The Slow-Motion Execution of Julian Assange Continues

by Chris Hedges, published on Socialist Action, May 21, 2024 (Original to Scheerpost)

The ruling by the High Court in London permitting Julian Assange to appeal his extradition order leaves him languishing in precarious health in a high-security prison. That is the point.

The May 20 decision by the High Court in London to grant Julian Assange the right to appeal the order to extradite him to the United States may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. It does not mean Julian will elude extradition. It does not mean the court has ruled, as it should, that he is a journalist whose only “crime” was providing evidence of war crimes and lies by the U.S. government to the public. It does not mean he will be released from the high-security HMS Belmarsh prison where, as Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, after visiting Julian there, said he was undergoing a “slow motion execution.”

It does not mean that journalism is any less imperiled. Editors and publishers of  five international media outlets —– The New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and DER SPIEGEL —– which published stories based on documents released by WikiLeaks, have urged that the U.S. charges be dropped and Julian be released. None of these media executives were charged with espionage. It does not dismiss the ludicrous ploy by the U.S. government to extradite an Australian citizen whose publication is not based in the U.S. and charge him under the Espionage Act. It continues the long Dickensian farce that mocks the most basic concepts of due process.

This ruling is based on the grounds that the U.S. government did not offer sufficient assurances that Julian would be granted the same First Amendment protections afforded to a U.S. citizen, should he stand trial. The appeal process is one more legal hurdle in the persecution of a journalist who should not only be free, but feted and honored as the most courageous of our generation.

Yes. He can file an appeal. But this means another year, perhaps longer, in harsh prison conditions as his physical and psychological health deteriorates. He has spent over five years in HMS Belmarsh without being charged. He spent seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy because the U.K. and Swedish governments refused to guarantee that he wouldn’t be extradited to the U.S., even though he agreed to return to Sweden to aid a preliminary investigation that was eventually dropped.

The judicial lynching of Julian was never about justice. The plethora of legal irregularities, including the recording of his meetings with attorneys by the Spanish security firm UC Global at the embassy on behalf of the CIA, alone should have seen the case thrown out of court as it eviscerates attorney-client privilege.

The U.S. has charged Julian with 17 acts under the Espionage Act and one count of computer misuse, for an alleged conspiracy to take possession of and then publish national defense information. If found guilty on all of these charges he faces 175 years in a U.S. prison.

The extradition request is based on the 2010 release by WikiLeaks of the Iraqand Afghanistan war logs — hundreds of thousands of classified documents, leaked to the site by Chelsea Manning, then an Army intelligence analyst, which exposed numerous U.S. war crimes including video images of the gunning down of two Reuters journalists and 10 other unarmed civilians in the Collateral Murder video, the routine torture of Iraqi prisoners, the covering up of thousands of civilian deaths and the killing of nearly 700 civilians that had approached too closely to U.S. checkpoints.

In February, lawyers for Julian submitted nine separate grounds for a possible appeal.

A two-day hearing in March, which I attended, was Julian’s last chance to request an appeal of the extradition decision made in 2022 by the then British home secretary, Priti Patel, and of many of the rulings of District Judge Baraitser in 2021.

The two High Court judges, Dame Victoria Sharp and Justice Jeremy Johnson, in March rejected most of Julian’s grounds of appeal. These included his lawyers’ contention that the UK-US extradition treaty bars extradition for political offenses; that the extradition request was made for the purpose of prosecuting him for his political opinions; that extradition would amount to retroactive application of the law — because it was not foreseeable that a century-old espionage law would be used against a foreign publisher; and that he would not receive a fair trial in the Eastern District of Virginia. The judges also refused to hear new evidence that the CIA plotted to kidnap and assassinate Julian, concluding — both perversely and incorrectly — that the CIA only considered these options because they believed Julian was planning to flee to Russia.

But the two judges determined Monday that it is “arguable” that a U.S. court might not grant Julian protection under the First Amendment, violating his rights to free speech as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judges in March asked the U.S. to provide written assurances that Julian would be protected under the First Amendment and that he would be exempt from a death penalty verdict. The U.S. assured the court that Julian would not be subjected to the death penalty, which Julian’s lawyers ultimately accepted. But the Department of Justice was unable to provide an assurance that Julian could mount a First Amendment defense in a U.S. court. Such a decision is made in a U.S. federal court, their lawyers explained.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg, who is prosecuting Julian, has argued that only U.S. citizens are guaranteed First Amendment rights in U.S. courts. Kromberg has stated that what Julian published was “not in the public interest” and that the U.S. was not seeking his extradition on political grounds.

Free speech is a key issue. If Julian is granted First Amendment rights in a U.S. court it will be very difficult for the U.S. to build a criminal case against him, since other news organizations, including The New York Times and The Guardian, published the material he released.

The extradition request is based on the contention that Julian is not a journalist and not protected under the First Amendment.

Julian’s attorneys and those representing the U.S. government have until May 24 to submit a draft order, which will determine when the appeal will be heard.

Julian committed the empire’s greatest sin — he exposed it as a criminal enterprise. He documented its lies, routine violation of human rights, wanton killing of innocent civilians, rampant corruption and war crimes. Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Labour, Trump or Biden — it does not matter. Those who manage the empire use the same dirty playbook.

The publication of classified documents is not a crime in the United States, but if Julian is extradited and convicted, it will become one.

Julian is in precarious physical and psychological health. His physical and psychological deterioration has resulted in a minor stroke, hallucinations and depression. He takes antidepressant medication and the antipsychotic quetiapine. He has been observed pacing his cell until he collapses, punching himself in the face and banging his head against the wall. He has spent weeks in the medical wing of Belmarsh, nicknamed “hell wing.” Prison authorities found “half of a razor blade” hidden under his socks. He has repeatedly called the suicide hotline run by the Samaritans because he thought about killing himself “hundreds of times a day.”

These slow-motion executioners have not yet completed their work. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the Haitian independence movement, the only successful slave revolt in human history, was physically destroyed in the same manner. He was locked by the French in an unheated and cramped prison cell and left to die of exhaustion, malnutrition, apoplexy, pneumonia and probably tuberculosis.

Prolonged imprisonment, which the granting of this appeal perpetuates, is the point. The 12 years Julian has been detained — seven in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and over five in high-security Belmarsh Prison — have been accompanied by a lack of sunlight and exercise, as well as unrelenting threats, pressure, prolonged isolation, anxiety and constant stress. The goal is to destroy him.

We must free Julian. We must keep him out of the hands of the U.S. government. Given all he did for us, we owe him an unrelenting fight.

If there is no freedom of speech for Julian, there will be no freedom of speech for us.

*Featured Image: Crop of drawing by Mr. Fish.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times. You can find and support  Chris’s work on his substack page.

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One comment

  1. I long for the day enough people understand what’s really going on in the world and organize enough to end the rule by wealth system. Besides UNAC, I like Move to Amend and Alliance for Just Money.

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