This is an edited version of a speech given at the launch of the Oxford Campaign for Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning on 7 November, by Maxine Walker.
It pre-dates Sweden finally dropping its nine year preliminary ‘investigation’. That decision came days after Nils Melzer made public his September letter to Sweden. His letter challenges the Sweden government and prosecution authorities in great detail – noting 50 perceived due process violations in their ‘investigation’ – and is a devastating critique of Swedish actions. Although the Swedish decision now allows campaigners to concentrate on the US extradition, Nils Melzer’s letter should be read and circulated widely because it provides overwhelming evidence that the Swedish investigation was a key part of the wider conspiracy to persecute, detain and torture Julian Assange.
On Monday at a protest concert outside the Home Office Julian Assange sent a message from his isolation in the depths of Belmarsh prison. He said: ‘This is not about me, it is about you.’ Those words carry a profound meaning.
The fight for Julian Assange is indeed a bigger fight: it is the fight for democracy and democratic rights or what remains of them, it is a fight for truth and a fight for peace. If we do not win this battle to free Julian Assange, to rescue him from the slow assassination we are witnessing there will be far-reaching political consequences for us all.
And his persecutors – the real criminals – are those who are fighting tooth and nail to cover up their crimes and to commit new ones. Fighting to control the story that the wider population in the US and Britain hears. Actually a fairy story: That we are a democracy, that we fight humanitarian wars, that we fight against dictators, that right is on our side. Given the scale of that lie -they indeed have lot to cover up: Their endless wars, their endless flooding of the world with lethal weaponry, their drone strikes, their war crimes, their renditions, their coups and regime change wars against democratically elected governments, their torture, their mass surveillance and their silencing of opposition. For what? For profit, for money, for oil, for greed, for the preservation of their power. So that the obscenely wealthy top layer of this society – the1% – can continue to live like kings and emperors at the expense of the world’s population and its fast declining natural resources.
It is this immensely powerful regime that Assange challenged and exposed when he released the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diary, the Guantanamo files, the Stratfor files and Vault 7. It was a unique spotlight thrown on the secret, shady, lethally violent and immoral world of our rulers. Crimes which have never been exposed and documented so precisely. Generally they remain either unknown or just normalised as in ‘I see we’ve just bombed Syria, pass the marmalade’. As Harold Pinter said of this normalisation of war crimes: “These crimes didn’t happen, they didn’t even happen when they were happening, they were of no interest, they didn’t matter.”
Julian Assange committed the greatest of sins in their eyes: he exposed not just the reality of their crimes but the systematic nature of them. These were not aberrations but the system itself. This, he showed is what they do, day in and day out.
And the system exposed by WikiLeaks and Assange and the immensely brave whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning continue today and every day.
On 18 September in Afghanistan – one of the poorest nations on earth – at least 30 farm labourers employed to pick pine nuts were killed by a US drone as they rested after their day’s work. There were 4000 people killed and injured in Afghanistan in the first half of this year in the endless war there which profits mainly the arms corporations, the merchants of death. What would people have thought about this if they could have seen these recent murders on film as they did with Collateral Murder video released by Julian Assange, showing civilians including children and journalists being murdered and injured by a US helicopter? It cut through the fairy tales.
Julian Assange’s case appears complex because of the years it has lasted and the carefully planned stages of persecution it has gone through and the multiple countries involved. But it is at its core simple: a journalist, a publisher, a campaigner for transparency, an exposer of war crimes who is being silenced, slowly assassinated and railroaded to his death in a US prison on phoney espionage charges carrying a 175 year sentence because he exposed the system. Those charges which label journalism as ‘spying’ rip up any remaining constitutional protections for journalists. They strike fear into those – and they are not numerous – who wish to investigate what governments are actually doing.
And since the espionage charges were brought we have seen raids on newspapers and journalists in Australia and France. Most significantly we have seen Max Blumenthal arrested, one of today’s finest journalists who has done more than most to expose US lies about its dirty war in Syria and about the US coup efforts in Venezuela. Last week he was arrested in a SWAT style raid on his home, shackled, taken to prison and locked up in freezing cages for 36 hours, refused a phone call to a lawyer and now faces a trumped up charge of assault. The arrest warrant called him ‘armed and dangerous’.
Now we see what Julian meant: ‘This isn’t about me, it’s about you’.
And the government of this country has joined – is a crucial partner in – the lawless campaign to destroy Julian Assange and stamp its boot on the truth.
Every time governments behave in a lawless manner, flouting international and national laws and conventions it corrodes and infects the state, its institutions, politicians and its civil society. Just look at the broken laws which litter the campaign against Julian Assange. There are so many that I will only concentrate on the main ones.
