by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller
On 31 January 2020 Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, since April 2019, Julian Assange has been in the British high-security prison Belmarsh and is serving a prison sentence for breach of bail. As a memento: Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy over seven years ago to protect himself from extradition to Sweden on charges of alleged rape. Although he had offered Sweden several times to testify to the allegations, Sweden was not willing to give him any assurance not to extradite him to the USA. The proceedings were finally dropped in November last year. For those who would like to get an idea of the appalling background to the rape allegations, we recommend reading the interview of 31 January 2020 by Daniel Ryser and Yves Bachmann from the Swiss online magazine Republik with Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (https://www.republik.ch/2020/01/31/nils-melzer-spricht-ueber-wikileaks-gruender-julian-assange; also available in English). Under the title: “A murderous system is being created before our very eyes” Nils Melzer presents the appalling findings of his investigation: These range from the constructed rape, the manipulated evidence in Sweden, the pressure from Britain not to drop the case, the prejudiced judges, the imprisonment, psychological torture, and possible extradition to the USA with the prospect of 175 years imprisonment; all because Assange exposed war crimes (see box).
Julian Assange was in solitary confinement
For almost 10 months, until 24 January 2020, Julian Assange was in solitary confinement, i.e. he was alone for 23 hours a day and under video surveillance for 24 hours. Nils Melzer and two medical doctors visited Assange in May last year and clearly stated that Assange had “clinically measurable consequences of psychological torture”. Since then, Melzer (and countless other people in many places around the world) has been up in arms to awaken the world public. Over 60 medical doctors drew the attention of the British Home Secretary to the life-threatening situation of Assange at the end of November last year and urgently requested that he be transferred to a university hospital. The doctors expressed their concern that otherwise Assange might “die in prison”. It is thanks to fellow inmates and Assange’s team of lawyers that on 24 January 2020, he was transferred from solitary confinement in the medical wing to another wing with other inmates. The breakthrough came after his legal team and three petitions from prisoners described his treatment as unfair and unjust.
On 24 February, the hearing on extradition to the USA is to begin
On February 24, the hearing on the extradition of Julian Assange to the USA is to begin. It has been known for a long time that he cannot prepare for his trial in prison: He has no access to his American lawyers and no access to the files, Melzer said. A human being is tortured here in front of the world public.
Milosz Matuschek, a lawyer, deputy editor-in-chief of the liberal magazine Schweizer Monat and columnist of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, said on the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur on 13 January 2020: “The Assange case is increasingly becoming a grotesque mixture of judicial and media failure”. And further: “[This case] is an admission of failure by the rule of law and the media public. The European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits all forms of torture and degrading and humiliating treatment, also applies in Great Britain – after all the mother country of human rights. Human dignity is now once again violable. The fact that Assange is a person who has presented the world public with the truth about the crimes of the powerful makes the whole thing a tragedy; the fact that this execution in instalments is also carried out in a quasi-public way is now beyond cynicism. It’s as if one wanted to show Assange that crimes don’t even have to happen in secret to keep the world public cold.” [translation of all quotes and emphasis added by author]
“Community of values” on the test bench
Referring to the significance of the case Matuschek continues: “The Assange case is a crystallisation point for our community of values and democracy. Assange stands for the right to truth that every citizen has when he has to make informed decisions.” Matuschek concludes in his commentary: “However, the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits extradition to a country that practices torture. That this happens in the case of the USA has been known to mankind since Guantánamo at the latest: thanks to Assange. He himself published the best reasons against his extradition to the US on WikiLeaks years ago. Without the immediate release of Julian Assange, the constitutional state can only dismantle itself further.”
The numerous international protests against the detention and extradition of Assange have so far been ignored by the governments of Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Ecuador, Australia, the USA and others. The voices of the churches are also missing.
