After much delay due to COVID-19 restrictions, Julian Assange’s extradition hearing resumed on 7 September in the Old Bailey, London. Assange has remained in solitary confinement in the high security Belmarsh Prison since he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy on 11 April 2019.
Both the magistrate and the prosecution are doing everything in their power to railroad the case and get Assange extradited as quickly as possible, with the least amount of public attention on their outrageous manoeuvring and blatant abuse of the legal process.
The major twist in this shamefaced assault on free speech is the surprise issuing of a new indictment from the US government at short notice. This represents a clear attempt to put Assange’s defence team on the back foot.
The original indictment to extradite Assange to the US brings 18 charges against him for assisting Chelsea Manning (a US Army intelligence analyst who was jailed for leaking evidence of US war crimes) to hack US government computers, and for publishing a list of Afghan informants' names. It is claimed this posed a threat to those individuals’ lives, that of US soldiers, and to national security.
Back in February, the defence were able to robustly refute these accusations. They posited that Assange was being prosecuted for journalism, which is protected under the First Amendment of the American Constitution. They argued the charges were politically motivated, thereby concluding that Assange cannot be extradited for trial in the US, where he could face imprisonment for 175 years.
The Trump administration has now issued a new superseding indictment against Assange. On day one of Assange’s hearing at the Old Bailey, he was released from the old extradition warrant issued by the UK and re-arrested immediately under a new warrant pertaining to the new indictment.
The first outrageous detail regarding this new indictment is the timing. It was announced on 20 June 2020, and officially issued in the proceedings on 29 July. However, not only did it come after the opening arguments already being given based on the original indictment at the beginning of the hearing in February, but it was also one year beyond the closing date for submission.
Furthermore, Assange’s defence lawyers were not informed of this new indictment and had to learn about it from the announcement on the day.
Anxious for Assange to spend no longer in Belmarsh Prison than he has to, due to its debilitating impact on his mental and physical health, the defence decided not to ask for an adjournment of the hearing to prepare for the new indictment. They also did not foresee the amount of drastic changes and the impact this would have on the case.
The true details were not made available to the defence team until 21 August, a mere six weeks before the resumption of the hearing. As they stated in court, this was clearly not enough time to prepare.
Therefore, QCs Summers and Fitzgerald for the defence appealed to Magistrate Baraitser for an adjournment until January 2021, which was denied. Also, the witness lists have long been finalised.
So the defence must use witnesses who have been prepared to testify on the old indictment to testify on the new one, with no preparation or proper time to study it. Not even Assange has had an opportunity to see this new indictment, as he is only able to make short phone calls via the prison payphone to his lawyers; and legal documents sent to him are either withheld by the guards or taken from him.
The new indictment aims to “broaden the scope of the conspiracy surrounding alleged computer intrusions with which Assange was previously charged”. The new charges are unrelated to the previous 18 charges connected to Manning, and the defence argues that the new charges are either not criminal, outside of time limitation, or have already been resolved in other court proceedings.
These charges therefore are extremely flimsy. This is especially true considering the dubious motives and credentials of key witness Sigurdur Thordarson, who was convicted in Iceland on 22 December 2014 of stealing $40,000 and €13,000 from Wikileaks’ account by forging documents as Assange. In fact, the FBI had even been expelled from Iceland “for trying to use Thordarson to frame Assange”.
This is a desperate move from the prosecution to turn the tables back in their favour, as the first attempt to extradite Assange on the former indictment was resoundly demolished in February.
But the prosecution and the magistrate did not stop there with their attempts to railroad the hearing and keep the whole affair away from the public eye.
The hearing at the Old Bailey is meant to be open to the general public and journalists. However, COVID-19 restrictions played into the hands of the prosecution. The public gallery has been reduced from 80 to nine seats. And only journalists and NGOs officially approved by the Ministry of Justice have been permitted to watch via video link.
However, Magistrate Baraitser cancelled remote online access to the hearing. The magistrate then threw up another roadblock by deeming the defence’s witnesses testifying in court unnecessary, as they had provided written statements.
The defence doggedly fought to win a compromise of 30-minute testaments (reduced from the usual one-hour-and-45-minutes). Over the course of the next three days, witnesses were brought to the stand in person and via a patchy video link.
