journalism. Just after Assange's arrest, his father John Shipton told me, somewhat elegiacally: “Journalists are an absolute necessity, WikiLeaks is a necessity, Julian is a necessity. I would just like to see the Australian government act positively to ensure that Julian is not forcefully dragooned to an American oubliette; to bring him home to his family, to his friends.”
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