Firstly his detention in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Contrary to the lies of the media, he did not seek asylum there to escape from Swedish investigation. He has cooperated fully with that investigation . He was unwilling to leave the Embassy and return to Sweden because he knew and feared that Sweden would use its fast track procedures to extradite him to the USA. He asked for a guarantee that this would not happen That was refused. As we know now the Swedish prosecutors attempted to close the case in 2013 for the second time, but the British Crown Prosecution Service sent emails saying ‘Don’t get cold feet’ and discouraging them from travelling to the UK to interview him. The Swedish Appeal Court had to force its own prosecutors to come to London to question Julian in 2016. So for 9 long years that investigation of a case allegedly involving a broken condom, has been artificially kept going and has deeply poisoned the public attitude to Julian Assange. I call it the Swedish backstop – if all else fails, the US and the UK think they will always have Sweden. As will Assange’s other enemies who raise it every time a public figure is supportive of him. It often silences them. But already two prosecution services and their legal processes have been politicised and corrupted in the service of hunting down Assange.
For these reasons the UN ruled in 2015 that he had been arbitrarily detained in the Embassy, deprived of his, family, friends and work, with no access to the light, his health declining rapidly as he could have no medical or dental procedures which involved leaving the Embassy or he would be arrested. The UN told the UK that he should be freed and compensated.
The UK poured scorn on their judgement and ignored it, mounting an ever more oppressive police presence outside the Embassy. Thus was the UN ruling, with its moral, legal and political weight shrugged off. We are now in an era where the UN could simply be ridiculed and ignored.
In the period following Lenin Moreno’s election, Julian’s situation in the Embassy became ever more restrictive and oppressive. He was prevented from working, visitors were restricted, new rules were imposed on him. Finally, coincidentally one day after a high level US military visit to Ecuador “to discuss security cooperation”, his internet access and phone was removed. It became a prison. This was contrary to all laws on the treatment of those with asylum. In March, Ecuador was given a $4.2bn loan from the IMF. And voila in April Ecuador revoked his asylum and he was forcibly taken from the Embassy in handcuffs. This broke international law on asylum. Julian had sought and been granted asylum on the basis of his well-founded fear of extradition to and persecution by the USA. It is forbidden to hand over someone who has been granted asylum to the persecuting country or to another country which will send him there. It is a deeply unlawful act. But apparently now it just needs a little bribery to tear a gaping hole in agreements on asylum – often the last refuge for the persecuted. ‘It’s not about me, it’s about you.’
This was not the end of the lawlessness. Some time later all his possessions from the Embassy were handed over to the USA including his computers, legal papers and personal documents. His lawyers were barred from this process. There was no chain of custody as the law requires. Who knows how his belongings have been tampered with for use against him? And we have now discovered because of a legal complaint made to the Spanish authorities by Julian Assange’s lawyers, that UC Global, the security company being used in the Embassy were busy bugging Julian’s quarters with surveillance devices in fire extinguishers and picture frames and that he was filmed 24 hours day as were his visitors including his supporters, his doctors and most significantly his legal team. Those tapes and films were given to the CIA. This is a gross violation of legality, of laws on surveillance and of his ability and right to confer privately with his lawyers. It alone should prevent his extradition. But no. When the Spanish judge applied for a European Investigative Order so that he could take testimony from Assange in this case, it was refused by the British government. It is normally a routine request the refusal of which is unprecedented. Another branch of government corrupted and politicised.
An independent judiciary is held to be a cornerstone of liberal democracy. No such impartiality has been shown so far and I fear will not in the future. The same day he was taken from the Embassy on 11 April Julian was brought before Westminster Magistrates Court on a bail violation charge. Generally speaking these are minor matters and are dealt with by community service, fines or a short term of imprisonment. But the magistrate Michael Snow, anticipating already that there would be a harsh sentence, referred the sentencing to Southwark Crown Court and called him a narcissist. At Southwark, Judge Deborah Taylor rejecting all defence arguments said: “It is difficult to envisage a more serious example of this offence”. The maximum sentence for this offence is 12 months and she sentenced him to 50 weeks. She was incensed that the police operation outside the Embassy cost £16m – as though that was Julian’s doing. He was then imprisoned him in Belmarsh High Security prison. The UN Group on Arbitrary Detention called this sentence “disproportionate’ and a furtherance of his arbitrary detention. They also pointed out that the bail was for a Swedish investigation that had been closed in 2017. In the extradition hearings our favourite Judge was Lady Arbuthnot whose husband James Norwich Arbuthnot, is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, intimately connected with the British armed forces and security services, former chair of the Defence Select Committee, the body overseeing the Ministry of Defence and Britain’s armed forces during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. He is currently co-chair of the UK advisory board for arms manufacturer Thales and Lord Arbuthnot is also a former director at security and intelligence consultancy firm SC Strategy, where he worked for two years alongside Sir John Scarlett, a former head of MI6 and Arbuthnot is himself mentioned many times on Wiki Leaks. But, despite this obvious conflict of interest, Lady Arbuthnot did not recuse herself from Julian Assange’s case.
