Defending Assange 6: Britain’s bullshit

This is Part 6 in a series on Julian Assange’s legal case and trial-by-media:

  • Part 1 discussed the value of Wikileaks
  • Part 2 discussed the Obama administration’s secret legal action
  • Part 3 discussed the Swedish sexual assault case
  • Part 4 discussed the Russian conspiracy accusations
  • Part 5 discussed the Ecuadorian “bad houseguest” accusations

After Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the UK government initially threatened to storm the embassy to arrest him! Obviously they backed down, but the UK has continued to play a major role in detaining Assange.

Emails released under freedom of information suggest the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) took a special interest in the Assange case as early as 2011. One CPS email said: “Please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request.” Another advised: “it would not be prudent for the Swedish authorities to try to interview the defendant in the UK… I suggest you interview him only on his surrender to Sweden”. They added: “Suffice it to say I have been rather busy trying to outflank the defence and to spoil their plans.”

As the stalemate dragged on, the Brits pleaded with the Swedes to keep the case open. In 2012 the CPS wrote to Ny: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!” In 2013, Ny wrote that she was considering dropping the case due to costs, and the CPS wrote back: “I do not consider costs are a relevant factor in this matter… All we do is wait and see [and perhaps be eternally grateful that neither of us have to share a room in the embassy with him over Christmas!]” They even sent Sweden a link about the American case against Assange. Many other emails from the case have been deleted, so we will never know the full extent of the UK government’s mistreatment of Assange.

As the Swedish case threatened to peter out, in 2012 the British police created their own pretext to arrest Assange. They demanded that he surrender to a British police station, in line with his house arrest conditions. Assange refused on the basis that: “Under both international and domestic UK law asylum assessments take priority over extradition claims.”

Assange’s refusal to surrender was judged to be a breach of his house arrest conditions – specifically, the requirement that he report daily to a British police station. However, it can be legal to breach house arrest conditions if one has “reasonable cause”, and Assange did have reasonable cause. It is reasonable to seek asylum when you have a reasonable fear of persecution in another country. Also, the reason why a suspect must report to a police station is so that the police know where he is, and the police knew exactly where Assange was – in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Elsewhere the UK government has implicitly admitted their treatment of Assange has been unjust. In 2014 the UK reformed its Extradition Act to allow a judge to consider a less coercive alternative to extradition, and to assess whether the investigation has progressed far enough to require the suspect’s presence. Unfortunately for Assange, this new law does not apply retrospectively.

The British government refused Assange safe passage to a hospital for medical treatment, even as his health deteriorated. This was despite several doctors, including a specialist on indefinite detainees, reporting in 2015:

The term ‘social suffering’ which has a wider sphere of reference, provides a more accurate description of Mr Assange’s condition… Social suffering takes place in contexts of social and material deprivation; and thus more directly concerns the damage done to a person’s sense of dignity and self-worth when the field of possibilities before him is heavily circumscribed by structural conditions that offer no means of respite or escape… When experience with uncontrollable events gives rise to the expectation that events in the future will also elude control, disruptions in motivation, emotion and learning may ensue.

There is no possibility of Mr Assange’s exercising in the open air or direct sunlight in the Embassy. Mr. Assange reports that he has made numerous attempts… to access the open air, for example on the roof of the building adjacent to the Embassy, for an hour a day (the legal minimum for prisoners) without risking arrest, but says that British authorities have refused this possibility. One interviewee described this refusal as an attempt to “force him out by creating the most inhuman conditions possible, without dignity.” …

All of the interviewees made reference to the fact Mr Assange was becoming increasingly introverted. One put it in the following way: “He is an extremely sad person. He doesn’t laugh as he did. In the beginning he was more sociable. There are times when he seems to forget about eating.” …

Mr Assange reported to me that for several weeks he experienced being woken up in the middle of the night. At first he was not sure whether he had woken up because of an external sound or a nightmare… Embassy CCTV footage confirmed to Mr. Assange that the bang was external: “A group of about five Metropolitan Police officers stood outside the window of the room I was sleeping in. One officer pointed at the window. Another officer then took an object from his pocket and threw it at the window.” … the incident caused Mr. Assange to feel chronically insecure about going to sleep…

Mr. Assange suffers from chronic dental pain from a fractured tooth which, he comments, affects his ability to sleep and work. Mr. Assange reports that the broken tooth was initially fractured when he was in the SCU at Wandsworth Prison in December 2010. Mr. Assange showed me contemporaneous Wandsworth prison reports regarding Mr. Assange’s receiving the attention of a dentist after a hard object has broken his upper first premolar. (Mr. Assange reports that the piece of fractured tooth disappeared from Mr. Assange’s cell while he was in the showers; immediately after Mr. Assange complained to CSU staff about the object in his food). Mr. Assange says that the episode not only caused physical pain and distress, but also, in conjunction with the segregation, caused him to feel targeted and persecuted. A series of dental complications have resulted from the fracture…

His inability to access proper medical care and assessment – without placing himself into the hands of the authorities – transforms each physical complaint no matter how simple into something that could have catastrophic consequences either for his health or his liberty.

It was difficult for doctors to assess Assange’s mental health because he rightly feared such information would be used against him. However they noted he was at risk of:

Stress and anxiety triggered by: a) uncertainty of the situation; b) Indefinite nature of the situation; c) feelings of being “at war” / targeted and persecuted / subjected to a psychological harassment campaign; d) the difficult conditions of the confinement; e) hostile media

Later that year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Assange was being “arbitrarily detained” without charge and “with no predictability as to whether and when a formal process of any judicial dealing would commence”. They noted that “Mr Assange had been denied… the opportunity to defend himself against the allegations” and “the duration of such detention is ipso facto incompatible with the presumption of innocence”. Though aware the UK had its own arrest warrant for breaking house arrest conditions, the UN called for the UK as well as Sweden to “ensure the right of free movement of Mr. Assange”.