Despite only being allowed to testify for 30 minutes, the prosecution was allowed to cross examine with free rein. In the case of one witness, Professor Mark Feldstein (Chair of Broadcast Journalism at Maryland University), the prosecution cross examined him for two hours ,with no opposition from the magistrate. This is further evidence of clear bias by the magistrate and the court in favour of the prosecution.
Abuse of process
All the aforementioned restrictions, along with the throwing in of the surprise new indictment, add up to a “blatant abuse of process” – that is, an unjustified perversion or misuse of the court process to cause harm to the defendant.
Prosecutor Lewis QC attempted to browbeat the witnesses and disconcert them with rudeness and aggression. On top of this, the QC questioned their honesty and even their qualifications – despite all of them having decades of experience in their respective fields as pertaining to the details of the case: investigative journalism; ethics of conflict and torture; and illicit detention legal cases.
It is clear why the British ruling class is trying to muffle these court proceedings and limit the witness testimony. They are loyally serving their US masters, who painfully recoil from the scrutiny that WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning, Snowden and many others bravely expose them to.
Witness Clive Stafford Smith – a dual UK/US lawyer, who specialises in torture, illicit detention, and extraordinary rendition cases – testified that the cables published by Assange and WikiLeaks had helped to expose US torture and war crimes.
They were specifically used in a High Court ruling in Pakistan, in which the Chief Judge deemed that US drone strikes in Waziristan were a “blatant violation of basic human rights” that had caused many “innocent deaths”. This court ruling “very rapidly” stopped the drone strikes, and no more were reported in 2019.
Some of these publications also form part of a criminal investigation by the ICC (International Criminal Court) into the CIA. In turn, the US government has in fact sanctioned ICC officials for investigating allegations of war crimes they have committed in Afghanistan.
We can see that this evidence is damaging the reputation of the US and bringing them under the spotlight in their self-assumed role as the world’s police. They are therefore retaliating and trying to squash any small, individual voice that may cry out into the media void, where other more established publications do not speak up.
Serving US imperialism
Assange is being severely punished by the British judicial system at the behest of the US imperialist behemoth. He is locked up alone, with limited access to his legal team, and restricted knowledge as to the details of the court proceedings that will decide his fate.
His defence are fiercely fighting his corner. But the prosecution are allowed by the magistrate to flout the rules entirely, and employ every manoeuvre, trick and manipulation in the book to send Assange packing across the Atlantic as quickly – and with as few people watching – as possible.
The witnesses gave testament to how Assange and WikiLeaks’ publications revealed the bloodthirsty activity of US imperialism in foreign conflicts; and that both indictments add up to a politically motivated attempt to extradite Assange so as to shut him up.
We must defend Assange from expulsion and extradition on whatever incorrect and expired charges levelled against him. This is part of a defence of the freedom of expression, which is an elementary democratic right.
By Rob Smith, originally written March 2020
The first week of Assange’s extradition hearing in Woolwich Crown Court came to a close on 28 February. He is sought for extradition on a total of 18 federal criminal charges from the US federal government, with a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
Assange continues to be subjected to cruel treatment in Belmarsh Prison despite not having been convicted of any crime other than skipping bail.
The details of this hearing speak volumes as to its unfairness, and the hostility of the chief magistrate conducting proceedings. But most importantly they expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois legal system in Britain. This fundamentally exists to defend the interests of British capitalism, which is in turn subservient to US imperialism. And despite the clear attack on freedom of expression that this trial represents, the British press remains silent.
Prosecution arguments trounced
On the first day of the hearing, the prosecution (representing the US extradition request), said that Assange was charged for “cultivating [Chelsea] Manning” (a US Army intelligence analyst who was jailed for leaking evidence of US war crimes) and “assisting [her] to attempt computer hacking”.
He was charged, not with publishing the diplomatic cables leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks, but for publishing the names of Afghan informants, thereby putting lives at risk.
The prosecutor, Eric Lewis, cited the 1989 Official Secrets Act, which criminalises the possession and publication of state secrets. He further stated that the Human Rights Act and freedom of speech protections were irrelevant to the proceedings.
Clearly, the prosecution’s arguments are contradictory and fly in the face of even bourgeois legality. Why say that Assange was not charged with publishing the cables, and then cite the Official Secrets Act?