Council of Europe sees media freedom and the safety of journalists threatened
Of the numerous voices that are calling for the release of Assange, for humane and just treatment under human rights, medical standards standards and the fundamental principles of the rule of law, here are just a few representative examples. On 28 January 2020, the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on the 47 member states, following a submitted amendment, to advocate the immediate release of Julian Assange and to oppose his extradition to the USA. The fact that Assange is being held in detention and prosecuted in the UK is a “dangerous precedent for journalists”, it said. The amendment was unanimously approved and was included in the comprehensive resolution “Threats to media freedom and journalists’ security in Europe” (see box).
Geneva City Council protested already in February 2019
On 5 February 2019, even before the detention of Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, a resolution (R-233) by the Swiss People’s Party politician Eric Bertinat was adopted in the Geneva City Parliament: “The protection of the life and physical integrity of Mr Julian Assange: Switzerland must get involved, it is urgent!” In this resolution, the Federal Council, after detailed justification, is called upon to the following words: “The City Council of Geneva calls upon the Federal Council to implement its policy for the protection of human rights defenders by offering its Good Offices and taking all necessary steps to protect the life and physical integrity of Mr Julian Assange”.
Undermining of human rights and principles under the rule of law
On 2 December 2019 international law experts from the USA, Japan, Norway and Germany called on the UK government to release Julian Assange immediately: “The ongoing proceedings against Australian citizen Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, presently held in Belmarsh Prison near London, display a grave erosion of time-honoured principles of human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic freedom to gather and share information. […] The treatment of Julian Assange is below the dignity of the great nation that gave the world the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Habeas Corpus. To defend its national sovereignty and obey its own laws, the present British government must set Assange free immediately”.
An important resolution from Germany
On February 6, 2020, Günter Wallraff (investigative journalist), Sigmar Gabriel (SPD, former German Foreign Minister), Gerhard Baum (FDP, former German Minister of the Interior), Peter Gauweiler (CSU) and Sevim Dagdelen (MdB Die Linke) launched the appeal “Julian Assange to be released from custody”, which is supported by well over 100 prominent initial signatories from politics, science, culture and the media (see box). There are now 22,388 additional signatories (as of 15 February 2020).
Do everything possible now
The initiatives listed here for the immediate release of Julian Assange are just some of many. All these protests, appeals, resolutions, petitions, etc. from all over the world would be worthy of special mention. Above all, however, it is to be hoped that they will be successful. This will be decided in the coming weeks. One thing is for certain: the initiatives for the immediate release of Julian Assange must not abate; much more public, but also diplomatic efforts will be necessary.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that Julian Assange may be part of a British “deal” with the US government. After its withdrawal from the EU, the incumbent British government is seeking a new role in world politics and, in doing so, greater proximity to the USA. Should the extradition of Julian Assange be the “price” to pay, this would be a great injustice and a sinister political act – but unfortunately nothing unusual in today’s world. All the more reason to do everything possible to ensure that this time might is right. The chances are great this time. •
In an interview with the Swiss magazine “Republik“, Nils Melzer, UN-Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment made the following comments: “The case falls into my mandate in three different ways: First, Assange published proof of systematic torture. But instead of those responsible for the torture, it is Assange who is being persecuted. Second, he himself has been ill-treated to the point that he is now exhibiting symptoms of psychological torture. And third, he is to be extradited to a country that holds people like him in prison conditions that Amnesty International has described as torture. […]
Beyond that, the case is of symbolic importance and affects every citizen of a democratic country. […]
He [Julian Assange] will not receive a trial consistent with the rule of law. That’s another reason why his extradition shouldn’t be allowed. Assange will receive a trial-by-jury in Alexandria, Virginia the notorious “Espionage Court” where the US tries all national security cases. The choice of location is not by coincidence, because the jury members must be chosen in proportion to the local population, and 85 per cent of Alexandria residents work in the national security community at the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Department and the State Department. When people are tried for harming national security in front of a jury like that, the verdict is clear from the very beginning. The cases are always tried in front of the same judge behind closed doors and on the strength of classified evidence. Nobody has ever been acquitted there in a case like that. […]
I’m not saying Julian Assange is an angel or a hero. But he doesn’t have to be. We are talking about human rights and not about the rights of heroes or angels. Assange is a person, and he has the right to defend himself and to be treated in a humane manner. Regardless of what he is accused of, Assange has the right to a fair trial. But he has been deliberately denied that right in Sweden, the US, Britain and Ecuador. […] It is obvious that what we are dealing with here is political persecution. […]
If investigative journalism is classified as espionage and can be incriminated around the world, then censorship and tyranny will follow. A murderous system is being created before our very eyes. War crimes and torture are not being prosecuted. YouTube videos are circulating in which American soldiers brag about driving Iraqi women to suicide with systematic rape. Nobody is investigating it. At the same time, a person who exposes such things is being threatened with 175 years in prison. For an entire decade, he has been inundated with accusations that cannot be proven and are breaking him. And nobody is being held accountable. Nobody is taking responsibility. It marks an erosion of the social contract. We give countries power and delegate it to governments but in return, they must be held accountable for how they exercise that power. If we don’t demand that they be held accountable, we will lose our rights sooner or later. Humans are not democratic by their nature. Power corrupts if it is not monitored. Corruption is the result if we do not insist that power be monitored.”