The British Foreign Office responded by falsely claiming that the UN WGAD are laypersons and not lawyers! The UK is not only violating international law, but denying its very existence. The Guardian likewise ridiculed the UN in an editorial and several columns, insisting the detention could not be arbitrary because it was Assange’s fault for choosing to evade the sexual assault investigation.

When Sweden dropped its case in 2017, the British government reaffirmed it still wanted to arrest Assange for his alleged violation of house arrest conditions in that now-dropped investigation. Again, Assange said he was willing to be arrested over the issue if the British government promised not to extradite him to the US, but again of course he received no such assurance. Assange tried the defence that he had had “reasonable grounds” to not surrender, and that he had already suffered enough punishment for it.

The British judge who ruled on the case was Lady Emma Arbuthnot, the wife of former Defence Minister James Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot rejected Assange’s appeal: “absent any evidence from Mr Assange on oath, I do not find that Mr Assange’s fears were reasonable.” She dismissed the UN ruling because “he can leave the embassy whenever he wishes”. She dismissed the surviving CPS emails because “I cannot determine from the extracts of correspondence whether the lawyer in the extradition unit acted inappropriately.” She dismissed the medical considerations because the embassy has a balcony and “Mr Assange is fortunately in relatively good health.” And she claimed Assange “appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law”, a talking point recently repeated by hordes of politicians and journalists.

But the UN again backed Assange:

The only ground remaining for Mr. Assange’s continued deprivation of liberty is a bail violation in the UK, which is, objectively, a minor offense that cannot post facto justify the more than 6 years confinement that he has been subjected to since he sought asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador. Mr. Assange should be able to exercise his right to freedom of movement in an unhindered manner, in accordance with the human rights conventions the UK has ratified.

The UK finally dropped all pretense when they arrested Assange three weeks ago, revealing they do have an extradition request from the United States after all! This is despite a UK government initiative having claimed just days earlier:

The UK together with Canada has decided that democratic countries need to stand together to make it an international taboo of the highest order to murder, arrest, or detain journalists just for doing their job.

The website Media Lens has compiled many instances of mainstream journalists expressing extremely anti-Assange sentiments in reaction to his arrest. Here are some examples (click the link for citations):

  • “Assange supporters . Cunt soup babbling about on press freedom.”
  • “Julian Assange is the architect of his own downfall. Bullish and grandiose yet plagued by paranoia, the WikiLeaks boss is his own worst enemy.”
  • “Most of those who still support Assange are hard-right nationalists – with many seeing him as a supporter of the style of politics of both Trump and Vladimir Putin.”
  • “Assange, once beloved for leaking the secrets of global governments, has essentially been reduced to a grumpy, stroppy teenager. He never left his room, thought he was the best thing since sliced bread and had his internet taken away when he was naughty. His arrest ended a seven-year stint in the embassy, which he chose. He didn’t have to stay there.”
  • “For me, however, the scene brought back memories of Saddam Hussein emerging from his spider hole in Operation Red Dawn… His dishevelment had more to do with his questionable personal hygiene than his living conditions.”
  • “Assange inside his fetid lair: Revealed, the full squalid horror that drove embassy staff to finally kick him out”
  • “Julian Assange has done much harm to American interests over the last decade, and on Thursday the WikiLeaks founder moved a large step closer to accountability in a U.S. court.”

Some mainstream voices did defend Assange’s right to publish, but unfortunately even most of them tend to throw in several caveats about Assange being an asshole or hacker or possible rapist. I am reluctant to concede even those caveats, because I am unconvinced they are true and they help fuel the propaganda case against Assange.

Within hours of arrest Assange was brought before a judge, who swiftly found him guilty of having failed to surrender in 2012. The judge rejected the argument that Lady Arbuthnot had a conflict of interests, saying it was “improper… to ruin the reputation of a senior and able judge in front of the press” and “his assertion that he has not had a fair hearing is laughable.” The judge lamented how much it had cost the British police to guard the Ecuadorian embassy for seven years, calling Assange a “narcissist” who should “get over to the US” and “get on with your life”. He considered the crime so serious that he sent Assange to a higher court for sentencing.

The UK is holding Assange in the high-security Belmarsh Prison. Alarmingly, the BBC once described Belmarsh as “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay”, albeit only in a brief period after 9/11 when the prison was used to detain foreigners without charge, before that was ruled unconstitutional. A recent inspection found it still contains a “prison within a prison” with an unexplained purpose. On 21 April, ten days after arrest, Assange’s mother claimed on Twitter that he was not being allowed any visitors including lawyers. Fortunately, several days later he did get access to his lawyers and received the planned UN visit.

Yesterday Assange’s sentence was handed down. As mitigation he repeated the arguments that the US torture of Manning was a nearly-reasonable excuse to not surrender, that he had already suffered enough punishment for his choice, and that he had offered to be interviewed in the embassy. Yet again these arguments were rejected, and Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment, almost the highest possible sentence. Wikileaks contrasted this with another recent case:

As I write this, Assange is facing a hearing on extradition to the United States. Assange has been proven right in his fear that this was the real agenda all along. Now that all the pretexts have run their course, we can finally see the true threat to Assange.

In Part 7, I will examine the Trump administration’s legal excuses to indict and extradite Assange.

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