Nils Melzer*, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has again called for an end to the torture of Julian Assange

Thank you very much for the invitation to participate in this event and to contribute to it. I think we have to divide the question [about the psychological consequences of the detention] into two parts. I visited Julian Assange with my medical team on 9 May in Belmarsh. That was about three or four weeks after his arrest on 11 April, and we have found, medically, in a three-hour examination and a one-hour talk between him and me, that he showed all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture. These are very serious symptoms that were physically measurable, neurologically measurable. And at this time, on 9 May, we could also ask ourselves where these symptoms came from, what had caused them.
This man was detained for more than six years in a totally controlled environment, in the Ecuadorian embassy. It would be possible to determine with high certainty which the factors were that had actually triggered these symptoms because he was exposed only to this limited environment. It is an environment that has mainly been created by four states. Here, I believe, it is the US that must be mentioned first, as the US wanted to achieve Julian Assange’s extradition from the beginning. Of course, they did not publicise that. Julian Assange said it was his great fear that he would be extradited and then subjected to a show trial and most likely sentenced to life imprisonment in a high security prison, a so-called supermax prison which has been classified both by me and my predecessor as utterly inhumane. He was terrified of this – and was accused of being paranoid – but on the day he first left the embassy, just an hour later, the United States handed the extradition request to the United Kingdom. It was not paranoia at all, he was very realistic about how to see his situation and what threat he faced. This is the basic threat scenario.
In addition, there were the Swedish trials in 2010 and, as I have put forward in several public statements to the Swedish Government and elsewhere, they were carried out severely arbitrarily, a preliminary investigation which for nine years was incapable of bringing in a charge and which, after nine years, was quietly abandoned. This procedure forced Julian Assange to go to this [Ecuadorian] embassy and apply for asylum. He was a refugee in this embassy and therefore could not get out of the area. He offered the Swedish authorities that he would attend the criminal proceedings that he would come to Sweden if only he would be guaranteed not to be extradited to America, which actually had nothing to do with the Swedish trial. The Swedes refused to do so for reasons that are unacceptable. Thus, Sweden has contributed crucially to Julian Assange’s situation not to get out of the embassy any more. The British have been instrumental in supporting this policy and even, when the Swedes wanted to give it up, encouraged them not to “get cold feet” and end the trial, by a correspondence known to us today. It seems they finally got “cold feet” after nine years.
In this situation, 2017 saw the change of government in Ecuador. A new president, Moreno, came to power, with the goal of reconciling with the US, and Assange’s extradition was certainly a topic of negotiation. Since that time, the bullying within the embassy started, by the embassy staff and the security staff at the embassy, who made life very difficult for Julian Assange. Today we also know a great deal about the heavy surveillance that he was constantly subjected to: in his private space, during his visits to lawyers, doctors, etc. You have to imagine being monitored 24 hours a day. This is an element used in psychological torture, that you have no room for retreat, that you are constantly driven into a kind of paranoia, which then is actually no paranoia, but reality.
These four states, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ecuador and Sweden, have worked together to bring out the result we have today. On 11 May, Julian Assange was deprived of asylum and citizenship without any legal procedures, which is against Ecuadorian constitutional law. And, as we know, he was arrested by British police, brought before a judge within hours and convicted in a 15-minute trial, before which he did not even have time for a preparatory talk to his lawyer.
Since then, there has been the second phase, which has led to a deterioration of his state of health, to a dramatic deterioration since my visit, as the doctors and myself predicted in our report. We concluded: If the pressure on Julian Assange is kept up, if the situation does not improve, if the arbitrariness does not end, he may very quickly enter a downward spiral, both psychologically and physically. Finally, on 1 November, I rang the alarm bell once again and said that I was seriously concerned that this might cost his life. That is no exaggeration.
Psychological torture does not mean torture “light”. Psychological torture directly affects a person’s personality and it aims at destabilising the person by arbitrarily shaping his environment, making things unpredictable, isolating him, depriving him of his social contacts and of all possibilities for preserving his human dignity. The victim of torture is systematically withdrawn from all this over a long period of time. Finally, this kind of abuse leads to circulatory collapse, nervous breakdown, neurological damage no longer curable. These are very serious mistreatments. However, they are carried out in such a way that they might look harmless as single parts, but as a whole they are murderous.
This is still happening to him in Belmarsh today. He was convicted of violating bail terms, an offence for which in Great Britain, in principle, you will be fined and won’t have to go to prison. If someone doesn’t commit a crime while violating bail terms, there won’t happen much. However, he was sentenced to almost maximum penalty, 50 weeks instead of 52, for violation of bail terms he had to commit in order to get political asylum. Political asylum is, if not a justification, then monumental grounds for mitigating the penalty.
The very fact that he was sentenced to prison in the first place demonstrates the arbitrariness of this trial. I do not want to list everything now, all the arbitrary steps that have been taken in every procedural step of the trial, whether it was a question of violating bail terms or of extradition.
There are conflicts of interests. There is a very clear partiality of judges, which is documented by insults in the courtroom and verbal abuse. Step by step, Julian Assange deprived from access to his documents, he wasn’t able to prepare his defence. So, where is the constitutional state? How far have we come, if a defendant isn’t allowed to read his indictment before he has to allocute? It just cannot be true! Well, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
As we had predicted, nine days after our visit he was transferred to the medical department of the prison and he has been there ever since. And as his father said, he is very strictly isolated, although he meanwhile has served his sentence for violating bail terms. It’s just preventive detention for the American extradition procedure. There is no need for a maximum security prison, nor for isolation. It could be done under house arrest. It could be an open regime, where he would have access to his family, to his lawyers, where he could prepare his defence, where he also could correspond with the press, but that is exactly what they do not want.
No one should point the spotlight on what all this is really about. It’s about the rule of law, it’s about democracy, it’s about the fact that we can’t afford to leave state power uncontrolled. We can’t afford it, and this is why we have separation of powers. If separation of powers no longer works, then we need the press. And if the press no longer works, then WikiLeaks comes up with all these uncoverings. This is very important! This is about basic elements of state policy, and they must be protected.
Furthermore, I would like to mention that in Germany the Federal Foreign Office, the government, has been repeatedly asked what they think of my reports. The Federal Foreign Office invited me to a meeting yesterday. The meeting took place with the human rights department. It was not very productive. I was told that my reports had still not been read.
I urged the Federal Foreign Office to read my reports before discussing them with me. I hope that this will really be taken seriously and that it will take place, because that is PRECISELY the purpose of my reports, that they should JUST be read.    •
*    Since November 2016, the Swiss international law expert Prof. Dr Nils Melzer has been the Special Rapporteur on Torture and thus an expert on the so-called Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN employees and receive no salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual function. Earlier, Nils Melzer worked for twelve years at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in various crisis regions as a delegate, deputy head of mission and legal advisor. In addition to his UN mandate, he holds a chair in international humanitarian law at the University of Glasgow and teaches at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
(Translation Current Concerns)

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