Assange’s defence lawyers pointed out that “the prosecution’s framing of the case contained deliberate misrepresentation of the facts”. On the first charge of conspiring with Manning to attempt a computer hack, the defence informed the court that Manning had been acquitted of this in a US court martial.
Secondly, Assange is accused of “helping Manning to decode a hash key to access classified material” and of “soliciting the material from Manning”. On this first count, the defence demonstrated conclusively that Manning already had access to all the files she shared with Assange, and had so before ever contacting him, due to the fact that she was an intelligence analyst and therefore did not require a username or password to access her work military computer.
On the count of soliciting information, the defence said this was probably wrong, based on the evidence available to the public of correspondence between Manning and Assange, in which she contacts him about sending the material without his prompting.
Thirdly, on being charged with publishing the names of informants, the defence pointed out that WikiLeaks had conducted a large redaction campaign (in collaboration with the US State Department) to protect the identities of the informants in the diplomatic cables.
Subsequently, it was journalists Luke Harding and David Leigh of The Guardian who published the password to the cache containing the unredacted cables in February 2011; and later, in August of the same year, Der Freitag announced it had the unredacted cables (having used the published password).
The defence also revealed to the court that, upon this announcement, Assange phoned the White House, US State Department and US Embassy to warn them. So in fact, Assange did his utmost to protect the identity of the informants.
The key pillar of the defence’s argument is that the US’s request for Assange’s extradition is for a political offence, which is not permissible grounds for extradition according to the ratified US-UK Extradition Treaty.
The defence explained that the charges against Assange fell into the category of pure political offence, on the basis that they were charges of espionage with intent to harm US political or military interests or bring about a change in US government policy.
The prosecution ridiculously retorted that Assange was not attempting to overthrow the US government, so therefore the espionage charges cannot be considered as political offences!
The exasperated defence rhetorically asked what on earth could be the motive of publishing evidence of government war crimes and corruption other than to expose them and apply pressure to change policy?
A biased court
Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser, who was clearly biased in favour of the prosecution, interjected to state that the US-UK Extradition Treaty has no legal force in the UK domestic court because it is international law. She further claimed that the exemption for extradition for political offences was not in the Extradition Act.
The defence then decried an abuse of process (that is, an unjustified perversion or misuse of court proceedings to cause harm to the defendant), because the Extradition Treaty is the basis for the extradition request. So, to then decide in court that its terms are irrelevant creates a legal absurdity.
On a broader scale, there has existed a block on extradition for political offences for more than a century under the EU and Interpol Conventions; the UN Extradition Treaty; as well as the US’s extradition treaties with its allies. Saying it doesn’t apply flies in the face of all international and historical legal common practice. In addition, it sets an alarming precedent that endangers dissidents and potential political prisoners the world over.
It is important to note at this point that the main source for this article is Craig Murray’s blog. Murray is a former UK Ambassador who has been attending the hearing in the limited public gallery and reporting all of the details. He helpfully explains that the US-UK Extradition Treaty went through a vetting process of four years in order to ratify it so that it can be fully implemented in all UK jurisdictions.
The Extradition Act (passed in 2003) is an Enabling Act that puts the ratification process into motion, in which it passes through the hands of lawyers in five separate government departments: the FCO, Treasury, Cabinet and Home Offices and parliament itself.
You cannot extradite someone under the Act without the Treaty, because the former enabled the latter to be legally applicable. Therefore, the Treaty becomes the executive instrument, legally required to authorise extradition. Negating its relevance in the hearing or saying the Treaty is incompatible with the Act is a brazen lie.
This simply goes to show the hypocrisy of the UK legal system and the British state’s subservience to US imperialism. Any law that poses an obstacle to Assange’s extradition is disregarded or declared as irrelevant, despite mountains of evidence of legal precedent that Assange’s defence team provides to the contrary.
The courts are nothing but an instrument for managing the interests of the bourgeoisie. The judiciary will readily flout the ruling class’ own laws in order to serve their political interests. In this instance, the UK government is willing to do anything to serve their masters in Washington and hand over Assange.