And so the clear judicial bias has continued, reaching its latest crescendo on 21 October at Westminster court where according to Craig Murray: “Every decision was railroaded through over the scarcely heard arguments and objections of Julian’s legal team, by a magistrate who barely pretended to be listening.” Judge Baraitser told Julian that if he did not understand proceedings he could ask his lawyers afterwards. She rejected their request for more time to prepare, rejected their request for a hearing on whether the US charges were political and therefore could not be the basis for extradition and then moved the main hearing in February to Belmarsh Magistrates Court, an adjunct of the prison. During that hearing 5 US government officials were in court clearly calling the shots. It is to be as secret a trial as possible.
The judge’s contempt for Julian’s clearly declining health was apparent. Yet the friends who watched him struggle to say his name and date of birth were deeply upset and concerned.
As was the UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer who has done so much in this case. It is he who visited Julian in Belmarsh in May, taking in two medical experts and conducting an assessment. They were unequivocal – Julian Assange had suffered psychological torture both as a result of his time in the Embassy but also as a result of the public and journalistic demonisation, ridicule and mobbing encouraged by the UK and the US. Melzer warned that his health might suffer a rapid and dangerous decline if he was not given specialist treatment.
Melzer’s report to the British government went unanswered for four months and he then got a contemptuous half page reply- this is how we treat the UN now – saying HMG did not agree with his findings. And of course Belmarsh then imposed a regime which continued that torture and indeed within weeks – as Melzer had predicted – his health collapsed and he was put in the hospital wing. He had lost a lot of weight and was too unwell to appear even by video link at one of his court cases. From reports from visitors we now know that Julian Assange has been held in virtual solitary confinement, has no association, had his mail held back for at least one month and possibly two, could not have proper legal visits, had no legal papers until September, no computer to assist in working on his case, could not phone his lawyers in the USA. When he leaves his cell the corridors are cleared of other prisoners. He has suffered oppressive conditions of isolation and surveillance. His supporters continued to spread word of this situation but what brought it to the eyes of the world was his shocking court appearance on 21 October . What have they done to him Belmarsh? Why is he in Belmarsh? He is not convicted of any offence and is so ill that Nils Melzer now fears for his life.
He is a remand prisoner who has been denied many of the rights that remand prisoners should have. He is being treated as a political prisoner and we say he is a political prisoner. His case is one of the great injustices of the 21st century. And yet, where is the relentless outcry that should be taking place? We have recognised – because we have had to confront it – that the US and British psychological, propaganda and disinformation campaign has had a big effect. But we have also found recently that opinion is changing. The story is just beginning to coming apart. Moving the case to the inaccessible Belmarsh Court is a sign of weakness – not strength – on their part. They fear growing support for Julian Assange. So while the enemy is a powerful one it can be defeated.
So what can we do?
I believe that through our and others campaigning work, we are turning a corner. But also the political atmosphere is changing in the world. A new wave of uprisings, especially in Latin America cannot be ignored, though the press does its best. It will reignite and encourage further struggles. It will change the political atmosphere, enthuse people here about the struggle for progress and democracy. People have had enough of being ruled by sociopaths. Here in Britain there are signs of change with workers beginning to fight again for their rights.
I want to say that although we continue to challenge and force them to speak, I personally put little faith in those political and NGO organisations that have so far kept silent Those who have not yet spoken out loud and clear and campaigned about this case had better do so quickly or be condemned now and in the future. Injustice on this scale does not lie down, it speaks out down years. Of the 600-odd politicians in the House of Commons we have seen one good statement on 11 April by Diane Abbot, who was then ‘Swedened’ (that is my term for the deluge of ‘what about Sweden’ that faces any public figure who speaks out on the Assange case) and has said nothing since. A couple of questions have been asked in the House of Commons. Only one politician, Chris Williamson has made this case central to his campaigning. I suggest that everyone attends as many election meetings as possible and raises questions about this case making it clear that only those who will actively oppose Julian Assange’s extradition deserve a vote. His case is not peripheral to the future of this country it is central. It is not ‘let’s fight austerity’ or ‘let’s oppose whatever war the US and its UK servants start next’ and then separately we’ll think about Assange. If we want to retain some democratic rights, if we want to oppose the stories our rulers tell us, then we have to fight now and unceasingly for Julian Assange. I would add if we want a free press. But it is clear most of the press is not free, it is part of the system. I would rather say if want to see honest and fearless journalism then we must fight for Julian’s freedom.
We can have faith that the message is getting through to larger sections of the population in the UK. If we can mobilise them then this constitutes our best hope for freeing Julian. We have seen trade unionists, rank and file members of the Labour Party and other organisations start to realise what is happening. In the streets, people know about Julian Assange and increasing numbers are sympathetic. The Gilets Jaunes sent over 100 people to the last court case. Perhaps we need our own Gilets Jaunes.
We must plan and organise strategically, using simple and key messages. Organise publicity, events, lobbying and challenging, and build networks. Networks of academics, artists and others have been developing. What about a lawyers’ network?
And as part of our campaigning we must never forget the courageous, heroic whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning is again imprisoned in order to force her to provide evidence against Julian Assange.
It is great to see Oxford setting things up.
I say that the best thing you can have in this struggle individually and collectively is a rebel heart and the courage to resist. It is not just about Julian, it is about us.