Source: “Republik” from 31 January 2020
Resolution 2317 (2020) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 28 January 2020 (Excerpt)
6. The Assembly calls on member States to create an enabling and favourable media environment and review to this end their legislation, seeking to prevent any misuse of different laws or provisions which may impact on media freedom – such as those on defamation, anti-terrorism, national security, public order, hate speech, blasphemy or memory laws – which are too often applied to intimidate and silence journalists. In this connection, they must, in particular: […]
6.2 recognise, and ensure respect of, the right of journalists to protect their sources, and develop an appropriate normative, judicial and institutional framework to protect whistleblowers and whistleblowing facilitators, in line with Assembly Resolution 2300 (2019) “Improving the protection of whistleblowers all over Europe”; in this respect, consider that the detention and criminal prosecution of Mr Julian Assange sets a dangerous precedent for journalists, and join the recommendation of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment who declared, on 1 November 2019, that Mr Assange‘s extradition to the United States must be barred and that he must be promptly released […].
Urgent resolution of 6 February 2020
We are deeply concerned for the life of the journalist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been in critical health in extradition custody in the British high-security prison Belmarsh for over half a year. We support the call by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, for the immediate release of Julian Assange for medical reasons as well as for legal reasons.
From 2012 to 2019 Julian Assange received political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy before an imminent extradition to the USA, but was soon systematically monitored, isolated and harassed there as well. The UN Special Rapporteur had visited the imprisoned WikiLeaks founder on 9 May 2019 with a team of doctors in Belmarsh and subsequently reported that Assange showed “all the symptoms typical of victims of prolonged psychological torture“.
Six months later, Melzer warned that the British government had ignored his appeal and instead “showed nothing but contempt for the rights and integrity of Mr Assange“. He continued to be isolated and monitored under unnecessarily onerous conditions, which are not justified for mere extradition custody and could even put his life in danger. For example, Julian Assange has to spend 22 to 23 hours a day alone in his cell for no good reason. Any normal human contact with other prisoners is strictly forbidden and his preparation for trial is systematically undermined. In an open letter, more than 60 doctors demanded that Assange should be transferred to the university hospital, as his state of health was now considered life-threatening.
Julian Assange is now imprisoned solely for the purpose of preventing his escape in connection with the pending extradition proceedings to the USA, where he is charged with “espionage“ for revealing war crimes and is threatened with 175 years in solitary confinement.
It is obvious that Julian Assange can neither recover under the current conditions of detention nor prepare for his extradition proceedings, which are due to begin on 24 February 2020. Both constitute serious violations of fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law and make a fair trial impossible and expose Julian Assange to considerable suffering and health risks.
We remind the German media that Assange is one of theirs and that defending the freedom of the press is a fundamental issue of democracy.
Notwithstanding the allegations made against Assange, for the above human rights and medical reasons, we urge Britain to release Julian Assange from detention immediately so that he can recover under specialist medical supervision and exercise his basic rights unhindered.
We also call on the German Government to engage the British Government in this sense.
(Translation by Zeit-Fragen)
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