Despite having served his sentence of an unprecedented 50 weeks in jail for skipping bail, Assange continues to be held in solitary confinement in the Belmarsh maximum security prison. He is escorted in handcuffs to the court (inside the prison fortress compound) by SERCO guards via an underground tunnel.
He is strip and cavity searched, and brought up into a bulletproof glass case where he must sit for the entirety of his hearing. This case is made of thick glass with a thin slit in the front, which thereby impedes him from being able to hear the proceedings and communicate with his defence team. He has been provided with headphones to follow what is being said, but they emit a constant stream of “strong white noise”, which Assange says is “very distracting”. Furthermore, the guards do not permit him to pass notes through the narrow slit in the thick glass sheet to his lawyers.
A separate court hearing was held on 27 February to deal with the months of rejected requests to allow Assange out of the glass case to sit beside his lawyers. Magistrate Baraitser said that Assange might pose a danger to the public (!), and has consistently refused to allow him out of the case.
But Assange’s lawyer Summers argued that his client has no history of violent behaviour, and neither is he facing charges of this nature. In addition, a statement was provided from psychiatrist Professor Michael Kopelman indicating that Assange “shows virtually all the risk factors” of suicide if extradition was to be immanent.
Summers added that the UK Department of Justice best practice guide states that vulnerable defendants should be allowed to sit beside their lawyers, rather than be cooped up in a glass cage in order to ameliorate their fragile mental condition.
In response to this, Magistrate Baraitser read out a pre-prepared statement in which she suggested that Assange can shout to his lawyers through the glass or ask to go down to the cells for discussions. The first option is certainly not confidential, and the second Summers deemed impractical as it would be “once every three minutes for twenty minutes”, thereby severely disrupting the proceedings.
This most recent example of petty injustice serves to show the severe level of unfairness in which this trial is being conducted. Firstly, the magistrate displayed a complete lack of desire to give a fair hearing by reading out her statement that she had brought into the courtroom with her before hearing Summers’ appeal.
Secondly, Assange has no confidential contact with his lawyers; he is impeded from participating in his own hearing due to these stringent measures; and he is treated as guilty despite his technical legal status of innocence.
Clearly, the British state is trying to break the WikiLeaks founder and make an example of him, to warn future whistleblowers not to challenge the might of the bourgeois state and its puppets in the judiciary, who carry out their bidding.
And yet, despite there being an area allocated for the major media outlets in the court, they are not reporting on this injustice. The BBC’s last report on the Assange case was on 25 February. The Daily Mail report, meanwhile, provides barely any detail of the magistrate’s arguments of how she expects Assange to communicate with his lawyers, only saying that: “other measures could be put in place to ensure he could participate, instruct lawyers and get a fair trial.”
Finally, the Guardian published an article the day before the hearing in which it emphasises how much Assange was “complain[ing]” about not being able to communicate with his lawyers, but details nothing of the callousness of Magistrate Baraitser’s treatment of Assange or the severity and illegality of the restrictions.
It seems as though many journalists are cowed with fear of the consequences if they were to speak up too strongly in defence of Assange. This is an absolute scandal, especially considering the risk to freedom of speech that this extradition case represents.
The lack of coverage also reflects the fact that the media moguls running the big news outlets are also servants of the capitalist system. It is not in their interests to stand up in defence of a whistleblower seeking to expose its crimes.
Assange is being punished for publishing the truth and trying to challenge the corrupt US imperialist war machine that is now baying for his blood. In the eyes of the US ruling class, Assange is a lone voice that needs to be shut up, whereas the big media outlets and newspapers are firmly under the thumb of the US and UK bourgeoisie.
Assange has shone a light on the shady dealings of the world ruling class and is being severely punished for it. He is locked up in a maximum security prison and kept behind a glass case designed for violent criminals. He is impeded from participating fully in his own hearing, which will decide his fate, and the judicial system is doing everything in its power to break his spirit.
Assange and the WikiLeaks whistleblowing case clearly demonstrate the truth about the class that rules over us, which in turn exposes the rotten condition of the capitalist system. We must defend Assange from expulsion and extradition as part of defending the freedom of expression: a basic, democratic right that the capitalist state is content to trample upon if this suits its interests.
- Free Julian Assange!
- Defend the freedom of expression and the right to information!
- No to extradition!